LOS ANGELES — Cody Decker is a 30-year-old professional baseball player with 11 major league at-bats and, because minor leaguers are expected to be poor and grateful for it, a running tab with his parents. When he does become a regular big leaguer, and he will, too, just ask him, the first check he writes will have their names on it.
We’re standing one morning in the parking lot at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, where he played in college. There are banners on poles around the complex. His name is on one of the banners. He’s wrapping his bats in wax paper so the pine tar doesn’t get all over everything in the back of his Ford Explorer and over the dull crinkling of the wax paper he’s quoting a character from a movie, some movie, who’d said, “I don’t want to see the past. I want to see where we’re going.”
“I love that line.”
He is today a Milwaukee Brewer, they being organization number five in the past 15 months, assuming, as he said a few times this morning, they remember they signed him, because nobody’d told him yet when he was supposed to report for spring training.
Over three hours that felt planned to the minute and wholly frantic at the same time, Decker had hit off a tee and hit short flips and hit regular batting practice and took grounders from his knees and took grounders from his feet and caught bare-handed flips from a catcher’s squat then put on all the gear and caught a full bullpen and then took off the gear and drove across the complex to a small gym, where he squatted lots of weight and deadlifted lots of weight and jumped rope and swung a kettlebell between his legs and slammed a medicine ball to the ground and did these spidery things across the floor and probably that wasn’t all, it was hard to keep up.
He’d talked almost the whole time, in part because I’d been asking a lot of questions. I had the sense he would have been talking anyway, like that perfect line drive four feet to the left of the exit sign in the batting cage, that line drive that came off the bat barrel just right because he’d kept his body parts connected and stayed inside the ball and driven through the ball, that perfect line drive wouldn’t have been real unless it were narrated too.
“That’s the one, Skip,” he’d shouted, and the man throwing batting practice, 69-year-old Rick Magnante, said, “Yeah it was,” while heaving another pitch from behind a screen.
“Eh, that wasn’t it, Skip.”
“Nah, it wasn’t.”
There’d been a handful of other players around the complex. A few ex-Bruins, mostly minor leaguers. There was a man rocking a baby carriage while playing catch with Lucas Giolito, the former first-rounder who two months before had been dealt from the Washington Nationals to the Chicago White Sox. Brad Miller, the shortstop-first baseman(-second baseman?) for the Tampa Bay Rays, too. And Cody Decker, sweated up from three hours of baseball, with still a three-mile run ahead of him, and with a single goal still out there.
“I just want to play baseball for the rest of my life,” he says. “That’s all.”
Then he looks at you, like, And you can’t talk me out of it.
“No,” he says. “I’m not done.”
He has just those 11 at-bats, those wonderful few weeks with the San Diego Padres two Septembers ago. Those can’t be it.
“Not even close,” he says. “I have a lot more to do.”
This he knows.
“Because I belong there,” he says. “I’ve spent my entire life doing this, to do that.”
Because the minor-league hits and home runs were real. Because surely there’s somebody out there who can see that. Because this is what he is if not who he is — but maybe who he is too sometimes — and just because the game seems to have one opinion of him does not mean that is real, not today and not tomorrow. So he’s going to play baseball for the rest of his life.
“Because I said so,” he says. “Because I decided it’s not enough yet.”
So he does what he must, and that means getting after it at UCLA almost every day and choosing to believe and, after years of being a corner outfielder and infielder who could catch some too, he’s recast — and retrained — himself as a catcher who could play some corner outfield and infield too. It’s also meant gigs selling comic books and pouring drinks and checking IDs at the door and driving Uber and acting and writing and making movies and emceeing a trivia night — Antihero Trivia Night, officially, and it’s a raunchy, charming, hilarious kick in the pants that devolves/evolves into dance contests, karaoke jags and full conversations using only Ric Flair “woos” — at a joint on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.
There are more like Cody Decker. Not exactly like him, because, seriously, look at that last paragraph. Most haven’t hit 173 minor-league home runs, for one. But they’re out there, and they’re packing for spring training too, and they’re not done either, just ask them. Maybe they can run. Maybe they can defend. Maybe they’re just good guys to have around. Maybe they’ve been unlucky, the right guy at the wrong time in the wrong organization. There’s no telling, no explanation, really, for the borderline cruelty of the ballplayer who tops out in Triple-A, who’s told, yeah, he’s really very good at the game but, whoa, not so fast, he’s also never going to be a regular big leaguer and never going to make any money at it. This is not to say Decker is one of those, not yet, because that Decker is here at all says something about who he is.
“This kid,” said Pat Murphy, who managed Decker for most of three summers with the Padres and is the bench coach in Milwaukee, “was not a high-end prospect in terms of how scouts do it. This kid taught himself to hit. And just when you think he can’t play a position — it doesn’t look perfect, maybe — but he gets it done.”
Murphy considered Decker, the whole of Decker, chuckled and said, “If he ever got a shot, he just might do something. I know this, he ain’t quittin’.”
It is to say every day, every decision and every at-bat begin to carry the weight of the past 30 years, or at least the last 10 or so, and then it becomes easier to root for a man such as Cody Decker, who — damn it — is trying to get there and have a good time getting there and has had it with the notion he won’t hit major league pitching when he’s almost always hit all pitching and, besides, maybe a guy deserves more than 11 shots at getting a big-league hit.
Beyond that, beyond believing he’s good enough and that the Brewers will understand that soon enough if they don’t already, Decker loves a good story. So when I asked him why baseball and not, say, football or accounting or chemistry or something, he said, “You ever see ‘The Natural’? Baseball’s the only thing of all those things that’s just magical.”
I asked if he’d read “The Natural,” a book that ends not with fireworks and happy tears but with, “When Roy looked into the boy’s eyes he wanted to say it wasn’t but couldn’t, and he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears.” He said he had and much preferred the movie, because no good story ends with bitter tears.
Beyond the good story, he loves a happy ending to the good story, and there’s hardly a better ending to a good story than the guy with 11 big-league at-bats on his 30th birthday hitting (and catching) his way into a few more at-bats and making a decent living from them. That would mean Cody Decker was right about what his bat could do given the chance, and also that the good guy — that being him — won in the end, which is the point of this whole thing. That and paying back his parents.
Meantime, he quotes more movies. He runs through the entire history of KISS, the band, when a KISS song comes on in the weight room, and finishes by calling Paul Stanley, “The best front man ever,” and maybe he’s joking and maybe he’s not. He tells of being incredibly moved by his recent trip to Israel — Decker is Jewish and is playing for Israel in the World Baseball Classic. He replays the past 15 months — Padres to Kansas City Royals to Colorado Rockies to Boston Red Sox to Brewers, and admits to them being, at times, unnerving. When I ask if he’s scared it’s close to over, if all the moving around is a bad sign, if he thinks maybe he’s only holding a spot for the next guy and the next guy isn’t too far off, he grins and summons a line from Doc Holliday in “Tombstone.”
“Not me,” he says. “I’m in my prime.”
We shake hands and he goes to run those three miles. Spring’s coming and there’s a good story out there somewhere.
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