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Thoughts of Babe Elliott and the Hit Collector

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MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at St. Louis Cardinals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been a baseball fan for more than a half-century, and there’s nothing like the hope that springs forth when your favorite team starts playing games in either the Grapefruit League or Cactus League. I was going to use the word “meaningless” to describe “games” because as we all know, these games mean nothing in terms of standings or where your team will end up in the regular season.

But can you actually glean anything meaningful from spring training games? I’m not about to make that argument, but it can be fun to watch someone morph into Babe Ruth for a few weeks in the sun. The first player who comes to mind is Randy Elliott. He was the first player the San Diego Padres drafted in their first year of existence but by 1977 he’d been out of baseball for more than a year.

He somehow convinced the Giants to give him a shot in the spring of 1977, and that’s when Babe Elliott showed up. In a 2012 interview with sfgate.com, Elliott told a reporter, “I knew if I hit .400, I wouldn’t make the team.” So Elliott went out and hit .547 – 29-for-53 with 18 extra-base hits — and became the talk of the City. Alas, when players began playing for keeps, Elliott’s numbers plummeted; he batted just .091 in the first month of the season. Ultimately, he wound up hitting .240 in 167 at-bats that season and appeared in just 114 games in a four-year big league career that ended in 1980.

The Pirates have had a few similar stories over the years, including that of Matt Hague. A corner infielder/outfielder, Hague had a fine 2011 season in Triple-A Indianapolis, hitting .309 with an .829 OPS in his age 25 season, and was looking to make an impression on skipper Clint Hurdle and his staff during the spring of 2012.

He certainly did just that, as he went 22-for-55 for an even .400 batting average and slugged seven homers to help craft a 1.200 OPS. Hurdle dubbed him the “Hit Collector,” and Hague made the team out of spring training. But his collection featured just one regular season knock by the end of April, and he was demoted to Indy. He eventually found his way back to Pittsburgh in late May but was off the big league roster by mid-July. His major league career spanned 43 games and 84 at-bats over parts of three seasons. But for one glorious spring, he could do no wrong.

I’m not sure anyone will approach Elliott’s or Hague’s numbers this spring in Bradenton, but it is nice to see one player in particular get off to a hot start: Gregory Polanco. The veteran outfielder, who appeared destined for big things when he burst on the scene in 2014 but has been star-crossed since, was not in Sunday’s starting lineup. But during the first week of Grapefruit League play, the big left-handed hitter had gone 5-for-11 with two home runs and eight RBIs.

We’ve seen Polanco have some hot stretches before; indeed, in his first 11 games as a big leaguer, he hit .365 with an .863 OPS in 52 at-bats. But we’ve also seen the giant hole in his sweeping left-handed swing that has left us shaking our collective heads.

Polanco has talked this spring of keeping things simple and maintaining his current approach. “Everything I’m doing right now, I don’t want to change it,” Polanco told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey after going 3-for-3 in Saturday’s win, including a very LOUD home run. “I just have to stay aggressive and on time. That’s the biggest thing right now. When I get in trouble, it’s because I’m late.”

A potent Polanco certainly would aid the Pirates’ cause in 2021. Not only might his production help the team win a few more games, but he might also make himself an attractive trade candidate at the deadline for a team looking to add some thump to its lineup or its bench. Given that Polanco is due to earn $12.5 million in 2022, he’s not likely to return regardless of what he does this year; the Pirates can buy him out for $3 million, rather than pay him the $12.5 million he’s owed.

It’ll all play out in due time. But in the meantime, try to appreciate Polanco’s Elliott-like spring training start and hope that Old Greg can buck the odds and perform at a high level when the games start counting.