Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt is a baseball fairy tale in a 6-foot, 215-pound package. So it's only fitting that all the grinding, fighting and striving he's done in his career have landed him in the middle of some improbable scenarios this season.
Let's begin with the TV commercials. Oakland's marketing department and the Comcast Bay Area folks have made liberal use of Vogt in promotional spots this season. In one current Athletics ad, DH Billy Butler points out that his nickname is "Country Breakfast" and the team's roster also includes outfielder Coco Crisp. So why don't all the A's adopt breakfast-themed nicknames? During a brainstorming session around a clubhouse card table, Vogt declares that he would like to be known as "Everything Bagel" because of his versatility on the field.
Not long after the spot aired, Vogt was signing autographs for A's fans at O.co Coliseum when a woman approached him with a Sharpie and a bagel that she wanted him to sign. Vogt obliged, but that wasn't even the strangest moment he's experienced in 2015.
"I was getting ready to warm a pitcher up, and I went over to sign autographs like I try to do every day," Vogt said. "Someone handed me their infant child, and there was no way I could have said no. So there I am in full catcher's gear holding a baby on the field. That was a little awkward. The mother says, 'We had to get a picture with Everything Bagel and our infant kid.'"
Vogt, a stocky, unassuming baseball survivor, has struck a chord with Oakland fans in a way that transcends quantitative analysis. He has the everyman appeal of a Kent Hrbek or a Matt Stairs and the comedic sensibilities of Drew Carey -- back when Drew was just a rumpled Clevelander and not the thinner, well-dressed, "Price is Right" version.
And Vogt is a throwback to the core -- right down to his decision to ditch the batting gloves and swing the bat with his bare hands. Last year, Vogt's Oakland teammates touched his heart when they gave him the Catfish Hunter Award, which goes annually to the A's player "whose play on the field and conduct in the clubhouse best exemplifies the courageous, competitive and inspirational spirit demonstrated by the late Hall of Fame pitcher." He also wins the People's Choice Award, as evidenced by the "I believe in Stephen Vogt!" chant that's become a ritual in the right-field seats in Oakland.
"He's a self-made baseball man," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who managed Vogt in Tampa Bay in 2012. "He came out of nowhere and made himself into a really good baseball player. Really by wanting to. He could always hit and then made himself into a better catcher. You can't have a more fun guy to have on a team. I can't say anything but great things about him. He really is all that."
Vogt would be a nice feel-good story as the 25th man on the roster, but he's developed into so much more. Despite a June slump (6-for-43 with 19 strikeouts) that's dropped his batting average from .322 to .281, Vogt leads major league catchers with 12 home runs, 45 RBIs and a .911 OPS and ranks second with a 2.6 WAR. He broke out in a big way with three hits and a grand slam in a 9-1 win over San Diego on Monday night.
As the A's limp along with a 27-39 record (in large part due to a 4-18 mark in one-run games), Vogt's name has popped up occasionally in trade speculation. But the A's appear to have no compelling reason to move him. As a player with one-plus year of service time, Vogt is making $512,500 and won't be eligible for free agency until 2019. He provides offense at a position in which it's extremely hard to find, and he brings versatility with his ability to play first base and the outfield.
That doesn't even factor in the outcry that might ensue if general manager Billy Beane traded him. While it's conceivable that Oakland could move Scott Kazmir, Ben Zobrist or Tyler Clippard, one person familiar with the A's thinking said it would take a "ridiculous offer" for the team to consider dealing Vogt.
For now, the more pertinent question revolves around Vogt's social calendar the night of July 14 in Cincinnati. He's second to Kansas City's Salvador Perez among American League catchers in All-Star balloting. If the AL carries three catchers -- as is customary -- Vogt and Toronto's Russell Martin look like obvious choices.
The last time Oakland fans wrapped their arms around an underdog to this extent, Eric Byrnes was climbing fences and running around like a maniac as "Captain America."
"Byrnes was more of an athletic, running-down-the-line-hard, playing-with-his-hair-on-fire type of guy," said Oakland manager Bob Melvin. "Stephen probably doesn't have the pace to play with his hair on fire, but he's a ditch digger. He doesn't use batting gloves. He has pine tar all over him and he's dirty from the time he goes out there. His teammates feed off how hard he plays and how hard he works -- and how hard he's had to work to put himself in this position.
"I know there's some time to go. But if you look at the catching position, I don't know how he isn't an All-Star."
The quintessential survivor
Although Vogt's June funk has put a crimp in his numbers, he has endured enough setbacks in his career not to get flustered by two bad weeks. Take a snapshot of where he is at age 30, and it's almost mind-boggling to consider where he's been:
• Vogt played college ball at Asuza Pacific University, near Los Angeles. He hit .476 as a senior to make the NAIA All-America team and received a $6,000 signing bonus as a 12th-round pick by Tampa Bay. In some respects, Vogt is like a West Coast version of St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams, a former 23rd-round pick out of Slippery Rock.
• When Vogt was 24 and playing for the Charlotte Stone Crabs in Class A ball, he suffered a shoulder injury so severe that he contemplated retirement. He was ready to leave pro ball and pursue a career in coaching until his wife, Alyssa, dissuaded him from quitting.
"I thought I was done," Vogt said. "My wife said, 'Give it one more year and see what you think. I don't want to live with a guy who says, 'What if'?' So I did it one more year, and here we are."
• Upon finally making it to the majors with Tampa Bay in 2012, Vogt went hitless in his first 25 at-bats. Oakland acquired him in a minor trade in April 2013 after the Rays designated him for assignment, and Vogt's hitless streak stretched to 0-for-32 before he homered off St. Louis' Joe Kelly for his first big-league hit.
• Even Vogt's offseasons are an adventure. He's one of the few majors leaguers to have played winter ball in both Colombia and Venezuela.
While Vogt isn't big on style points, he has always had a knack for punishing the baseball. He won the Florida State League batting title in 2010 and tore up the Double-A Southern League in 2011 to win Tampa Bay's Minor League Player of the Year award. Even when he's struggled this season, he has drawn enough walks to maintain a .385 on base percentage.
"Some guys have a good feel for the barrel, and he's got one," said an AL scout. "At the end of the day, it's not the prettiest body in the world. But there's something to be said for getting two hits every night."
Foot speed is not a part of Vogt's arsenal, but he has good hand-eye coordination and is resourceful enough to move around the field and catch just about everything he can reach. He ranks 26th among 86 MLB catchers in pitcher framing, according to StatCorner, and he's thrown out a creditable 11-of-36 runners attempting to steal.
"He's a self-made baseball man. He came out of nowhere and made himself into a really good baseball player. Really by wanting to. ... You can't have a more fun guy to have on a team. I can't say anything but great things about him. He really is all that."Joe Maddon, Cubs manager, on Stephen Vogt
In the course of Vogt's journey, he's had to rely on evaluators who looked beyond surface appearances and dug down to the substance. In Tampa Bay, it was an area scout named Jake Wilson. And when the Rays cut the cord two years ago, Oakland front-office exec Farhan Zaidi (now the Dodgers' general manager) pushed for the A's to acquire him.
Vogt never had the luxury of taking offense when he was required to keep proving himself, over and over again.
"I don't really have tools," Vogt said. "I've hit everywhere I've been, but there were a lot of years when the power wasn't there and I hit a 'soft' .300, or whatever you want to call it. I knew I couldn't afford to have a down year, because there's nothing sexy when you watch me play baseball. There's nothing that made people say, 'We have to move this guy up right now.'
"I'm sure there are people who watch me play and say, 'If Stephen Vogt can play in the major leagues, I can, too.' I embrace that. I'm not a Mike Trout, who was blessed with unbelievable genetics. My motto in the field is, 'It may not be pretty, but I'm gonna get it done.' I think people want to root for me and get behind me because they really believe, 'This is just a regular guy playing baseball.'"
Life of the party
Vogt first displayed a flair for mimicry in middle school, when he began reciting dialogue from the Chris Farley-David Spade movie "Tommy Boy" to amuse his classmates. He gained national acclaim last summer when former teammate Jonny Gomes invited him onto the MLB Network show "Intentional Talk" to share his impression of an NBA basketball referee. Vogt has made a subsequent appearance to perform his impersonation of Farley's tightly wound "Saturday Night Live" motivational speaker, Matt Foley.
When Vogt was playing in Tampa, the Rays held an annual talent show at their spring complex in Port Charlotte, Florida. He won the competition so handily the first two years, the Rays banned him from the contest and made him the master of ceremonies.
"He had the entire major league staff, players and everybody else rolling around on the floor on the center-field party deck," said Dan Feinstein, a former Rays executive who is now in Oakland's front office. "To say he was the star would be putting it lightly."
Vogt did a spot-on impersonation of Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay's beloved director of minor league operations, and showed some serious chutzpah for a non-40-man roster player by impersonating Joe Maddon at the behest of one of the team's coaches. Vogt donned a hoodie and glasses, rode in on a bicycle and carrying a bat (a la Maddon) and shared some ten-cent words from the Maddon catalogue. He's such a stickler for detail, he even sought out his father-in-law, a college professor, for some vocabulary pointers.
"One word I used was 'harbinger," Vogt said. "I talked about Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb and how they were pitching well and it was a 'harbinger of things to come for this program and this organization.' Joe really liked that one."
Quietly and unobtrusively, Vogt keeps adding to his repertoire. He has Oakland pitching coach Curt Young down pat, and rumor has it that he's cultivating an impersonation of Oakland's manager.
"I think he has one of me, but he's afraid to show me it," Melvin said.
The A's jumped aboard the phenomenon on May 28, when they handed out 15,000 talking Stephen Vogt NBA referee bobbleheads at O.Co. Coliseum. Vogt scavenged 80 of them, and he plans to distribute them to kids when he gives baseball lessons at his offseason home in Washington state. Amid the memorabilia handouts, he'll share insights on the importance of perseverance, hard work and belief in oneself amid the doubts. He's well-versed in those departments.
"Stephen has such a down-to-earth perspective and appreciation of where he is in life," said Damon Lapa, Vogt's agent. "It doesn't matter if he's catching bullpens or doing a workout or rehabbing from an injury -- he's genuinely happy to be where he is. He doesn't take anything for granted."
Beyond the money and the acclaim, Vogt has a joy for the game that can't be forced and a sincerity that can't be faked. In the span of a few years, he's gone from a baseball afterthought to a potential All-Star, a bagel autographer and a baby magnet. It feels good to be the people's choice.