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Living baseball and chasing dreams

Sometimes the game hints it’s time to move on. Sometimes you have to say no.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Remember LeVon Washington? Second round pick by the Indians back in 2010, ranked as high as seventh in their farm system by Baseball America in 2010, then 19th in 2011? I hadn’t thought about him in probably years, but while combing through old Indians stats, his name leapt off the page. It was like rediscovering a lost continent. How could I, or anyone forget this singular being? A friend and I reminisced about him briefly, about WASHTIME, about the promise that he held, about the fun future that he held for the Indians. He was going to be the next great center fielder, a more fun version of Tony Plush with the talent of Kenny Lofton. If not for those damn hips.

Of all things in a 20-something, it’s the hip. Usually the realm of old people falling down, Washington’s went bad and robbed the Indians and their fans of what might have been a great player. Or maybe not. Heck, probably not, based on how hard it is to become a major leaguer. He was a great athlete for a while there, and did show blips and blorps of promise as a very young man. But now he’s in independent league ball, posting an .827 OPS with the Souix City Explorers in 2017. He might not play next year, or he might. Such is indy ball. I hope he keeps the fires alive though. Even now that WASHTIME has taken its leave of affiliated ball how can you not be happy for the guy? He's got a dream, he's 25, why quit now?

Washington actually shared a locker room with an old teammate in 2017. Well, not really, but a system-mate. Alex White, former first round pick by the Tribe, one of the pieces that brought back Ubaldo Jimenez, was a not very good pitcher for Sioux City, allowing 21 earned runs (24 total) in 24.1 innings of work. Like Washington, White saw his major league dreams fade, though for ineffectiveness rather than injury. And at least he got to play in the bigs for a couple years. In part because he just couldn’t get guys out, in part because he was tossed into the pitching hellscape of Colorado as a 22-year-old pitcher, he was bounced out at 23. And yet, still he plays. He probably (hopefully) has a nice nest-egg from two years of MLB paychecks, so why not? The dream, as in Washington, it still burns. I love this about players, that they’re willing to ply the far wildernesses of baseball just to see if the game still has a place for them. For White, now 28 and woefully ineffective at even this level of ball, probably not. For Washington though? Who knows?

Baseball is hard, impossibly so. The best athlete two years running in the Tribe’s system didn’t even wink at top five prospect status, and fell even further when people got a better look at him. It’s somehow a game that transcends athleticism, while also welcoming it. Players like Washington, or Tyler Naquin with the Indians battling to hold on to his dream, they excite because their dynamism can make everything happen. But in a static game like baseball, somehow that dynamism is disallowed, restricted. Tyler Naquin was on the fast track to local stardom, ensconcing himself in fan favoriteness after that walk-off inside the park home run. That was probably the most exciting thing to happen in 2016, or the regular season at least. But he was found out, and his weaknesses to and desire to constantly attack were exploited. Unless something changes, Naquin's career as a Major Leaguer has seen its peak. He made it farther than most human beings, which is to be respected.

Maybe it's wrong to cast such doubt on Naquin, or any player with still in their 20's. He's still not bad, and crushes in Triple-A. Sure, Naquin's 84 mph average exit velo is sub-par, and he hits too many grounders to cause much damage. It's a troubling combo for someone who was drafted off the strength of his bat. But there is no standard learning curve in baseball. For every Mike Trout there's a Josh Donaldson or Jose Bautista. For every Bryce Harper there's a Randy Johnson, who didn't figure it out till he was nearly 30 and became one of the most dominant pitchers in history. Naquin could figure it out.

Washington is giving himself chances even if he doesn’t have the luxuries Naquin and other fringe major leaguers get by being close to the talent evaluators, and clubs pay attention to unaffiliated baseball. On average, between 2013 and 15 each club took 6.9 players into their system from the hinterlands of baseball. That's not a lot, but it's something. It shows there's scouting, and real credence being paid to those guys toiling in utter obscurity for impossibly small wages. What is it with baseball, more than any other sport, that has this kind of attitude to toil in hopes someone will pick you up? Maybe it's because baseball is so America-centric, there just aren't other leagues for players to explore. I suppose NBA wannabes go to Europe or China. That's a game tied fiercely to athleticism though. It doesn't allow for the odd leaps baseball has room for. By 27, you pretty much are who you are. Baseball has space for late bloomers. Whatever it is, it's amazing the gumption these guys show to reach for that dream.

I don't think LeVon Washington's career is finished. He's done pretty well for himself at the plate in Sioux City, and even before this busted hip ended his Indians career he showed a great eye at the plate. Just back in 2014 with High-A Carolina he had a .402 OBP. I haven't read much of anything about whether he's still the athlete he once was, but the bat is still there. His major league career might be dead, but you never know. David Peralta took the indy route and he's pretty good now. So did Rich Hill, and he's great in his late career.

I hope Washington doesn't quit, it's exciting to see a once promising player who fell on hard times continue to chase the dream. So many of us give up the thing we want most, equivocating and compromising. Instead this young man is riding buses across the vast wastes of the Midwest, hoping to catch on somewhere. As cool as seeing Tyler Naquin rounding third is as the outfielder picks up the ball, Washington's path, and those like him, the things they’re doing are invigorating in their own way.