It’s a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in Scottsdale, Arizona. I just got done playing catch with my ex-Dodger teammate Daniel Coulombe, who was also recently designated for assignment (DFA’d), when my phone rings. I’ve been waiting for this call, I’ve been expecting this call …
I’ve also been dreading this call.
Almost three weeks ago I was pitching for my eighth MLB team, the Atlanta Braves, having a comeback season for myself when I got “the look.” You know it from a mile away, unless your name is Derek Jeter. Sad eyes, lowered shoulders, avoiding all eye contact — you just hope it’s not for you. With my son playing around in my locker, I hear the words no Brave wants to hear: “Fredi Gonzalez wants to speak to you in his office.”
Five minutes later, life changed. I now have no idea what to do with myself. I’m no longer a Brave, I’m still in a locker room and stadium where I’m no longer welcome, my whole family just landed in Atlanta to spend the week with me, and one of my best friends just got in town with his family to see me pitch. Best timing ever!
I just got DFA’d and I’m stuck. For a player, the designation process works like this: the team still owns you for ten days. Now, any time within those ten days, the team can put you through waivers. If you don’t get picked up and if you have enough service time, you can choose to become a free agent. Most of the time the team will use the first seven days to attempt to trade you, then place you on waivers if they can’t find a trade.
In my mind, my season is far from over. I have stayed healthy for the first time in five seasons, and other than ERA (4.70 overall, but inflated from three poor outings — a 1.52 era minus those three games), all of my numbers are better than or comparable to the best seasons of my career. I truly felt like I had a resurgence!
I know I am unlikely to get traded. I’m guessing bonuses in my contract are the reason I got DFA’d in the first place. I was one game from a “games finished” bonus and eight appearances from another bonus in my contract. I can’t blame the Braves for being smart with their money, but it sucks being on the other end. No right-minded team is going to pick up a player just to immediately pay triple his contract in bonuses after eight games of service.
So at this point, I know it’s going to be at least ten days before I’m playing for another Major League club, and I need to stay ready. After several exhausting (bringing the kids around to all the tourist sites is no joke) days with our friends and family in Atlanta, we hop on a plane for home.
Back home I can get my mind on a routine again to keep me game ready. The first week is easy. I’m excited, I have energy, I know I will be pitching for someone in a pennant chase soon. Working out is fun. When I’m throwing, I have life on the ball, and my bullpen sessions are like clockwork.
I call Jamie Murphy, my agent since I was a kid with a full head of hair at Rice University.
“Jamie, what’s the good word? Who will I be pitching with?”
“Nothing yet,” Jamie tells me. “Several teams are interested and like you, but I’ll let you know.”
Great, teams are interested. Time to go throw another pen. My control is just a little off this time, my body doesn’t feel quite as good, but hey, when I get picked up I’ll be locked in without a problem.
A couple of days later I make another call to Jamie.
“Jamie my man, what’s going on?”
“Well, a couple teams said no thanks,” he says. “One of the interested teams got back to me and they like the guys they have, but there are several we haven’t heard from yet so hold tight.”
Alright, I thought I would be helping someone get to the playoffs by now, but I need to stay ready.
For the first time, the question pops into my mind, and I ask Jamie, “When do I stop throwing and begin my offseason?”
Jamie’s answer is immediate: “Hold tight, keep working and we will see what happens.”
So I go back to throwing pens. By this time, I’ve definitely lost that good tight feeling in my mechanics where everything is where it should be, and my control is getting more than a little off (no matter what my catcher tells me).
While many things contribute to my success during a season, for me it’s mostly the routine. I was never the greatest athlete, so for me to be successful I need to put in a lot of hard work and be very dedicated to a routine. You wake up and head to the field the same time most days. I have a very lengthy and thorough stretching and mobility routine, and after playing catch I do mound work every day. When I come in I watch video on the hitters and get ready for the game. Even during the game I have a stretch routine and I practice my mechanics to make sure I have the same feeling every day. And after the games I work out and head home. My schedule is basically eat, sleep, talk, and think baseball.
When I’m home, I become a dad and a husband again. I’m waking up (way too early), clothing, feeding, and taking the kids to school. Then it’s off to work out and throw, and then back to being Dad. Pitching and baseball become a secondary thought to my family’s routine. It’s extremely easy to lose that focus, that tight feeling.
But again, some teams need me to be ready, so I fight through all those feelings and find my focus.
Jamie calls and asks, “How are you feeling?”
“Great, I’m ready to go,” I tell him — you have to be optimistic. “Who needs me?”
“Unfortunately, no one yet,” he says. “Some more teams said they are sticking with their call-ups. But we haven’t heard from everyone yet, so keep grinding and I’ll call you in a couple of days.”
I ask again, “Jamie, is it time yet to start enjoying my offseason?”
“Well … not yet. Let’s hear from everyone first. There is still a chance.”
That chance is getting smaller and smaller every day, as now we are battling the problem of teams not wanting a pitcher who has missed 20 days of games.
My head isn’t even fully into it now, and my body is feeling it. My throwing is without conviction and my pens are pretty brutal. I’m more “Dad” now than I am a baseball player, and the tequila and pool are beginning to look mighty tempting. I’ve stopped looking as intensely at my MLB At Bat app, and mentally I’m just waiting for that sign telling me to throw my feet up and relax.
The sign comes in the form of the phone call on that sunny Wednesday in Scottsdale. The Cypress Hill ringtone, Jamie’s favorite song, signals that my season is over.
“Enjoy yourself,” Jamie tells me. “Kick back and relax for now. In a couple of weeks start working your butt off again and you are going to have one hell of a 2016 season.”
And with that, my 2015 is done. All the hard work and early morning flights. All the dinners by myself and countless hours on the mound doing pitching drills. It is all over until spring.
Well … unless a team calls tomorrow. Then I’m as ready as ever. :-)