Days have progressed into weeks. January steeled, has bittered into gray, and I am still thinking of Mike Tauchman.
Earlier this month, I wrote Tauchman’s 2021 season in review and snarkily referred to it as “part one” of a possible trilogy.
I guess the joke there was after taking a deep dive on his once-in-a-generation snag, there wasn’t much more to talk about. He unequivocally had a bad 64 games for the San Francisco Giants–his glove lifting him only momentarily out of the raff of acquisitions and dumps. Yet, here I am, still thinking, still milling over his multiple home run robberies, his wiffle bat whiffs, his gate collisions and warning track rolls, his high socks, his eye black and changing facial hair, his ultimate and inevitable relegation.
It has crossed my mind more than once that this fascination is more a personal demon than necessary critical work. My treading and re-treading over is not mapping the grounds, but keeping my head afloat. What lies beneath the surface? Total dread, fear of the “new normal”. The tail-chasing gossip of the lock-out, of the Hall of Fame, of free agent possibilities, contract speculations: x - years / large sum. Pandemic turned endemic. How long will it be before we forget that pitchers used to hit; that there was an age when the clock would dare not show its face in a baseball park?
I am feeling cranky. Maybe hungry. Old and cold and who is with me?
This strange actor–Mike T.
But why fight it? Lean into these tangents, these footnotes, these bouts of obsessions and curiosities and highfalutin thinking that would most certainly be deemed frivolous and pretentious once spring training starts.
But will Spring Training ever start?
Of course it will, Steven, my cat says to me. Of course, it will.
My most recent preoccupation: Mike Tauchman’s last week in June.
At that point, Tauchman’s offensive numbers were wearing concrete shoes: average, slugging, on-base, everything–all sleeping with the fishes. On the 23rd in Anaheim, he cobbled together one of the most wonderfully odd hitting performances in memory: five consecutive K’s and a 3-run homer.
Mike Tauchman turns around his 5 K day with a 3-run homer pic.twitter.com/9O8KORldj7— KNBR (@KNBR) June 24, 2021
I remember watching that game–the futility of some of his swings in those at-bats was visible. Each outcome inevitable. By the fourth and fifth time up, the strikeout was predetermined.
And then, in a bizarre game the most impossibly bizarre event happens: Tauchman turns on one for a home run. But there was no catharsis or relief on his face as he rounded the bases. No triumph like in Texas–the expression was akin to embarrassment. Eyes down, a slight slouch in the shoulders. I don’t want to sound cruel but Tauchman is a professional and he has professional standards for himself. He knew he got a tired, no-respect, batting practice fastball on the inside half of the plate and it would’ve been on par with another strike out if he didn’t take it deep.
As Tauchman touches home, Shawn Estes sums it up: “Baseball just doesn’t make sense.”
Five days later, 30 miles up the 5. It’s 3 - 2, top of the ninth. The San Francisco Giants are down by a run to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Somewhat miraculously, leading off Tauchman muscles a dead-red Jansen cutter out into shallow left center. It’s a dying quail with just enough life in it to twist away from Cody Bellinger and drop in for a hit, ostensibly setting up the tying run on first with no outs and Buster Posey up.
But that doesn’t happen. The ball kicks past Bellinger, glancing off his glove. Tauchman sees this and bolts for second, thinking the ball will roll far enough away for him to steal scoring position. But no–the ball stops dead like a chip onto the green and Bellinger quickly recovers, fires into Chris Taylor at second. Tauchman is dead in the water diving towards Taylor’s cleats.
Last-ditch and inspired, he attempts a hook slide, avoids the tag initially, getting his hand to the bag before leather finds his chest. It happens fast. His helmet rolls away, his legs fly. His fingers slip from the base as his body goes skew, splaying out over Taylor and the bag. He lifts his gaze in time to see the umpire ringing him up. From his knees he looks back to the dugout, gesturing safe, shouting ‘safe, safe’ before immediately punching his fist into his palm, swearing at himself.
It is evident after this series of events that things were really not going Tauchman’s way. Hits were hard to come by. At-bats becoming less frequent. A ball breaking in his favor turned on him, reared back and bit the hand.
Top 9th - Giants challenge call that Mike Tauchman is out at 2B; Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner maintained contact with the base as the fielder was applying the tag, call stands, the runner is out. Powered by @Mitel. pic.twitter.com/pw2PPH5ksu— MLB Replays (@MLBReplays) June 29, 2021
Should he have gone? After the fact: of course not. At the time: yes, no, gee-whiz, I don’t know–with split-second decisions, there is no reason or language. It is all body. Tauchman didn’t want second, he needed it. It was physical and instinctual and for a player barely hanging on, it probably felt like the only way to survive.
This is the moment that I love. This is the moment I want to write about: Tauchman brooding over the second base bag after the call. Convinced he was safe. Pissed at himself for taking the risk. Perplexed at how Bellinger got the ball in so quickly. Hands on hips, knees on the ground, still straddling the bag, he looks into the dugout–no answer to how or why. He spits on the ground, turns toward the scoreboard–nope, nothing there either. His gaze finally settles on a vague patch of night above left field because there were no answers.
I don’t know how long he sits like this. I like to imagine Tauchman doesn’t get up for the entire 2 and half minutes the umpires deliberate. The flurry of angles, the sequence of blocky frames blurring together up on the screen, the indiscernible din from the crowd: oh, he’s out or safe or no way or maybe? as Tauchman watches from the ground at second.
You be the ump: out or safe?— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) June 29, 2021
Tauchman was called out on the field and after review pic.twitter.com/MvxNhTPUWm
The call is confirmed. With his helmet on, he makes that long, terrible walk back across the diamond. The Giants go in order after that.
The next day, Tauchman starts in right field against righty Walker Buehler. He singles in his first at-bat. Two hits in a row!
In the fourth, playing shallow, Buelher at bat drives a ball to the warning track. The crowd erupts at the sound while Tauchman puts his head down and runs. The ball is carrying, knuckling. He glances up, course-corrects, the ball then flags and again, the body improvises, lunging back and reaching out, awkwardly grabbing the ball as it tails away from him. He falls back onto the dirt and rolls into the wall. Instead of silence this time, Tauchman earns boos from Dodger Stadium as he labors onto his feet.
Tauchman made another insane catch at Dodger Stadium pic.twitter.com/jSsdD41mfn— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) June 30, 2021
It is this catch that sends Tauchman to the IL with a right knee sprain–the same knee that may have stuck to the bag during his full body slide the previous night.
Tauchman doesn’t reappear until July 16th. He singles against the Cardinals his first at-bat back. He gets 12 more ABs the rest of the month. His only other hit being his last swing as a Giant on the 28th–three months after he was traded: a single against the Dodgers. The next day he is designated for assignment.
Giants DFA’d Mike Tauchman, who seemed to know it was coming because he changed his walkup music to “The Final Countdown” last night.— Andrew Baggarly (@extrabaggs) July 29, 2021
Years from now, his catch against LA will be played and replayed in off season highlight reels and 2021 team anniversaries. No one will talk about his .569 OPS or his 28.8% zone swing and miss rate. His 13th inning home run will make the game recap, not the five consecutive strikeouts that preceded it. It’s a shame because these canyons make the peaks all the more stark and jagged and compelling.
My cat looks up at me after reading: I think you went a little over the top on this one, Steven.
I shrug. Maybe she’s right.
P.S. Congrats, Mike!