Bust. It’s a tough title to shoulder. It bears the weight of expectations and none of the relief of fulfillment. It is all loss, no gain. Dallas McPherson knows that feeling all too well.
Now in camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers, trying to revive a once-promising career, McPherson was the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 2003 and 2004, and was the crown jewel of the Los Angeles Angels farm system, back when they were still the Anaheim Angels.
In Rookie ball, he hit .395. At Double-A he hit .314. In 2004, he split time between Double-A and Triple-A, slugging 40 homers and batting .317. McPherson was destined for stardom. As a rookie in 2005 – after a cup of coffee the year before – McPherson started out slowly, hitting .190 through his first 18 games. Slowly, though, the hits started coming. Over the next five games, he went 6-for-17. By the end of May, he was hitting .241. By early June, he was hitting .255. But, then, his hip started hurting. By the middle of July, he was all but done for. In August, he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs. Just a bump in the road. Just something to motivate him for the next season. That’s what he kept telling himself.
That was nearly eight years ago. Another lifetime. Since then, he’s played just 62 games in the big leagues. 62 games, over seven seasons.
In 2007, McPherson underwent vertebral fusion -- surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his back. After a meteoric rise through the minors, with expectations aplenty heaped upon his broad, North Carolina shoulders, McPherson was nothing more than a footnote, a cursed utterance that Angels fans spat through gritted teeth.
“The pressure from the outside sources, that’s really irrelevant,” says McPherson. “It really doesn’t make a difference. I think the worst part about that was the label of, ‘Oh, he can’t stay healthy,’ to a point where it became a negative about me, a knock on me, personally. Angels fans were almost bashing me in some ways, and it became a critical thing, and it’s something that I couldn’t control.”
McPherson is not bitter. When he says ‘bash,’ it’s not out of spite. McPherson is of a kind that looks for the best in people, and is practically unable to say a malicious word about any other human being. The look in his eyes says, ‘I let them down. My body let me down.’
“It’s not like I wasn’t trying to be on the field, and that I didn’t want to be,” McPherson says. “That’s probably the worst part about going through it. One thing Darin Erstad told me, early in my career, and I’ll never forget it: ‘The train keeps going.’ The worst part about being hurt is that the train keeps going. Nobody misses you. It’s the next man up, and that’s the way it should be. To get the rap of not wanting to play or not being able to stay on the field, what could I do about it? I had to move on.”
Move on, he did, from the Angels to the Florida Marlins -- where he hit .275 with 42 dingers and 98 RBI at Triple-A -- to a one-year minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants that saw him play nary a single game at any level, because of back problems. Again.
Then, he signed a minor league deal with the Oakland Athletics on Nov. 20. 2009, with an invitation to spring training to compete for the third base job with an aging Eric Chavez. But, once again, McPherson found himself in the minors, playing 84 games for Sacramento and hitting 22 homers with 75 RBI. As if things couldn’t get any worse, he tore his hamstring.
For the second time in his young career, McPherson thought about hanging up his spikes. There was no way he could keep going through this. There was no way he could keep pushing through.
“I mean, I’d be lying if I said, ‘No,’” McPherson says, when asked if he ever thought about giving up and retiring. “Especially after the first surgery. That was a long rehab process -- a full year removed [from baseball]. It was a tough process to get through, but the second one was probably the tougher of the two. I rushed that surgery to try to get ready for 2010, tore a hamstring that year and played in a lot of pain with the back. That year was really close to me thinking it was about time.”
McPherson signed a minor league deal with the White Sox, playing in 11 big league games in 2011, hitting .133. He was designated for assignment on May 30, and split the rest of the season between Triple-A in Charlotte -- where with some good home cooking, he hit .253 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI in 61 games -- and 22 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, hitting .299 with the Indians.
McPherson’s stroke began to come back. His body rebounded. He realized that he could no longer live in fear of the next sneeze or awkward twist or misplaced step. He loved the game. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
“I’ve made some changes to my program,” McPherson says. “I’ve had some good fortune, and kind of found a maintenance program that -- knock on wood -- has been working for me. I’ve had some luck with it, so far. Hopefully, I can stay true and stay on the right path.
“Really, I quit babying it. I went from being very careful and kind of doing everything slowly and carefully, making sure not to tweak my back here and there, to now, I realized in 2010 that I wasn’t going to be able to play like that. I wasn’t going to be productive. I didn’t feel like an athlete anymore. I felt robotic. Honestly, I felt like an old man. The preparation, the time it took to get ready, now I just train harder. I train a little more intensely. I don’t baby the back. I do Olympic lifts and squats and things I’ve stayed away from for six, seven years, and it’s made a world of difference, so far.”
On Dec. 21, 2012, McPherson decided to return to where it all started: Los Angeles. Though he’s wearing Dodger Blue instead of Angels red, there’s a sense of familiarity for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound cornerman.
“Even today, the year with my hip -- my whole time with the Angels, it’s just a frustrating three years of my life that I will never get back, but, it is what it is,” McPherson says. “I’m here, and I can’t go back, and there’s really nothing that I could have done differently. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. I’m here, and this is where my career took me.
“It’s nice. I mean, I’ve had some good health fortune, the last couple of years, with the White Sox, and had a chance to get back a little bit, but it’s definitely great to be over here. It’s a great organization, and so far, everything’s just been first-class, the way things are done around here.”
There’s even a bit of deja vu for McPherson, as he works his way through Dodgers camp.
“There are also quite a few familiar faces, from the minor league staff and throughout the organization, and even players -- there are some Angel guys around, Angels alumni, and that helps get a little more comfortable,” he says.
What’s helped pull him through those dark times, though, and what’s helped him stay true to the game, is his family.
“My wife, she’s been supportive, and I’ve got a little boy now and my little girl’s five,” he says, proudly. “I want him to see me play. That’s helped. He’s almost two. Being able to stick through that, and, honestly, the frustration of missing the prime years -- some of it -- I feel like I’ve still got more to prove.”
At 32, McPherson is no longer at the peak of his power, but power, he says, won’t be a problem. Over the last three seasons in the minors, McPherson has slugged .511.
“You look at my power numbers the last couple years in the minor leagues, they’re still pretty good, per-at-bat. It hasn’t been the 40 home runs, but it hasn’t been the 500 at-bats, either,” says McPherson. “I’m pretty satisfied with where the power’s at, and I feel like I’m a better defensive player. I feel like I’m a better all-around player, intelligence-wise, and what I’d like to work on is my quality of at-bats. One thing that seemed to plague me throughout my career is, I don’t worry about the strikeouts, but it’s the walks and the quality at-bats, and that’s what I’m really working on.”
That’s where McPherson runs into a bit of a wall. Over the past three years in the minors, he’s never taken more than 37 walks, while striking out 101, 126 and 115 times.
“I’m focusing on not chasing and not getting myself out and making that pitcher work to get me out,” says McPherson. “That’s where my focus is at, and if I can get back to that, that’s when the power numbers are going to jump.”
The fused vertebrae mean a reduction in flexibility, and, while McPherson says he can still play third, he was brought in as a first baseman, and that’s where he’s worked out through the early goings with the Dodgers.
“Right now, in this camp and when I signed here, they wanted me to do more work at first. I feel pretty comfortable at third, and obviously I’ve played a lot more there, but getting more comfortable at first is something I want to get done this camp, and kind of what they want from me. Probably, at least right now, it’s going to be more playing first.”
When starter Adrian Gonzalez takes a leave to participate in the World Baseball Classic, starting on March 7, McPherson will have an opportunity to show that he still has a flicker of the old spark, at least one more glowing ember of what used to be.
“Right now, in this camp and when I signed here, they wanted me to do more work at first. I feel pretty comfortable at third, and obviously I’ve played a lot more there, but getting more comfortable at first is something I want to get done this camp, and kind of what they want from me. Probably, at least right now, it’s going to be more playing first,” McPherson says. “Obviously, the first week of spring training is always the challenge of getting the rust out, trying to work on the swing, trying to get in shape at the same time and getting ready for games. [Saturday], it starts again, getting up to game speed and things like that. Then, there’s another battle, because now, you’re looking at another two weeks of game speed and getting adjusted and getting back in the groove of things.”
Nothing is certain for McPherson. Nothing’s been certain for years. All he knows now, is that he has a chance, maybe his last.
“Nothing. No expectations. I’m coming in here, probably playing more first than anything, especially with Adrian gone,” he says. “Obviously, there is somewhat of a chance, hopefully, but it’s a minor league contract. I’m going to come out, do my work, try to perform, get my at-bats, hopefully they see something they like, and, who knows?”
The only thing McPherson can control is his own body -- his own swing, his own time in the cages, the routes he takes to groundballs. For now, it’s just baseball, and that’s enough.
“More than anything, I love baseball. I’ve always loved to play baseball. I love to hit. There’s nothing that gets me off more than hitting, than just coming and doing cage work,” McPherson smiles. “I love getting out of bed and knowing I’m going to hit that day, whether it’s in the cage or on the field -- you still can’t beat the feeling of a home run. That, to me, is what drives me.”
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes Cal Sports Digest. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.