Patrick Wisdom didn't create many memories as a Texas Ranger. But the deal to acquire him has a lasting, and surprising, impact. Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball

Remembering the Rangers’ Drew Robinson-Patrick Wisdom Swap, a Small Deal With Lasting Impact

Not all footnote trades are created equal.

Last week, I got my stretching in and did my best to provide a list of reasons to remain engaged through the end of this rough Rangers season. But I’m human; my mind can wander, too, even while hunting for hay-engulfed needles without much hope of seeing a winning product on the field. 

And, lately, it has drifted toward a Rangers trade that couldn’t have made any less of a ripple. 

Drew Robinson had just finished his ninth season as a professional baseball player. He’d played in 918 games for the Rangers organization; 823 of them had been in the minor leagues.

Patrick Wisdom had played 719 of his 751 pro games on the farm for the St. Louis Cardinals, finally getting a 32-game big-league look late across two brief stints in 2018, his seventh season.

Two months later, the Rangers, Cardinals, and the rest of Major League Baseball gathered for the 2018-19 Winter Meetings at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Robinson’s hometown of Las Vegas. He’d been a prep star there before Texas used a fourth-round pick to draft him in 2010. He’d been in the Rangers organization ever since, making the Opening Day roster in 2017 and bouncing back and forth that year between the majors and minors before a similarly itinerant campaign the following season. He’d hit .204 for Texas those two years, playing all over the field, but the club was clearly in the midst of a makeover. Chris Woodward had been hired shortly after the 2018 season had ended, weeks after which Adrian Beltre retired.

Robinson was 26, without a clear role going forward. He was in danger of being placed on waivers as Texas looked to reshape its roster over the winter.

Meanwhile, Wisdom had failed to come close to the expectations that accompanied him when St. Louis used a supplemental first-round pick on him in 2012 (13 slots after Texas drafted Joey Gallo). His power had finally begun to emerge at the AAA level in 2017, and he was summoned to make his debut the next year, but he was already 27 when the season ended.

His roster spot with the Cardinals was in just as much jeopardy.

So on the second day of the Winter Meetings — as free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were looking for new homes, the Rangers were negotiating with free agent Lance Lynn, and the Marlins were keeping everyone guessing as to where they would trade J.T. Realmuto — Texas and St. Louis announced that they were swapping Robinson for Wisdom. An optimist might have called it a classic change-of-scenery flier by both teams. Others might have seen it as a shuffling of the deck. Texas acquired a candidate to compete for Beltre’s vacated spot at third base in exchange for a player whose versatility fit the National League better. For most fans, it probably didn’t register at all.

Robinson made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster but lasted three pinch-hit at-bats. Wisdom spent a week in April with the Rangers and went 2 for 15, striking out nine times. Each came back from AAA later that month, but come the end of April, they wouldn’t see the big leagues again in 2019.

That July, Texas waived Wisdom but no other team claimed his contract. A month later, St. Louis simply released Robinson after he’d injured his non-throwing elbow.

In each case, it was an unceremonious end to an inconsequential trade.

Dial ahead to 2021: Robinson (age 29) and Wisdom (age 30) are bigger baseball stories than they’ve ever been.

Wisdom has been the National League’s version of Adolis Garcia, given a chance to play every day by the Chicago Cubs and capitalizing at an age when most players are past their primes, much less succeeding as major-league rookies. Wisdom has a .530 slugging percentage, which would be in the NL’s top 10 if he had enough at-bats to qualify. The reason he doesn’t is he didn’t join the team until May 25, 46 games into the season — and, in spite of that, he has broken Kris Bryant’s franchise record for home runs by a rookie (27). He’s in the discussion for NL Rookie of the Year.

Robinson is in the center of a much bigger discussion. He revealed to ESPN’s Jeff Passan in January that he had attempted suicide the year before. He’d gone to spring training with the San Francisco Giants in 2020 and was hitting .235 with seven strikeouts in 19 plate appearances when camp was shut down due to COVID-19 in mid-March. There would not be a minor-league season, and for Robinson, who was already waging a one-man battle against depression, that meant a year of physical isolation to go along with the self-doubts he knew he’d have to overcome to reestablish himself in baseball. 

On April 16, 2020, Robinson lifted a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He lost his right eye, but not his life. He took his survival as a sign that he was spared in order to help others.

Since then, and particularly since Passan’s February story and a subsequent E:60 documentary, Robinson has dedicated himself to raising mental and emotional health awareness in the game and beyond. The Giants gave him a spring training invite in March and assigned him to their AAA club in Sacramento, and it was more than a token gesture. He played in 38 games for the River Cats, homering three times — despite missing his lead eye — and playing both outfield corners for the team.

Robinson retired in July, moving directly into the Giants’ front office to serve as a mental health advocate for the organization.

The beauty of baseball is how meaningful small moments — and there are many in the sport that uniquely takes very few days off — can become. Not all of them, to be sure, but enough that there’s always a mystery to solve, a new face to know, a story that emerges from an unlikely crevice. Some of the best can take years to surface, little by little, until they’ve found their way into our consciousness. That’s what Drew Robinson and Patrick Wisdom have done. Three years ago, relative to the sport they’ve devoted their lives to, they were unremarkable like so many who have passed through the game. Now, as we await the end of a mostly unmemorable Rangers year, I doubt I’ll ever forget them — or the footnote trade that put each on a new path.

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