PEORIA, Ariz. – Been 15 years now for Jim Edmonds.
He wears them some in his gait, which has always been SoCal unhurried, and at 37 still tends toward self-assured indifference.
He wears them in his mild impatience with a conversation about what remains of his game, what he’s going to do next, whether center field and the middle of a batting order in San Diego is all that good of an idea.
Most of all, he wears them in his medical file, in the remains of the past couple seasons in particular, and of a career spent in collision between grace and violence, body and outfield wall.
Fifteen years bring a long, slow breath in a lightly populated Padres clubhouse, where he stands as the organization’s fifth center fielder in six years and as the latest promise of run production for a team that can pitch but lags in scoring.
“I miss having fun,” he says. “Being able to compete. It’s no fun making an out, and you’re this close.”
He holds his fingers a half-inch apart, representing the separation between Jim Edmonds and the game he remembers, the game of his prime.
“That’s the most frustrating thing,” he continues. “When you’re just that close and not getting it right, it makes it more frustrating.”
Sometimes, for whatever reason, the baseball ends before the contract does. Sometimes, it’s too close to call.
And so Edmonds was traded from St. Louis – “The best eight years of my life,” he says – to the Padres for a minor-league third baseman. The Padres will pay $6 million of his $8 million salary, or $1 million less than the Milwaukee Brewers will pay the Padres’ first choice in center field, Mike Cameron. Rick Ankiel looks like he’ll be in center field for the Cardinals.
Therefore, if there is baseball left in Edmonds, if his few fragile parts can be sturdy, it will be in the vast reaches of Petco Park, in a summer in which he’ll turn 38, playing the kind of game that wasn’t designed to last all that long.
Now he has more ground to cover in a park where the gaps are forever away. He has a right fielder (Brian Giles) coming off knee surgery and a left fielder (Scott Hairston) who has played nearly as many big-league games at second base as he has in left field.
This is all fine by Edmonds, he says. He hammered the weight room and the hills all winter. He is, again, near home. He no longer walks straight from the field to the trainer’s room, other than by habit. He was, in his day, one of the wonderful athletes in the sport, over a career seemingly spent suspended over a warning track, shoulders turned, glove soft. His stroke was sweet and effortless, his power born of simplicity and a knack for putting the barrel on the ball.
Then, over four seasons, his batting average fell from .301 to .252. His on-base percentage fell with it. His missed games by the month, and sometimes limped through the rest.
He’s told that it had appeared he was winding down.
“I was only winding down because of the injuries,” he says.
Kevin Towers, the Padres general manager, might have staked the season on it. The Padres will again pitch. The issue again will be the lineup, and whether a middle of the order of Kevin Kouzmanoff, Adrian Gonzalez, Khalil Greene and Edmonds will hang with the boys in Colorado and Los Angeles, and hold off the ones in Arizona. Rebuffed by Cameron, Towers made the reach for Edmonds, because he believes Edmonds is as healthy as he’s been in years, because Edmonds is in the final year of his contract, and because there once was too much ballplayer in that body not to have more left.
“He was the best available guy out there for us,” Towers said at the end of an off-season in which top-end center fielders Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand joined the division, and Torii Hunter changed teams, as well.
Towers and the Padres, of course, would love to have Edmonds play well, play a lot and stick around for at least another season. The Padres’ nearest center-field prospect – Will Venable – could be a year or two away. And next winter’s free-agent class is thin in center fielders.
That’s Edmonds’ plan too, you can tell, even if he won’t come out and say so.
“I’m not really thinking about it,” he says. “It depends on how this year goes.”
Does he have more in him?
“Yeah, I do,” he says. “But time will tell. I’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to make any predictions or promises.”
He’ll know soon. In fact, he’s this close.