BUCKING THE TREND
As lots of veterans depart, Oakland’s Lowrie, Vogt embrace the power of experience
By Jerry Crasnick
Stephen Vogt has options beyond playing baseball for a living. His wit and likability make him a natural to work in the media, and his people skills, accrued knowledge and passion for the game suggest he’ll be making out lineup cards in the future. “Stephen is going to one day be a manager in this game,’’ said Mark Kotsay, in his first season as Oakland A’s manager.
Jed Lowrie, a 14-year veteran with a political science degree from Stanford, has similarly big ambitions beyond the field. Lowrie has been monitoring the effort to bring an MLB franchise to his native Oregon. If that comes to pass and Portland lands a team, Lowrie would love to be involved in some capacity. He calls it a potential “dream come true.’’
For now, the long-term view is eclipsed by the 162-game schedule. When there are games to be played, plate appearances to be had, examples to be set and words of wisdom to be dispensed, they’ll keep showing up and competing -- at a time when longevity makes them the exception rather than the norm.
On March 23, Vogt agreed to a one-year contract with Oakland, where he’ll contribute as a lefty bat off the bench, play some games at catcher, DH and first base, and be a mentor for young catcher Sean Murphy. Two days later, the A’s signed Lowrie, who returns to Oakland after hitting 14 homers and posting a .717 OPS in 139 games a year ago.
From 2013-2017, Lowrie and Vogt were teammates in Oakland. They’ve formed a bond that extends to their wives and kids, so they’re enjoying this reunion despite some early disruptions. Lowrie is expected to return soon from Covid-19. Vogt went on the 10-day injured list last week and is working his way back from a sprained right knee. They're handling the setbacks with the same businesslike approach they've developed over time.
“When you work together and play together in this industry for three or four years, you become family,’’ Vogt said. “You gravitate towards each other and lean on each other. Jed has been a special teammate for me and he's been a good friend and a good kind of mentor in a lot of ways. You don't last in this game by mistake. No one's given that. So I look up to the way Jed has done it. He's taught me a lot about the game and about the business, and I'm really thankful that I've known him.’’
The concept of kinship forged through time can seem fleeting in today’s game. Upon his retirement in March, Andrew Miller recalled his apprenticeship with the Detroit Tigers in 2007 and his good fortune in playing on a roster with Kenny Rogers, Gary Sheffield, Pudge Rodriguez, Todd Jones, Sean Casey and several other veterans who helped educate him on life in Major League Baseball. Miller lamented how easily discarded players in their mid- to upper-30s can be today even when they still have something left to contribute.
That sentiment is shared by Lowrie, who thinks the human and analytical sides of the game can clash at times.
“Aging curves and analytics are valuable, but they only tell part of the story,’’ Lowrie said. “Ultimately it's about performance, and you have to look at it from a holistic approach. It can’t just be about cold, hard numbers. When you suck the soul out of the game, it no longer becomes about the people, who are the players.
“Until players are replaced by robots, this is a people business. There are a lot of assumptions made now that can be good business. But analytics and entertainment don’t always match up. If outcomes are predetermined, according to analytics, why would anyone care to invest time or money to watch the product?’’
Rosters across the game reflect the direction baseball has taken. Over the past 15 years, the average service time on Opening Day rosters has dropped from slightly more than five years to a tick over four. From 2011 to 2021, the number of plate appearances by players 35 years old and older was cut in half.
In Oakland, two long-time friends are defying the script. Of the more than 1,000 position players who have appeared in the majors since 2017, Lowrie is one of only 23 to have played in his age-38 season. And of the 72 catchers who have played in 2022, only Yadier Molina, Kurt Suzuki, and Robinson Chirinos are older than Vogt, who turns 38 in November.
Both players learned lessons early in their careers that helped lay the groundwork for their staying power. Lowrie broke in with the Red Sox in 2008 on a roster that included Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Mike Lowell, Sean Casey and Kotsay, as well as Tim Wakefield and Mike Timlin, two pitchers in their early 40s. The veterans taught him the value of taking a consistent, methodical approach to his daily routine amid the inevitable injuries and fatigue.
“You learn a lot in baseball just by watching guys who have had success and been in the league for a long time,’’ Lowrie said.
Vogt, a former 12th round draft pick, made his big-league debut with the Tampa Bay Rays at age 27. When he went hitless in 25 at-bats in 2012, he saw his career aspirations flash before his eyes. But teammates Sam Fuld and Elliot Johnson helped him navigate the self-doubt, and Evan Longoria made a comment one day that made him realize the world wasn’t about to end.
“I felt embarrassment,’’ Vogt said. “I felt failure. I felt like I wasn't living up to what I dreamed of doing -- that I was squandering the opportunity in front of me. But at the end of the day, it was none of those things. I remember Evan pulling me aside and saying. ‘Hey, we all go 0-for-20 at some point. You’re just doing it at the beginning.’ That helped me relax and understand I wasn't the only person that had been through this. It’s something I’m able to share with young guys now.’’
Vogt gained a new perspective on the business side of baseball when Arizona manager Torey Lovullo invited former NFL coach Herm Edwards to speak to the Diamondbacks in the spring of 2020. Edwards described players as “independent contractors’’ who have to embrace their individual identity and assorted contributions to the team. Through the years, Vogt has come to understand the importance of accepting his role while connecting various elements in the clubhouse and keeping an eye on the big picture.
After five seasons as a fan and clubhouse favorite in Oakland, Vogt spent time with the Brewers, Giants and Diamondbacks on short-term deals before gravitating to Atlanta in July 2021. He was forced to shut it down with a sports hernia during the Braves’ title run, but hung around to support his teammates and enjoy the parade.
“Would I have loved to have been in spikes and on the 26-man active roster? Of course,’’ he said. “The injury got in the way, but I will never hang my head about that. There's always going to be, ‘Coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ But at the end of the day I played a role on a World Series-winning team, and I was so fortunate to have been a part of that group. I wouldn't have drawn it up any other way, because we ended up with a ring.’’
As the resident sages in Oakland, Vogt and Lowrie have a kindred spirit in Kotsay, who played outfield for six teams over 17 MLB seasons. At one point late in his career, Kotsay vowed to keep playing until someone ripped the jersey off his back. He was 38 years old when he retired in December 2013.
“You’re seeing somewhat of a transition in terms of this being a younger man's game,’’ Kotsay said. “But I think we're going to see more players in that 34-36 age group that are maintaining their bodies the right way. When I look back, I may have been able to play until I was 40 if I had conditioned my body better for the grind of the season.’’
As the newness of April turns to the drumbeat of May, June and July, Vogt and Lowrie are less about counting their remaining days in uniform than cherishing all the interactions and stray moments that define a season. If longevity requires some reinvention and mental adjustments, they’ll do whatever is necessary.
“I want to play as much as I possibly can,’’ Vogt said. “But I know my job outside of that is to be present and available for my teammates. I've been that way my whole career, but now it’s a little more in my job description.
“I want to stay in this game because I love it. It’s my favorite thing on this planet outside of my family. The fact that I’m going to be 38 this year and I’m still an active player is a testament to that. If you don't love this game, you're not going to be in it for long. That’s the bottom line.’’