It's my birthday (again) tomorrow, and the official state celebration has been going on for the past week or so. Mid-April is a perfect time for celebration, with the recent arrival of baseball season and even a few signs of the impending arrival of spring in Cooperstown (where we had snow on the ground last Saturday morning). Spring brings renewal, and my birthday brings me a renewed sense of energy and joy, especially energy devoted to enjoying baseball.
As someone sentimental enough to be a fan of anyone who shares my birthday, I've been particularly lucky with baseball players. When I was twelve years old, I decided to start rooting for a rookie with my favorite team, the Reds, who happened to be born ten years to the day before I was. The year he retired, another rookie came along with the same pedigree, and he didn't quit playing until a year ago. So from 1963-2008, most of my life, I've been able to focus my enthusiasm on two record-setting performers, Pete Rose and Greg Maddux.
Those two form the nucleus of a squad made up just of April 14 babies. Without them, there would be no point in even trying to assemble a team, because the rest of the roster is pretty thin. To date, 49 major leaguers have been born on April 14, but not until the late 1940s was there one who played regularly at all. The earlier years were filled with the likes of Parson Nicholson, Wild Bill Luhrsen, and Ben Tincup. More recently, a rash of catchers has glutted that section of my birthday-team roster, including Brad Ausmus, Gregg Zaun, and Greg Myers. I have enough outfielders to go around, a smattering of pitching, and enough gaps in the infield so that I'd have to ask Rose to play the entire left side of the diamond, something I'm sure he'd be willing to do. Let's see what kind of lineup I can put together.
Maddux would head a shaky pitching staff, and I wouldn't be able to coddle him the way Bobby Cox did in Atlanta, letting him off after six or seven innings of work. Greg would have to go the distance most of the time for this team to have a chance. Former Braves teammate Steve Avery is my left-handed ace, a guy with tremendous potential who didn't reach stardom but still won 96 games in the majors. Nobody else won more than 40, so the two who did, Ron Schueler and Carlos Perez, fill out my starting rotation. No five-man rotation for me; my guys want to work.
I'm a little shallow in the bullpen, even if you count Kyle Farnsworth as an asset. Quite often, he is. Other relievers include Mike Trombley, Frank Bertaina, Chris Welsh, Mark Bomback, and Johnny Hutchings (you could look him up). There might be hope in newcomer Adam Russell, a 6'8" right-hander who sports a 7-1 record in 37 games in the past two seasons. This crew would get a lot of chances to develop, something they didn't necessarily get in reality.
This team's offense, such as it is, would be built around Rose and the outfield, where I do have some options. Don Mueller is a solid right fielder with a .296 lifetime average in a dozen seasons. David Justice (born the same day as Maddux, on my 15th birthday) will play center, with his 305 career home runs by far the best on the team. Joe Lahoud will play left field. You might not remember him, but he came up with the Red Sox when Carl Yastrzemski was there, and modeled his batting stance after Yaz. Of course, once he swung the bat, the resemblance ended. He lasted eleven years in the majors, never as a regular, and peaked at 14 home runs in his last year with the Red Sox.
In the infield, I'd do best to put Rose in Bugs Bunny mode and have him cover all four positions. Instead, I'm going with Marty Keough at first base. He's the first April 14th player I rooted for, and even spent a few years with the Reds late in his career. Mostly a part-time outfielder, like Lahoud he eked out an 11-year career in the majors. The middle of the infield would be a problem. I have the immortal Roberto Mejia, one of the few players to spend three years with the Colorado Rockies without ever threatening to hit even .250. He'll play second base for the 14ers. For a shortstop, I'll go all the way back to the man who turned two years old the day Lincoln was shot, Thomas "Parson" Nicholson. So obscure was he that historians haven't been able to figure out whether he batted righty or lefty. Most of his major league career came with Toledo in the American Association of 1890. He was the regular second baseman and hit .268, stealing 46 bases and scoring 78 runs. Five years later, he had a brief last hurrah with the Washington Senators, playing ten games at shortstop. That's good enough to make my birthday team.
Rose will play third base, back up first base on grounders up the middle, handle the relay throws from the outfield, warm up pitchers between innings, hit fungoes before the game, hawk programs, and make sure his bookie never runs out of beer. He'll hit about .320, score 100 runs or so, and manage them to a surprise second-place finish. But he'll be disenchanted and will leave his home-birthday team to play for some other birthday, and it will all end badly. So I'm going to pry a bunch of singles and doubles out of him while I have the chance.
That's the only chance this team has. I'm much better off celebrating what Maddux and Rose did on the field during their careers, as I did every day for 46 seasons. Your birthday team is probably better than mine. Give it a try. Birthday lists are all over the internet; the one I used is from http://www.baseball-reference.com/. Have fun--and don't forget to celebrate my birthday.