If you haven’t read Susan Slusser’s excellent piece on Tim Kubinski, it’s very much worth your time. It held a special place in my heart because I was fortunate enough to know Kubinski as he passed through Southern Oregon in 1993 on his way to a couple cups of coffee in the big leagues.
Kubinski’s own story of a baseball player whose use of pain killers led to addiction is not nearly as rare as we might like to imagine. We hear about it only when it becomes newsworthy, as it unfortunately did with Tyler Skaggs, but as Kubinski details there are scores of MLB players struggling under the radar.
Being a professional baseball player is a perfect storm of conditions ripe for “bad lifestyle choices” including — but hardly limited to — drug use and abuse. To be an aspiring big leaguer is to live a nomadic life with constant pressure, and if you’re successful public attention and good money, all at an age when young men are particularly vulnerable to making poor decisions.
So while Kubinski’s tale, and that of players he is now aiming to help, is one of substance addiction, keep in mind that there are many ways young athletes can compromise their bodies while they are depending on those bodies to build an MLB career.
This brings me to the group of prospects A’s fans have taken to following because who wants to follow the big league club right now? Zach Gelof, Shea Langeliers, Tyler Soderstrom, Brett Harris, Lawrence Butler, and the cadre of off-season acquisitions who will inform the success of the “near future A’s”...
We look at stats, we glean scouting reports, we consider fastball velocity and “does he have a swing and miss slider?”, power to all fields and knowledge of the strike zone. What we don’t know is what each athlete’s life looks like outside the confines of the ballpark.
While we patiently await the next box score or data point, how many athletes are partying all hours of the night, washing down big macs with booze, self-medicating for injuries with narcotics, showing up to the ballpark to improve their bodies hours after helping to destroy it?
The answer is not most, but also probably more than we realize, and it may well inform how successfully some prospects can translate the skills that got them drafted into an ability to sustain that success as they rise through the ranks. The ability to lay off a ‘chase slider’ is certainly key, but how can you think it isn’t also critical how you eat, sleep, what you do or don’t put into your body — and that these factors won’t impact what we see on the field?
Without a doubt scouts care about these indicators, enough to include “character” in their research of a talented young athlete. How well they take coaching is important, but so are any predictors of a responsible or irresponsible lifestyle. Trouble is, some lifestyles are borne out of the nomadic existence of a minor leaguer, the pressure on a AAA hopeful, the attention and means suddenly afforded a big leaguer.
Not everything can be predicted. Certainly I would never have pegged Kubinski for having the struggles he eventually had. In 1993, along with being friendly and likeable he seemed mature, solid, and responsible to himself and that’s because he was. The demands of the game changed him — as it did one of my other favorite 1993 Southern Oregon A’s, Scott Spiezio, who had a solid 12 year MLB career derailed at the end by significant struggles with drug addiction.
I give a lot of credit to Kubinski for using his past to try to help others’ futures, but also for bringing to light how much of a need there is for the kind of support he is offering. Many of the players we love, and many of the prospects we follow, are struggling — silently, though at times it may be showing up loudly in their ability to tap into their potential.
The next time someone asks, “How well does he command his fastball?” you might answer, “I don’t know. How well does he command the evening?” For all you know, it could be the key question.