If You Link It, He Will Come

You know you’re as marginal as marginal major leaguers get when in the Age of the Long Ball, you’ve gone over 1,000 at-bats in your career without getting a single major league home run. And you know you destined for the Hall of Punchlines when your life as a player pales before that of your alter ego, a bobblehead which has become the modern-day equivalent of the Honus Wagner T-206 card in rarity if not value. Such is the case for Jason Tyner, the 29-year-old journeyman Minnesota Twins outfielder.

Tyner may be enjoying a renaissance of sorts, hitting .315/.348/.357 in a reserve role for the plaoyff-bound Twins, whose outfield/DH situation has been decimated by injuries (Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter, Jason Kubel) and ick (Rondell White, Lew Ford, Ruben Sierra) even as the team has rallied to reach October after an awful start. In the grand scheme of things, that hardly matters unless you’re a Twins fan. What matters is that at least one Tyner bobblehead has been liberated and is now residing in the East Village of New York City. It’s not mine, but I can claim to have midwifed the acquisition.

But first, some back story. Tyner was drafted out of Texas A&M by the Mets in the first round of the 1998 draft. In taking him 21st, the Mets passed over useful players like Brad Wilkerson (33rd), Aaron Rowand (35th) and Adam Dunn (50). Similarly useless Bubba Crosby, another product of a Texas school (Rice) was taken by the Dodgers two picks later.

The 6’1″, 170-pounder showed some promise as a speedy leadoff hitter over the next couple of seasons, most notably hitting .313/.390/.369 with 49 steals for the Mets’ Double-A team in Binghamton in 1999. Promoted to the majors in June 2000, Tyner played only 13 games with the Mets before being packaged along with Paul Wilson in a near-deadline deal with the Devil Rays that brought Bubba Trammell and Rick White to the Big Apple. Finishing out the season in Tampa, he hit just .226/.261/.258 in 124 at-bats, managing just four doubles and no triples or homers. That lack of power soon became his trademark.

Tyner fit in perfectly on the hapless Devil Rays, hitting .280/.311/.326 and stealing 31 bases as a fourth outfielder in 2001 for a team that lost 100 games. In some places that will get you released, or at the very least ridiculed. In Tampa, it was enough to get a day in his honor. In March 2002, the Devil Rays announced that they would give away 5,00 bobbleheads on June 2. Alas, not even the Rays could stomach Tyner’s .214/ .249/.238 performance in the early months of the season, and with Carl Crawford nearing readiness for the majors, the Rays shipped out their punchless wonder five days before the festivities.

As Chris (now Christina) Karhl wrote for Baseball Prospectus at the time:

Apparently, the Devil Rays’ bobblehead giveaways scheduled for this year were for two of these very gentlemen, Jason Tyner and Toby Hall. Think about that. As dumb as baseball’s dumbest organization is, they did have the smarts to finally cut bait on Tyner, baseball’s worst regular. That’s a cause for hope, right? I suppose that depends; only the Devil Rays would consider making Jason Tyner a regular in an outfield corner. There is an astounding lack of self-awareness, not only on the organizational management level, but in the team’s marketing division. A bobblehead doll for Jason Tyner?

BP staffers like to joke about accumulating Lame Shares, but I think the Devil Rays are the first team to take that concept to heart and use it as a way to outdo themselves in finding new and interesting ways to run fans off. There is something ageless about a Jason Tyner bobblehead doll, of course, in that rather than try to give fans something that symbolizes hope or optimism or a commitment to improvement, or even something like a Randy Winn bobblehead doll that wouldn’t say much of anything at all, the Devil Fishies want to give their fans something that represents how totally hopeless this franchise is, just like Jason Tyner. It’s sort of like a Jose Tartabull doll for the Kansas City A’s to tell fans to abandon hope, or one for Jim Gantner with the Brewers to remind fans that the hometown nine is well-intentioned and mostly harmless. A Jason Tyner bobblehead doll might be the game’s most compelling anti-marketing tool this side of Bud Selig.

At the time it appeared possible that the bobblehead giveaway was simply forestalled. But Tyner didn’t make it back to the big leagues that year, prompting Kahrl to revisit the topic a few months later:

Look, at this stage of the game, there are really only two questions to worry about as far as the D-Rays are concerned: will a strike wreck their shot at 110 losses (and do they have what it takes to do it in fewer than 162 games?), and what happened to all those Jason Tyner bobblehead dolls? Having already decided that trying to build a set of the political leaders of Europe in 1914 would be a vanity I should not indulge, I’d be really unhappy if I didn’t fill my tchotchke bill with the ultimate expression of Devil Ray-dom. Just to think on all those Jason Tyner bobbleheads, gathering dust in some Florida warehouse filled with surplus tinned beef from the Spanish-American War, it’s almost enough to make you moderately interested.

Though Tyner made it back to the majors for 46 games with the Rays in 2003, his big day was never rescheduled, and at the end of the year he was put on waivers. He went to spring training with the Rangers but was cut, spent half a season with the Braves’ Triple-A team in Richmond, the highlight of which was his first professional home run. It came on May 6, in the 2,632rd at bat of his career, off of Columbus pitcher Jim Mann.

It wasn’t enough. Tyner soon found himself the victim of a numbers game in Richmond, but he caught on with the Indians’ Triple-A team in Buffalo, hitting .350/.417/.392 over the last two months of the season. That drew the attention of the Twins, who kept him at Rochester for most of 2005, where he hit another bomb on May 15. He hit well in a September call-up (.321/.367/.375) and found himself back in Minnesota in mid-July when, in a two-day span, Lew Ford, Shannon Stewart and Torii Hunter all hit the DL. The Twins didn’t have a whole lot of choice, but fortunately Tyner came out of the gate strong. He got two hits apiece in each of his first three games and had 18 hits in his first 12 games. His moderately useful work as a reserve has lifted his career line all the way to .272/.309/.315. Still, he’s in the No Homers Club (no, not that one).

But enough about the player. The bobblehead never was too far from this writer’s mind given the futility it (the doll, not my mind) represents. Back before Tyner was recalled, I referred to him in a June 11 Hit List entry on the Giants: “Moises Alou returns after missing a month due to an ankle sprain and hits .273/.360/.636 for the week, including a homer on his own bobblehead day (somewhere, Jason Tyner is weeping).”

A month later, I even had a bobblehead doll sighting of sorts. In her column, Kahrl noted that the Twins’ release of Ruben Sierra “clears space on the roster for the club to bring up a fifth outfielder (Jason Tyner? The Jason Tyner? Man, I still want one of those)” Check that last link; it points to the promotion company that created the doll; their website trumpets it among dozens of others, failing to note its dubious distinction. Nonetheless it’s there, a plastic apparition of sorts. I emailed the photo to my friend Nick Stone, calling the it “the closest you might ever get.”

A few weeks later I linked the image in yet another Hit List entry on the Cardinals. “Meanwhile, Albert Pujols proves he’s human by going all of 33 at-bats without a homer. Somewhere, a Jason Tyner bobblehead is crying.” Never let it be said that I don’t know when to drive a joke into the ground.

The repeated references struck a nerve with Stone, who decided to take action. “While I’ve never considered myself a bobblehead collector, I was intrigued by Tyner as a player because of his complete inability to hit for power, and the absurdity of his story; getting sent down a few days before his bobblehead night. I think over the years I had occasionally checked eBay without any luck. I hadn’t given it much thought recently until both [Jay] and Christina Kahrl mentioned Tyner after his recent call up.” To Stone’s surprise, he found one on eBay, with an asking price of $5.50. A few days later, he’d won the doll without much trouble. “I made a last minute bid with a very high maximum, but only ended up paying $36.50.”

He was surprised at the lack of competition. “It takes two people to have an auction, but in this case, one of them didn’t show up. Either the other bidders weren’t that keen, or they thought that it wouldn’t take much to get it. Considering that this bobblehead was never ‘released,’ I would have thought that the rarity of it, combined with the back story, would drive the price through the roof.” Stone notes that Chien-Ming Wang Trenton Thunder bobbleheads are going for over $300. “I had envisioned boxes of the dolls stacked in a forgotten corner of a cavernous warehouse never to be opened, not unlike the the warehouse scene at the end of the first Raiders of the Lost Ark movie!”

As for the doll’s origin, the seller told Stone he’d found it at an estate sale. A deceased Devil Rays employee? Not necessarily. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the ballclub donated the lot of them — reportedly 15,000, not 5,000 — to charity: “This past offseason, the Rays gave them to the Pinellas Education Foundation for use at Enterprise Village, where they are among the items students can ‘buy’ with their earnings after learning about business and commerce.”

In other words, there may be a few Tampa-area schoolkids running around with Tyner bobbleheads. Either they have yet to flood the market (just one other recently completed auction turned up on eBay) or the sentimental attachment is too great for those kids to let go of their treasured dolls. Is Stone worried his new prized possession will decrease in value? Not really. “Since I paid a reasonable price and have no interest in selling mine, it doesn’t bother me too much,” he says. And he offers advice for the Foundation: “The charity would do well to occasionally post them on eBay in order to maximize their value instead of flooding the ‘market’ by selling them all at once. This might price the kids out of the market, but really, are there any kids out there who really want a Jason Tyner bobblehead? After my eBay experience, I wonder if there’s anyone out there who really wants a Jason Tyner bobblehead besides you, me, Christina Kahrl, and the handful of people I bid against.”

As for the Devil Rays, now under new management, they’re trying to move beyond the doll and the legacy of futility it represents, even if the results haven’t shown up in this year’s standings. “We’re more focused on trying to compete in the AL East,” says a source within the front office, who reports, “People mostly ‘comment’ on [the doll] by way of joking about it. There are some Tyner bobbleheads floating around the office here and there, although I hate to say that there’s no gigantic bowl of them.”


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