CLEARWATER, Fla. - One by one, they will shrug when you ask them. Benny Looper, who oversaw much of Greg Dobbs' development while an executive with the Seattle Mariners, doesn't hazard a guess. Neither does Pat Gillick, the general manager who signed Dobbs off of waivers in January 2007.
But maybe there is a logical answer, buried somewhere beneath the facts and figures that populate a baseball player's resumé. Maybe there is a certain degree of desperation when it comes to pinch-hitting, and maybe the best pinch-hitters find a way to channel that desperation into that one at-bat, that one pitch, that one moment in time when they might actually find themselves a contributor to a cause.
Succeed, and you are on base, and your number is in lights, and on certain occasions your name will be directly linked to that notch in the win column.
Fail, and you are right back where you started. Sitting on the bench, stewing in your frustration, wondering when you might get your next chance to prove that there should be more-at-bats, and more opportunities.
It is only a thesis, one that can never be proved, but when you look at Greg Dobbs, and you look at his life, and his career, and you look at the deadly sincerity with which he approaches the art of hitting, it just might make sense.
"I think the most frustrated I've ever been was probably that last year in Seattle," said Dobbs, who spent 6 years in the Mariners system but was blocked from the majors partially because the club signed first baseman Richie Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre in 2005 to play his two natural positions. "I could see the writing on the wall, I knew that they were now starting to shy away from me. They signed Beltre, they signed Sexson. Once you see the writing on the wall, it becomes pretty frustrating. Even though I was up and down that year . . . in that final year, I hit .370-something, mostly pinch-hitting."
Those who followed the Phillies' magical run last season are well aware of the value Dobbs brings to the team. He set the Phillies' all-time single-season record with 22 pinch-hits, hitting .355 with six extra-base hits and 16 RBI in that role. This offseason, he signed a 2-year, $2.5 million contract that provides him with stability for the first time in his professional career.
But beneath the aura of calm he exudes when at the plate, and beneath the well-spoken, personable character who inhabits the Phillies' clubhouse, you get the sense that he is the type of player burning with the desire to do more. And you get the sense that he knows how to channel that emotion.
Those who know Dobbs best, the coaches who guided him along the way, best articulate that internal makeup when providing examples of his manic desire to improve. When former minor league player and manager Mike Stubbins began giving him batting lessons as a teenager, he immediately noticed a naturally gifted swing tailor-made for professional ball. But he also noticed something else, something that only the true professionals possessed.
"I used to have a kid who was a No. 1 draft pick of another organization, and he hated Greg Dobbs," Stubbins said. "And I used to tell him, you hate Greg Dobbs because he works so hard."
But the hard work often seemed as if it would not be enough. In 2001, he hit .438 with 62 RBI and 12 steals as a fifth-year senior at the University of Oklahoma, then signed a contract with the Mariners and kept right on hitting: .321 in rookie ball, .385 at Class A, .365 in his first year at Double A San Antonio.
But there were questions about his defense - he committed 23 errors in the minors in 2002 and 24 in 2004 - and about his natural position (he played third base, first base and the outfield).
While playing for the Double A San Antonio Missions from 2002 to '04, Dobbs would often drop by manager Dave Brumbage's office and pepper him with questions.
What do I need to do? How can I improve? How can I make them want me?
"I think he was trying to find himself," Brumbage said.
Dobbs blew out his left Achilles' tendon early in the 2003 season and missed the rest of the year. He broke into the big leagues the following season, but had limited success while bouncing between the minors and majors from 2004 to '06.
During his time with Seattle, Dobbs would often confide in another lefthanded-hitting late-bloomer who endured a frustrating start to his career, current Phillies leftfielder Raul Ibanez.
"He was that voice of reason, because he had been through that," Dobbs said. "He knew exactly what I was going through - mentally, physically, everything. And he would reassure me: 'Dobber, you're going to be OK.' "
Those words resonated when Dobbs signed his contract this offseason. Although not nearly as rich as some of the other multiyear deals the club doled out - including the $31.5 million given to Ibanez - it finally gave him a chance to breathe.
"When I signed that contract, I was elated," said Dobbs, who credits the Phillies with giving him a chance, "because for once in my career, my whole career, I could kind of at least take a breath and say, 'OK. I'm not one of those guys on the cusp anymore,' which I've always been."
But don't expect him to start playing like it. After all, in the minds of many, Dobbs still has something to prove. He is still the hit-first, field-maybe player who has yet to prove he can be an everyday player. Dobbs says he continues to pour himself into improving defensively. He has played first, third, left and right this spring, and has improved to the point where Looper, the Phillies' assistant general manager for player personnel, says he can envision him as an everyday player down the road.
For now, though, he will continue to do what he has always done best: hit, pinch-hit and try to prove himself.
"I would like at some point for a coach to say, 'You know what? He's not just a hit-first guy,' " Dobbs said. " 'This guy can play some defense, too. He's not going to hurt you in the field.' I would like for someone to say that about me. I really would." *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.