One late afternoon last month, about an hour after the Oakland Athletics had won their eighteenth straight game, third baseman Eric Chavez zapped on two mammoth-sized television sets in his Lafayette living room, sank into a sofa beside his perfectly blonde girlfriend, and watched his boyhood idol Barry Bonds slowly swagger his way up to the plate.
The 24-year-old had recently purchased the screens to accommodate his friends and teammates for video-game tournaments at the house; up to twelve guys could play at one time, he notes. Today the thumbs were idle: His roommate, Mark Mulder, who'd pitched earlier in the day and had been relieved in the ninth inning after giving up two home runs, was sulking, his chin pressed to his chest as he spread out his lanky frame on another couch. Mark Ellis, the team's rookie second baseman, sat on the floor eating a bowl of cereal. And Chavez' youthful-looking mother, Ruby, up for the weekend from their home in San Diego, was reclining in a leather chair, bare feet up. All of them were basking in the glow of the great Giant, who was waddling his short black bat back and forth on the dual screens, waiting for a good pitch.
Chavez' girlfriend squinted. "Is he wearing an earring?"
"That's his trademark," said Chavez.
"Yeah, his trademark. Something he's known for."
For the casual A's fan, Eric Cesar Chavez has his own trademark: an array of creative facial-hair designs that include a goatee, soul patch, long chops -- the strategy changes every few days. But for those who follow every game, hang on every pitch, and read every quote, Chavez is affectionately known as Chavy, the rising star whose roller-coaster performance at the plate keeps them riveted -- if frustrated -- but always rooting for him. At any moment in the game, Chavy is capable of bashing a home run to the opposite field or, just as easily, swinging stupidly at curve ball near his ankles; consistency has not yet suited him.
Yet he plays to his fans with a sense of modesty that the gruffs at the local bar admire, and he wins over the press with his accessibility and candor. And his youth and good looks have attracted cadres of adoring young women out to the Coliseum. Today, though, he looked like just another fan rooting for his hero -- and he was. Sacked out in front of the televisions, he wore an old baseball cap backwards, a T-shirt with the Charlie Tuna logo on the front, loose blue jeans, and Adidas sneakers. "That's the one guy when I made it to the big leagues I was afraid to meet," he said, shaking his remote at Bonds. "I didn't want to look him in the eye. I didn't want to know what my face would look like when I finally met him."
As Bonds took a few outside pitches for balls, Chavez explained how he'd worshiped the left fielder growing up. It was surprising, in a way, since the two players approach the game on completely different terms, and as a result, their fan-approval ratings poke at polar opposites. For the much-maligned slugger on the big screens, the fans are superfluous and the press is the enemy. Bonds rejects the romanticized myth of baseball, and sees it plainly as a business. "When you come to the ballpark, you're walking into a place that is all deception and lies," he told The New York Times Magazine in a recent profile.
Chavez is exactly the opposite. For him, baseball is still a game, a kid's "dream come true," he says. While Barry Bonds shuns reporters, Chavez invites them over. And while Bonds eschews any romantic notions of the sport, Chavy embodies them. In his short career to date, perhaps the most consistent part of his game is the one he's mastered off the field.
It's a fine skill, and one that raises a good question. If being a baseball fan today means participating in a world of "deception and lies" then doesn't it make sense to root for a good guy? Someone we like, and someone who likes us?
Someone like Chavy?
To get a glimpse of the game that takes place off the field requires a walk down the narrow corridor leading to the A's clubhouse. You hear it first: loud hipster music clashing with televisions tuned to ESPN highlights. Then you smell it: the dirt, sour body odor, and muggy carpets. Finally, you see it: a tiny horseshoe-shaped room crowded with thirty athletes in underwear and flip-flops. Reporters, mostly male and dressed in their own uniform of khakis, golf shirts, and goatees, hang out in a tight cluster near the entrance like boys at a middle-school dance, hoping to make eye contact with players -- awaiting the nod that says it's okay to come over and ask questions.
Chavy's locker is located just to the left of the entrance, a few feet from the reporters' dugout. The location has benefits for both sides. The third baseman has a reputation for being accessible and giving great off-the-cuff quotes; reporters, in turn, have spared Chavez the poison pen. Consider the abysmal run in July when he went 0-for-23. Any other ballplayer might have shunned reporters and hidden behind a shield of clichés like "I'm just gonna go out there, day in and day out, and hope for the best." Instead, Chavy put himself out there: "I'm getting in the batter's box and swinging at the first pitch because I just want to get it over with. I don't feel comfortable up there," he told the beat reporters, who dutifully reported the quote with empathy.
It's a working contract that's unwritten, but not unrecognized. Last season Chavez received the annual award from beat reporters for accessibility and crisp quotes -- and that was a year in which then-teammate Jason Giambi was telling reporters: "My personal motto is 'Swing like an All-Star, party like a rock star, and fuck like a porn star.' "
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