MARYVALE, Ariz. – Bobby Crosby was coming up on his 33rd birthday, two whole seasons out of the game, his golf handicap down to a plus-1, his wife and father starting to drop hints.
Like, "Hey, Bobby, thinking about going back and playing baseball at all?"
Subtle like that.
He'd thought he'd moved on. A game that was so good to him for so long, through Cal State Long Beach and the first round of the 2001 draft, a couple minor-league seasons and the American League Rookie of the Year, had spit him out at 30.
He'd left a career .236 hitter, by the end bumming at-bats in Pittsburgh and Arizona. His body hurt, sure, but that was nothing compared to the hollowness in the place there had always been conviction. The next in a generation of shortstops grown big and strong who would cover ground and hold down the middle of a lineup, Crosby, instead, little by little, played himself gone.
The game can be relentless, especially so for a young man who wouldn't – couldn't – forget even the random oh-fer. When the oh-fers stopped being so random, when they'd become unbearably routine, Bobby Crosby went home to his wife, Gina, went about raising two young children, found a regular game of golf and got on with a life without baseball.
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He walked past me this week. Tall and powerful through the shoulders, hair shorn close, a smile that said, "Yeah, it's me." The Milwaukee Brewers' clubhouse is long and narrow. The entrance tends to bunch with people – players passing on their way to breakfast, the bathroom, or the mail cubbies, reporters lingering, coaches posting the day's schedule. Crosby weaved through them all, getting comfortable, his locker over by Corey Hart's and Ryan Braun's. With a big spring that would have to include proficiency everywhere in the infield, Crosby could make the Brewers' roster as a utility player. Or he could restart in the minor leagues. Or, he could return to the kids and the golf game.
However it goes, he'll have tried. It will be great, and he'll be healthy, and he'll rediscover his swing, and he'll carry the perspective of a grown man who's experienced the worst of it, so maybe an oh-fer, you know, isn't the end of the world. Otherwise, well, he'll deal with otherwise, too.
Gina called him the other night after he'd been through camp the first day, got his uniform, shaken some hands, seen those fresh bats leaning against his locker.
"How'd it go?" she asked.
"You know," he told her, "more normal than being out of the game."
One afternoon this winter, Bobby was talking to his father, Ed, who'd spent six seasons as a major-league infielder in the '70s. Ed asked again about Bobby giving it one more shot before there would never be another. And Bobby, just like that, maybe even before he'd thought it all the way through, said, "You know what? I want to give it a go." He called his agent, Paul Cohen, and by the end of January they had a minor-league deal with the Brewers.
In between, he got back in the cage. He hit. And after a few weeks, when his swing seemed decent enough, he considered what more he could do. Maybe he could better understand his stroke, what worked when it worked, and what – beyond the injuries – made him a .236 hitter. Down the block, maybe five doors, his neighbor had been a pretty fair big-league hitter. Maybe he'd help. So he called Rod Carew, asked if he had some time to look him over, to talk, to help find a way back. Seriously, Rod Carew.
"I'd kick myself if I didn't call up Rod to help me out," Crosby said.
For the month before spring training, they worked together a few times a week. It started to come back. He'd have a place to play, maybe a job to win. In places, the game seemed real again, even before the uniform and the field and a team around him.
"Why was I done?" Crosby repeated. "Obviously it was more mental than anything. I had my injuries, my struggles. But the time I spent trying to get back to the player I thought I could be, the player I was growing up, it took its toll. The mental grind of trying to get back to the guy I was, that was exhausting. I wasn't enjoying myself anymore."
Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, said he'd be pulling for Bobby Crosby. He witnessed the rise and fall. The injuries, "freak injuries," Beane called them, perhaps chased Crosby because of the way he attacked the game.
"He's a talented guy, a pretty intense guy," Beane said. "He played the game hard because he cared."
He'll still care, of course. Maybe he just won't take it all so personally.
"I hope so," he said. "My thing coming back, I want to have fun. Turns out, I missed it. I missed doing this every day. If things work out, that's great. If not, I gave it a go. I know I can still do this. It would have bothered me if I hadn't tried."
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