ANAHEIM, Calif. — So, Marcus Semien …
It’s all it takes.
The mention of his name. A coiled eyebrow. A polite and inquisitive tone that plumbs a baseball career in which years of ordinary fall away and reveal the most productive player on a team once again bound for at least 95 wins.
They have a thing they do, the people who know Marcus Semien, who hope to describe him, holding their hands flat, hovering them waist high, easing them through the air, as though smoothing a furrowed bed sheet.
So, Marcus Semien …
And that’s what you get from the men who admire him, who sighed and watched him clunk through season after season as a guy who could not quite get it right on either end of the baseball, who sat on every bench in the league at 2:30 every afternoon getting his head straight before inching forward on the rest, who today, at 29, is the answer to who comes after Mike Trout and Alex Bregman on American League MVP ballots.
He has not changed. He does not change. He did not pout. He did not lose hope. He did not wonder if baseball was for him after all. He looks the beast that is nine innings in the middle of the infield, that is four or five at-bats, that is day after day after stinkin’ day square in the eyes and promises the same tomorrow. He took failure, so much failure, .238 batting averages, 35 errors, and said thanks for the shot, for the chance, and said it wouldn’t always be like this.
They extend their hands as far as their arms will go, those who know Marcus Semien do, from their bellies out, because no matter how many balls he kicked or how many pitches he missed, the game could not dissuade him from the notion that this was coming, that he could be great. That he would be great. That any of it would alter his path.
Even as his 20s began to disappear, to take chunks of his prime with them, in four seasons the game’s worst defensive shortstop became one of its most adept, on errors alone paring 2015’s 35 to this season’s 12. A career .249 hitter over his first 643 games arrives at this regular season’s final weekend batting .288 with 32 home runs and an .895 OPS, not buried in the lineup but a leadoff hitter, and the most productive full-time shortstop (Bregman played nearly two-thirds of his time at third base) in the AL.
The young man who insisted he would improve when refinement was so clearly necessary, who was gaining on it when maybe only he and a few others knew it, who would be an overnight success if you could also count the thousand or so overnights that came before it, is a good part of the answer to how the Oakland A’s do this. He’s the guy who did not allow the game to push him around, who waved to his wife in the stands before every home game, who soon enough would be waving to his wife and first child, then his wife and two children, finding their soft and hopeful faces soothed him. They would not change. And neither would he.
So, Marcus Semien …
“I always believed I could do it,” he said.
He stood in front of a locker here, his hands on his hips, his expression as easy as they come. It’s probably not all that stimulating to go along with the where-did-you-come-from lines of questioning, revisiting former A’s coach Ron Washington’s part in this, as well as manager Bob Melvin and the front office’s years of patience and encouragement, though this time he brought them up. In a made-up world in which we say thank you to whomever is due it, and it would seem Semien is probably in that kinder world anyway, Semien said that when the season ends three people would be due his gratitude.
His wife, he said. Tarah. He spelled it out: “T-A-R-A-H.”
“It’d be her,” he said of Tarah, a former volleyball player at Cal. “Just keeping our family, our kids, taken care of while I’m on the road and taking care of me when I’m home. Just feel like playing in Oakland itself has been a big one for me, being able to be home and be with my family, having grown up in the area. So, it’s a combination of those things.
“I’ve seen her, when she was playing volleyball. Just grinding. Just working and working and working. I got a lot of that work ethic from her, just watching her, how strong and strong-minded and strong-willed she was … Now it’s cool to see your sons and your wife wave to you every night on the biggest stage of baseball that our country provides. Not a lot of players get to do that. I’m always keeping an eye on them. It’s always good to know where the family’s sitting in the stands, so if you go through a hard time, when you just need a face that’s supportive and familiar, that they’re there.”
His manager, he said. Bob Melvin.
“Just him sticking with me,” he said, “and I know it’s a combination of him and the front office. Sticking with me and letting me grow as a player through a tough time for our organization, a couple losing seasons after being a playoff team before I got here. Just kind of a part of the rebuilding process to where we are now, I think. I’m happy they stuck with me, because I was going to work through things and not let it get to me. I’m really happy with where we are now.
“If we have a conversation he asks how I’m feeling, I tell him I want to play every day and he takes that to heart. I felt like in spring training I was making some big strides with my bat. It was one of my goals to play every day. Usually, the reasons for getting a day off would be maybe you’re in a slump, or let’s give this guy a day to let him rest. But my goal was to try not to hit any of those days. Maybe I’d get a text from him that morning, ‘I’m going to give you a day.’ I’d fight it. Sometimes it would work.”
His old coach, mentor, friend, early-afternoon-get-after-it buddy, he said. Ron Washington.
“We talked about more than just defense,” he said. “We talked about life. We went out there every day, 2:30. Some days I’d come out there early and just sit on the bench with him and talk. How I’m doing off the field. How my wife’s doing. How my newborn, at the time, was doing. I asked him for advice on certain things off the field he may have been through as a big-league player or as a manager and then we’d get to work. Work was where we really felt in the zone. We built a routine that we knew like the back of our hand. It started to really help me once I got out there for a 7 o’clock game. That routine really helped me, put me in a better place mentally.
“His baseball experience and his reputation and the players he’d helped in the past with the A’s and the [Texas] Rangers was the first part. It helped me understand that this guy is legit. Once we started working, it made it very apparent it was going to get me better, stronger. I even think it helped me be a stronger hitter because my legs got so strong from all the work we were doing. Started hitting more home runs that year. Everything he did for me was instrumental.”
Surely there is a benefit to doing it his way.
“Now,” he said, “I play with guys who are extremely talented, who think like superstars. I’m talking about [Matt] Chapman, [Matt] Olson, [Ramon] Laureano, [Mark] Canha. Confident, confident guys. That rubs off to me, I take a little bit of that from them.”
He considered whether he, as a result, thinks like a superstar.
“Um, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I just try to think like a hard worker. I want to produce. But I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to go out and do it. I just want to do it.”
In the American League, only George Springer, Max Kepler and Francisco Lindor hit more home runs out of the leadoff spot. Only Springer and DJ LeMahieu drove in more runs. Only Lindor and Andrelton Simmons are regarded as better defensive shortstops.
“Yeah, man,” Semien said, “I think when you mentioned the other names that you just mentioned, with Trout and Bregman, you see that, or my name is close to theirs, that means something. Mike Trout is always locked in, it looks like. When he was healthy, he was as locked in as Barry used to be back in the day. I grew up watching Barry Bonds. Nobody wanted to pitch to him. And then when they did pitch to him he was on it.
“But, for me, until we make it past that wild card game and into a division series and a little closer to the next series, then obviously the big one, the World Series, that’s when I’ll really feel like we’re doing something. That’s when I’ll feel extremely happy. All the individual stuff is great. But it’s that World Series I always think about.”
So, Marcus Semien. He grinned. Yes, he believed. He always believed.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”
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