The Likable, Unlikely Career of Juan Uribe
The Dodgers' third baseman knows failure as well as any major leaguer. So how does he keep succeeding?
Photo by Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
"Here I'll give you an example right here," says Justin Turner. "This will be a funny fucking Juan Uribe instance."
Turner sits a few lockers down from Uribe at the Los Angeles Dodgers' Spring Training facility in Glendale, Arizona and also happens to control the music in the clubhouse. I've just asked him to do something impossible: try and explain the magic of Juan Uribe using only words. But words are not enough, so Turner takes out his cell phone and scrolls through Spotify until he finally lands on the right song.
"Ruff Ryders' Anthem" by DMX.
"Papi, Papi, oye," Turner yells.
And a few moments later, Uribe is up out of the chair by his locker, dancing with a maple bat, yelling out, "CHOP, CHOP, whoooah," along with the song, and what Uribe lacks in lyrical precision ("Stop, drop, shut 'em down open up shop"), he more than makes up for in enthusiasm.
"Last year we'd play this song and he'd just sit in his locker, 'CHOP, CHOP, CHOP, CHOP,' and that's it," says Turner.
Juan Uribe is 35 years old and entering his fifteenth major league season, his fifth with the Dodgers. He has won two World Series titles. Last season, he hit .300 for the first time since his rookie year in 2001. He has played excellent defense at shortstop, second base, and third base. He even played one single game in center field for the Rockies. But that was back when Uribe was skinny, and scouts said he had "base stealing speed."
These days, Uribe's listed weight is 235 pounds, 60 pounds more than it was his rookie year. It's easy to think of him as a kind of jolly, round baseball jester—Tommy Lasorda if he was an active player and Dominican. He walks into the Dodgers clubhouse every day with a cigar in his mouth. He wears fancy patterned sweatpants and custom baseball hats that say "Papi" on them. Once, he was sued by a former landlord for lighting an apartment on fire when he decided to fry some fish in the middle of the night. He has been a victim of the hidden ball trick.
But in his Cy Young acceptance speech this past offseason, Clayton Kershaw—Uribe's exact opposite culturally, stylistically, and personality wise—singled out the third baseman. "Thank you for making me laugh," Kershaw said. "You are one of the most important people in our clubhouse."
For all his gregariousness, Uribe has a zen-like way of thinking. When he talks about baseball, he speaks in aphorisms; making obvious concepts about teamwork and hard work seem profound, while at the same time reducing the complicated, nuanced challenges of a life spent in competition into simple dictums like, "Always arrive focused, and try to help your teammates." He is, in other words, a sports psychologist's dream, perfectly suited to deal with the repeated failures that make up even a successful baseball career.Uribe's persona—CHOP CHOP—might have come to mind just then, but what actually makes Uribe so important, so successful, is his personality—the bundle of underlying qualities from which that persona flows. Uribe's personality is what has allowed him to persevere so long in the majors. Not just because teams value his presence in their clubhouses—although Uribe has proven that a "clubhouse guy" need not be scrappy, red assed, and white—but because it takes a certain amount of fundamental self-confidence to continuously bounce back from lows as low as those Uribe has experienced in his career.
There is a tendency among baseball fans to glorify failure. "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer," goes the oft-repeated and oft-butchered Ted Williams quote.
This is obviously a factually inaccurate statement. There are many fields of endeavor that allow for repeated failure: fields like gold prospecting, say. But in baseball, failure is easy to see and easy to quantify. Failure, in the form of outs, is the engine that propels the game forward. The sheer physical difficulty of hitting major league pitchers is a point of pride for baseball players and fans. ("It doesn't matter how fat he is, Cecil Fielder is a better athlete than Michael Jordan because he can hit a Randy Johnson fastball, and like, a million guys can dunk.") And yeah, of course hitting a major league pitcher is hard. Nobody wants to face Randy Johnson.
But the impact of failure is not contained in box scores, or single at bats. What about the psychological impact? In order to hit .300, a baseball player must not only succeed three times out of ten, he must cope with the seven failures. He must maintain his sanity, even when those failures are consecutive, or start to feel inevitable. Slumps are unavoidable. Even Ted Williams had to manage his emotions and learn to accept the fact that he would occasionally pop out. America's batting cages are littered with the living corpses of minor league superstars who couldn't cope; who had the physical tools to hit in the big leagues, but couldn't quite adjust.
And this is where Juan Uribe's genius reveals itself. Reaching the major leagues is nearly impossible. Staying there is even harder. There can only be so many transcendental talents like Williams. The difference in physical ability between average players in the majors and star players in the minors is marginal. There are plenty of can't miss prospects who can and do miss. But here is Uribe, a player who has failed more repeatedly and spectacularly than perhaps any active big leaguer, entering year 15 in the show, and as the starting third baseman on a top team no less. For proper context, let's take a look at some of Uribe's low-lights:
2003: Uribe is traded from Colorado to the White Sox for a 26-year-old minor leaguer named Aaron Miles. "As I stated late in the season, unfortunately, we still had a lot of the same questions about Juan Uribe the third year that we had when he showed up his first day in the big leagues," says Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. Miles will go on to post a career WAR of -0.3 over eight major league seasons.
2006: Coming off a World Series victory with the White Sox, Uribe hits just .235. Then, in the offseason, his older second cousin Jose, who had played 10 years in the majors, dies in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Jose had been Uribe's great role model on and off the field. That same winter, Uribe is accused of being involved in a shooting in the Dominican Republic. He is not cleared of involvement until the following February.
2007: Uribe hits .234.
2008: During Spring Training, the White Sox place Uribe on waivers and he goes unclaimed. "Uribe has been a great spring training player, then all of a sudden the spring training is over and we see another player," says his manager at the time, Ozzie Guillen. Uribe loses his spot in the starting lineup to Joe Crede and Alexei Ramirez.
2009: The best Uribe can do as a free agent is land a minor league deal from the Giants, his cousin Jose's old team. His career looks, by all means, to be fading to a quiet end. But to the surprise of many, Uribe —whose portliness is now fully realized—makes the team.
2011: After two productive years in San Francisco, and a second World Series title, Uribe signs a 3-year, $21 million deal with the Dodgers. But he he bats just .204 in 77 games. "It can't get any worse can it?" writes the L.A. Times after the season.
2012: It gets worse. Uribe bats .191 in 66 games after a wrist operation. He loses his job to minor league journeyman named Luis Cruz, who becomes an instant fan favorite, then fizzles out. Cruz was last seen with the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japan Pacific League.
After 2012, Dodger fans were clamoring for Uribe to be dumped in any and all imaginable ways: "accidentally" left in Arizona when it came time to drive back to L.A. after Spring Training, waived unceremoniously, dumped in a bad contract swap for Chone Figgins. But in 2013, Uribe bounced back with the best all-around season of his career. Then last year, despite injury problems, he continued to play well.
"It's hard, when you want to do something but can't, or don't," Uribe says, sitting at his locker after an exhibition game on a Friday afternoon in Glendale, the clubhouse mostly emptied out. "But I never changed, I stayed the same person. Whether I was doing good, bad, or whatever, I stayed the same. Getting in an hour early, doing what I had to do, doing my job. When the manager or coaches told me to do something, I did it with love."
When I ask people in the Dodgers organization about Uribe, many bring up the second half of that miserable 2012 season. Even though he wasn't playing well, it was a turning point in their perception of him.
"The way he handled himself in year two of his first deal was huge," says manager Don Mattingly. "And I think that was really what opened up a lot of people's eyes to just how good of a guy this guy was. And the next year, I think we were all really happy that he had a bounce back year."
For the second time in his career, Uribe was able to work his way out of a multi-season slump. He did so not by changing, but by staying the same, by continuing to play, as he puts it, "with love," by remaining impervious to failure.
"It's his ability to separate his personal goals and his desires and what he wants to do from what the team wants to do," says Turner. "Obviously all of us want to be successful, all of us want to get a hit every time, all of us want to strike every guy out, but the reality is that it's not going to happen. If something bad happens, he moves on from it real quick, and is back to his own personality. Where some guys kinda hang onto it a little longer than other."
The turning point on the field, if one can be identified, came on April, 11, 2013. Fans will mostly remember that game for a brawl that left Zack Greinke injured (and afterward, Matt Kemp scrapping with Carlos Quentin in tunnel underneath Petco Park). But the Dodgers actually won the game in the eighth inning on a pinch-hit homer by Uribe, whose emotions boiled over in an emotional post-game TV interview, in which he used the word "team" ten times in about 90 seconds. The guy capable of coping with failure still wants to succeed just as badly as the guy who isn't.
It's easy to measure Uribe's performance on the field with advanced stats: Over 14 seasons, he has produced about 23 Wins Above Replacement, or about 1.6 per year, which identifies him as a somewhere between what Fangraphs would call a "role player" and a "solid starter." I don't think any scouts would disagree with this assessment. Most of Uribe's value comes from his glove. For all his inconsistency at the plate, and despite his pudginess, Uribe has always been a very good fielder.
"You look at him and he shouldn't be that athletic and move as well as he does," says Jimmy Rollins who will play shortstop next to Uribe this season for the Dodgers. "But he gets to them. All the time. He's gotten me a few times, I'm like how does he do it? Look at that dude. Like...look at him! How does he get to that play and make it? You know, it seems very nonchalant. But that's how he does it."
That nonchalance only adds to Uribe's legend. It makes it that much easier to write him off as a clown, the guy with the ridiculous clothes who sings and dances to DMX. After all, his teammates seem to do just that, treating him as a kind of punching bag in the clubhouse. When I ask Yasiel Puig about the third baseman who has mentored him, he straightens in his chair and deadpans in Spanish, "Why would you ask about a person provides no use to society whatsoever?" then turns to talk to Alex Guerrero about something else.
However, underneath the jokes there is underlying respect. You get the sense that everybody sort of marvels at Uribe. They point to his unlikely friendship with Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, which has blossomed despite the fact that neither really speaks English; they point to his rare ability, in an environment charged with ego, to make fun of himself off the field, but still take himself seriously on it. When baseball writers talk about "clubhouse guys," they are usually referring to serious, savvy seeming vets like Willie Bloomquist. Uribe exhibits many of the same qualities, except in Spanish, and with a sense of humor.
"Try to get to know your teammates, the attitude that each teammate has," Uribe says in one of his aphorisms. "Try to understand them. How you can bullshit with them, how you can keep them loose."
2015 is another contract year for Uribe, and could very well be his last with the Dodgers. Top shortstop prospect Corey Seager is at the doorstep, and many see his future at third base. The Dodgers have also been linked heavily to Cuban free agent infielder Hector Olivera. But Uribe still sees a future for himself in baseball, whatever happens this season. He gets up from his seat and gets into a pitcher's windup. "I'm here," he says. "If tomorrow the manager says 'Uribe, I want you at catcher, or I want you at pitcher,' I'll be ready." He's even ready to get back out to center field.
Last year, with the division clinched, Mattingly gave Uribe the chance to manage the team on the final day of the season. Uribe says he can see certainly himself coaching.
"I've always tried, whether rookie or veteran, to get along with everybody the same way, with respect," Uribe says. "That's an important part of this game. If I see you need help, I'm always going to tell you, I'm always going to try to guide you onto the saintly path, onto the righteous path. Why? Because that's how you learn. That's how you avoid making the mistakes I made. If I've bumped into a rock, and I see you walking in that same direction, I'm going to warn you so you don't hit that same rock. I'm going to try and help you find another way. That's something that's helped me a lot in this sport, helped me stick around."
An hour or so after Turner puts on the Ruff Ryder's Anthem in the clubhouse, the Dodgers take the field for practice. Position players stretch in left center field on one of the practice diamonds at Camelback Ranch, the Spring Training facility they share with Uribe's former team, the White Sox. They partner up and play catch down the foul line, the same way every baseball team from Little League on upwards plays catch. Then infielders and outfielders split off into their separate groups.
Before groundball practice, Uribe plops down on third base like it's a pillow and spreads his legs out to stretch. When the Dodgers team photographer approaches him for a photo, he exaggerates the pose, holds it, grins. This is Uribe at home: taking grounders, goofing off with his teammates. "What is this?" asks a non-roster invitee named Buck Britton, "The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit shoot over here?"
But when the drill starts, Uribe turns serious. Six years removed from being a non-roster invitee himself too, he goes first. He creeps up onto the infield grass, and tells his coach that instead of one grounder like the other positions are taking before rotating, he needs five. Behind him, Britton, Turner, and Guerrero wait their turns. Then, as soon Uribe's done, the clown comes out again. He's yelling over to shortstop Erisbel Arruabarrena, making fun of his arm strength, telling him he's better off throwing to first underhand.
"I see all my teammates as fun guys," Uribe says. "They're fun, because if they aren't naturally fun, I make them fun. If I see that they're down, that they're thinking too much, I always go and try to tell them a joke and make them laugh."
And this is Uribe: the persona and the personality. Uribe: who knows how serious baseball is, and also exactly how unserious it is. Uribe: who is more than the sum of his antics, the cigar-chomping, the "Papi" hats, the singing and dancing. Uribe: who knows better than anybody that there is always another at bat, always another season. Uribe: who boils it all down to, "I know how to get along with people."
Over the past two seasons, Uribe has regularly called time and approached the mound while his friend Ryu is pitching. His teammates always wondered what the two could possibly be talking about, neither speaking each other's native language. Turner says he recently found out:
Uribe gets right up in Ryu's face and aks, in English, "What's my name?"
"Papi," says Ryu.
They repeat this exchange until pretty soon, both guys are cracking up.
Then, relaxed, Ryu gets back to pitching. And Uribe takes his position at third base.