And so it Ends…

After taking nearly eight weeks to figure out how to put a 19-year career into words, I have realized that this is a feat nothing short of impossible.  Perhaps my recent job search and embracing the arduous task of breaking into investment banking or private equity in hard economic times allowed my mind to stray and enabled me to postpone this conclusion.  More likely, though, is that putting closing remarks on something that I have been doing for so long is a daunting task.  On the eve of what will be the first Fourth of July I have not had a game in as long as I can remember (with the exception of 2005 when I was recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome), I make my best attempt to transpire 19 years into words.

So, why do players continue lacing up the spikes and keep going out there?  The easy answer is because it is fun.  However, this “fun” is driven by different motivators for different people.  For some, it is fun because they achieve more success than others (I do not know how many people continue to willingly do something without triumphs along the way).  Others, however, are driven because they were doubted.  These doubters, often those that were surpassed in skill and achievement by others, ridicule that continuing to pursue the game is a waste of time and effort; that chasing a dream is putting off the inevitability of facing reality that you are never going to make it.  My fun was driven by the thirst to prove people wrong.  By showing people that the player who was once the smallest and least talented of a team of 12-year old Little League All-Stars was going to amount to something one day, long after all of my teammates stopped played.  That was my fun.

I can say that with the exception of playing in the famed Cape Cod summer collegiate league, I accomplished these goals and many others that sprung up along the journey.  I had a successful collegiate career at the University of Rochester for two years, prior to transferring to The University of Tampa.  Two NCAA National Championships and an Academic All-American honor later, I was signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  There, I was fortunate enough to win a Pioneer League Championship and was named Cedar Rapids Player of the Month in May 2008.  And then, after three seasons, it was all over.

I met many embracing families and knowledgeable individuals over my career.  I cannot be more grateful for the support and guidance provided to me by family, friends, and coaches through the years.  All of these individuals played integral parts in the success of my career.  Without those pieces, the puzzle is far from completion.  And while this is a puzzle with a few missing pieces, I am satisfied with the progress, as tough as it is to walk away from something incomplete. 

I gave up an education at a top-40 school to better my chances of playing professional baseball.  I suffered a career- and life-threatening injury, only to rehabilitate and get back on the field.  Then, I gave up another educational opportunity at a top-30 graduate business school to continue the pursuit of a dream.  If I was not going to make it, it was not going to be due to lack of effort. 

I made lifelong friends, lived the impossible, and have a storybook of tales that would take weeks to tell.  I passed up on an education, twice, that would most likely have me with several years of financial industry experience and a comfortable lifestyle.  I overcame a surgery to alleviate a blood clot and rehabbed numerous injuries to keep pressing forward.  I earned the right to endure the “famed” life of professional baseball through countless sacrifices; the below-minimum wage salaries, bus-rides through the night, and senseless flight connections travelling between affiliates are all a part of the game.  It is an opportunity most dream of but few experience.  Although the game left me jaded at times and lost in my thoughts, it gave back so much. 

My answer is “Yes.”  Every single time.

Retired

After much thought and consideration, I have decided to retire from professional baseball.  I am currently in the process of assembling my final thoughts and will make that post shortly.  Thank you to everyone who has followed and supported my career.

Catcher for Hire, Will Travel

Tax season has finally finished in what was quite the flurry.  Our office was the only one in the district to meet (and exceed) our goals for new client growth and other office targets.  The stretch run this past three weeks kept my competitive spirit up and was full of many experiences I can draw upon during my professional career after baseball.

With the close of the tax office, I am left only with thoughts of a baseball season that may not come to fruition.  After some sleuthing by my girlfriend, she assembled the email addresses and fax numbers of all the Independent teams in four leagues that had less than two catchers on their rosters and suggested I use a page out of Chris Marchok’s playbook (he faxed flyers to Major League affiliations after being released by the Montreal Expos and was signed by Philadelphia) and contact teams directly.  While this may have been an ulterior motive to her getting itchy feet about being in Tempe for a whole four months, I thought it was a great idea.

The day after sending out emails with my professional and college statistics and resume attached, I received a phone call and three emails the next day (apparently the subject line, which is the title of this post, was catchy).  While one was a response saying the team had no availability at the present time, I had some bites and have a shot at signing on somewhere.  All I need is the opportunity to play to keep the dream alive.  I am looking forward to seeing my new swing and arm slot in game action, to see if my efforts this offseason were beneficial.   

Athletes’ Performance

It is the final baseball-less weekend before the 2010 season gets underway.  I use the term “baseball-less” loosely, seeing as I had to go over to the field for about a half hour yesterday to “report” for spring training, and three-hour physicals began at 7:45am this morning.  Today is last day without any baseball activity until April 6, the day after camp breaks.

For the last three weeks, my strength and condition workouts shifted from the Minor League complex in Tempe to Athletes’ Performance, a training facility located in north Phoenix.  Athletes’ Performance has four locations in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, and has earned an esteemed reputation for training elite collegiate and professional athletes.  Working out at Athletes’ Performance is one-stop shopping as far as an integrated strength, conditioning, agility, and nutrition plan goes.

All athletes undergo an introductory evaluation where body composition, functional movement, target cardiovascular heart rates, and goals are evaluated.  From there, a nutritional blueprint is constructed for the athlete to follow that identifies the proper carbohydrate-protein-fat ratio to obtain the target amount of daily calories.  This nutritional information is also used to develop the formulae for the pre-workout shooters and post-workout shakes that are given.  The shooters are consumed by athletes before workouts to increase workout capacity while minimizing fatigue, while the shakes are taken after workouts to repair and build lean muscle.

The actual workouts comprised of pre-movement prep, movement prep, speed work, plyometrics, and strength development.  Pre-movement prep involves trigger point release techniques and movement prep focuses on active stretching and movements to warm-up muscles.  Once the body is loose, speed work and plyometrics are integrated using medicine balls, bounding, resisted cables, and a variety of other toys only strength and conditioning coaches could find joy with.  After this is strength development, with three circuits of about four exercises comprising this phase.  Wrapping up the two-hour workout is cardio work, which generally involves interval training of some kind, whether that is shuttle runs or alternating stints on VersaClimbers and treadmills.

I have to thank Mike Roberts, head coach of the Cotuit Keetlers of the Cape Cod Baseball League and Director of Baseball Operations at Athletes’ Performance, for this great opportunity.  I also need to thank my beloved girlfriend, Juliet, who served as Coach Roberts’ Head Athletic Trainer at Cotuit this past summer, and was able to introduce me to him when the need arose for a catcher at Athletes’ Performance.  When pitchers and catchers reported to Major League spring training, the catchers who were catching pitchers had to leave, and a catcher was needed for the pitchers who had yet to report.  Juliet suggested that I could fill the void when she learned of the situation, and Coach Roberts presented me with the opportunity.

Training at Athletes’ Performance was an amazing experience, and I was able to realize improvements in running technique and overall movement coordination in the short time I was there.  I have John Stemmerman, GM/Performance Manager of Athletes’ Performance and my workout group’s coach, as well as the rest of the dedicated staff to thank for the gains I was able to make.  Their expertise and attentive instruction was invaluable and has given me useful knowledge moving forward in developing my baseball abilities.

No Negotiation Without Representation

These past twenty-four months have been trying times in the global economy, with uncertainty reigning king in all economic circles.  While this insecurity has become mainstream in today’s everyday life, it has been a part of baseball for decades.  Prior to the advent of free agency in 1975, Major League players remained property of their initial team until traded or released.  Free agency allowed players to sign contracts of a set duration, giving them negotiating power for more lucrative contracts and created the demand for agents.

Some agents have drawn the ire of those that follow sports for demanding salaries that many deem excessive.  While this aspect of sports agencies remains open to debate, there are many more benefits to having agent representation than just inking the big deals, especially for younger and less known players. 

Agents provide many of their players with equipment and clothing at discounted or no cost.  Things that are usually provided to collegiate players for nothing, like batting gloves, gloves, and cleats, are not given to professional players.  These expenses can add up over a few seasons for players on minimal minor league salaries that did not ink a large signing bonus to get their careers going.

Another benefit agents can provide players is helping them find another teams to play for if things go south with their current team.  While minor league players remain property of their first Major League team for their first six seasons, there is no obligation for these teams to offer a contract for all six years.  The nature of the business is very fluid, with players coming and going almost every month of the season through trades and releases.  The uncertainty that exists from the possibility of being released makes having an agent invaluable when it comes to finding another team to sign with as soon as possible.

This past offseason has brought several changes to my life both on and off the field, with my living and training locations being the most prominent differences from previous years.  Perhaps the biggest strategic difference I have made from a baseball career standpoint is a decision that has implications is that I have agreed to be represented by a sports agency.

While I was not actively seeking representation, the opportunity arose out of a connection I had with a former teammate of mine at the University of Rochester.  Mike Gerton, a teammate of mine during my 2003 season, gave me a call during November and discussed the prospects of the firm he works for representing me.  After some consultation with several people about the decision, I agreed to have Goldin & Waddell Management to represent me.  The decision to do this was twofold.  First, not having to pay for some of my gear is extremely helpful, especially on our salaries.  The bigger reason, though, is that this firm is going to be my hedge against the uncertainty of never knowing what the organization’s intentions with you are, and that they always have the power to release you tomorrow. 

I have been told by several Angels staff members that I am a valuable part of the organization.  However, I understand that nothing is guaranteed and that I have to fight for a spot on a team every year.  It is possible that they decide to head in a direction that does not include me in their plans, despite me having done everything in my power to stay.  Having an agent in this situation may provide me the opportunity to sign with another organization in what is hopefully a short amount of time.  The longer a released player remains a free agent, the lesser his chances are of signing with another team.

Baseball is a game where nothing is certain, and the personnel decisions that parallel the balls and strikes can be just as ambiguous.  All I can do is be prepared for as many situations as possible and put myself in good positions on and off the field.  Having Goldin & Waddell Management in my corner affords me comfort knowing that I am not the only one looking out for my career and they will do everything in their power to put me in positions to succeed.

Another Day, Another Zip Code

When the holidays, a move, a new job, and baseball workouts run together, the result is a two-month blog sabbatical.  Although my offseason entries are not as frequent as those during the season, I at least try to do two or three a month. 

During my holiday trip home to New York, I worked a youth catching clinic with a former coach of mine, Norm Hayner, at his Sports Barn facility.  Coaching kids is always a beneficial experience for several reasons.  In addition to the fulfillment of being able to share knowledge with aspiring players, it helps reinforce the finer details of the craft into my workouts and remind me of the basic skills necessary to play the game consistently.

After returning to California after New Years, Juliet and I packed up our cars and headed east to Arizona.  Although early Angels’ workouts did not start until the third week of January, Juliet began her internship at Athletes’ Performance January 4, so we had to get there as soon as possible.  Until the Angels complex was opened for the players to use, I worked out with a teammate at Arizona State University.  This was just another facility I have used his offseason in what has become a laundry list of locales.  I have worked out in four states at seven gyms and four batting cages.  While my traveling this offseason has exponentially increased, I have always found the time and locations to get my working out and baseball drill work done.

Optional pre-spring training workouts with the Angels just finished their third week.  So far, it has been some light hitting and throwing, with a lot of running.  The first things players lose in spring training are legs, followed by arms.  Those who can bring conditioned legs and arms into camp are the players who are able to handle the arduous workload of the four-week crash course for the 140-game season. Position specific drill work will start this week as more players continue to arrive.

With the absence of school due to my graduation from The University of Tampa (again) in May, I have not had textbooks and case studies to occupy my free time.  Finding a job was the next logical progression, especially considering Juliet was tied up all day with her internship six days a week.  I knew the combination of finding a job flexible enough for me to maintain my workout regimen and the sluggish economy would make this a difficult task.  However, there two sure things in life: death and taxes.  On the suggestion of my brother, I put in for a job at H&R Block, a tax preparation company that makes almost all of its revenue between January and April.  This seasonal position is perfect for the baseball player who is only available until spring training begins in March.

While being slightly overqualified for their Client Services Representative position that pays just over minimum wage (which is about twice as much as my hourly baseball salary), I was grateful for the opportunity to earn a little income and be able to put some pseudo-financial industry experience on my resume.  One day, I will be ready to pursue a career in finance and put my degrees to use.  Until then, I am along for this baseball ride where you never know the final destination.

So, You Wanna Play Professional Baseball?

It is finally February 3 (for those of you just tuning into my blog, I have made past references to the industry’s acceptance of every day being Groundhog Day).  This will be the first day since the start of spring training that my mind will be clear of baseball.  While I try to escape it on off days, I never completely succeed.  To fill the void, I will address my travel plans back to Tampa and try to pin down some offseason jobs that I have spent the last two months investigating.  Since I have completed my MBA in May, this will be the first time in seven years that I will not be attending a college class.  While this is a relief, it is also a detriment in that I need to figure out what I will be doing with my life for the next six months.

My second full season in professional baseball seemed to go by faster than my first.  Some players feel the seasons get longer; I, however, oppose that notion. I have bussed across the Golden State, making stops in San Bernardino (Inland Empire), Lake Elsinore, Adelanto (High Desert), Lancaster, Bakersfield, Visalia, Modesto, Stockton, and San Jose.  I have flown to Salt Lake (via three cities) for a three-day stint with our Triple-A affiliate and back.  I also made a brief trip to the disabled list after injuring my left shoulder in early May.

Time off will be greatly appreciated.  140 games in 152 days takes its toll on everyone and warrants serious decompression.  After a few weeks off, I will begin working out again in preparation for the 2010 season.  I made some improvements this season, but a lot of work still needs to be done to win a job during spring training next March.

I thank Gerry McKearney and the front office staff for providing the Quakes the opportunity to play in Rancho and the many great things they have done for us this season.  That grounds crew must be commended for maintaining one of the best fields to play on in the California League (and professional baseball).  Our bus driver, Jimmy, must be thanked for keeping us safe through our many bus excursions in the commuter-heavy league.

While assembling this final post of the 2009 season, I have referred to my concluding remarks from last season and feel that they are still valid and worth mentioning.  With this in mind, I have simply reposted certain parts to conclude this final post.

As I have said from the beginning, it is every little boy’s dream to play professional baseball.  Yes, baseball is a fun game to play, especially when you are growing up.  But, when that decision is made to seriously pursue that dream and do everything in your power to make it, the only thing that is going to stop you from playing is your body telling you you cannot continue, or all thirty professional baseball organizations telling you that you are not good enough and cannot continue to play.

Once someone has vested a certain amount of time and resources into something, it makes walking away impossible.  Last season, we were told that ‘Every day you spend not working on one aspect of this game, you slip one day farther away from making it to the top.’  While I only recently heard this, I realize that I have had this attitude ever since I made the commitment to chasing my dream of playing professional baseball.  This is not to say that you cannot take any off-days, but the biggest thing I could advise anyone is that I was able to become the player I am through hard work when no one was watching.  I was not blessed with much God-given ability like the players I have always been playing with.  I do not have the speed, arm strength, or power that some of the other players have.  However, I have a work ethic and the knowledge to work on only the things I can control, and get the most out of the ability I was blessed with.

This journey has always come down to making sacrifices and dedicating myself to becoming the best player possible.  I played with many players growing up who had more talent than I did, and everyone thought those would be the players that would be playing professionally one day. Of those teams I have been with, I am the only player still playing today in affiliated professional baseball.  So, it really comes down to making a commitment to yourself that you are going to put the effort into achieving whatever your goals are.  Some people realize along the way that it is not what they really want to do, and that is fine, but if you really want it, give it everything you have.  You have to put your energies into the things you can control.

In closing, I thank everyone again for keeping up with this blog this season and everyone who has given me words of encouragement and support.  I will conclude with a quote I have had hanging in my room for as long as I can remember, and it is one that I feel everyone can grasp and apply to their lives: “For those who dream, there is no such word as impossible.”

Paychecks and Offdays

This is what we have left to play for.  We have already put in the 140 games required by the Minor League schedule, yet we are still playing.  We have moved into the bonus baseball portion of the season, where games have heightened meaning but stats do not count (at least not for career totals).  The more frequent our wins, the more off days we have and longer we receive paychecks.

This was Rancho’s first playoff series victory since 1998 and marks the second time in two years I have been part of an affiliate ending a long drought.  Last season, Cedar Rapids won its first playoff series since 2000, making myself (and several other players) part of teams that have collectively ended 19 years of playoff deficiency. 

Win and You’re In

Well, it did not quite work out like that, but we succeeded regardless.  Despite dropping six of our last seven, we backed into post season play with some help from Lancaster (Houston Astros affiliate) on Saturday night.  This is the first time the Quakes have been to the post season in five years.  For a core group of us, this will be the third time in three professional seasons that we have made the playoffs.  That, in itself, is a feat. 

With our magic number at one entering the four-game Bakersfield (Texas Rangers) series, we needed one win, or one Inland Empire loss (Los Angeles Dodgers).  After dropping our first two to Bakersfield, coupled with two Inland Empire wins, the originally manageable situation become direr.  However, while we were losing on Saturday night, Lancaster maintained an advantage throughout giving us the hope of backing into the playoffs should we not pull it out against Bakersfield.  Lancaster ended up squandering a 6-2 in the top of the ninth, but would go on to a 7-6 walk-off win.  This clinched our playoff berth, despite our 4-1 loss.

The clinching was a dim light on our otherwise dismal road trip.  Our celebration, complete with champagne (which is a step up from collegiate celebratory occasions), seemed a bit tainted due to our play down the stretch.  Nonetheless, when more than half of minor league baseball will turn in their uniforms at the conclusion of the regular season, we will live to play another day.  To win a League Championship, all you need to do is have a chance.

Major League wild card teams have garnered a lot of attention due to their post season success in recent years.  Their success can be attributed to the fact that these teams tend to come into the playoffs the hottest and have been playing meaningful games up until the end of the season.

Despite our losing record, we begin the playoffs alongside everyone else with no wins and no losses.  While we never seemed to put things together for a stretch of more than four or five games this season, we had enough of these little spurts to put ourselves in a position to win a title.  To overcome the injuries, roster moves (we have no starting pitchers from our initial starting rotation, and only five arms from the opening day roster on the staff), and other adversity that grips a team and be playoff bound is a respectable fear.  What we make of this opportunity remains to be seen, although it is our intent to be one of the fourteen minor league teams that will end their playoff run with a win.  We begin our season anew with hope and excitement and will see if we can write a victorious ending for the 2009 Quakes.

Just a Business

All too often, you hear someone saying that this game is “just a business.”  This was all too apparent yesterday as our parent club was trying to bolster its starting rotation by making one last addition before the rosters freeze on September 1.  While the trading deadline passed on July 31, trades can still occur through September 1 if players clear waivers.

We got to the stadium yesterday amidst rumors of the Angels and Tampa Bay Rays being close to a deal that would send starting pitcher Scott Kazmir to the Angels in exchange for some Minor League prospects.  What brought these trade talks closer to home was that one of the prospects on the trading block was teammate Matt Sweeney.  Sweeney had apparently heard about these rumors from teammates through an MLB.com article before he even got a call from his agent.  While we set out to begin our daily routines, Sweeney was off to get a physical.  After coming in from batting practice, ESPN was reporting the story that the Angels and Rays were close to completing this trade; all the while Sweeney is sitting in our clubhouse waiting to hear his fate.  Right after our game started that night against Stockton, Sweeney got word that the deal went through and he packed up his things and left.

The other big component of this deal was starting pitcher and former teammate, Alex Torres, who was in Double-A Arkansas.  What awaits to be seen for the ultimate conclusion of this deal is the “player to be named later,” which is the selection from a list of agreed upon names that the Rays will choose at a later date.

As I have discussed in the past, you never know when teammates are coming or going.  It is infrequent that a significant trade like this hits as far down the Minor League ladder that it did.  But, this is just another instance that supports the notion that in the end, baseball is not a game; rather, it is a business.  Free agents sign with teams that pay them the most money and give them the best shot at winning a World Series.  Teams out of contention deal away top players in the attempt to gain enough younger prospects to compete down the road.  Owners dismantle teams after winning a World Series to ensure their pockets stay lined with the fruits of their recent labor.  As long as baseball has been played, there have always been people in it more for money and prestige than wins and losses.  While there are arguments both for and against this ideal, it is one that will always be present as long as money drives the game.A

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