This one time on a baseball field, Jason Vargas betrayed some emotion and … smiled. Honest.
You probably remember it: With the Royals leading the Giants 4-1 in Game 4 of the 2014 World Series and the bases loaded and two out, Vargas took what he thought was ball four and headed to first.
Alas, it was only ball three. When he realized his gaffe, Vargas froze in place, beaming with his arms extended like a tightrope walker before sheepishly heading back to home plate.
“That was a kind of a genuine response to being caught off-guard and being embarrassed on national television on the biggest stage of your sport,” he said Thursday. “But I wouldn’t take it back.”
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Not that Vargas, who struck out looking on a pitch that appeared inside, would be inclined toward any such comic encores.
For instance, he knows he resembles comedian Jon Lovitz, something friends like to “stick me in the side a little bit with,” but also figures he has no such genes of his own.
“No, no, definitely got no entertaining talents,” he said, smiling.
Or as his father, Joe put it: “Jason talked to you? He’s normally mute.”
Not that he’s some automaton off the field. His father marvels at his engagement with his three children and wife, Shelly, his high school sweetheart. And general manager Dayton Moore calls him a “highly intelligent, real person … and a mature conversationalist who knows what’s going on in the world.”
But his bloodless persona on the field is quite by design, instilled in him by his baseball coach father from since Vargas can remember.
The single-minded, one-step-at-a-time mentality that comes with it has been an essential element of an amazing comeback at age 34 from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
“My dad always preached, ‘Act like you’ve been there before,’ and ‘don’t let your emotions get the best of you and expose them to the opposing team,’” said Vargas, who had a 1.01 ERA through his first seven starts before a rough outing against the Yankees last week made it balloon to … 2.03. “And I think that’s just always stuck with me.
“Now, we all get mad and things like that. But now looking back on it, I see why he did that. Because of how much it can distract you from what you’re trying to accomplish.”
So if he looks deadpan, so much so that Long Beach State pitching coach Troy Buckley once told The Star “it doesn’t look like there’s any heartbeat,” that’s just him putting on his mask.
“I think it’s just a part of who I am now …,” Vargas said. “We’re all different people off the field, but we all seem to take on almost an alter ego when we go out there on the field.”
Since being a baseball player was all he ever wanted to do, the dueling aspects merged when it came to contending with the season-ending and career-threatening injury in 2015.
Hurt and even angry as he was, Vargas quickly came to see his rehabilitation more as an opportunity than a burden.
In fact, he’ll tell you now that he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He used the time to not only heal and strengthen but also to refine aspects of his game and repertoire.
“He went about his rehab as if it were Game 7 of the World Series, every day,” Moore said. “Never seen a guy rehab with the amount of intensity and intent that he did.”
Vargas’ grit was apparent to his father from a young age, maybe about the time he simply switched from throwing right-handed to left-handed because he either was ambidextrous or “just confused,” as the son put it.
He was always around his father’s teams. But before he developed an uncanny sense of what’s to come next in a game or pitching sequence, he was smacked in the face with batted balls twice by the time he was about 5 when he strayed.
“I’m guessing it taught me a little bit of self-preservation, check my surroundings,” Vargas said, smiling.
Later, Vargas was thumped by a bad hop that mangled a few of his braces, leaving his father panicked even if he didn’t want to show it.
A trainer simply bent them back, though, and Vargas kept playing.
The possibility of injury, though, always worried his father, who had had arm injuries disrupt his own baseball days.
So he had hoped his son would make it as a hitter, and he was good enough at that to be unsure in what capacity he’d be drafted coming out of Long Beach.
By drafting him as a pitcher in the second round in 2004, the Marlins made that decision for Vargas, who had heard rumors of other teams considering him as a hitter.
“Things happen for a reason,” said Vargas, who is in the last year of his contract with the Royals.
If baseball hadn’t been what happened, Vargas figures he either would have coached or been a teacher like his parents.
His father taught history and economics before moving on to physical education. His mother, Margie, taught reading and imparted other important lessons he absorbed.
“She always taught me to be kind and to be respectful to other people and to admit when I was wrong,” he said. “So I think that both of those voices whispering in my ear really gave me a good sense of direction on how you’re supposed to conduct yourself as a professional.”
Professional and methodical enough to realize in 2015 when his arm was ailing that his choices came down to surrendering to surgery or “throw til it goes and then get surgery.”
And professional enough to make his way back with improbable echoes of the Bionic Man, rebuilt better than before.
Maybe he can’t sustain that all season, but like his dad always told him, “Somebody has to make it, and why not let that be you?”
However it plays out, though, don’t expect to see it in the demeanor that got him here.