By Jon Weisman
You’re supposed to know better than to fall in love with players like these, but …
With one out separating the Dodgers from a 2-1 loss to the Angels on Thursday, Charlie Culberson hit a soft grounder to the left of first base. C.J. Cron ranged to his right as Javy Guerra ran from the pitcher’s mound to catch Cron’s throw and cover the bag. Somehow, Culberson outraced Guerra to first base, beating Guerra for an infield single.
For those few suspenseful seconds, you rooted for Culberson as he pushed with all his speed and will to get there, get there, get there … and when he actually got there, you smiled, even as you couldn’t quite believe it.
One batter later, the Dodgers lost the game. And despite the single raising his March OPS to .907, accompanying near flawless fielding at three infield positions, Culberson remained on the same precipice where he began the day — on the yes-or-no fringe of the Opening Day roster, at the whim of teammate health and the Dodger front office’s broader view of how to construct the team out of the gate.
So what did it all mean?
For a player who missed all but five games of the 2015 season recovering from a bulging disk and back surgery, it meant another day of playing ball, which is all that Charlie Culberson is really asking for.
“I feel like I’ve had a pretty good spring,” Culberson said Thursday afternoon before the game, on his first day in the Dodger clubhouse after weeks at Camelback Ranch. “I’ve stayed on the field the whole time — that was the biggest thing for me.
“Honestly, I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play again, and whatever happens, happens. There’s only some things I can control — hustle, attitude, hard work — and I’ll let them make decisions.”
In a sense, this isn’t complicated, just doing his job. Culberson doesn’t seem to let things get too complicated. In 2015, he spent most of the year on two things — rehabbing his back and building perspective.
“After surgery, I was able to go back home (to Atlanta) and do rehab,” he said. “My wife was pregnant with our second child, so it was kind of neat. I know things happen for a reason, so it was actually really good for me to keep my mind off baseball and kind of focus on my family more. … I was very fortunate to be with my wife, my daughter, and help her out through the end of the pregnancy of our son. A rare privilege, but I took advantage of it.”
Culberson signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers on November 10, earning the right to join the relatively anonymous collection of non-roster candidates at Spring Training. His offensive numbers — a .265 on-base percentage in 360 career plate appearances, most of them with the Rockies — didn’t call much attention to themselves.
But in the everybody-plays days at the start of Spring Training, Culberson emerged as perhaps the smoothest glove in the Dodger infield. Then, as Corey Seager, Howie Kendrick, Kiké Hernandez and Alex Guerrero were sidelined for various stretches with injuries of their own, Culberson remained in the lineup and ended up leading the team in innings and chances at short, continuing to show range and dexterity.
“Honestly, going into the offseason, I had an injury last year, so I was just hoping to get healthy and sign with somebody,” Culberson said. “The Dodgers were there, and it seemed like a great opportunity for me at least to get a chance to play and come to camp. I always tell people the biggest thing is to have a jersey, so I have a jersey now and I’m able to play.
“When I came in, they said, ‘We want to see you at shortstop a lot, and unfortunately Corey got hurt a little bit and was out, but for me, it kind of helped myself a little bit to get in the lineup and show that I could play that position.”
Not inconveniently, Culberson also hit. As much as the numbers might be a Spring Training mirage, it’s another positive step for a player who turns 27 in 10 days.
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“I’ve got good support from my wife, my kids,” Culberson said. “If I do well that day, sometimes I go home and my daughter really doesn’t know, so it kind of put things into perspective. If I don’t have a good game, I can go and see them, and it makes me feel a lot better.”
The key is that Culberson’s maturity about life hasn’t come at the expense of his joy for the game. Asked about his career highlight in baseball, he mentions getting drafted, then making the big leagues for the first time as a San Francisco Giant in 2012. But then, something else pops into his mind.
“Sometimes, the game, it gets a little bit different-feeling,” he said. “You’re in the big leagues, and just trying to stay or what not, but a couple years ago, I was able to pinch-hit for the Rockies, bottom of the ninth, down by a run. I had a pinch-hit walkoff homer. That kind of made me realize, I love the game — I really love the game — but things like that make you feel like a little kid again. So honestly, I’ve enjoyed the ups and downs, but that was probably the highlight of my career. Yeah, it made me feel like a kid running around the bases.”
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