Five unlikely players take different paths to their first MLB All-Star Game - 13 minutes read

MLB: Five unlikely players take different paths to first All-Star Game

CLEVELAND — Baseball is reveling in an era of instant stardom, where major league-ready talents seemingly roll off an assembly line and right into the All-Star Game.

Be it Cody Bellinger or Pete Alonso, Ronald Acuna Jr. or Alex Bregman, this 91st All-Star Game at Progressive Field is a salute to the game’s quick-twitch developmental arc.

So it’s easy to forget about the late bloomers. And foolish of us to do so.

As the brightest stars grace baseball’s second-biggest stage, a look at a quintet far removed from their years on top prospect lists — if they were ever there at all:

Baseball can be a game of osmosis, where moderate talents surrounded by greatness can absorb the qualities of superstars and apply it to their own careers.

And sometimes, the urge to keep up with the superstars can consume a player before he finds his own niche.

He debuted on a 2014 Detroit Tigers team that was an intersection of future Hall of Famers like Miguel Cabrera, stars about to take off like J.D. Martinez and a gaggle of veterans for which a trip to an All-Star Game was relatively expected.

A team constantly adding premier talent in a quest for a World Series seems like a great place to work. But McCann wilted.

“The great players I came up with, it was a blessing as much as it was a curse,” says McCann. “I saw the things Miggy was doing, J.D. was doing, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton. If I try to do what they do, well, I’m not them. I’m a different player, I’m a different hitter.

“So this offseason, that was a time to figure out what I needed to do.”

Released by the Tigers with four years of service time, it was a natural time for a reset. And the answer was far simpler than you could imagine.

“I figured out,” he says, “who James McCann was. Don’t try to be something I’m not. Who was I as a hitter?”

That answer? Not a superstar. But also not the .240 hitter and 76 OPS-plus man he was in Detroit.

Landing with the Chicago White Sox, which he calls “a great, great change for me,” McCann has flourished, with a .316/.371/.502 slash line. His nine home runs don’t project to a huge season — but are already a career high.

And he’s here, an All-Star reunited with Justin Verlander, a pitcher he caught for four seasons and one he can’t wait to see and revel in his newfound success.

Turns out there’s a few guys who can’t wait to see him, too.

“From where he came to what he has been now, it’s special,” says J.D. Martinez, now a three-time All-Star with the Boston Red Sox. “I think he found his zone. I think he was trying to do too much of one thing, trying to be someone that he’s not, and I think this year he finally found James McCann.

“He found him. And he started trying to be more like him and not like other people.”

As the AL All-Stars met the media Monday, Tommy La Stella quite literally had nowhere to go. Leaned against the back of his podium were a set of crutches, the tangible evidence of a nightmare 48 hours that turned his first All-Star appearance into a solemn journey rather than a joyous celebration.

The Los Angeles Angels second baseman is still processing the July 1 death of teammate Tyler Skaggs, who passed away at the team’s hotel near Dallas. One night later, the Angels played on.

A player already sporting career highs with 16 home runs and a .300 average would be of no physical use at Progressive Field, and like all his Angels teammates, would be nursing a broken heart in addition to his fractured right tibia.

They urged him to go.

“It’s been a confusing week for all of us,” says La Stella. “It still doesn’t feel real. And we’re not going to stop missing Tyler. He was an unbelievable person, one of our leaders, somebody we loved.

“It doesn’t really feel real, and I don’t think it will for a while.”

Skaggs’ death — autopsy results are pending — also made La Stella’s worst injury of his career trivial. “It definitely wasn’t easy,” he says, “but with what we’re all feeling right now, breaking your leg is meaningless.”

He headed to Cleveland anyway, where friends and family joined him, before heading back to what he calls his other “band of brothers” back in Anaheim. If a second All-Star season is in the cards, it will almost certainly be under better circumstances.

“I wanted to take it in, take in the experience,” he says, just a few feet from teammate Mike Trout holding court for the eighth time. “Everybody I talked said, ‘You gotta go, you gotta experience it.’ To be among the best players in the game is something I didn’t want to pass up.”

Baseball’s constant evolution means many players often get stuck in eras that are not suited for their skills. Joey Gallo is not one of those players.

The Texas Rangers slugger has perhaps epitomized this period of  “three true outcomes” — strikeout, walk, home run — in which balls in play are few and huge strikeout totals ignored.

“Thank God,” he says. “That helped me a ton. Playing in this era, I’m viewed as a different player, and I’m grateful that I’m playing in this era.

“I think if I played 15, 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be viewed as an All-Star.”

Yet his 41 and 40 home runs hit the past two seasons were paired with batting averages of .209 and .206 (never mind the 196 and 207 strikeouts — nobody cares!)

Valued? Gallo certainly was. An All-Star? Not until this year, when the traditionalist view might finally consider him a complete player, as he’s pushed his average to a very respectable .275, and his OPS-plus to a career-best 166.

Gallo credits new Rangers hitting coach Luis Ortiz with helping him find an approach at the plate, one that goes just a tick beyond whale-and-bail.

“Being a power hitter, they’re not just going to lay them in there for me. I have to earn them,” he says. “I used to go up there and just kind of swing freely. Now, I have more of an approach and I think that’s helped out.”

Gallo didn’t need anyone’s validation for his career; hitting the ball hard and getting on base, he says, “is simple math” that wisely equals value in today’s game.

Still, glancing around the room at his AL teammates was “surreal,” he said, and a trip he knows probably doesn’t happen if bat didn’t strike ball more often.

“Hitting for a higher average definitely helps out being viewed as a better player, because I think that’s still a stereotype,” he says. “When I was hitting .210, I knew I wasn’t going to make many All-Star Games.

“When I hit .280 I felt like, OK, there’s a chance now.”

The players kept coming, and so did the phone calls.

As the New York Mets added Robinson Cano, and then Jed Lowrie, Jeff McNeil kept fielding phone calls from the Mets front office, assuring him that after batting .329, albeit in just a 225-at-bat sample, the former 12th-round pick was very much in their 2019 plans.

“They said, ‘We’ll find you a spot.’”

It’s generally wise to make room for the National League’s best hitter — and right now, that’s McNeil.

He’s hitting .351 while bouncing around the diamond from left to right field and second and third base, his job above all being a lineup staple in a year in which Cano has disappointed and Lowrie has yet to play, due to knee and hamstring ailments.

McNeil said he didn’t need much reassuring this winter that he’d be close to an everyday player. Then again, he’s used to re-proving himself.

“I wasn’t a top draft pick,” says McNeil, 27, drafted 356th overall 2013 out of Long Beach State. “I didn’t get a lot of money. Every level I went to, I knew I had to play well to earn that kind of promotion and I did.

“It gives a lot of hope to guys who weren’t drafted in the top three rounds or whatever. It can be done.”

And done quickly. While the Mets have disappointed, they did send three All-Stars to Cleveland, McNeil alongside Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and Home Run Derby champ Pete Alonso. His teammates tower over him physically. This week, however, they are shoulder to shoulder.

“He is such a hard worker. He went through the gauntlet a little bit by being hurt early in his minor league career, but he’s a grinder,” says Alonso, 24. “Kid rakes. It’s as simple as that.

“If you told us when we were in the Florida State League together in 2017 that a couple years down the road me and him would be going to Cleveland together for the All-Star Game, we might have called BS. When you’re in it, it’s hard to look ahead. You’re trying to claw your way to the next level. He’s been really determined the entire time. He’s a good friend and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

He wears a different shade of blue now. But for Dan Vogelbach, six years of knocking around the minor leagues with the Chicago Cubs created bonds that are tough to break.

He roomed with Albert Almora Jr. He’s still in almost constant contact with slugger and now leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber, who he says “will text and tell me when he’s going to swing at the first pitch and when he’s not.”

He did not make the majors until the Cubs dealt him to Seattle in July 2016, meaning no championship ring. But in return, the Cubs received Mike Montgomery, the man on the mound when they wrapped up Game 7 of the World Series.

And Vogelbach is forever grateful for the deal, as he knew he’d never displace first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

“Those guys have been good to me,” he says of the Cubs. “I’m just excited for them to give me the opportunity to be traded. Some people don’t get away. Some people get stuck. For them to trade me and give me the opportunity, I’m really thankful for that."

But a new chance didn’t mean instant success. Two consecutive seasons of early opportunity gave way to a quick shuttle from Seattle to Class AAA Tacoma. Vogelbach batted .209 with four homers in 2017-18 — but merely got 133 plate appearances.

The dearth of opportunity meant he couldn’t fully implement swing changes that came before 2018. This spring, however, he credits the tutelage of Jay Bruce — acquired in the winter from the Mets and since dealt to the Phillies — and Kyle Seager to best exploit his chances.

Vogelbach got his usual April window to shine. This time, he made the most of it, slamming 21 homers and posting an .881 OPS.

At 26, he is a big league regular, which would have been good enough for this season. In September, he will finally play at Wrigley Field — as an opponent, but also as an All-Star.

“Wherever your feet are planted, you have to play,” he says. “You have to continue to push the envelope and force them to give you an opportunity.

“This will all sink in once I’m on the field and with the guys. I’m just happy that I’m able to be in this room.”

Source: USA Today

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