Some players just mean more to you than others. Jeremy Jeffress was that kind of player.
It was with no small measure of sorrow that I saw Jeremy Jeffress signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs Tuesday afternoon.
Jeffress, a 2006 first round draft pick by the Brewers, was the last of a *ahem* golden age of Brewers first-rounders: Ben Sheets,
Dave Krynzel, Mike Jones, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Mark Rogers, Ryan Braun, Jeffress. In drafting him, it seemed as though the window was soon to be open and a new era of Brewers baseball would begin.
It did begin, but unfortunately without Sheets (injuries derailed his star-crossed career), while Weeks was rushed to the majors after Junior Spivey‘s efficacy as a big league warm body—remember when the Brewers traded Richie Sexson for multiple major league-caliber players? That’s how bad they were—wore thin, Fielder and Braun teased everyone with their Hall of Fame potential as a lineup tandem and Jeremy Jeffress battled substance abuse issues in the minors.
Jeffress rescued himself from the brink, fought his way onto the Brewers roster in 2010, and was promptly traded in the offseason in the package for Zack Greinke. Greinke was fun to have as a long-term rental, but losing Jeffress (and fellow blossoming everyday player Lorenzo Cain, along with current MLB rotation starter Jake Odorizzi and 2015 ALCS MVP and Gold Glove winner Alcides Escobar) hurt beyond just Trader Doug Melvin’s penchant for overpaying. It felt, even then, that we were mortgaging the future too strongly.
So, when Jeffress reunited with the Brewers in 2014 after flaming out with the Blue Jays, it was JJ’s chance to show Brewers fans what he could do. And he made good on it: a strong close to ’14 opened the door for high leverage opportunities in 2015, and he became the club closer in 2016…at which point he was traded with Jonathan Lucroy to the Texas Rangers when the Brewers needed to further blow up the club and reload the farm system.
And that hurt all over again.
So, in 2017, when the Rangers traded him back to Milwaukee for something called a Tayler Scott, the reunion, again, was sweet. Jeffress returned as a setup man once again and won the closing job in 2018, when he earned his lone All-Star appearance.
Watching Jeffress struggle in 2019 was painful (as was watching most of the Brewers bullpen, if we’re being frank.) For me, Jeffress was this guy who kept coming back to Milwaukee and kept being effective as a Brewer and literally nowhere else. Watching him struggle as he did when a Ranger or Blue Jay was surreal, while his 2019 FIP suggests that he was more the victim of hard luck (and, more likely, the manipulated ball) rather than a flat out implosion.
This was the kind of cinema-caliber folk hero story Milwaukee Brewers fans love. A hard-scrabble talent overcoming personal foibles and professional struggles to find his strength was at home the whole time. Jeffress was a mythological figure in real life.
Moreover, he was passionate. The fist pumps, the yawps when getting out of jams, this was the pro athlete who cared so much he didn’t care about how it looked to let the fire out. As someone incapable of properly venting his own internal fire, I envied Jeffress.
And it crushed me when he was DFA’d on September 1. The roster expanded, and he was expanded right off it.
It’s easy for kids to latch onto the Christian Yelichs or Mike Trouts or Aaron Judges of the game; their talent is evident and they’re routinely shown on highlight reels and game recaps. For those of us more invested in the game, there are players we just naturally gravitate toward. I asked the staff here for their guys like that. Danny said Paul O’Neill. Jason said Jimmy Rollins. Khurram and Jonathan didn’t get back to me, but I know their answers are Bobby Bonilla and Kirk Nieuwenhuis, respectively—although I will pay for the latter suggestion in spades as this internal joke circulates eternally like our own version of getting Iced. [Editor’s note: The real answer is Jean Segura.]
Jeffress was that guy for me, my patron saint of sorts. Now he’s a Chicago Cub. How am I supposed to root for him now? How am I supposed to not root for him?
And here, I find myself at the fringes of fandom. Sure, at the end of the day, rooting for a ball club is rooting for laundry, and it is so that we on the outside looking in care more about the laundry than those who wear it 162ish times a year. Jeffress isn’t one of us anymore, but he can’t just be dead to me or persona non grata.
It’s not that simple, if for no other reason than that nothing in life is.
Farewell and godspeed, Jeremy Jeffress. Thanks for your contributions to my maturation, baseball or otherwise. With any hope at all, you’ll come back to Milwaukee one more time and end this whole shebang the way it deserves to play out—on a high note. In the meantime, we’ll do our best to ignore the colors on the surface and always cherish the ones we saw underneath.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.