For 26

Gabe Gross retired from major league baseball today.

It would be vapid to write that this retirement news will not shake the world like Manny Ramirez’s announcement did. Do not take this as a slam on Gross’s ability or accomplishments, but a player has to be amazing or his retirement sudden for it to really make news—Ramirez had all that working for him and gave folks a chance to role of high defenders of the game; call it the holy trinity.

The only holy trinity in Gross’s life stems from his strong Christian beliefs. With Gross, it became easy to imagine him as the archetypical good ol’ southern boy. Gross’s appearance and personality were often nondescript, who could blame anyone for pretending he just played baseball to pass the time in between sermons. Alas, Gross probably is not perfect, but never allow the reality of humanity to interfere with the pristine image projected upon athletes, lest we hold them to a more realistic standard of living.

It is appropriate, then, that separating perception from reality is actually what Gross’s Rays career symbolizes.

In the future, nobody will remember much about Gross’s playing career. Oh, he hit clutch home runs, they will say, and he committed blunders in the ALCS, but otherwise he was a guy—and sometimes, in baseball, all you need is a guy. At least, that is the perception. In reality, Gross finished with a negative Win Probability Added in 2008 as well as a negative Clutch score. His fielding, though, was fantastic per just about any defensive metric. Oh, there were big hits—his home run against the Indians still hasn’t landed—but overall, he weltered in high-leverage situations. There were errors too, but remember his homer-saving grab in the ALDS?

Gross arrived as a former top Jays prospect that played quarterback at the University of Auburn. Just looking at him, neither of those factoids appears rooted in truth. At the plate, Gross could not hit left-handed pitching, and against righties his game was to get on base or hit for power. When Gross got a hold of one, his prospect history became believable. In the outfield, his play was occasionally gawkish. Gross would catch the ball, yes, but in the most ungraceful position possible. When Gross threw the ball, his football career became believable. Perhaps it was because of Gross’s number (26) or the position, but when he threw a baseball with the velocity of a Matt Garza fastball and the accuracy of a James Shields curveball, it conjured memories of Delmon Young.

The 22nd marked three years since the Rays acquired Gross. There were no candle vigils (only because I didn’t realize it) or great reminiscing about Gross’s time in St. Pete, but at the same time, nobody cursed his existence either. Gross is what he is and was what he was. Andrew Friedman acquired him as a capable role player and Joe Maddon used him as such for the year-and-a-half he spent wearing the Rays garb.

Did that time change the majority’s perception on how platoons can be just as worthwhile as fulltime players or how average players can help winning ball clubs just by being themselves? No, probably not. Players superior to Gross will come and go—I dare say that Matt Joyce’s talent level is equitable to Gross in his Sunday best—but for everyone of those, there will be an inferior player or two as well.

At least, that is my perception of Gross. The reality is he did help the 2008 Rays win and he helped me form an understanding about the value of players being—well—Gabe Gross.

So, thanks Gabe. Top hat for top cat, you dig?

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