I gave a baked treat to a promising baseball prospect, and it ruined his career.
With the new baseball season on the horizon, I’m reminded of the time I inadvertently crushed the dreams of a top prospect. And it can all be traced back to a cupcake.
Let me start at the beginning.
In February of 2008, I was living in Beaverton, OR — just west of Portland — when I happened to notice a posting online looking for a sports writing intern. The internship entailed covering the upcoming season of the local minor league baseball team, the Portland Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. (The team has since relocated to California.) Even though there would be no pay and I already had a full-time job — of the data entry, cubicle-monkey sort — I eagerly jumped at the chance to combine my two passions: writing and sports. I responded to the ad with some writing samples and about a week later got a reply that said I was in. I was ecstatic.
My first assignment was to attend media day, and on April 1, I went out to the Beaver’s stadium, PGE Park, found an open gate, and excitedly walked down to the field. I located my press pass on a folding table next to some shirts and media guides (who were those for, I wondered), and then waited for the players and coaches to come out. I was surrounded by real journalists — reporters from the newspaper and different TV channels — and it was a little intimidating. When the team finally emerged from the clubhouse, I was too shy to actually talk to anyone and ended up just standing around gawking for a while.
Someone told me to make sure I got a shirt and media guide (Holy cow, I thought, they were for me, now an actual member of the media!), and I eagerly grabbed them as I left.
The first game was a few days later, and as I drove out to the park, I was excited but nervous. The weather didn’t make things any better. It was in the 40s and drizzling, typical early spring weather in Portland. Flashing my press pass (which was awesome), I was able to get into the stadium about an hour before the game and went down to the clubhouse. I had done a lot of Internet research on the players — even making flashcards with their picture, number, position, and other relevant information — so I was fairly confident I’d be able to at least pretend to look like I knew what I was doing. It didn’t quite work out that way.
As soon as I stepped inside, that confidence instantly left me. In my head, I’d imagined it wouldn’t be too difficult just going up to players and talking to them. But when I saw these guys — most of whom were quite large — sitting around the clubhouse talking, watching TV, playing Connect Four, the butterflies in my stomach suddenly felt like they were the size of Mothra.
Screwing up my courage, I did manage to briefly talk to a few players — they were all surprisingly friendly and forthcoming — before hightailing it to my seat. I sat through a very cold and wet game and afterwards managed to write a decent story.
It was a few days later when I made a fateful decision that changed everything.
Before I was set to cover my third game, I noticed that day happened to be second baseman Matt Antonelli’s 23rd birthday, and I came up with an idea to ingratiate myself to the team a little and hopefully get a good interview. Before I headed to the stadium, I went over to a bakery, and after much consideration (I took a long look at the cookies in the shape of a bat and ball), finally decided on a nice big cupcake with chocolate frosting and a purple marzipan flower.
In the clubhouse I found Matt, and when I told him I had a birthday gift for him, he was immediately intrigued. When I opened the small box, his face lit up. I wasn’t even sure he’d be able to accept food from someone he didn’t know, but his expression told me that if there was such a policy, it would quickly be ignored. To save myself a little embarrassment, I said the cupcake was from my wife and that she thought he was cute (that part was true). Matt blushed slightly and eagerly grabbed the box. A few other players greedily glanced at the cupcake and Matt stashed it at his locker before giving me a nice interview.
The subsequent story I wrote was entitled “Why Is This Man Smiling?” and was all about his status as the number two prospect in the Padres organization, his $1.5 million signing bonus, and other reasons he had to be as happy as he always seemed to be.
Matt’s batting average the day I gave him the cupcake: .250. On April 15, the day after the story appeared, it was down to .200. Forty-seven games into the season, I saw he was batting a paltry .180, probably the lowest his average had ever been that far into a season in his entire baseball career.
That’s when I began thinking about the cupcake. I really believe it may have been cursed.
Ridiculous? Maybe. But what else would explain his transformation? In 2006 in Single-A, Matt hit .273 with an on-base percentage of .412. For Double-A San Antonio the next year, the numbers were .298 and .406. Nothing seemed to go right in 2008; in addition to his OBP being about 70 points lower than his career average, his errors were way up. This was a guy on the fast track to the majors, someone who appeared to be close to becoming the Padres starting second baseman that season, and now he was in danger of being sent back down.
Sure, it could’ve just been that the pressure got to him. Or maybe he pressed too hard or thought too much or any number of other baseball clichés to explain a prolonged slump. But deep down I really thought I had cursed him, and the guilt gnawed at me.
But, as an intrepid reporter, of course I had a job to keep doing. Over the course of the season I interviewed other players and wrote various stories about them and the team. But Matt was never far from my mind.
I knew I was supposed to remain neutral, but I couldn’t help but root for the guy. I found myself getting nervous when I saw him step up to the plate, and I prayed he got a good pitch to hit. I silently cursed (whoops, perhaps wrong choice of word) the third baseman for making a nice play on a hard-hit grounder or the left-fielder for running hard to catch a pop foul. I cringed at every strike three. When I wasn’t at the games, I diligently checked the Beavers box score and when I saw something in the H column next to his name, even if he only had a 1-for-5 day, it made me feel better.
At the time I thought eventually this would all just work itself out; even highly skilled and highly touted players struggled at times. But I didn’t think I should take that chance. I felt like I had to do something and I came up with an idea, a plan to hopefully change things for the better.
I decided to go back to that bakery, buy a similar-looking cupcake, and this time eat it myself. Just like that priest in The Exorcist, I would attempt to transfer the curse to me.
Ridiculous? Possibly. But if it worked, I’d have helped a fine young man turn around what had been a pretty dreadful season. And if I got the curse, so what? I was a writer; maybe my spell-check stopped working or I got a little writer’s block, I could take it.
The cupcake was excellent, but did it do the trick? Well, sort of. In August, Matt batted almost .300 and was called up to the big leagues. In his very first at-bat he got a hit off future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Happy ending, right? Well, not exactly.
Though I was done covering the Beavers at the end of that season, I kept up with Matt’s career. He was only in the Padres system for a couple of more seasons. After that, he bounced around the league for a while. He had some success but wasn’t able to sustain it, and he’s now been out of pro baseball for several years. He was an assistant college coach for a while and now runs a hitting academy, so there’s that.
I can’t help but keep going back to that cupcake, however. To this day, I have trouble looking at one. I see the frosting and sprinkles and automatically think about the dire consequences of my trip to that Beaverton bakery.
I still eat them, of course. Because, after all, they are delicious.