Surely during the eight hour-plus drive back home to Tennessee, John Danks could think of many of the fortunate elements of his career. This was his tenth year in the majors, all with the same club and the same pitching coach. He of all people knows the game is a brutal grind, but he held up long enough to earn over $70 million playing baseball. And perhaps, either a major or minor detail, he had his great defining moment.
“We’ll always have the Blackout Game” was a familiar refrain as news of Danks being designated for assignment broke, which is the first strong hint of the deep sadness conjured by Danks’ end. 2008’s Game 163, Danks shutting out the hated Minnesota Twins over eight innings to clinch the AL Central was supposed to be his breakout party, not his peak.
I rewatched his season-ending gem a while back, delivered a week before Danks would stride to the mound again and secure the Sox’ only playoff victory of the last 10 years. It’s not Danks’ masterpiece; a magical night where everything in his arsenal is working. Danks’ performance is nervy and unrefined. His signature changeup makes a few token appearances, but he mostly fights his way through with his fastball, which the 23-year-old Danks had enough life on to keep away from the Twins’ barrels on a cold Chicago night.
It’s absurd now to think of him thriving like this: on raw ability, before full command of his pitches set in, but it was a reason for optimism at the time. ‘John Danks when he puts it all together’ was a specter that hung over his career after his breakout 2008 campaign and lingered over his prime, while the real John Danks was having the best years of his career and propping up a pitching staff that regularly made noble efforts to drag bad offenses to the playoffs. A big contract extension raised expectations beyond where he could ever hope to match, even if it was his just dessert for performing through his arbitration years. Then his shoulder went, and his run as a great No. 3/fringe No. 2 starter became a lost Garden of Eden.
Between this downward spiral, and Danks’ own brutal recognition last week that the red-hot contender he had been waiting years to be a part of had come too late for him to be of help, it’s tempting to see his career as tragic, and a collection of unfulfilled opportunities. But that wasn’t what it was like to watch John Danks every day. As much as he didn’t reach the ambitions his greatest moments inspired, his nadirs were never inescapable.
As much I remember the Blackout Game, I remember Danks getting bled for a six-run second inning in mid-July 2010 in Target Field. With the Twins magic wanding every ball through the Sox defense, a capacity crowd thundering, it looked like the type of quagmire that should swallow an overmatched pitcher whole. Instead Danks dragged himself through six innings, the last four scoreless, gliding through the same lineup that just tore him apart while the Sox offense crawled back for an improbable victory. I remember that the last start before Danks’ shoulder gave out on him, if it hadn’t already, was six and a third scoreless frames at Wrigley Field; his best night of what was already a bad year.
And I’ll remember that in Danks’ last start in a White Sox uniform, after he had already been rocked for back-to-back home runs in the third, completely exposed for not having anywhere near enough guile and pitchability to cover up that the last of the major league-quality gas had left his arm, he threw two more scoreless innings. For his last out, maybe the last one he’ll ever record, he was 3-2 with Adam Jones, and snapped off one more, great straight change, tumbling away with fade, and fooling the All-Star centerfielder for his last strikeout.
Tuesday’s news was inevitable, a decision that anyone who saw Danks’ contorting himself to throw 87 mph over the heart of the plate knew had to come, and soon. And yet it still surprised. Jerry Reinsdorf-run teams have eaten money to cut bait on players before. Jeff Keppinger has been cited, and who would have thought they would see references to former Bulls forward Eddie Robinson this week, but neither of those guys had anything left, and never played in the league again afterward. But Danks always carried the possibility that he could tiptoe his way through one more start with no stuff, maybe even stymie the Royals again, and delay the axe for another week or two. Maybe Rick Hahn knew he could too, and decided he had to make the decision anyway.
Brett Lawrie has provided a huge immediate lift, the Todd Frazier trade was an aggressive move borne of relentless effort to work a deal for an All-Star third baseman, but perhaps no move has been as brutally serious about improving the White Sox 2016 chances as ousting their longest-tenured player and a beloved clubhouse presence. The Sox were already committed to Danks’ 2016 salary and receiving solid evidence that they could improve upon his performance from league-minimum salary contributors, so verification that the budget is expanded to push this squad to the playoffs is still pending.
Baseball careers are not built for happy endings. The same level of determination that pushes players to the big leagues drives them to compete until it is shown they can’t anymore, typically in demoralizing fashion. Yet it takes a specific level of seriousness for the White Sox to come to a place where their ambitions can no longer live alongside an indulgent quest to bring along a lagging veteran for the ride, even one who deserves to be there the most.
Lead Image Credit: Matt Marton // USA Today Sports Images