Huff at San Jose Muni on July 4.
Looking across the diamond from field level, it seemed as if Aubrey Huff appeared out of nowhere. Walking toward the dugout from the outfield, the 35-year-old veteran and 2010 World Series champion passed a dozen young players who, when he joined the San Jose Giants on a rehab assignment a few hours earlier, had become his teammates. They continued to stretch and goof around, the way all ballplayers do before a game, and he just walked by. Not just a man among boys, it looked like he was in another dimension, a different world.
Most of the 5,000-plus folks at the revered and funky old San Jose Municipal Stadium on July 4 were most likely there for the after-game fireworks. Those who came to see Huff were probably disappointed but not surprised that he didn’t take the field during the top of the first inning; he was in the lineup as a designated hitter.
As he walked toward the plate for his first at-bat in the bottom of the inning, the once famously cocky Huff seemed to have very little swagger in his glide—again, no surprise. Still, when he stepped in, it was a bit of a thrill to see him wagging his bat in the friendly confines of little San Jose Muni.
After missing badly with two hard cuts, Huff worked the count to 3-2. He caught a piece of a sinker that was out of the strike zone, then quickly snatched the ball out of the dirt and, inexplicably, showed the home plate ump where he’d nicked it.
When he drove the next pitch to deep left center, the crowd roared. But Modesto Nuts left fielder Delta Cleary Jr. tracked the ball down three steps onto the warning track, maybe four feet from the fence. On his way back to the dugout the crowd gave Huff a huge ovation.
Aubrey Huff has not heard that sound very often for a long time. He arrived in San Jose with a .155 batting average and one home run—paltry numbers that tell only part of the story of a miserable season marked by a series of indignities.
The worst on-field moment came on April 20, in an away game against the New York Mets. In the ninth inning of a tie ballgame in which Huff had gone 0 for 4, manager Bruce Bochy moved him to second base—a position Huff had never played in his 13-year professional career. He quickly botched a routine double-play ball and the Mets went on to win.
That night, Huff awoke at 3am in a panic. After “freaking out” for a couple of hours, by his account, he got dressed, went to JFK Airport, and flew home to Florida. A couple days later the Giants put him on the disabled list for acute anxiety.
He continues to battle this condition with courage and grace, displayed in a candid interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman. [ http://www.sfgate.com/giants/article/Aubrey-Huff-opens-up-about-his-anxiety-attacks-3536390.php ] Even so, the indignities did not cease.
Two weeks after returning to his team, after watching Matt Cain pitch the first perfect game in Giants’ history, Huff injured his knee while vaulting the dugout railing to join the celebration. Back on the disabled list. In baseball this kind of bad fortune is called being “snakebit.”
Compared to the rest of his season, Wednesday night was not particularly grueling for Huff. But still. This is a man with a better-than-respectable career batting average of .278, with 242 home runs and a World Series ring. This is the leader of men who, to psyche his teammates to victory in that heady year, invented the Rally Thong! Sure, he makes $10 million a year … but still.
In the second inning, Nuts batter Jared Clark hit a ball to almost exactly the same spot in left center that Huff had in the first, but this one hit the wall on a bounce for a double.
Before his next trip to the plate, Huff waited in the on-deck circle while the crowd performed the minor league baseball ritual of singing and miming “Y.M.C.A.” He drew a walk in that at bat. A few pitches later, the scarred veteran was driven home by the young slugger Adam Duvall. After he crossed the plate, Huff high-fived Duvall, gave the kid’s helmet an affectionate slap, and then followed him into the dugout.
Huff came up again in the 5th and drew a walk on a barely held check swing. He took second on a wild pitch, but when Duvall doubled a few pitches later, the never-swift and now-lumbering Huff was thrown out at home plate by 30 feet.
That was it for Huff. Presumably he watched the United Site Services Luxury Port-a-Potty Toilet Paper Toss from the dugout. Did he stay around for the fireworks? I’d bet he did.