1. I've owned seven cars in my lifetime. Of those seven, there's been a strong correlation between my personal satisfaction with each car and the manufacturer's recommended mileage span between oil changes. If I tell you that my current car is one of my favorites then you should correctly assume that it needs just 1-2 changes per year. On a probability scale, therefore, November 20, 2012 was already a mildly unusual day, given that I was sitting in my car, parked inside one of the garage bays at the Valvoline in Windsor Locks, CT. I had not brought anything to read, so I reflexively glanced down at my BlackBerry. The red light was flashing, indicating some unread message.
2. To be honest, the initial request was made half-heartedly and without expectation. "To whom it may concern: I'm writing a short article for a book to be published this winter and would like to request an interview with your client..." The website, advertising the services of a sports agent, promised prompt responses within 1-2 business days. It had been two weeks, and I had heard nothing.
3. The whole thing was Joel's idea. Joel, better known as Slyde in these parts, was putting a book together-an e-book serving as a preview to the 2013 season. He asked if I would contribute an article and suggested that someone write a piece on Ryan Hanigan. I don't know why that idea interested me; I liked Hanigan as a player, of course, but had previously not felt any strong emotional attachment towards the catcher. Still, I grabbed the idea, and then had the even crazier idea that an interview might be a worthwhile endeavor. I asked Joel if his contacts with the teams would produce any leads. He laughed, figuratively and digitally, and suggested I go through Hanigan's agent, as listed on baseballreference.com.
4. I haven't met many professional athletes in my life, and I'm not eager to meet many more. I don't have personal animosity towards athletes, generally or specifically, but I'm just too emotionally aware-specifically in two key ways-for the encounter to likely be fruitful. First, I'm aware that these guys (and gals) talk constantly to all sorts of folks as a professional duty, meaning that their public communication becomes a rote exercise, void of all personality and meaning. I understand why this is the case, and it doesn't bother me, but it also does not appeal to me. The second reason is that while I played sports growing up, baseball and basketball mostly, I never truly understood either game at the technical level. Baseball especially, despite playing hundreds of organized games in my youth, is a mystery. I don't understand the physiology of hitting at all, for example. Pitch recognition, hitting angles, body movements...all completely mysterious. As an adult, and as a dad, it's been humbling to realize how little in terms of practical baseball instruction I have to offer my children and the baseball teams I've helped to coach. Nearly everything I did was out of instinct or through muscle memory learned out of vague coaching, until one day those instincts weren't good enough to compete with my peers. That's neither an indictment of my coaches nor a way to humblebrag about my minute athletic abilities; all the high-level coaching in the world wouldn't have brought me a professional contract or athletic scholarship.
The point is that even if a ballplayer and I were to talk, and to talk about the game we both loved, we wouldn't even be talking about the same thing. I see the game through the eyes of an outsider, impassioned by history and spreadsheets and family bonds and blog posts and hating the Cardinals. The player lives a different game. The thing we have in common is not something we hold in common. Clearly, asking for an interview with Hanigan was a bad idea, and I was not disappointed to have received no reply.
5. I picked up the phone and pressed the e-mail icon. The "From" line simply read "Ryan". Subject line: Ryan Hanigan. He was willing and happy to chat, let him know when I'm available, etc. Now what do I do?
6. The most bizarre thing about the whole experience is that we played phone tag for nigh on two weeks. The first call came as I was hustling out the front door, late to an appointment at a friend's house. An unusual phone number graced the screen..."Hello, this is Mark." "Hey Mark, it's Ryan." Oh. I apologized for having to turn him away and we made plans to reconnect. And so it went.
7. When we finally caught each other at an opportune time, he first apologized for missing my most recent call. "I was at Wal-Mart, picking up a bunch of stuff for the house." In our various attempts to connect, I had gleaned that Ryan was in the harrowing process of buying a house, so by way of introductory small talk I asked how that was going. I learned that he bought a place in Kentucky, so I made reference to him no longer being a New Englander. He said he'll probably go back someday but for now he can get way better value in Kentucky. Fears suddenly at ease: we do have something in common, namely a recognition and concern about the high cost of living in the Northeast.
8. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I score as ‘INTP'. Included in that bucket's description is the following assessment: skeptical, sometimes critical, always analytical. Such words may very well be inscribed on my tombstone. Through that mindset, I've rarely held beat reporters in high regard, since their very access to players and team officials seems to depend on asking questions that don't rock the boat. Understand also that in my day job I frequently must speak truth to power, delivering unfavorable news to executives that outrank me. In this context, it came as a bit of a shock to me when, after asking my very first question that wasn't critical of Hanigan but was asked from a very analytical point of view and was returned with a 5 minute long explanation of Hanigan's history and approach that bordered on being defensive, it dawned on me that I may have to soften my approach for fear of losing the interview before I got to the questions I really wanted to ask. I tried to walk back the first question ever so slightly and found myself completely lacking, stammering and stuttering my way through the next question. Perhaps the beat guys have a point.
9. One of the most interesting paradoxes presented in the interview was that Hanigan came across as personable and candid. Candid enough, in fact, that I felt uncomfortable writing some of the things he said. Not because of profane language or ribald adventures, but because as a strictly hobbyist writer who had more emotional investment in the team's success than in my own literary output, I couldn't take the chance-however slim-that someone would read words attributable to Hanigan that would somehow harm the team in some way. I got the quotes-the safe ones-needed to write the immediate story. This post is, in part, a venue for some of the other quotes.
10. "Guys who let me pull the ball are stupid." We were talking about his hitting approach, centered up the middle or to the opposite field, contrasted with the relatively few times he left the yard-invariably pulled to left. I was aware of at least some of the pitchers who Hanigan had homered against, and made a permanent mental note of their cognitive deficiencies.
11. He wasn't too candid. I had asked what I thought was an excellent question, given Hanigan's reputation as an excellent game-caller behind the plate. "If you were in the pre-game planning meeting on how to approach the opposing lineup, and Ryan Hanigan's name was in that lineup, how would you advise the pitcher to attack him?" He didn't even flinch at the bait. "Oh man, I don't think I can think I can answer that. Too much information."
12. If I had, like, forever, I would have asked Hanigan a bit more about his playing background before joining the Reds' organization. We talked briefly about his playing career at Rollins College, but strictly about his hitting, since that was the focus of the article. In the course of my research leading up to the interview, I had read that he had mostly played the outfield in college. He was a catcher from jump street, though, after signing with the Reds. He might not have shot through the minors, but he didn't linger either. Then he was a grade-A glove man in the bigs. How did that happen?
13. We spoke for 20-25 minutes, and I sensed a small bit of rapport being built. I had asked my planned questions and received a nice bunch of answers with which to form a decent piece. I figured I'd ask one more question. "This isn't for the article, but...was that pitch in Game 5 a strike?"
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14. Our conversation took place in December of 2012, which meant that the most recent game of Hanigan's career was roughly two months prior. Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Giants was a heartbreaker, in part because of the outcome (a Reds loss), in part because of the series's trajectory (the Reds won the first two games, then dropped the penultimate three, all at home), in part because of the historical significance (the Reds were still searching for their first postseason series victory since 1995, and in part because the game hosted a handful of ‘what if' plays that could have drastically altered the game had they gone Cincy's way. One of these plays directly involved Hanigan.
15. The Reds were trailing, 6-3 in the bottom of the 6th. Ludwick had accounted for that 3rd run via a lead-off homer and the next two guys both reached base. Ryan Hanigan walked to the plate, representing the tying run. Giants' pitcher Matt Cain was approaching 90 pitches for the game, and appeared to be dramatically lessening in effectiveness. Hanigan worked the count full, then took strike three looking as both runners were running. Jay Bruce was thrown out at third, and while the game wasn't exactly over at that point, it seemed a huge turning point. On TV, the pitch looked like it might have been outside. Why not ask the guy with the excellent batting eye who's been known to frame a pitch or two?
16. How he responded made me feel better and worse at the same time. On the one hand, it's nice to know that the guys (or at least one of them) that you cheer for care about the outcome even more than you do. For instance, some of the return comments were..."Oh man, I was just thinking about that pitch on the plane today," or "I think about that call all the time."
17. On the other hand, the reason Hanigan was thinking about the call so often is that, according to him, the "pitch was three inches outside." He went on: "I'd faced Cain several times before, and knew exactly what he was going to throw. I collected myself before the pitch, looked at the outside corner and told myself not to swing at anything beyond it." He continued on, reasoning that one approach would have been to protect the plate at all costs, but it was a pitch designed to conclude with a ground ball to second. Nonetheless, it was a ball, should have been called as such, but "I have seen worse calls." "You've even framed some of them," I offered. Silence on the other end. While we will never know the alternate outcome should the walk had been called, it's still makes you feel kind of shitty, you know?
18. Speaking of silence, one more note. Not once did Hanigan call anyone out directly. There was identifiable frustration in his place in the batting order, even going so far as to allude to there being guys routinely hitting higher in the order who were struggling or weren't as good a hitter as him. While I might be able to internally speculate that these mild complaints might have referenced Dusty or Stubbs, Hanigan certainly didn't call anyone out. So much so that when I attempted to continue the Game 5 conversation by making reference to the general strangeness of the series, specifically identifying Rolen's struggles and miscues, I ran into a stone wall of silence and the interview was effectively over.
19. He's not ours any more, having been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that has been around for a decent while (1998), and has certainly had a better sustained run of success than the Reds of late (averaging 92 wins per year for the last six seasons), but somehow still feel like MLB's JV franchise. And maybe that's just right for Ryan Hanigan, who was never a top prospect, nor a face of the franchise, nor an all-star. Instead, he was a grinder and an underappreciated cog, who started get a fair bit of notoriety in time to have a dreadful, albeit injury marred, 2013 season. I suppose I (we) could be sad that Hanigan is leaving, but this is a cold business with little room for sentimentality unless you like losing consistently. I'm not using this particular space to predict whether trading Hanigan was wise or unwise; rather, I'm content to point out that in a matter of hours, Ryan Hanigan was acquired by the Rays while Brian McCann and AJ Pierzynski signed with the Yanks and Sawx, respectively. A relatively likeable team getting even more likeable, while, well, you can do the math.
20. I suspect that a few or many years from now, we will look back on this era fondly, especially those of us who will remember the glorious contrast of 2010 to the many years prior. Ryan Hanigan isn't the first player of significance that's been sent packing from the 2010-13 mini-era, but he may be the first who was universally liked. By my figuring, there will be more than a handful Reds fans who adopt Tampa as a favored AL team. So, mazel tov to Hanigan, and may all your line drives be just outside the reach of the opposing second baseman.