Cut Day Stories from Spring Training March 29, 2013 The end of Spring Training can be an absolute nerve racking time for players on the bubble. I've often said that competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster in spring training usually comes with more pressure than actually pitching in the big leagues during the season. Making that impression on the big league coaching staff and front office in spring is so important, especially when it's your first time with that team or that coaching staff. Where you start the season is critical to a player. The difference between the major leagues and AAA is so vast, the salary, the amenities, the life. The two just don't compare and after all the work you put in over the off season nobody wants to start the year in the minor leagues, or even worse without a job at all. As the news flows in about prospects getting sent out to minor league camp or redemption projects making the team I can't help but be reminded about the spring trainings I endured over my career; the excitement of making the team and the discouragement of being sent down or released. Lots of emotions come with this time of year and I've often feel like my baseball life was on the line. For your entertainment here is the story of each of my springs. Some not too special, some downright crazy and one that completely changed my life. 1995, Cincinnati - I was the Reds first round draft pick in 1994 and as part of my deal I was supposed to be invited to major league spring training the next year, but there was no regular major league spring training. The players were on strike and so I was in minor league camp. I pitched the year before in AA Chattanooga and had a decent year for a kid coming out of college and going straight to AA. I trained the whole spring with the AAA team, for sure I thought I was headed to Indianapolis. Near the end of camp the AAA manager, Marc Bombard, called me into his office. He was tip toeing around his words, he seemed nervous, he knew I thought I was going to AAA. "CJ, you have pitched well, you did a good job, but we think you need a little more time, you're going to start the season in Chattanooga." I think Bomby expected me to be upset or angry. I was perfectly fine with it and told him so. He seemed really surprised and encouraged. "That's great! Do your work and we'll see you soon."  I really was fine with it, it was my first spring training, what did I know? I was in AAA by mid May and the big leagues in June. 1996, Detroit - Buddy Bell was the new manager for the Tigers. I finished the season in Detroit the year before. It wasn't pretty. I had no shot. I was out by the middle of camp and on my way to Toledo. I do remember Buddy Bell walking around the players during stretch early in camp and asking me a question. "CJ, what are you about 27?" "No Skip, I'm 22." It was my first big league camp, my 23rd birthday was around the corner. I always wondered why he asked me that, I found it odd. I did get a call up that year, it didn't go very well. 1997, Houston - I was traded over to Houston in January. In my first full two years in baseball I had accrued over one year of major league service time and played in 5 cities. I thought I had a shot to make the team and I had a good spring. I was disappointed when I was sent out. In retrospect I now realize I had zero chance to make it. I thought I was going to be on that opening day roster, I thought I pitched well. I was pretty clueless how things really worked. 1998, Houston - I thought I was out of options this spring, I even mentioned it in my blog. Tim Purpura, then Assistant GM of the Astros, must have read it and mentioned to me in the clubhouse one day that I still had one option left. In 1995 I was sent down by the Reds, but traded to Detroit 13 days later and put back in the big leagues by them. That option didn't count, you need to be in the minors for 20 full days. That was disappointing news. It was made clear to me that the only shot I had to make the team was a long one, as a reliever out of the bullpen. I had never been a reliever for more than a couple of games in any season in my life. I had a very strong spring, if I remember correctly 11 games, no runs. As spring neared its end the team was going to Houston to play some exhibition games. The truck was loading up, I had no idea what my status was so I asked our manager Larry Dierker. He told me the team wasn't sure yet, to go ahead and put my things on the truck and they'd let me know. Off to Houston I went. We played two exhibition games at the Astrodome. The final game was finished and Opening Day was tomorrow, still no word. I went back to the hotel where I was staying still unsure if I was on the Opening Day roster. I showed up the next day to the ballpark, my locker was still intact and my name was on the lineup card. No one ever told me I was on the team so I just assumed I was. During batting practice that game I was told by my pitching coach Vern Ruhle that it was highly unlikely that I would pitch that game or the next and he suggested I throw a pre game bullpen, so I did, about 45 pitches. The phone rang in the 5th inning, my first experience of bullpen adrenaline, "CJ, get up." I warmed up 4 times that night and eventually took the loss in the 13th inning. Between my bullpen, my 4 dry humps and 1.2 innings of work I bet I threw 200 pitches that day. A couple of days later Gerry Hunsicker, our GM, came up to me in my locker and congratulated me on a good spring and making the team. It was my first time being congratulated for making the Opening Day roster by anyone in the organization. That really happened. 1999-2001, Detroit - I had a spot on the big league team going into each of those camps. It was a totally different experience for me than any other years I had in my career. I was fortunate to have that. 2002, Houston - I turned down a 40 man offer with Mets to sign a minor league deal with the Astros. Sounds crazy I know but it was about pitching opportunity. With the Mets it looked like I would have been the 3rd lefty in the pen, with Houston I would likely be the 1st and the pitching opportunity was much better. Gerry Hunsicker promised me I'd be on the team but that he couldn't add me to the 40 man roster until the end of spring, a more strategic time to try and slip a young guy off the 40 man roster and through waivers. I understood and took him at his word. I had a bad camp, really inconsistent. One game great, the next terrible. I put the Astros in a tough spot. I was released near the end of camp. It was more contractually than a true outright release.  They had to let me know by a certain date or let me go. They started the season with no lefty in the bullpen except for their closer, Billy Wagner. I didn't give Gerry a hard time about going back on the promise he made me in the winter. I've always liked and respected him. Some guys likely would have reacted differently. That same day I was released I experienced a life changing moment, I found my 2 year old son sinking to the bottom of the pool in our Florida rental home. My life hasn't been the same since. 2003, Texas - I turned down a guaranteed $550,000 contract to go play in Japan to instead go into Rangers camp on a non guaranteed deal. Noticing my pattern of turning down the better deal on paper? I liked my chances of making the Rangers team. I finished the season with them the year before and threw well; despite a few too many walks (stop me if you've heard this before). My contract with the Rangers was about the same as the Japanese contract. I had over 5 years of major league service at the time. That meant if I made the opening day roster my contract with the Rangers would automatically become guaranteed. I wanted a shot to be a starter again and I let Orel Hershiser, my pitching coach, know it. They gave me a chance to compete in the rotation that spring. I had another inconsistent spring but did some good things. I made the team, but under one condition, I had to waive my 5 year rights that would guarantee my contract. This would last for the first 45 days of the season. After the first 45 days, if I was still in Texas, my contract would then become guaranteed. I wasn't happy about this but what could I do? My other option was to say no, not sign the waiver and likely start the year in AAA, I wasn't ready to call their bluff. I accepted their proposal and signed the waiver. I was on the team as a reliever. It would have been nice to have the guarantee, it certainly would have taken some of the pressure off but I didn't have that luxury. On the flight to Anaheim I had a conversation with John Hart and Buck Showalter in front of the team plane, two men I like and respect very much. They were both very complimentary, but also being very firm with me that now was the time to take control of my career. I should have been better than I was up to this point in my career and we all knew it. I appreciated the time they put in with me and genuine concern about my future. Buck said he had success with putting pitchers in the best possible roles to succeed. I was excited they felt that way about me.  The only thing I disagreed with was that he thought the long man role might be best for me to get my career back on track. I've never been a good long man, it's the toughest role in any bullpen. The times I've thrown best in my career have been in the true specialist role, pitching short and often in late innings. Those two weeks in Texas were probably the two worst of my career. I pitched terrible and spent the rest of the season in AAA Oklahoma City and was very average there too. 2004, Atlanta - In the offseason I really thought my career might be over. The only team to call me and offer me a contract that winter was the Atlanta Braves. I couldn't believe it, the Atlanta Braves. Dayton Moore, the then assistant GM of the Braves had one caveat to the contract, no major league spring training. I was about to turn 31, I had been in big league camp my whole career, it was time to be humbled. Dayton told me I had no chance to make the team, they saw me as a guy with a good arm but that needed work. They felt that under their system they could get me back on track and maybe if I was throwing well in the summer I could be a mid season call up for them in the big leagues. It all sounded great, I was sold. I only asked Dayton for one thing: if they were going to make changes in my delivery could I start now (Dec) instead of waiting until spring training after already throwing at home for months? He liked my enthusiasm and sent me to Richmond, VA to work with their AAA pitching coach, Guy Hansen. I had two sessions with Guy, he made some adjustments that I took to right away. I was suddenly getting much more sink on my two seamer and had some velocity increase. He had a direct line to John Schuerholz and recommended to him that I go to major league camp. I did. Guy actually wrote me, by hand, an invitation to the 2004 Atlanta Braves major league spring training on a scrap piece of paper from his barn in Richmond, VA, spelling my name wrong. I had a good spring with Atlanta, one of my best. I threw the ball very well. Leo Mazzone was particularly hard on me in spring training. He rode me pretty good and there are a couple of good stories in there that I'm saving for the book. We went to Atlanta to play some exhibition games but still no word on whether or not I made the team. Finally with one day to go Leo approaches me in the lunch room. "OK CJ, I guess we are going to give this a shot. You're on the roster." He couldn't have sounded any less enthused. I don't say that begrudgingly. I see Leo once in a while at Braves events here in Atlanta and our relationship is good, it was just how things were at the time. He didn't seem all that excited that I made the team. I however was excited, I went from getting no big league invite to being on the opening day roster. 2005, Minnesota - I split the '04 season between the Braves and the Yankees. I got a call from Terry Ryan that winter. "CJ, now is your time. You have to take control of your career, we think you are ready."  As I am writing this I am starting to realize the pattern that developed. I had a very strong spring with Minnesota, for me probably the best of my career. I felt like I nailed my 6 week audition with them. Near the end of camp the conversations that were coming my way from Ron Gardenhire were the type that made me feel like I was headed north. Truck day was here. I loaded up my rental car that morning and headed to yard. I was called in to Ron's office, Terry was there. I was looking forward to them telling me I made the team, that never gets old. I was released. I was blindsided. I am pretty self aware and always error on the side of caution, sometimes to a fault. I didn't see this coming. I got dressed in my street clothes drove over to the UPS store around the corner and mailed the boxes I thought were headed to Minnesota home to Texas. My wife has been with me since college, she has been through all the ups and downs, the releases, the trades, the demotions, the uncertainty. She will tell you that the news in 2005 spring training was one of the most difficult moments for her.  We had two young children at home. I was 32 years old. Had I made that roster I would have been on a guaranteed $500,000 contract, instead I was at the UPS store wondering again, if my career was over. I signed a minor league deal with Pittsburgh a few days later and started the season in AAA Indianapolis. 2006, Pittsburgh - A new coaching regime had taken over in Pittsburgh. Jim Tracy was the Pirates new manager. I was looking forward to trying to make an impression. Pittsburgh had opportunity, they were in a bad rut back then. I had a good spring, definitely outpitching some of their incumbent relievers who didn't have great track records. It didn't matter. I was optioned to minor league camp. I had a good camp and a good season in AAA. No call up. It was only the second time in career that I spent the entire season in the minor leagues, looking back I realize how lucky I was. 2007-2008, Japan - In my first spring one of my translators said to me, "You're throwing really well, I think you're going to make the team." I remember thinking, "I didn't come 7,000 miles to maybe make the team, if I don't, make sure you book my ticket home." Those two seasons in Japan were a lot of fun but spring training was long, long, long. 2009, Korea - I was hesitant to go to Korea but I had no other options on the table, it was mid January and the contract was guaranteed. I had to take it. I figured after Japan I could handle anything. A week after I signed the contract with the SK Wyverns my agent said to me, "Oh yeah, they want you to be a starter."  Spring training started in about 10 days, I hadn't been a true starter since 2000 and I hadn't go gone a full season as a starter since 1997. I was almost 36 years old, this was not the ideal time to make the conversion. I tell you that to tell you this: I was throwing a bullpen at our spring training complex in Okinawa, Japan.  In an attempt to build stamina I had set a goal of about 90- 100 pitches in this bullpen. Around the 75 pitch mark I started to fade. My pitches were flat and I was getting tired. I was throwing curveballs that weren't doing much of anything, one after another and I was getting frustrated. My bullpen was going bad, my spring training was really long, I hadn't seen my wife and kids in 5 weeks and in a moment of foreigner playing in Asia rage I lost it. When the catcher threw the ball back to me after my 7th or 8th terrible curveball I took the ball and launched it into an empty parking lot about 250 feet away. The needle scratched across the record. Silence.  And all eyes were on me. I didn't care. I picked up another baseball and finished up my bullpen. About 2 hours later my translator who was not with me at the time of the incident came up to me. "CJ, what did you do?" "What are you talking about Jerry?' "The manager is very angry, I have never seen him like this.  Did you throw some baseball equipment or something?" I didn't think this was a big deal. I explained to Jerry what had happened. It wasn't professional but I was blowing off some steam. Life in Asia can sometimes bring the worst out of a foreign player. He seemed really concerned. I suggested we go talk to the manager, who was like some mythical figure in spring training, he never spoke, he just wandered around camp observing. Sometimes you never knew where he was and then all of a sudden, seemingly popping out of the ground, he was standing behind you. I am convinced to this day that he has some sort of spring training teleporter. I played the role of remorseful foreigner, with my hands behind my back and making my bows I apologized, through Jerry, to our manager. He told me how disappointed he was in me and that how in Korea players do not disrespect baseball equipment in the way that I did. I continued to apologize, tail between my legs, just trying to keep the peace. Jerry was way more stressed out about this than I was. I wasn't all that remorseful, I didn't see this as that big of a deal. The manager said I had two options. I could leave the team now and return to the United States or I could pay a fine. Now I'm biting my tongue as best as I can. I know what I want to say but I won't, I think Jerry would have had a heart attack right there on the spot anyway. Fortunately I spoke no Korean. I agreed to accept the fine and move on. About an hour later I'm walking to the weight room which was a good 15 minute walk from our field with Jerry when I asked him a question: "Jerry, how much is that fine going to be?" "$3,000 U.S." "What?!? Are you sure you got your conversion right? $3,000? You sure it's not $300?" "No, he said ?3,000,000, about $3,000." "I'm not paying $3,000 for throwing a baseball into an empty parking lot Jerry, no chance!" "You have to pay it if you want to stay on the team." I realized this conversation was going nowhere and I let it go. I figured I'd just wait until they took it out of my check and go from there. They never did. Things were contentious between me and my manager the rest of time with the Wyverns. I had a good spring and threw 5 shutout innings in my final game before the season opened. Somehow I was made to felt lucky that I was still there. I made one start for them during the season and a few relief appearances. I spent a ton of time in the minor leagues in Korea until I was finally released in June. I thought I was going home and I was happy about it. I wasn't. I was picked up off waivers by the Doosan Bears, a team based out of Seoul. I had to report to them if I wanted the rest of my contract. I was disheartened; I just wanted to go home. It all worked out, Doosan was great. I threw well for them and had a great time with that organization. 2010, Free agent - I was recovering from a shoulder injury I sustained with Doosan in the playoffs the year before. 2011, Free agent - I finished the prior season with the Nexen Heroes in Korea. I was done with Asia. I wanted to come home and be a sidearm pitcher but reinjured my shoulder during the conversion. 2012, Free agent - Fresh off of winter ball and a new sidearm delivery I expected to land in a camp and have an unlikely comeback at 39. I threw for the Mets in February and it went well. They didn't sign me though until July. 2013, Free agent - I thought I would get a shot with the Mets to go compete in their camp. A bulk of my sidearm had gone really well and I got close to call up with them in 2012. Multiple people in the organization expressed interest in bringing me back, it didn't happen. So instead I'm writing this blog post.