15 April 2011

The Number 14

Martín Prado is an under-the-radar talent. Fans, sportswriters, and many managers alike must have giant blinders in their radar to miss such a massive blip. It would be like if Stanislav Petrov hadn't even noticed an incoming nuclear strike. As much as I deeply respect Bobby Cox, it took our beloved, ever-ejectable skipper a terribly long time to realize that Prado was clearly an enhancement over Kelly Johnson at second base.

As this handy little article points out, Prado is a pivotal player for the Braves' success. About the 2010 season:

"When he hits, the Braves usually win. On July 8, 2010, he was leading the majors with 121 hits and a .325 batting average. In fact, his ability to reach base and wreak havoc prompted then-manager Bobby Cox to promote him to the leadoff spot in May. From that moment until his injury, the Braves went 44-25."

Yes, it's painful to think how we might have done in the San Francisco series with Mr. Prado in the lineup. Our other under-appreciated [gross understatement] Venezuelan from 2010 was our only reliable source of offense in that series. As a lifelong, die-hard Braves fan, I sincerely want everyone to understand just how important Martín Prado has been to our team already in the years he has been with us.

His numbers speak for themselves. Those are why he is now our reliable leadoff hitter and why he was an obvious choice for last year's all-star team. As for the intangibles, let me speak for him. Prado is the best anyone could ask for in a team player. He doesn't moan about how, after so many years, he has yet to make the money that is usually doled out for players of his numerical stature. And even though he is a centerpiece of our team, he gladly moved from the infield, a collective of positions for which he'd spent his entire career training, to left field, saying:

“It’s a big change... but it’s a new challenge. I’m taking it professionally, trying to help my team as much as I can. I played the infield all my career so moving the outfield is going to be a long learning process. But I’m working on it.”

Where did this guy come from? He's too perfect. He's a breath of fresh air in a profession that has been so completely commercialized. His presence on the field reminds us that it's just a game, a beautiful game that is endlessly compelling to watch. For a moment, whenever I watch him play, I forget the trauma I've incurred over the years, starting as a kid who loved baseball, watching the magic of the 1998 season crumble slowly to pieces as the epidemic of body modification was revealed. The hidden monster.

There's another reason why Martín transcends that whole era that made many fans of the game suffer deep existential crises. From 1998 through 2000, I wasn't just tuned into the exploits of McGwire and Sosa. I was watching close to every Braves game those years, glued to the TV and rapt in the ballpark, to see the most potent Braves offense since the Henry Aaron [unequivocal home run king] days. The anchor at cleanup in that offense was Andrés Galarraga, my personal favorite player. Not only was he a power bat from that era absolutely clean of steroid rumors, not only was he an acrobatic first baseman who regularly made spectacular plays despite his big frame [why he was dubbed 'The Big Cat' or 'El Gato Grande'], not only was he a smiling, enduring good influence in his personal life, but he also survived a near-death experience with lymphoma during the 1999 season. In 2000, he came back, and hit .302, 28HRs, and 100 RBI in 141 games.

Photo: John Iacono/SI

When I say Prado reminds me why I love baseball, it's primarily because of who he is, what he does on the field, and how he comports himself as a person. More than that, he reminds me so much of El Gato I noticed one day that he and Andrés share the same number as Braves, #14. Sure enough, it didn't take much research to find that it was a tangible connection:

“I grew up watching Andres Galarraga,” Prado said of his fellow Venezuelan, who wore the same number while playing for the same Atlanta Braves. “He set a good example for a lot of kids and a lot of ballplayers. I have worn No. 14 since I was a little kid.”

Galarraga's is a special story, and it should always be remembered in the pantheon of Braves history, the longest such history in modern pro sports. Prado, in so many ways, continues Galarraga's legacy, and I think Martín can, in the future, become a Braves legend with an even deeper legacy than that of Andrés. As we move forward in this 2011 season, let us not forget one of our best players, and let us as fans be as loud as we can that the Braves offer Martín arbitration through 2014 after this season, and give him the fat paycheck the market says he deserves after that.

One more quote:

"He reported to spring training this year with a new physique, 14 pounds lighter than last year"


Andie said...

jays fan again. i just wanted to tell you how much i love escobar. he's been THE best blue jays player this season so far, both offensively and defensively. we love him here in toronto so much. we don't care if he's a showoff or not as long as he plays well, lol. i hope the braves are getting on track soon. you guys are too talented not to be 1st or 2nd.

Alison W. said...

Thanks, darlin'. :) I'm glad you're enjoying Yunel and that he's clearly enjoying Toronto. And yes, you don't have to worry... we'll be back on track soon enough!