It's hard for me to believe that it's been nearly five years since Jeremy Sowers strung together 14 average to excellent starts to end the 2006 season. With his command-control-finesse-beguiling-crafty repertoire and his smart-thinking man's-pitcher not thrower-cerebral-student of the game-Moyeresque stratagem, Sowers arrived in 2006 making good on all of the promises of his draft slot and his minor league numbers. Jeremy represented, at the time, the best of a particular drafting strategy, one characterized by selecting advanced players who were already nearly ready to appear in the majors. Although his ceiling was always considered low, his floor was also high—Sowers was supposed to move through the system fast and enter the Indians rotation as a solid fourth or fifth starter. The club correctly surmised that there was real value in filling a rotation spot, even a back-end one, with a cost-controlled youngster; for evidence that this is true, look no further than the combined $10.5 million that the 2006 Tribe was paying Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson to pitch on days that Sabathia, Lee and Westbrook were not available. Sowers held up his end of the bargain well, allowing the Indians to test their strategy. He was in the majors less than two years after he had signed, appearing as a starter and pitching very well: a 3.57 ERA and an average start length over six innings.
There's no doubt that some Indians fans saw Sowers 2006 numbers and begin to salivate, wondering if the club hadn't stumbled across a heretofore unknown box of Greg Maddux rookie cards. However, many astute fans recognized that Sowers' value was ultimately going to lie in being cheap and pedestrian, in being a value not a star. There were significant red flags in his peripherals but he was young, developing, and had a nearly spotless history of suppressing runs. As the Indians entered the 2007 campaign, it seemed reasonable to expect Sowers to take the mound every fifth day, change speeds for six innings, and give his talented lineup a chance to win the game.
It's also hard for me to believe that it's been nearly four years since Jay wrote these two statements within a few weeks of each other:
May 20: But the real and complete story of this game is two young Indians pitchers who seem to have lost their way quite profoundly. Jeremy Sowers entered the month of May with a career ERA of 3.77. In three brutal outings this month, he has surrendered 19 earned runs in 13 innings.
June 10: Following yet another trainwreck of a start last night, Jeremy Sowers was optioned to Buffalo this morning. Sowers had allowed more runs than innings pitched in five out of his last seven starts. Sowers produced a 9.21 ERA and 987 OPS-against over those games, lasted less than five innings. His only quality start in that span came against the Royals, who are terrible, and he imploded twice against a mediocre Reds lineup. Even considering the Indians' comeback win last night, the Indians were 4-8 in his starts this season. Sowers' has allowed an unremarkable .299 BABIP this season, suggesting that bad luck has little to do with his bad results.
The line that Jay points out, between April of 2007 and May of 2007, essentially marked the end of Jeremy Sowers' run as an effective major league pitcher. From his debut until May 1, 2007, Sowers threw 117 innings in the majors with an ERA of 3.77. His stupendously bad run in May and June of 2007 caused his career ERA to rise to 5.32 by the time he earned that initial demotion on June 10. Sowers' remaining career numbers, all those he posted after returning from that demotion, culminate in 249.1 IP and a 5.31 ERA. Whatever we thought in 2006, that's not what we think any more. Jeremy Sowers is a pitcher good for a big league ERA north of 5, no matter what his role, no matter what his velocity.
Something did change for Sowers in 2010, as his long time dominance of AAA ended. At the time, I thought maybe he was being forced to modify his game in substantial ways. I imagined him trying wacky new deliveries and pitches in a last-ditch attempt to make himself into a major league commodity. The news that Sowers' rotator cuff was torn makes my explanation less likely. Regardless of the source of his 2010 AAA struggles, shoulder injuries are notoriously difficult for pitchers to recover from and Sowers' road back to the big league seems even more obscure than it was a month ago. Jay pointed out that this doesn't mean a whole lot to the Cleveland Indians and he's right—it was unlikely we were going to see Sowers in these parts again, anyway.
Still, I can't take Jay's attitude towards Sowers' irrelevance. Jeremy's irrelevant to the club, but he's not irrelevant to me. Sowers made his major league debut the year I graduated college. I was a wholly different person then, fifteen pounds heavier, fifty decibels louder, and filled with ambitions that feel all wrong now. I was also falling for baseball, hard, and Sowers was the first Indians draft pick that I knew by name from the moment he was taken. I followed his ascension through the minors breathlessly. Outwardly, I have always been a vocal Sowers' detractor but, at the same time, I can remember daydreaming on Sowers in secret, thinking I'd laid my hands on the box of Maddux rookie cards. I never said any of this out loud but I indulged myself the fantasy, I allowed myself to believe in a fantastic future that never came.
Sowers' long, sad, and deliberate descent past mediocrity and into futility has paralleled my own maturation past childish belief and into adult rationality or, worse, aged pessimism. There's a long tradition of glorifying the perspective of a child, the joys of infantile naivete. Van Morrison asserts the sentiment about as well as anyone could: "And I'll be satisfied not to read in-between the lines...And I will never, ever, ever, ever grow so old again." Becoming a serious fan of a bad team has meant, for me, learning to constantly read between lines. If I don't set out to identify my own (and the club's) zones of wishful thinking then all my fandom will be is wishful thinking. I have to dash fantastic dreams in order to preserve my own joy for the game or, perhaps more realistically, in order to preserve my own state of mind.
To cheer for a team like this, I can't glorify the naive or childlike—I have to embrace the oldest parts of myself, see things for how they are or worse, and try to find the wisdom in this game's hard lessons and unsatisfactory explanations. I have to do this in order to save the youngest parts of myself from being crushed. I can't spend what naivete and childlike wonder I have left on each iteration of the Indians: I'll be wasting my capacity to believe in the fantastic until I can't do it any longer. Contrast this to a Yankees fan who can enter each season with childish (and churlish) expectations of grandeur and, more often than not, be validated to a satisfactory extent.
I'm saving my capacity to embrace the preposterously unbelievable with good reason, though. When the Indians finally win, I want to be able to wrap both my arms around it fully, without hesitation. I don't want you to have to pinch me and assure me I'm not dreaming. I want to know that the fantastically impossible moment is possible and that it is here. I want to know that as an adult who waited, who examined with circumspection. This is why I can't allow myself to fall for every Jeremy Sowers fairy tale, like a child. If I don't recognize the rarity of dreams coming true, then I won't understand how tremendous that moment is when it arrives. I want to understand that moment as an adult suddenly allowed to feel like a child again, not as an adult who has deliberately thought as a child in an attempt transform back into one.
And, that, is perhaps chief among the reasons why I would not trade this team for one that lives in what I can only call the realm of financial fantasy and insanity. The Indians may age me, they may make me expect the worse, they may weigh on my heart and mind, but, when this team wins, oh my—I will feel younger and better than any Yankees fan ever has. The weight will lift and we will be so, so, so high.
Pitchers and catchers this week. See you out there.