When you have your brain tuned to sports and you hear the number 23, what’s the first thing or whose is the first name that comes to mind?
I think for the majority of people in the Midwest, and perhaps still around the country, the first thought is one of long-time NBA superstar (and short-time MLB minor-leaguer) Michael Jordan.
Jordan wore the number 45 during his brief time with the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, but he is certainly remembered more vividly for his time in the red and black with the 23 on his back.
I only bring this up to illustrate that I was the same way for a long time. I’ve never been a fan of the Chicago Bulls, but 23 was always Michael Jordan.
Until about seven years ago.
With all due respect to Andrew Lorraine and Mark Leiter before him, it was in the 2005 season that I first started to really notice that the Brewers had this dynamite prospect who wore 23 in a short September call up in 2003.
Perhaps it was the high profile of said prospect, and perhaps it was also due to the building injury history or the talk about his hands being as soft as concrete that helped him stick in my mind. Positives and negatives are all a part of the first and lasting impression of someone who we meet.
The offensive talent was undeniable though, and you could sense that the defense would come around with repetitions and practice. It has, and the man who I now think of first and foremost when hearing “23” is:
I could regale you with stories of how Rickie Darnell Weeks led the NCAA in batting average in 2002 and 2003 (.495 and .479 respectively) which helped him set the NCAA record for career batting average (.473) and helped him win the Golden Spikes Award, the Dick Howser Trophy, and two-time recognition as his conference’s Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Hitter of the Year.
I could tell you that Weeks was a finalist in 2003 for the Sullivan Award which is given to the top amateur athlete in the country, regardless of sport.
But I won’t do that because this is more about how Weeks fared in 2011 and his outlook for 2012.
Anybody that sees Weeks up close and in person is amazed at his physical condition. At 5’10” and 220 pounds, most people guess he’s an NFL strong safety rather than an MLB second baseman. He is physically impressive if not imposing.
Owner of some of the quickest hands on the team, Weeks had to overcome being too quick at times early in his career. His bat was getting in and out of the hitting zone too fast and it was resulting in worse contact than he should’ve been getting.
Watching him progress on the field has been a true delight for this baseball fan. His quiet confidence and professionalism have been hallmarks of his time as a Brewer and his consistent production when he’s been healthy has been a source of pride when discussing the Brewers with fans of rival teams.
It’s that “when he’s been healthy” part that has kept Weeks from becoming one of the game’s elite to this point.
Weeks’ has had surgery on both of his wrists on separate occasions. That’s a physical ailment which has been corrected. A freak injury took him out of the lineup during the summer of 2011 though, a year which finally saw him getting the national recognition for which fans in Milwaukee have been clamoring.
The “first half” of the season saw Weeks put up a line of .278/.351/.486, 67 runs, 103 hits, 22 doubles, 2 triples, 17 home runs, and walk 40 times in 370 at-bats over 91 games. (The first of those home runs was the first time a Milwaukee Brewer had ever opened a season with a home run.) Weeks was rewarded with not only a trip to his first All-Star Game, but he was elected the starting second baseman which is reliant on popular fan voting.
Weeks participated in the Home Run Derby as a member of captain (and teammate) Prince Fielder’s National League squad. He hit three home runs on the day which wasn’t nearly enough to win, but he finally got to bask in a bit of that national spotlight.
A couple of personal milestones were reached during the 2011 season as well. Weeks hit his 100th career home run on June 5 against the (now Miami) Marlins. He also notched his 100th career stolen base in a game against the Giants on July 23.
All of this came prior to the freak injury I made reference to a few paragraphs ago.
In a game against the Chicago Cubs, while trying to beat out an infield ground ball, Weeks stretched for the first base bag as he had done many times before while busting it down the line. His foot hit the bag in a way that caused his ankle to bend with such severity and due to such force that when he instantly tumbled to the ground the majority of fans assumed the ankle was broken.
Fortunately, in a manner of speaking, Weeks only had severely sprained the ankle. He ended up missing a total of 39 games and came back before his ankle was ready because the team’s offense was struggling so badly without him.
At the time of the injury, Weeks was second in the National League in runs scored, tied for fifth in total bases, tied for sixth in extra base hits, tenth in total hits and tied for tenth in doubles. He went only 9-for-37 (.243) in the 14 regular season games he played in after returning and only hit .146 (6-for-41) in 11 games in the playoffs.
When he reported for Spring Training last month, Weeks stated that his ankle still wasn’t 100% healed from the injury at that time. He expected it to be 100% for Opening Day 2012, however, which we are rapidly approaching.
As the only returning member of the infield from Opening Day 2011, Weeks’ veteran presence in and quiet leadership of the Milwaukee clubhouse will be a very welcome and necessary thing.
The other thing that Weeks needs because everybody else is new is plays on defense. His own defensive timing will be important, but his timing with Alex Gonzalez will be especially so. Gonzalez is Weeks’ new double-play partner and the fourth new primary shortstop Weeks will play with in four years. After a year of dealing with the shortcomings of Yuniesky Betancourt, Weeks will welcome a return to defensive prowess in the man to his right.
As far as offensively, Weeks looks to return to the leadoff spot in Ron Roenicke’s lineup. After Corey Hart found success leading off following Weeks’ ankle injury last season, Roenicke left Hart atop the batting order for the balance of the year. Weeks never liked hitting fifth and said so publicly this spring. Hart has been on the record as saying he didn’t like hitting fifth either, but clarified his comments by saying this spring that he only didn’t like hitting fifth because he was hitting behind Fielder.
With that combination of preferences, and as evidenced by many games throughout the spring so far, it is safe to assume that Weeks will have the opportunity to lead off another season with a home run on April 6 at Miller Park.
It’s an opportunity which is 23 days hence, and one that for Weeks and fans alike can’t come soon enough.