Putting the Bruce in Backbone

Call all the newspapers, shout it to the world, and get David Wright in the room, because the Mets have discovered a miracle spinal solution. No, I’m not speaking literally — but almost. Jay Bruce is back, and with him, a semblance of legitimacy.

The deal came together late last night in a sudden, rapid flood of  information; minutes after learning that Bruce was close to a deal with a mystery team, we learned that the mystery team was us. We reacted like we always do: disjointedly. We were thrilled, quietly appeased, dejected, revolted. Some of us couldn’t quite tell why.

Me, I used to get excited about deals like this, back when they were all we had to look forward to; deals like Bartolo Colón and Michael Cuddyer and Luís Castillo. Not Cespedes deals, not hundreds of millions, but not Anthony Swarzak either, not nobodies. I don’t exactly get excited about deals like these anymore — it’s more of a reassuring feeling of contentment. And I’m not even sure which is better.

You know what they say about championship teams (or at least, what I say about championship teams, that I think they should say too); on offense, all you need is a lineup with no easy outs. You get that done, and you already have the advantage. It’s why players like Steven Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, in one year of slightly above averageness, can bring the Red Sox to the World Series, and why Kelly Johnson and a slightly improved Curtis Granderson can bring us there as well. Sure we had the pitching — but the offense has to do something. And it starts with not giving away a single batter.

Like in 2006, when we didn’t have a second baseman until Jose Valentín started hitting like a starter, and suddenly we did. Or 1986 and Wally Backman. Or 1969 and Ken Boswell. The superstars, the Carlos Beltrans and the Doc Goodens and the Tom Seavers of the world, keep the team gunning furiously for the top spot. But they can’t get there without eight hitters, five starters, seven relievers, and a bench, and that’s where the rest of the team and Jay Bruce come in.

Jay Bruce won’t win us a World Series on his own. He’s a career .249 hitter with some power, some leadership, and some Texas upbringing. But what he can do is contribute. He can drive home Conforto from second with a single, or from third with a sac fly, or even see a few more pitches, so the opposition has to dig into its bullpen a batter early. Or, of course, he could hit the ball over the fence, as he’s done 69 times in the last two years, and 29 times last year before he departed for Cleveland, seemingly oblivious to the home run graveyard that is Citi Field.

All of which is to say: Jay Bruce isn’t great. But he’s competent. And you can’t win until you’re competent, and stocked up with players like Jay Bruce. Put the best pitchers in the world on the mound, and bat Eric Campbell fourth and John Mayberry fifth, and we’ve all seen what happens. But Jay Bruce and another competent bat…well, now we’ve got a chance.

Not that a chance is all we should have, or all we deserve; I don’t mean to say we’ve done enough, and in fact, I mean the very opposite. We should do more: more like this. More hitters who can hit and pitchers who can pitch. If we don’t do more, we may well be sunk; Jay Bruce can’t bring a team back to competence, let alone competition, by himself. But he can contribute, and that’s all any one player in this wonderful game of ours can do.

Baseball’s a team sport — the ultimate team sport. You get on base, and unless you can steal the next three, there’s not much you can do. So you need teammates who can help you out and bring you home, but they can’t all be superstars. Some of them are just going to be Jay Bruce: hitters who know how to hit and work hard at it, doing their best to win and not usually thrilling, but sometimes succeeding.

Sports are known for their players, and among those players, the best ones stand out: it’s unavoidable, and not at all undesirable. But sometimes, it also makes us forget how the game works. Three or four players can do the bulk of the work for a team, but they can’t do it all: they need the rest of the team’s help. And Jay Bruce, and players like him, the guys on deals that aren’t too short but aren’t too long, who can hit and throw well enough to help out, are happy to provide the help. Jay Bruce will do his work, have his occasional moments, and help our team as much as he can, quietly, along with hundreds of other players like him, serving as the backbone of our national pastime.

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