JUPITER, Fla. -- The weight of missed opportunities had left Brandon Moss a shell of that gregarious Georgia boy that Allison -- or Allie, as her husband calls her -- had fallen for years before at Loganville High School. He lugged his insecurities to the ballpark and returned home empty of confidence, day after day after day.
Career stops in Boston and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia had done little more than affirm to Moss that he wasn't ever going to be good enough and that this was no way to support a family. At 28 years old, it was time to relinquish the dream and seek a career.
"I was just trying to read the writing on the wall," he explains. "You don't really see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Fortunately for him, someone else did.
Allie had watched her husband fight this internal struggle and repeatedly had helped him navigate out of it. Growing up with a stepfather who expected excellence in all things and preferred that emotions be masked, Moss had long been his own harshest critic. To disappoint was to fail. The fear of not being good enough overwhelmed him.
Moss had been an eighth-round Draft pick by the Red Sox in 2002, the prospect the Pirates coveted when they dealt away Jason Bay, and now here he was, in '11, an underachieving outfielder stuck in the Minors. Moss would log six at-bats with the Phillies all season.
"I just remember that he was completely defeated," Allie said. "If you know Brandon, you know he's very outgoing and always has a smile on his face. But he was coming home every day defeated, almost like he was depressed."
Sensing that his best big league chances had already passed, Moss convinced himself it was time for a career change. He didn't want to drag his family around as he toiled in Triple-A, and he worried that hanging on to his dream too long would handicap his changes at finding a post-playing career.
"Once you get labeled something in baseball, it's very hard to break that label," Moss said. "I was at the point where I felt like I had to make a decision. Do you continue to pursue this even though you don't see it really going anywhere? Or do you give up your dream to do what's probably the best thing for your family. I love baseball with a passion, but not more than my family."
Moss was intrigued by the possibility of playing professionally in Asia, but he couldn't find a Japanese team interested in him. With that a dead end, Moss reached out to his high school buddy, Brian Headspeth, to inquire about a career in firefighting.
Headspeth, a fire engineer for the Gwinnett (Ga.) County Fire Department, candidly enumerated the pros and cons. Moss, being drawn to the camaraderie and challenge of firefighting, felt a natural fit.
"Coming from baseball, that's the kind of job you're looking for," Moss said. "To where what you put into it, you can get out of it."
Allie told him she'd be supportive of the new journey, but under two conditions: that he had already given baseball his best shot, and that he wasn't doing this solely for their family. They could handle the demands and uncertainty of another baseball season. The question was, could he?
"I remember saying that I believe there was more in him because he was a player that, from an outsider's perspective looking in, once he got up to the big league level, he could not be himself," Allie said. "He felt like he had to be better than he was. Once he got up to the big leagues, he completely froze. I remember looking at him and saying, 'Look, go out there and give it another try.'"
Moss sat on a plastic picnic bench outside the Cardinals' Spring Training complex last week as he recounted how much he wrestled with his future four years ago. Had it not been for his wife's insistence, he would have been fighting fires instead of fighting for a starting job on a team he never imagined could want him.
"I can't even tell you how close I was," Moss said of swapping a batting helmet for fireman's one.
But deciding to rededicate himself to his first love was only half the equation. Baseball had to want him back, too.
Moss played winter ball -- shined in it, in fact -- before reporting to A's Spring Training under a Minor League contract in 2012. He had signed that deal in December, sensing that Oakland could need outfield help at the Major League level. He then watched as the A's traded for Josh Reddick and Seth Smith, then signed Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez.
So much for an outfield fit.
"Tell them you want to play first base," Allie implored. "You have nothing to lose."
In five Major League seasons, Moss had made one start at the position. But when he was assigned to Triple-A to open the season, he again followed his wife's advice and began working at the position with manager Darren Bush. If anything, Moss thought, the added versatility could make him more appealing to a Japanese club, some of which had now begun reaching out to his agent.
Nine days before he could opt out of his contract with Oakland and leave for Asia, Moss was called up to the Majors. Convinced that he'd underachieve and promptly be sent back out, Moss was mostly frustrated by the invite. It would, as he saw it, merely delay his departure.
The A's, however, had a need and clearly saw more in Moss than he did in himself. Though he had slugged .582 in 51 Triple-A games, Moss needed reassurance. It came through two conversations.
The first was again in front of Allie, who, after watching Moss go 2-for-13 to start his tenure with the A's, met him at the team hotel in Colorado. She recognized what she saw.
"I could see the pressure he was putting on himself," Allie said. "Brandon is just one of those people who completely struggled with the initial thought of not being good enough. I actually sat him down and said, 'This is it, Brandon. This is it. This is probably going to be your last real opportunity. You can take it and be the player I believe you can be, or you have to say, 'This is just not for me and I can't handle that.'"
The next day, Moss hit a pair of home runs. By the end of the series, he had blasted four, driven in eight runs and had regained his spunk. It was the start of a stretch in which Moss hit safely in eight of nine games.
Yet, instead of riding high from some success, Moss let the 0-for-13 skid that followed send him right back into a swirl of self-doubt. He assumed Oakland would give up on him, just as three organizations had before.
A's manager Bob Melvin, his team ready to begin a three-game series in Seattle that night, read the emotion written on his player's face. He summoned Moss to where he was standing near the Safeco Field tarp and made him a promise.
"I said, 'Listen, Mossy. You're not going anywhere,'" Melvin said, recalling that career-changing conversation on Tuesday. "'You're going to stay here. You're going to stay in the lineup. You've done enough to prove that you should be in there for a while.'
And the impact of those words?
"I think he really relaxed at that point and realized he could go 0-for-4 and not have to worry about being sent down," Melvin said. "I think it eased his mind."
"I'll never forget it," added Moss. "And he was honest about that. He wrote me in there every day."
Moss went on to establish himself as a big league slugger with the A's, becoming a first-time All-Star in 2014 and participating in the postseason three times. He proved to be a capable first baseman and drove in more runs (168) from '13-14 than anyone on the team but Josh Donaldson.
"In Moss' case, someone has to be an advocate," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "And more importantly, he gave himself a chance. Because when you're at the crossroads of wanting to retire or not, the tough part about our business is very few people decide when they're done. Most are told. And he was having that internal debate on his own of what he was going to do. He chose to continue on and, obviously, the game has been very good to him since."
To understand where Moss came from is to understand how he approaches the game, one that long gave him fits. Getting the second chance you never thought available can have that effect.
Mozeliak sensed it last July 29, when, from the Cardinals' training room, he phoned his newest acquisition. It was approaching midnight in St. Louis, two hours earlier than that in Oakland, where Moss had just landed on the Indians' team plane. Though the Trade Deadline deal wouldn't be announced until the next day, Moss was so excited to find a flight out to St. Louis that Mozeliak had to remind him to go first fetch his bags.
"He was pumped," Mozeliak laughed, recalling that conversation.
Mike Matheny was struck by the same enthusiasm upon meeting Moss the next day. He recently described Moss as "one of the most excited players I've ever seen put on the jersey midseason."
"I never in my life have seen him so happy," added Allie.
There was relief found in another fresh start and a departure from Cleveland, where things just hadn't worked out as expected after the A's traded him there the previous December. There was also shock. No stranger to self-evaluation, Moss was floored that the organization he had long admired would ever want a player like him.
"I was a failed prospect. I was nothing," Moss said. "If you looked at me three years ago, you would have thought there was no way I belonged in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. I belonged in Oakland. I belonged there because I was the type of player they get. To get an opportunity to be in an organization like this ... it's just ... they're kind of different in the way they target players."
The Cardinals were candid. They sought Moss for his power, hopeful that his bat could inject new life into a stalling offense that particularly lacked production at first base. Moss had slugged .504 and hit 76 home runs the previous three seasons with Oakland, and he had hit more homers (15) with Cleveland than anyone on St. Louis' roster at the time of the trade.
But once again restrained by his own insistence to impress, as well as the lower body strength still missing after offseason hip surgery, Moss flashed mostly warning-track power and offered minimal run production. He lost everyday at-bats and drove in as many runs (8) as backup catcher Tony Cruz did during the same span.
The Cardinals, nevertheless, remain convinced that Moss is capable of more, which is why they committed $8.25 million to him this winter. That first-base position he picked up on a whim in Oakland is now one that Moss can, with another career resurrection, fill regularly St. Louis.
Moss will have to battle Matt Adams for at-bats, but he'll do so with regained strength in his legs after a rigorous offseason training program.
"I want to show that I'm more than my first impression," Moss said.
The challenge is nothing new. Moss' career has been a journey of first impressions followed by second chances, a continuum of crossroads in which he has repeatedly faced his own baseball mortality. And for now, he continues on.
"I've played longer and more than I ever thought I would," Moss said. "I think it'll be a good thing when baseball is over, too, because I won't look back and say, 'Man, I could have been so much better.' Instead, I have the outlook of, 'Man, I rose above something that not a lot of guys rise above.'
"When you're written off, it's very hard to come back. It takes not only you, but it takes someone else to really give you that opportunity to come back. I've accomplished more in this game than I ever thought I would. I'm something I never thought I would be."