The pitcher makes the command again, more contemptuous this time. “Remove your helmet and tell me your name.”
The warrior closes his eyes and exhales. After a beat, he sheds his helmet, turns, and locks his eyes on the pitcher. His response gives everyone chills.
“My name is Maximus Stevenus Muncimus, commander of the sluggers of the west, general of the Chavez Ravine, loyal servant to the true emperor, Tommy LaSorda, father to a murdered longball, husband to a murdered gap shot, and I will have my vengeance on another baseball, in this season or the next.”
OK, OK. Maybe I’ve watched Gladiator one too many dozen times. (If I stumble across it on cable, forget about it. I’m sucked in.)
Also, Maxwell (not Maximus) Steven Muncy does not carry quite the tragic backstory as Russell Crowe’s character in the 2000 Ridley Scott epic. But he’s still a modern-day gladiator in his own right, one who we can all raucously cheer from the stands of the Coloss—er, Dodger Stadium.
Here’s a bit of nonfiction for you: Max Muncy has a chance to be the best major-league hitter ever to call Waco home. The former Baylor slugger is in the midst of an all-star season for the Dodgers, and looks like he should be a fixture in the majors for another decade.
Now, notice I qualified my prediction about Max. I didn’t say he’d be the best hitter ever to call Central Texas home. That title will probably forever belong to Hubbard’s Tris Speaker, an early 20th century Hall of Famer who clubbed 3,514 career hits with a lifetime batting average of .345.
Baylor also produced a Hall of Famer in Ted Lyons, a crafty, durable ace for the Chicago White Sox who pitched in 21 different seasons despite having three years of his career wiped out by his World War II service. Waco native Andy Cooper was one of the best hurlers in Negro Leagues history, and also has been enshrined in Cooperstown. Richfield High School graduate Pat Zachry and Baylor product Jason Jennings both won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, in 1976 and 2002, respectively. La Vega’s Arthur Rhodes carved out a long, admirable run as a left-handed bullpen specialist.
But those guys are pitchers. In terms of Waco-trained hitters, Jay Buhner is probably the gold standard. Buhner is a former McLennan Community College star who bopped 310 career home runs and surpassed 40 in a season three times. But Muncy is coming.
Even if you’re not a Baylor fan, you’ve got to respect Max’s story. A little more than two years ago, Muncy found himself out of work. The Oakland A’s released him in April 2017, and at age 26, he’d reached a crossroads. He talked to his father Lee about returning to Baylor to finish his degree. (Oakland selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 MLB Draft, following his junior year.) He also considered independent ball.
Instead, the Dodgers gave him a second chance. L.A. signed him to a minor league contract a few weeks after his release, and he performed well enough that 2017 season at Triple-A Oklahoma City – hitting .309 with 44 RBIs in 109 games – to earn an early-season call-up to the Dodgers in April 2018.
Um, good call on that one. There’s been more beef in Muncy’s production than in LA’s famous Dodger Dogs.
Muncy proved more than worth the wait in his breakout 2018 season. He became the fastest player in Dodgers franchise history to reach 20 home runs, climbing to that perch in a mere 183 at-bats. He represented the team in the Home Run Derby and staged an explosive show before falling to eventual champ Bryce Harper in the semifinals. On the year, he finished with 35 home runs, tops on the team and fifth in the National League despite playing in only 137 games.
And those who stayed up late will never forget Muncy’s most max-nificent moment of 2018. In Game 3 of the World Series, he launched a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 18th inning to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win over the Red Sox. The bomb put a sudden and dramatic end to the longest game in World Series history.
It may have been fair for baseball fans to wonder if Muncy had just caught lightning in a bottle. A regression wouldn’t have surprised anyone.
But, if anything, Muncy has been even better in 2019. Earlier this month, he made his first all-star appearance, as an injury replacement for the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon. In 98 games thus far, he’s hitting .268 with 66 runs, 14 doubles, 26 home runs, 68 RBIs and 185 total bases. I hate to transform into “On Pace Guy,” but at Muncy’s current rate he’d finish the year with 104 runs, 41 homers and 108 RBIs. That’s MVP-level production.
Not to get too bogged down with stats, but there’s something called Win Probability Added (WPA) that measures a ballplayer’s overall worth to his team. Muncy’s current number of 3.0 is seventh in all of baseball, behind such established stars as Christian Yelich, Mike Trout and Harper.
At one point during his scorching run last year, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw called Muncy “the best hitter in baseball.”
That may be a stretch, but this probably isn’t: He’s arguably the best bargain in baseball right now. Muncy is making “only” $575,000, big money to you and me, but a pittance for an all-star major league infielder. He is not scheduled for free agency until 2023, but he’s arbitration-eligible this year and should be in a line for a hefty raise.
His versatility only increases his value. This year Muncy has played games at both first, second and third base for the Dodgers. The advanced metrics – stuff like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating – reveal that he has delivered plus-level defense at each spot.
I’d consider Muncy’s “natural” position to be first. That’s what he played at Baylor, and where he has played the most often in the bigs. But did you see him in the All-Star Game? In a few of his plays at second, he sprawled out and made such sparkling gems that for a moment I thought I was watching Roberto Alomar.
Even in light of his rapid ascent, Muncy could probably walk through a Los Angeles shopping mall and go unrecognized. Don’t believe me? Well, last fall I was walking to the press box at Baylor’s McLane Stadium when I happened upon Muncy, who was going to be introduced on the field at that day’s BU football game. He stopped and we chatted briefly. I congratulated him on his memorable year, he smiled and thanked me. All the while, green-and-gold-wearing Baylor fans passed by, not even seeming to notice.
You could say they were just polite, but I’m betting if it had been RG3 standing there the reaction would have been different. Robert wouldn’t have been able to walk three feet without being asked to sign an autograph or pose for a selfie. Meanwhile, after our exchange Max simply strolled away, as people passed by him, oblivious.
Given his current trajectory, that won’t always be the case. Someday, Muncy will be recognized wherever he goes. He’ll own the crowd.
But for now I must offer this question:
Are you not entertained?