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What we talk about when we talk about Joey Wendle

It’s time to address the gritty white elephant in the room

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the DRays Bay writers, I may be the biggest Joey Wendle fan, and the biggest Joey Wendle believer. Which are two very different things, by the way. But there was a moment in Friday night’s game that put even me in eye-roll mode.

Wendle — playing third — made a nice catch on a pop up in foul ground. It was by no means a spectacular play, but it wasn’t routine either. On the spectrum, it was probably one of the easier non-routine plays you’ll see, and quite frankly one that a big league third baseman needs to make. Yet it launched Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson into the latest installment of Joey Wendle: Working Class Hero. The Lunch Pail Kid. The Base. Ball. Player. The hard-nosed, hard-working, always-hustling everyman. As if grown men playing a game for a living is somehow equivalent to working in a steel mill.

And I sighed.

I suppose it didn’t help that a couple innings later, Wendle made a perfectly adequate but not good enough play on a slow roller off the bat of Luke Maile in the sixth that went for the first hit of the game. It was a play that we’ve all seen Evan Longoria make (and to be fair, sometimes not make) a thousand times. Nobody said a word about Joey’s “grit” on the play.

And then later, he bounced a throw to second on an around-the-horn double play chance, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone do, and still crickets. So it was a mixed bag at third for Wendle on Friday, which is fine. It’s not his natural position, and not everybody makes every play.

My question is this: What are we talking about when we talk about Joey Wendle, and players like Joey Wendle? It’s time we had a talk about that gritty white elephant in the room.

To put it bluntly, race in baseball is something we need to talk about because race has been tied up with baseball since the beginning, from its birth during the Civil War, to Cap Anson and the institution of the color line, through Jackie Robinson and the slow integration that followed, into the abuse and threats hurled at Hank Aaron as he broke Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record. Even in our more “enlightend” times, Latino ballplayers are far more likely to be called “lazy” than white ballplayers, and the success of black players gets credited to innate physical gifts while white players are lauded for earning their success through hard work.

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In 2014, Deadspin put out a piece which looked at how often scouts used various words for white versus black football players. As should surprise no one who has ever watched ESPN, black players are far more likely to be “gifted,” while white players are “intelligent.” Awful Announcing even has list of the code words. But it’s this piece from Casey Gane-McCalla in the Huffington Post which best explains why these code words are so harmful.

Every Black athlete who is successful has worked very hard and is knowledgeable of their sport. Every white athlete who is successful has natural athletic ability. The problem with stereotypes in sports is that they often lead to general stereotypes. If you say “white men can’t jump,” why not “Black men can’t read defenses”? And if Black men can’t read defenses, maybe they can’t read books either?

The words we use to describe baseball players matter, because the attitudes behind the words don’t stay confined to the field. Which brings us back to Joey Wendle.

I’ve been on Team Joey since we traded for him, when I found out he grew up in the same area I did, and we went to the same college. So I’m not going to feed you some story about how I haven’t been pulling for him all along. And there is simply no way anyone who has taken in more than five Rays games can deny that Joey Wendle is a hustler. A gritty gamer. A gym rat with a high baseball IQ.

Chicago White Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

So it’s frustrating to talk about “stereotypes are bad!” when the guy who is our reference point is a spray-hitting, cliche-spouting, getting-your-uniform-dirty stereotype played out in real life. Regardless of however it is you define “grit,” nobody who has ever seen Wendle play would say he isn’t made of it. He is a high-effort guy, who runs out literally everything. He is not the most physically gifted major leaguer (though, yes, he probably is a lot more athletic than you have been giving him credit for), but he does his best to maximize the talent he has been given through preparation and awareness. And sure, he will literally play anywhere, picking up a new position (and the gigantic glove to go with it) on the fly at the highest level, learning it on the job, and performing it adequately.

But do you know else is hustling every day? Carlos Gomez, who for all his flamboyance and charisma, has never taken a play off in his life. But nobody talks about Gomez’s effort and awareness when he dives headfirst into second with a hustle double.

Chicago White Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

And do you know who else has limited physical tools? Mallex Smith, who took his one carrying tool — elite speed — and has parlayed it into a great season and what looks like a solid career through hard work, moxie, and a notebook in which he takes fervent notes. But you don’t hear about his blue collar attitude as he slaps yet another routine single the other way yet somehow ends up standing on third.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Finally, do you know who else has been humble and versatile? Willy Adames. Despite being the heir apparent at shortstop, he went about his business after his call up and filled whatever role was asked of him until the window finally opened fully, which was probably a month or two after most of us expected it to. And he did so not only without complaint, but with real humility as he learned everything he could from his mentor, Adeiny Hechavarria. Yet do we talk about the humility of Willy Adames?

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Joey Wendle is a gamer who is “better than you think he is.” But that’s not because he runs out every play. Joey Wendle is better than you think because even though he was overlooked in Oakland, it looks like his bat might actually be for real, and he’s carrying a 110 wRC+ to prove it. He’s also been playing a solid second base from day one, and he has shown the ability to at least fake several other positions. That’s a useful talent, not charity given to someone who “works hard.”

I’d even suggest that Joey Wendle should be in the Rookie of the Year conversation (not leading it, but in it). And if he does get any votes, it won’t be because he’s always hustling. It will be because he has a higher fWAR than either Miguel Andujar or Gleyber Torres right now, trailing only Shohei Ohtania in the American League.

Joey Wendle shouldn’t be discounted because he doesn’t have one exceptional skill, nor should he be propped up because this lack of one exceptional skill misleads us into thinking he is succeeding only through his own effort like some sort of baseball playing Horatio Alger character. It’s bad for Wendle, it’s very bad for players of color who never get the same breaks, and it’s just bad for baseball. Period.

It’s an open question whether Wendle has a place on this team going forward. I happen to think he does, but the flame out rate for rookies is high, even those who are successful. And the truth is, we also have a ton of talent on the way. Joey Wendle probably won’t be blocking anybody who wants to force his way onto this club.

But if these last four months are for real? A playoff team could (and has) done a whole lot worse than Joey Wendle. And that’s not because he brings the snazziest lunch box to the steel mill.