Ginger’s On First

Before he was one of baseball’s hitters, Justin Turner was the “Ginger on first.” (via Arturo Pardavila III)

“GINGER’S ON FIRST!”

The booming chant came from a group of men in the luxury box at Alliance Bank Stadium in Syracuse, New York, echoing around the nearly empty stands. The men’s obsession with Ginger began in the top of the second inning, when Ginger, playing for the visiting Norfolk Tides, singled to left field. Throughout the rest of the game, whenever Ginger did anything, the men in the luxury box let everyone else in the stadium know it.

For his part, Ginger provided the men plenty of fodder. He singled, doubled, walked, drove in two runs, and played second base. The luxury box men would chant until Ginger tipped his cap. Satiated, they moved on temporarily to other players or even fans, but inning after inning they kept coming back to Ginger, who dutifully obliged each time.

Poor Ginger had a name. It was right there on the back of his jersey, but it didn’t matter. He had red hair. It probably wasn’t the first time in his life he was called “Ginger,” but I doubt he woke up on the morning of May 12, 2009 thinking that a bunch of men in a luxury box in Syracuse would make him a big part of their evening’s entertainment.

Those men were doing their best to amuse the crowd. Little else could. The wind was blowing in from center field, turning what had been a pleasant day in central New York into a bitterly cold night. Since it was a Tuesday evening in May, only a few hundred fans showed up for the game. The teams featured a litany of players you’d expect populating Triple-A rosters in early spring. Joey Gathright led off and played center field for the Tides. Kam Mickolio and Radhames Liz waited in the bullpen. The hometown Syracuse Chiefs featured Ryan Langerhans, Justin Maxwell, and Brad Eldred as the heart of their lineup.

After a scoreless first inning, a two-run homer from Nolan Reimold gave Norfolk the lead. In the fourth inning, they pushed four more runs across the plate. The Chiefs, meanwhile, mustered only a single run in the bottom of the seventh, when right fielder Jorge Padilla singled home shortstop Alberto Gonzalez. After two hours and 52 minutes, the Tides had unleashed a 16 hit barrage and pummeled the Chiefs, 9-1.

I’m lucky enough to have seen a lot of baseball games and visited a lot of different stadiums. Over time, however, these games have blended together in my mind. Clear and distinct memories, anchored in specific dates and contexts, have faded, leaving behind only fragments—smaller moments standing in for the larger whole.

Even after 10 years, though, the Tides-Chiefs game stands out. I remember the wind blowing in from center. I remember sitting on the third base side behind the Chiefs dugout. I remember how happy I was to be at the game at a pivotal moment in my life. I remember how much fun I had with my girlfriend and our friends. I remember being excited about seeing the players on the field. I remember how the game itself and what happened afterwards subverted my expectations.

In May 2009, I was a senior at Hamilton College. The Tides-Chiefs game occurred in the midst of final exams. After graduation, I was off to a PhD program in history. My girlfriend, Casey, was also off to a history PhD program but in a different state. Our friends were headed to jobs or graduate schools of their own.

In the meantime, though, we were waiting on the precipice of adulthood without much to do. Our exams weren’t terribly taxing and none of us were the kind of students who were in danger of failing.

I had been keeping an eye on the Chiefs’ schedule and exam week seemed like a great time to go a game. The weather had begun to turn toward the tolerable and after four years, there wasn’t anything new to do on campus. Plus, it was an opportunity to make a great end of college memory with friends.

Up to that point, I had never anchored big life moments with baseball games. As a child and teenager, my family had not attended games for specific purposes. Rather, we had gone to games whenever the opportunity arose. Sometimes it was because my mother had access to the newspaper’s seats or had gotten a friend’s season tickets. Other times, someone had won them in a charity auction or had just bought tickets for a convenient time. Attending a game was special, but there was nothing special about a particular game that made it better than any other one.

The Tides-Chiefs game, however, felt like a gift we had given ourselves to celebrate four years of expanding our intellectual horizons, surviving subzero temperatures and lake effect snow, and getting ready to start the next phase of our lives.

It was also the first game I ever attended with Casey. Early on in our relationship, she had learned of my love of baseball and of sabermetrics in particular. She patiently endured me reading her some of my favorite comments from the Baseball Prospectus Annual. To this day, when the BP Annual arrives in the mail, she needles me about when I used to read the comments to her. I deserve every bit of mockery she hands out.

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On that night in Syracuse, I remember seeing Casey eat a hot dog for the first time. She explained that once she’d attended a Mets-Yankees game with her grandmother, Shirley. As Shirley sat down with a hot dog and a beer—the only time Casey ever saw her drink—Shirley explained that this is what you did at a baseball game. Her father had taught her that. While Shirley passed away a few years ago, Casey still gets a hot dog in her honor at every game.

We also attended the game with our friends Jen and Tyler. We were all part of a broader friend group consisting of four men and four women. We paired off in college and are now all married. Jen and Tyler, though, were and are our closest friends. They weren’t really baseball fans, but they shared our desire to get off campus. Over the years, we’d done nearly every everything together: ate meals, stayed up late playing games, gone to see the Colbert Report and talked about our lives. Ten years later, we see each other only a few times a year, but we still we eat, play games, and talk about our lives.

Besides wanting to hang out with my college friends one last time before graduation, I had a personal reason for going. Since I was a child, I loved thinking about baseball, reading about baseball, and watching baseball. I never had the makings of a varsity athlete, thanks to my duck feet (my feet point outward rather than forward) and poor eyesight. So I focused my energies on the game behind the game. I strategized over match-ups and pitching changes. Most kids wanted to be Roger Clemens; I wanted to be Jimy Williams (Boston had a lot of lousy managers before Terry Francona came to town).

As I grew up, I began questioning the wisdom that came from the TV, the radio, and the Boston Globe sports page. Why were sacrifice bunts a good thing? Was it a good idea for Jose Offerman to steal second if he got thrown out 40 percent of the time?

When Moneyball came out in 2003, I learned that there were websites with people challenging baseball orthodoxy. I had found my tribe.

Over the next few years, even though I didn’t really understand all the math behind sabermetrics, I became a convert. I subscribed to Baseball Prospectus. I once ordered a copy of Diamond Mind Baseball because I wanted to test a claim that Bill Simmons had made in one of his columns. Simmons believed that the Red Sox would have been more successful in 2005 if they re-signed Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. To test his theory, I tweaked the Red Sox roster and simulated the season 100 times. In total, the Red Sox averaged 95 wins, the same as their actual 2005 win total. At Hamilton, I wrote an editorial lamenting the firing of Paul DePodesta from the Los Angeles Dodgers and then temporary departure of Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox. I even emailed the math department about creating a sabermetrics course. I treasured an email I’d received from Ken Tremendous of Fire Joe Morgan fame after the Red Sox signed Sean Casey in 2008.

Lucky for me, in May 2009, the Chiefs schedule had provided a gift from the heavens—Matt Wieters and Chris Tillman, two of the best prospects in baseball, were coming to Syracuse.

Matt Wieters at bat. (Photo Courtesy Chris Bouton)

Entering the 2009 season, Baseball America ranked Wieters as the best prospect in baseball and Tillman 22nd. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus placed Wieters first and Tillman 16th in his 2009 prospect rankings. Regarding Wieters, Goldstein wrote, “It’s hard to imagine him not becoming an impact player. Even if things go south for one reason or another, he should still be an All-Star.” For Tillman, Goldstein noted how “His fastball sits at 92-94 mph while featuring a heavy boring action, and his power curveball is a true swing-and-miss offering that he’s comfortable using as an out pitch. He has clean arm action, and an aggressive, fearless mound demeanor.”

Chris Tillman pitching (Photo courtesy Chris Bouton)

Further fueling the Wieters hype, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA had projected him to hit .311/.395/.546 and produce 7.9 WARP.

The game was my chance to play sabermetric scout and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.

Unfortunately, the Tides-Chiefs game was my high water mark of engagement with baseball and sabermetrics. In the fall of 2009, I started a PhD program in history. As the graduate seminars and grading piled up, I began falling behind the sabermetrics movement. Soon PhD exams, prospectus writing, and dissertation research took up more and more of my time. I let my subscription to BP lapse. I still went to games, but I paid less attention to the newest analytical advances just as PITCHf/x data became available for public consumption. After all, I had hundreds of photos and scans of Virginia legal records to transcribe. I needed to write my dissertation and land a tenure track job in a job market where they had all but vanished. Worst of all, I convinced myself that spending less time on something I loved was the right decision.

I made a mistake that many graduate students make. Many graduate students believe (and are encouraged by the toxic culture of academia to believe) that they only way to land a tenure track job is to devote yourself entirely to your work. Outside interests or hobbies distract from research and producing a dissertation that contributes to your field. Only toward the end of my PhD program did I realize that I needed my hobbies to stay sane. I started exercising and cooking, and I re-engaged with the sabermetric community. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

My drift away from sabermetrics occurred after a game that had proved memorable in many ways. Chris Tillman pitched well, throwing six shutout innings and striking out 10 batters. But Wieters, the catcher who was promised, went 0-5 as the designated hitter. While Wieters’  poor performance helped the Chiefs win the game, it did little for the fans in the stands. For the game, Syracuse ran a promotion promising fans a free taco if Wieters struck out. So whenever Wieters was at bat, the stadium scoreboard encouraged us to chant “TA-CO! TA-CO! TA-CO!” Naturally, the men in the luxury box had their own ideas, shouting “CO-TA! CO-TA! CO-TA!” instead. Somehow Wieters, the best prospect in baseball, went hitless in five at-bats, but he never struck out—a feat he has accomplished only four times in his major league career.

In the years since, neither Wieters nor Tillman has lived up to his star potential. In 10-plus seasons in the majors, Wieters only has two seasons with a WAR greater than four. He has struggled against right-handers with a .247/.309/.395 batting line, good for a 87 wRC+. Additionally, injuries and poor framing skills further prevented him from becoming a superstar. Tillman, meanwhile, struggled with his strikeout and walk rates, but managed to carve out a role as an innings eater in the Orioles rotation from 2013 through 2016. After a disastrous 2017 season, during which he produced -1.1 WAR, Tillman managed only 26 below-average innings in 2018. While Wieters caught on with the Cardinals this past offseason, Tillman remains unemployed.

The most memorable part of the game was Ginger himself. Justin Turner spent the entire 2009 season with the Norfolk Tides before earning a September call-up. The Orioles had acquired the future Tormund Giantsbane impersonator in December 2008 from the Cincinnati Reds, trading away catcher Ramon Hernandez to clear the path for Wieters. Writing for Baseball Prospectus, Christina Kahrl described Turner as a “classic gamer type, a player whose baseball instincts win hearts and minds among scouts, and whose production and quick advancement to Double-A should get similar support among statheads.”

While Turner hit .300/.362/.388 in Norfolk in 2009, the Orioles released him in May 2010. Turner caught on with the Mets, who played him across the diamond before cutting ties in December 2013. When the Mets non-tendered him, Turner was in a batting cage in the San Fernando Valley, rebuilding his swing. By the time he signed with the Dodgers a few months later as a minor league free agent, Turner had began his transformation from journeyman into one of the league’s best hitters. Turner’s 139 wRC+ since 2015 is tied for 14th best in baseball with Giancarlo Stanton, Alex Bregman, and Christian Yelich.

Somehow Justin Turner, no one’s idea of a future star, has the highest career WAR—23.7—of all the players who appeared for the Tides and Chiefs on the night of May 12, 2009.

While I was watching last year’s World Series, when Turner game to the plate, I asked Casey if she remembered Ginger. She did. I texted Tyler and asked if he remembered Ginger. He did.

To this day, I wonder if Justin Turner remembers the night in central New York that lives on in my memories 10 years later.

References and Resources


Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia.
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jaredhenochs
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jaredhenochs

That was excellent!

CL1NT
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CL1NT

Great story! Love this kind of stuff

Rollie's Mustache
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A wonderful story that made me smile. Thanks for sharing.