LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As a practical matter, Gerald Laird was indirectly responsible for Moneyball, the best-selling book (and Oscar-nominated movie of the same name) chronicling the underdog story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics.
Here’s the scoop:
Fifteen years ago and fresh out of high school (southern California), Laird subjectively had more physical upside than future luminaries like Adam Dunn, Barry Zito, Matt Holliday, Mark Teixeira, Mark Buehrle, J.J. Putz and Cliff Lee — all members of Major League Baseball’s 1998 draft class.
That spring, the Athletics snagged the sweet-swinging, smooth-fielding Laird with the second pick of Round 2 (45th overall), ahead of the seven names listed above.
By all accounts, Laird was the future backstop for an A’s club that would claim four division titles and make five playoff appearances from 2000-06.
By all accounts, he would be the battery anchor for a dynamic, and potentially dynastic, pitching rotation that featured Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder (Oakland’s top draftee in ’98).
But just four weeks before the A’s opened spring training in that Moneyball season, the club dealt Laird, Ryan Ludwick, Jason Hart and Mario Ramos to the Rangers for Carlos Pena (and Mike Venafro) — the same Pena who blocked Scott Hatteberg from starting at first base in Oakland. The same Pena who apparently detracted from A’s GM Billy Beane’s vision of cultivating a resourceful lineup of hitters specializing in getting on base.
Fast forward to the present, as Laird sits comfortably in the Braves’ spring-training clubhouse at the Walt Disney Resort, amiably chatting with teammates and media, while always keeping an eye on the equipment inside his locker stall — fielding gloves, batting gloves, shoes, eye-black paint, anything to get him ready for that day’s workout.
At 33, this is the sporting life that Laird leads in his third decade of professional sports. His survival quest doesn’t hinge on a single component, like hitting for power, running aggressively on the bases, possessing uncanny fielding instincts or assimilating to the Braves Way.
It’s the totality of everything. It’s the peace of mind Laird offers to Braves execs and on-field personnel, if starting catcher Brian McCann (off-season shoulder surgery) isn’t ready for steady action until late April/early May.
“I like the way (Laird) has handled his business here, making a point to catch every pitcher (in camp),” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez on Tuesday. “I know he had an opportunity to go to the World Baseball Classic (for Team USA), but he turned it down to stay here and get accustomed to our pitchers.
“I’m really excited about his professionalism.”
Of course, Laird sees the intrigue in serving as Atlanta’s primary catcher for 15 or 20 games in April (via McCann’s absence). But his preparation goes deeper than a starring role for the season’s opening month.
“I prepare every year to play (every day), that’s just my job to be ready to play all the time,” said Laird, who logged 51 starts for the American League champion Detroit Tigers last year, spelling for injured catcher Alex Avila.
“(Subbing for Avila) was good. I’ve played every day before. You just have to take care of your body a little better; but, it was a good experience to contribute like I did.”
With Detroit last year, Laird batted .282 and posted a Billy Beane-friendly on-base percentage of .337 — his highest tally since 2003 (rookie campaign).
“Everywhere he’s been, he knows his role,” Gonzalez says of Laird, who has played in the last two World Series — Cardinals (2011) and Tigers (2012). “I know his role might be a little different here (with McCann out). That’s why guys like him hang around (in the majors) for so long … Number 1, he knows how to handle a pitching staff.”
Laird has experience handling pitchers, even when he’s not working behind the plate. Last September, Tigers pitcher Doug Fister marveled the masses at Comerica Park during a matinee outing against Kansas City, fanning nine consecutive hitters — an American League record.
“I don’t think (Fister) knew what was going on, but we all did, and we had fun keeping him” (out of the loop), recalls Laird. “All of a sudden, you see the (‘K’ signs) racking up. It was a remarkable thing. That guy’s just a joy to catch. He puts the ball wherever he wants … any pitch, any time, he can throw it for a strike.”
In Detroit, Laird had the good fortune of catching/counseling Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and the current kingpin of AL pitchers, Justin Verlander (the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young).
Perhaps Laird will see similar greatness in the Braves’ rotation later this summer, after Brandon Beachy (recovering from elbow surgery) and Julio Teheran (Atlanta’s top pitching prospect) join forces with the terrific trio of Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson and Mike Minor.
Maybe the quintet’s expected success will spawn another Michael Lewis best-selling novel (a la Moneyball) or Brad Pitt’s next Oscar-worthy vehicle.