Matt Stairs solidifies place as greatest journeyman slugger
With 254 homers for 11 teams, Matt Stairs his earned his place in history
Stairs' three run homer gave the Phillies the win in Game 4 of the NLCS
"I'm not going to lie," Stairs said. "I try to hit home runs and that's it."
They did not stop the game. They did not go into the crowd to get him the baseball. They did not pour champagne on his head after the deed was done. Well, it's been like that for Matt Stairs his whole career. Nobody noticing nothin'.
On Sept. 28 Stairs faced Washington rookie pitcher Marco Estrada, who became an unwitting partner in history. Sort of. Estrada threw the slider that did not slide, and Stairs unleashed the hangover swing he picked up one too-bright and too-early morning in Tucson. He yanked the ball into the right field seats. He stomped around the bases. That was the 254th home run of Matt Stairs career.
And with that, Stairs became the greatest journeyman slugger in history.
Of course, it depends how you appraise a baseball journeyman. I say you have to play for at least 10 teams. That's a nice round number. Stairs, like the Spinal Tap amp, goes to 11. He began his career in Montreal, playing for a team that no longer exists. After that it was a month or so in Boston, five rebellious years in Oakland, a party at Wrigley, a layover in Milwaukee and enough time for a few Primanti Brothers sandwiches in Pittsburgh. He became a fan favorite during some dry years in Kansas City, pit stopped in Texas, spent a weekend or two in Detroit, came back home to Toronto* and finally, all things considered, found he'd rather be in Philadelphia. That's 11.
*Well, his hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, is roughly a 15-hour drive from Toronto. In Canada, that's reasonably close.
When Stairs cranked that home run off Estrada, he passed frequent flier Todd Zeile to move into the top home run spot for players who have worn 10 or more Major League uniforms. No announcement was made. No network cut in with live coverage. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.
Fifteen days later -- on Monday -- Stairs dusted off the hangover swing and unloaded one more time, this time turning on Los Angeles closer Jonathan Broxton's 95-mph fastball, murdering it, a three-run homer that gave Philadelphia Game 4 of the National League Series and perhaps crushed the spirit of the seemingly destined Dodgers. This time, everybody noticed.
"I'm not going to lie," Stairs told the assembled media after the game. "I try to hit home runs and that's it."
Cliché, sure, but Matt Stairs always looked like he was getting ready for a slo-pitch softball game. He would sit in his underwear by his locker, and he was squat, he was balding, and he had a goatee, and he looked like the kind of guy who would stand still on airport moving sidewalks. He looked like he was just dying for one beer.
In some ways, the looks were misleading. Stairs was once among the more promising young hockey players in Canada. He had, according to his own scouting report, a wicked slap shot. And he could move. Years and years later, he still had lingering after-affects of that athleticism. Stairsy, as everyone called him*, could not run much, no, but he was not clumsy either, and he generally caught what he reached. He played five positions in his career, though he readily admitted he could have skipped a couple of them. He was usually good for a triple a year. He was probably not the worst athlete in the room.
*Or Matty -- he has always been the kind of player who needed a y suffix affixed to his name.
But in many ways, the softball image fit, even after Stairs gave up smoking. He came to the ballpark to swat. I can remember once interviewing softball-bashing legend Mike Macenko, while he was smoking a cigarette on the bench. Mid-sentence, he suddenly stopped, put the cigarette down between us on the bench so the ashes burned over the edge, and said, "Excuse me a minute." He got up, grabbed a bat, stepped to the plate and first-pitch hit the ball about 800 feet. He rounded the bases, high-fived a teammate, walked back over picked up his cigarette and continued precisely where he left off.
Stairs had some of that in him. He had become, over time, the kind of guy a manager sent to the plate in desperate times, when only a home run would do. It did not start out that way. Stairs was such a good hockey player growing up, that when he signed with the Montreal Expos, many of his friends were surprised he even PLAYED baseball. The Expos signed Stairs with visions of a scrappy middle infielder, and he gave them reason to hope when he hit .372 in Harrisburg one year with 10 triples and 23 stolen bases. Yes, 23 stolen bases. But hope faded fast, he wasn't quite scrappy enough, and the Expos exported him to Japan. Really.
Stairs didn't like Japan much. He came back home after only 60 games, and this time Montreal sold him to Boston. He still wasn't scrappy enough. The Red Sox dumped him, and he signed with Oakland.
Then, he had the moment of stupor that changed his life. Stairs was playing for the Edmonton Trappers -- where else? -- and wasn't hitting a lick. And he woke up one morning with the kind of hangover they write horror movies about. That day, out of necessity, he dropped his hands and lifted his eyes. He got four hits that day and crushed a grand slam. What the heck? Next day, four more hits. And four more after that. The slap shot was back. "It was awesome," Stairs would say.
With that, Matt Stairs left behind the scrappy hustler he never was and reintroduced himself as Babe Ruth Miniature. He crushed 27 homers in only 352 at-bats in his first real shot at the big leagues. He drove in 100 RBIs in his first full year. He smacked 38 homers the year after that. The A's signed him to a deal that paid him three million bucks.
He bought a bunch of new cars and a big television for every room in his house. The the A's traded him to the Cubs who let him go to the Brewers ... and so on.
I began to write about Matt Stairs four years after that, after he had started the "Have bat, will homer," phase of his career. He was 36 by then, and the Kansas City Royals were his seventh team, and the Kansas City Royals were all kinds of lousy*. Those teams had a knack for not only losing, but losing with style.
*I'm never sure if the quintessential moment happened:
1. In Chicago, when center fielder Kerry Robinson raced back and climbed the fence in an effort to steal a home run only to watch the ball bounce 10 feet in front of him on the warning track and bounce over his head.
2. In Kansas City, when outfielders Terrence Long and Chip Ambres converged on a fly ball, looked at each other and began jogging toward the dugout in triumph only to have the ball plop softly behind them.
3. At home, when the Royals were caught batting out of order. That's bad enough. But in this case, it was the Royals' LEADOFF HITTER who batted out of order. That's a record.
Matt Stairs was on the field for all three of those games, and plenty of other astonishing ones. When Royals manager Tony Pena jumped in the shower with his clothes on in order to jumpstart the team**, Stairs suggested to his teammates that they go home and get drunk. Everyone has his own method for dealing with madness.
But Stairs just did what he did. He knew his role. Stairsy kept on swinging hard and striking out and sitting on the bench and launching home runs. One of his homers won a Kansas City fan $25,000 in a contest called the Sonic Grand Slam Inning. He hit two in one game in Philadelphia and two more in a wild game in Detroit. He would, of course, end up playing for both those teams.
All along, he loved the game in his own way. The losing bugged him -- he had never played in even a championship series until this year -- but it did not deter him. The constant shuffle from team to team wasn't fun, but it wasn't going to stop him from playing ball. "I might feel differently tomorrow," he would say, "but I doubt it."
So this year, when the Blue Jays traded him to the Phillies, it was just another move and just another uniform and just another place to swing for the fences. When he came up to pinch-hit in Game 4 in the playoffs against the blazing fastball of Jonathan Broxton, it was just another pitcher. And when he saw the fastball coming, he unloaded like always. And when he felt the barrel of the bat hit the ball just right, he knew. He's 40 years old, and he had played in more than 1,600 games, and he has struck out more than 1,000 times, and he has given plenty of fans behind plenty of walls souvenir baseballs. He has felt just about everything you can feel in this crazy game.
Only this time he got to be a hero. That was new.
"I just happened to barrel it," Stairs said in his first playoff press conference. "And ... victory."