PHOENIX – Bobby Crosby turned 28 in January, too young for serious regrets.
There is baseball to be played and time to play it. Completely by accident, he is, by the baseball calendar, a young 28. And that is as rosy a view as can be had.
For long enough now, baseball seasons have simply gone off without him. He has made his appearances, stepping in and then out again like a child encountering his first revolving door.
Often, however, he has left with a limp. Or hunched over a broken hand. Or knocked crooked by cracked ribs, or a fracture in his back.
A puffy catcher teetered over onto him. A presumably imprecise pitcher came in on him. A loose swing felled him.
In the three years since he overran a weak first-year field and was the American League's Rookie of the Year, he has, for the most part, spent his time injured or, worse perhaps, as an average player. Yet, he remains in possession of the prototype shortstop body and skills, along with the prototype ballplayer energy. He is long and powerful and can't wait to do this every day, and that is why he did not pass 28 so easily.
Crosby sat Thursday afternoon in an overcrowded clubhouse with the rest of the Oakland A's. They appear to be overmatched in the AL West, but found cheer and optimism in the occasion of their first full-squad workout of the spring. They'll choose to believe that right-hander Rich Harden will last an entire season as one of the four or five best pitchers in the game, and that Eric Chavez will hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs again, and that the departures of Dan Haren and Nick Swisher and Mark Kotsay will mean organizational health rather than surrender.
But, this hangs on Crosby as much as on any of them. The players with the talent must play, and must play well. And Crosby is fully exhausted by the alternatives.
"The urgency," Crosby said, using the word as if it were alive and hungry, "I feel it."
His fourth season had ended late last July, when a Justin Speier four-seamer bore into his fists. It would mean his third consecutive season of fewer than 100 games. He also would heal shortly into the off-season, however, and by then he'd turned his backyard tennis court into the foundation for a batting cage.
"You can't play much tennis anymore," he said, grinning, "but I never did anyway."
So, he hit. He studied videotapes of the Crosby who hit 22 home runs in 2004, or who batted .337 in June 2005, or who inched nearer the plate in mid-summer 2007 and began to feel like himself again. And then he hit some more.
He'd stalled out at around 350 at-bats in three consecutive seasons, and grinded through too many plate appearances with a weak back to remember on his own. So, he ran the reminders through his television set. He watched himself move further and further from the plate after his rookie season, he guessed because his back wouldn't allow him to generate the bat speed to hit the inside fastball. So pitchers got him out away, waited for him to dive, then got him out in too.
And the prototype ballplayer batted .229 in 2006, then .226 in 2007, and had his on-base percentage fall all the way to .278.
Crosby, still in his chair in front of his locker, did not squirm. He'd seen the numbers, lived the at-bats.
"I know what I can do on a baseball field," he said. "The injuries have made it a little more difficult. But, no excuses. I haven't played well the past couple years and that is that. That's not the type of player I am.
"The past two years have pretty much been wasted, to be honest."
Billy Beane, the A's general manager, continues to see Crosby as the Gold Glove shortstop and run producer he'd envisioned four years ago. He smiled slightly and called Crosby, "not injury prone, but accident prone," and lamented all of the plate appearances Crosby lost in his big league developmental years. Crosby, in age, is now fully in his prime, yet has 600 fewer plate appearances than, say, Colorado Rockies slugger Matt Holliday, who came into the league at the same time.
"That's the toughest part," Beane said. "You can't replicate the thousand at-bats that he's missed."
Crosby shrugged and said, "The only thing that can help that is time."
Still, Beane said, "He's a great talent. He's a good kid who comes and he plays with passion. When he's clicking, he's one of those guys who can raise the game of everyone around him."
And, oh, does Crosby miss that – the big hits, the big plays, the results of carrying the rhythms of the game from one day to the next, for six full months. It's been a long time.
"I cannot wait to go out and play every day," he said. "The feeling my rookie year was awesome. I mean, it's such a great feeling facing pitchers you know you can do something against. The last couple years I haven't felt that.
"A lot of it starts with me. I need to be back to being me."