The man who could’ve made himself a breathing synonym for failure on sports’ biggest stage instead sleeps very well at night. This is what happens when you make the right decision.
The space between Mike Jirschele’s sound mind and an anonymous man turned into a curse word is around 20 feet. Maybe more. That’s how far Jirschele, the Royals’ third-base coach, guesses Alex Gordon would’ve been out in the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series.
The distance would’ve been measured by technology and dissected by snark, both of which are particularly abundant in sports today, and Jirschele would’ve no longer been the name of a good baseball man but a verb for a mistake.
Hey, Hon, did you remember the eggs?
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No, I Jirsched it. Sorry.
This is the world where Jirschele (pronounced JUR-shell-ee) makes his living from February until September (or October), and it is not lost on many at camp here that Jirschele would’ve been crushed much harder for screwing up that decision than he’s being praised for getting it right.
“Yeah, about 20 feet, at least,” he says when asked about the play. “It was just a no-brainer. I couldn’t send him. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t send him.”
Jirschele’s boss — the man who promoted him from general assignments coach to third base during the season — is less conservative. Manager Ned Yost says it would’ve been 40 feet.
“I’m not suicidal,” Yost says. “And that would’ve been suicidal to send Gordy on the play.”
Mike Jirschele’s place in baseball and with the Royals is so much more interesting than the dramatic, one-dimensional depiction of a third-base coach given a split-second decision that would’ve made him infamous.
In the mainstream, Jirschele is a third-base coach, a bit actor in a grand production to be judged. But in reality, even the chance for him to make the right decision was both a miracle and a lifetime in the making.
He is a baseball man’s baseball man, spending 13 seasons playing in the minor leagues, including six at Class AAA, without ever making the big leagues. Then came 21 years of coaching in the bus leagues. Fourteen of those were as the manager in Omaha, the man giving dozens and dozens of players the best news of their life with big-league promotions, but never getting his own until he was 54 years old.
That he made it this far is a genetic anomaly. All three of his brothers died of muscular dystrophy in their 40s. Mike, somehow, made it through unaffected physically, but the perspective has stayed with him for a lifetime.
They always meant well, but Jirschele knew what strangers were saying when they would talk to him about his 34 years in the shadows of the major leagues.
That must be tough, they’d tell him, and Jirschele would politely nod his head and maybe smile and then remember that he’s lucky he can get himself out of bed every morning. He had a job in pro ball, and minor leagues or major, that was a pretty cool thing and worth giving his all for.
He earned the reputation of a man who would always do his job without ever needing to tell anyone about it. That’s the kind of thing that is appreciated in all walks of life but particularly so in the baseball world, where they make up terms like “false hustle” and “eyewash” to describe the kind of people who do it the other way.
When the Royals finally gave Jirschele a big-league job before the 2014 season, he got letters and phone calls of congratulations, including from some who only knew him briefly. Omaha retired his number last summer. In 46 years as a Royals affiliate, the only other numbers retired in Omaha are for George Brett, Frank White and Dick Howser.
General manager Dayton Moore has expressed some frustration that he didn’t promote Jirschele sooner, but that in a weird way the move was made difficult because he was such a good manager at Class AAA.
The connection he built with players was real. Thirteen of 25 players on the Royals’ postseason roster played for Jirschele, including Mike Moustakas, who spent many days at the ballpark in a “Be Like Mike (Jirschele)” T-shirt they gave out on Jirschele night in Omaha.
After the fun and the blur and the ultimate disappointment of his first year in the big leagues, Jirschele did the same thing he always does after the last out of the baseball season. He went home, to make furniture.
Jirschele started this years and years ago. In the beginning, it was a way to make extra money. To better support his family. It is still that, but somewhere along the way it also became a bit of a release. A bit of a relief. It’s good to stay busy, he says, and besides — he didn’t know he’d be in pro ball this long. He wanted another career, just in case.
This past winter, he says that people kept asking him: Why are you still doing this?
To them, making the big leagues meant making the kind of money where a man no longer needs to work all day with hinges and sawdust. But coaches don’t make anywhere near what managers make, let alone players.
Besides, if nothing else, maybe the experience of the World Series is a reminder that baseball isn’t guaranteed forever.
“If I’d have sent him, who knows?” Jirschele says. “I might not be in this uniform talking to you right now.”
Mike Jirschele has been a third-base coach going on 20 years. In that time, he has made thousands of decisions about sending guys, holding guys, and obviously not all of them turned out well.
But of all of those moments — Jirschele has decided to send guys or not as many times as most of us have decided to stop for gas or not — the Gordon play will never be one he’ll second-guess or regret.
As a way to simplify it, he asks what people would’ve thought had that been a sacrifice fly that Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford caught in shallow left field. The only way you’d even consider sending Gordon in that situation would be if Crawford was drifting backward, and even then it would be a risk.
“There’s nobody wanting to send him more than I did right there,” Jirschele says. “I wanted to send him so bad.”
This leads into one more run through the play, this time from the memory of the man who could’ve changed the whole thing.
“So (Giants center fielder Gregor) Blanco misses the ball, it gets by him, and then I’m thinking, ‘All right, we’re going to get second base here,’” Jirschele says. “Now, all of a sudden, (left fielder Juan) Perez kicks it away about 10 feet and I’m thinking, ‘Man, there’s a chance (of scoring) now.’
“So now I readjust to, ‘OK, if Crawford secures the ball and I see where Gordo is, I can’t send him.’ But, hopefully the ball short-hops him and bounces off his chest or something, then you can send him. But then you see him pick it, and Gordo’s just at third base, man, I can’t send him. Even as much as I wanted it.”
Read a certain way, Jirschele’s words there actually embody where a lot of the cries to send Gordon come from. Jirschele wanted Gordon to score there, just like Royals fans. Nothing would have made him happier, and for fans, that’s where it can end. Holding Gordon resulted in no runs, so sending him would’ve been preferred.
But Jirschele is the one who has to live with that decision. The story of an honorable, productive and honest baseball life would’ve been told in a very different way had Jirschele made a very wrong decision at the precise moment when the world had finally found him.