An Update on Matt Shoemaker, Overcomer of Adversity

The last time I saw Matt Shoemaker was on the grass, grimacing in pain. It was last year in Oakland; Shoemaker ran over to cover first on a groundball, then crumpled to the ground. He had torn his ACL.

As I wrote then, it was a cruel, unfair freak accident for someone who had seen far too many of those in his career. Shoemaker, though, seemed determined to push through. I was rooting for him to return and succeed. On Saturday, finally, he made his first start in over a year — having, again, overcome adversity to come back to the field.

And though he was making his return in front of an empty stadium, in the middle of a global crisis, it was hard not to give in to the creeping feeling of joy, sneaking in from behind the anxiety. It is wonderful to see someone succeed in spite of everything.

***

“Overcoming adversity” is about as tired a baseball cliche as there is. Look deep enough into the background of pretty much any player and you’ll find adversity that was overcome — that’s just the nature of life, and especially the nature of pursuing a career as stressful, all-consuming, and specialized as professional baseball. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t worth hearing: It’s important to understand the lifetimes of effort and struggle that go into the games we watch for entertainment. But flattening every story into a pat tale of “overcoming adversity” doesn’t do justice to the gravity of players’ experiences.

“Adversity” refers to misfortune: the arising of difficulties, a path beset by obstacles, often with no specific cause. Many of the obstacles baseball players face on their paths to the major leagues fall into this category. Shoemaker’s career has certainly suffered from the random mishaps that one could consider adversity. Being hit in the head by a line drive is an incredibly unfortunate, unlucky event for which no one can be blamed. The same could be said of the play that tore his ACL last season.

To be human is to experience such unpredictable adversity, and one thing that is truly valuable about sports as entertainment is that they show us both the adversity and the way through it. We can see on a field the best of people’s ability to grow through hardship and continue their lives — sometimes even achieving greatness in spite of the things that have happened to them. Sports can be wonderful purveyors of hope in the face of misfortune. But not everything that gets lumped into the category of “adversity” is the result of sheer misfortune. Many of the hardships that we hear of players overcoming are not random or inevitable.

Matt Shoemaker spent five seasons in the minor leagues on a $10,000 signing bonus. He worked a second job. He racked up debt. His years in the minors put stress on him and his family, to the point that every winter, they would have a discussion: Was he going to keep doing this another year?

That stress was not random misfortune. It was specific, engineered stress, created by a system that undervalues and underpays minor league baseball players. That stress was a problem with an identifiable cause, and it was a problem that could be solved if an identifiable group of people chose to solve it.

Baseball’s valorization of adversity would tell you that putting players without large signing bonuses through the wringer of the minor leagues is a preparatory step for life in the majors. Many major leaguers themselves seem to believe this. Despite having themselves struggled through unnecessarily challenging circumstances, they won’t advocate for changing the system once they have emerged on the other side. Playing for years for subpar pay in subpar conditions — it’s just the way things are. It’s just how the cookie crumbles. You take it. You work through it. You get stronger, harder, better — an inspirational story for all the people who can’t, didn’t, won’t, will never make it the way you did.

***

Yesterday, after news of the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak broke, a reporter asked Brandon Nimmo whether he would now consider wearing a mask on the field, or if he would be more conscientious about physical distancing with his teammates. “No, it doesn’t make me more cautious,” he responded. “I still want to go out there and have fun, try and make this as normal as possible.” He elaborated: “It’s outside of our control, and that’s something you learn in baseball. You learn to control what you can control and let the rest take care of itself.” The pandemic that is currently reshaping our lives gets folded into adversity: the unavoidable, the random, that which can be moved past and overcome through grit and determination and love of the game — not through concrete actions like social distancing.

While the fact that this virus appeared, spread to humans, and mutated in the ways it did could very well be considered a random calamity, the way that people and governments around the world have responded to it cannot. The current rate of infection in the United States was not an inevitable event. Choices were made that led the country to this point — choices that could have not been made. And the choices made by MLB in developing and implementing their safety protocols for this season weren’t random or inevitable, either. A choice was made to allow the Marlins to play the Phillies on Sunday, despite the possibility of an outbreak. A choice was made not to define a specific threshold of positive tests that would trigger the suspension of the season. A choice was made not to define what the “acceptable” testing levels for the Marlins to travel to Baltimore and play on Wednesday will be.

And if baseball continues through all of this — if the games keep going, and the players keep achieving the small wonders and athletic feats we’re so accustomed to seeing them achieve — this season should not go down as just another inspirational story of adversity overcome, the exposure to risk flattened into an inevitable hardship like so many others. This was not mere cosmic misfortune.

***

And so we return to Saturday, to that moment of joy: Matt Shoemaker taking the mound for the first time since he tore his ACL last May. He looked much the same as he did back then, his trademark beard perhaps a little thicker.

And he pitched much the same, too: efficient, working within the strike zone, inducing groundballs, his velocity on all five of his pitches sitting on a level with last year’s. Shoemaker threw six innings, allowing the Rays just three hits, two walks, and a lone run. He struck out four, three on his signature splitter. The Blue Jays bullpen went on to squander his effort, but while it lasted, it was a pleasure.

After the game, Shoemaker said that he recognized things that he needed to work on, but that overall, he felt good, ready to contribute to a successful season for the team. I hope that we get to see him do just that.

We hoped you liked reading An Update on Matt Shoemaker, Overcomer of Adversity by Rachael McDaniel!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

newest oldest most voted
Baron Samedi
Member
Baron Samedi

I like Matt Shoemaker. I like people who work in baseball. I like Fangraphs.

I get that you’re in an awkward position and can’t just say “THIS IS A FUCKING DANGEROUS FARCE AND WRITING ABOUT IT LEGITIMIZES A DANGEROUS FARCE THAT IS GOING GET PEOPLE KILLED.”

But holy shit. This is a dangerous farce that is going to get people killed and writing about it legitimizes a dangerous farce that is going to get people killed.

Thank you and have a wonderful day.

hahiggins
Member
Member
hahiggins

I get what you’re saying, but I feel like her writing is doing a pretty good job of challenging that legitimacy, actually? Like, a really good job, now that I think about it. It’s engaging with how America’s fetish for “personal responsibility” and underdog stories persists despite the very obvious harm it does, whether in a relatively contained setting (player development in baseball) or the level of the whole of society.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

She’s not in an awkward position, she’s just a better writer than you lol