I really didn’t think about it until I saw a comment on our website this week.
A reader said the Orioles should mercifully trade away Ubaldo Jimenez this offseason so he doesn’t have to hear the boo birds on Opening Day at Camden Yards after giving up a home run to Edwin Encarnacion last week that ended the Orioles’ 2016 season.
That kind of caught me off-guard. Honestly, it never occurred to me that Jimenez might be booed next April, not after his final six weeks of the 2016 season in which he arguably was the club’s best starting pitcher.
But I know Orioles’ fans have long memories.
I often tell the story about reliever Kevin Gregg back in the summer of 2012. The previous season Gregg was signed to be the Orioles closer, and had his share of troubles, eventually losing the job to Jim Johnson.
In 2012, he was used more as a setup man and pitched fairly well with the exception of the occasional isolated implosion and a rough patch in June. He hit his stride in July, giving up one run in the month. The Orioles went on a road trip during that time and when they returned, Gregg immediately was booed by the home crowd when he entered a game at Camden Yards.
I had a good relationship with Gregg, and I clearly remember the conversation when he called me over that next day. “Connolly, what’s wrong with your people? Boo me when I suck and come out of a game. I’m fine with that. I deserve it. But don’t boo me when I’m going well and haven’t even thrown a pitch.”
I tried to explain that the fans were still booing the Gregg from 2011. Let’s just say he wasn’t a fan of that logic. Frankly, it still makes me laugh to this day. I don’t consider Orioles’ fans particularly harsh. But when they don’t like someone, for whatever reason, they stick with it.
No one has been booed more in the last three seasons than Jimenez, who hasn’t lived up to the four-year, $50 million deal he signed in 2014. But he did receive his share of cheers in his last few starts at Camden Yards. And I guess I assumed fans would remember that more than the 11th inning home run he served up as an emergency reliever in Toronto.
Really, I just figured he’d get very little response at the beginning of next season as fans wait to see which Jimenez shows up in the final year of his contract.
So the comment that he may get a rough reception in April surprises me.
I try not to tell fans who to cheer for and who to boo. It’s been nearly 20 years since I cheered at a baseball game. As a sports journalist, you have to treat every team, and every player, objectively.
But I’ll say this: If you got to know Jimenez the person, it’d be hard to boo him. I’m not sure I’ve covered a player who has taken more crap from his home fan base – and I understand why. He was paid a lot of money and, more times than not, has been bad at his job.
I know I’ve never covered a player who has handled the criticism as well as Jimenez, though. The guy kept smiling. He didn’t lose his patience with the same questions after every poor start. He just kept saying he was going to work hard to get out of his funk. And he ultimately did that in 2016.
This was a big year for Jimenez. He was married last offseason. He became a U.S. citizen and he had his first child, a baby daughter, this year. He kept focusing on those things to keep his mind off of how badly he was pitching.
So when he turned things around in August, everyone seemingly was thrilled for the guy.
And that brings us to Oct. 4 in Toronto, when Orioles manager Buck Showalter chose to bring in Jimenez with one out in the 11th inning instead of a traditional reliever such as Tommy Hunter or closer Zach Britton.
Jimenez is not a reliever by trade. He pitched four regular season games out of the bullpen in 2016 and gave up multiple runs in three of them. Also, his first inning is typically his worst – it was one of his main obstacles as a starter.
Jimenez, of course, took the ball, and promptly gave up two singles and a homer without recoding an out.
After the game, there were two major storylines: Britton not pitching in that game and outfielder Hyun Soo Kim having to dodge a full beer can thrown at him from the stands.
I bring this up because it illustrates my point about Jimenez, the man.
When the media was allowed to enter the clubhouse that evening, I noticed Jimenez was immediately by his locker. But no one went to him, instead focusing on Britton or Adam Jones, who jawed with fans after the beer-can-tossing incident. Jimenez waited an appropriate amount of time and then went into the shower.
When he came out and got dressed, the media was still preoccupied with others, like Kim and Britton. So Jimenez stood quietly at his locker for a few more minutes. Frankly, he had given us ample time to interview him and no one bit. So he could have walked out of there and no media could have complained. He didn’t, though. He basically waited his turn to take responsibility for the loss. In a clubhouse of stand-up guys, that was an all-time stand-up moment.
While being interviewed, he was provided with an out; he’s not a reliever, after all. His response: “It’s not an excuse. As a professional, you’re trying to do the best you can in the position they put you, but it’s not my best. I’m trying to do the best I could out there. … I tried to do the best I could, especially as a reliever. It didn’t happen.”
He also added a line that I think sums up what I felt about Jimenez that night: “It’s not going to erase what I was able to accomplish the last seven, eight games. There’s no doubt about that.”
I guess the interesting question for fans is whether those seven or eight games give Jimenez a clean slate as he runs out on the orange carpet next April.