Pat Borders is tough. He’s played for eight different teams in a 17-year major league career. In 1992 he was the World Series MVP. He’s appeared on more than his share of baseball cards.
If anybody was going to find himself a poster boy for the “blood-stained” approach to baseball cards, Pat Borders seems a perfect choice. In a recent Q&A with his former manager Cito Gaston, the Blue Jays skipper described Pat as “Someone who would run through a wall for me if I asked him to.” Gaston saw that public statement as the highest praise a manager can give one of his players. Thus, it seems altogether reasonable to see Borders on a baseball card (1993 Upper Deck SP, card #46) with his face and neck bloodied, being supported on his feet by a teammate, and clutching a bloodstained towel to his head.
In fact, that card is a pretty accurate statement of Pat Borders’ approach to the game, although the card itself is rather unusual in the realm of baseball memorabilia. Think about it. There are injuries in baseball, but most of them are fairly minor, and few of them involve the loss of blood. In general, baseball is not perceived as a blood sport. Hockey, on the other hand, is. The old joke is that fans come to watch a fight and occasionally a hockey game breaks out.
In the modern era, baseball has not been a hotbed of violence. Perhaps the most conspicuous recent example of bleeding in baseball is the well-publicized “bloody sock” episode from the 2004 World Series involving Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. That moment has been illustrated and commemorated on cards issued by Topps (2005, card # 352) as well as Upper Deck (2007 Masterpieces, card # 90). However, there is a fundamental difference between a bloody foot and a bloody head. We have an innate understanding that an injury to one's foot is rarely life-threatening. Head injuries, on the other hand, can be, and are thus more dramatic.
Few of us remember the incident that led to Pat Borders’ bleeding head in 2016. But the image sure made for a dramatic moment to depict on a baseball card. Curt Schilling’s bloody sock was seen so frequently on TV and newspapers that fans became habituated to it. And of course it involved no violence, in the usual sense of the word.
During a recent interview, I asked Borders about his bloody baseball card. He dismissed the episode as well as the card with a wave of the hand. Yes, he remembered the event and after some thought he was able to identify the batter (Gerald Williams), whose backswing had made accidental contact with Pat’s head. But as far as Borders was concerned, the event was all in a day's work. No big deal. It seemed odd to him that with all the action that takes place over a baseball season, that episode—resulting in some bloodletting—would be the image to use for his baseball card.
Pat Borders is presently managing in the Phillies minor league system. He is in charge of a club very close to the lowest rung in the minor league ladder—the Williamsport Cross Cutters, who play in the Short Season New York-Penn League.
“This is a developmental league. It's not about winning and losing. Sometimes it's hard to measure that development, but as a manager I can see it. I can see those small adjustments these young players are making. They don't necessarily show up in the W&L records and analytics.”
Borders’ players are often barely 20 years old, recent draftees from college baseball. A few months earlier, many of them were living in dormitories, worried about final exams, and using aluminum bats. Suddenly, here they are playing in a professional baseball league, wondering if they have what it takes to make it.
“They may have been the best player on their college team, or even in their college league, but now they are up against competition from other players who were just as good, if not better. It's hard to self-evaluate when people around you have been telling you how great you are for a long time. But once you get into professional ball you're going to have to start working. It's no longer about what your high school or college coach told you.”
For the first time, many of these players arerunning with the big dogs. It’s a dramatic change in their lives, and Pat Borders has 25 of them to manage all at once.
“I've got to figure out who these guys are. I have to learn all their personalities, because I've got to know how to motivate them and it's different for each one. I'm there to have these guys succeed. And they won't all succeed. When somebody doesn't play as well as we had hoped, or as well as he might have been capable of, I take that personally. I feel like it’s my fault.”
Given the low success rate in the minor leagues, especially the low minor leagues, that's a lot of failure for Pat Borders to face each season. The reality is most of these guys will never get out of A-ball.
Not surprisingly, when I ask the toughest part of his minor league job, Pat ignores the endless bus trips and substandard facilities. Instead, he echoes the memorable scene from the film “Bull Durham,” and replies, “Having to cut one of those kids from the team. You're telling somebody that a dream he's had for most of his life is officially dead. He didn't make it. He's being sent home. No matter how much you work on that little speech, like the manager in “Bull Durham,” to make it as painless as possible, it doesn't matter. As soon as they hear the word “released,” they stop listening. It's as if they're in shock. You're taking away his dreams, what he thought was his future. I feel like it's my fault somehow. It's really awful having to release somebody. It hurts every time I have to do it, but I never want to get numb to it either.
“Survival is all about adapting. These guys are either going to adapt to the changes around them, or not. It's never about raw talent. There's plenty of that to go around. It's what you do with that talent that determines who is going to make it up to the next level, whether that means AA or Triple-A or even to the big leagues.”
Borders chooses a vivid example of this to make his point. “What happens the first time you get hit in the mouth? It’s going to happen, especially for catchers. Do you lie there moaning and complaining? Or do you get up, dust yourself off, and go on playing?
“It can be a good indicator of somebody's makeup. How serious are they about this? Some people get hit in the mouth and they just lie there. They wilt after it. They're never the same. Other people get hit in the mouth, they get right back up, wipe off the blood and they're ready to go again. You look at them and they seem to be saying, ‘Come on, bring it on.’ They're ready to go again.”
Based on Pat Borders’ 1993 baseball card, the evidence was clear in his case. If you get hit in the head by a backswing, you shake it off and stay in the game. When the trainer comes running out of the dugout, all he can really do is dry the blood off so it doesn't get in your way, make sure you aren't at risk for concussion or permanent injury, and return to the dugout with a bloody towel. That brief episode at home plate might be a fine photo op for the local paper or the baseball card photographer. But for Pat Borders, those events are really about separating the men from the boys. Knowing who was in the game to play hard, and who was going to retreat to the sidelines, and let non-life-threatening injuries define his career.
Cito Gaston was right. That was certainly not the way Pat Borders approached his career as a player. And as a role model for 25 minor leaguers, it wouldn't be what he encouraged in them either. He’s a perfect man for this low-level managing job. But is this the end of the line for Pat Borders?
“I love what I’m doing and I love the town. I would have done myself a disservice by starting out my managing career at a higher level than I did. But now I'm ready to see where it'll take me. I'm 56 years old. Just like as a player, I want to see how far I can go.”
Hank Davis is the author of “Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.