Needles In The Haystack

Feel like playing the odds? You can go put a dollar down on a Powerball ticket, or you can try to make the jump from independent baseball to the major leagues.

There may be nothing more inspiring than Chris Coste’s story. Undrafted out of college as a third baseman, he went to the Northern League, where Fargo-Moorhead manager Doug Simunic helped make him a catcher. After five years in independent ball, he made it to affiliated ball. After six more years in the minor leagues, he got the call to Philadelphia, where he’s now in his third year as a catcher for the Phillies. He carries a career average of .314 in 363 major league at-bats, so it’s clear that he’s a case of a true talent who had been overlooked.

It’s a great story, but it’s also about as rare as a big league knuckleballer.

At the end of April, there were four major leaguers on active rosters who began their careers as undrafted independent leaguers. That’s four of the 750 major leaguers. That’s four players from the ranks of nearly 2,000 independent league players who take the field every summer.

It’s not an easy road, but as long as there’s a Kevin Millar or George Sherrill playing in the major leagues, there will be another 1,000 players who all hope to be the next Cinderella story. It can be done, and there are several different routes from indy ball to the big leagues, even if just making the jump from independent ball to affiliated ball is a gaping chasm for most. Talent plays a big part in determining which overlooked players get found, but luck and knowing the right people never hurt.

Right Place, Right Time

Joe Thatcher found the right team. When he signed with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League, he was putting his career in the hands of a man who knows pitching. Manager Randy Martz had coached Jason Isringhausen in junior college and future big leaguer Josh Kinney with River City. What he saw in Thatcher was a promising pitcher whose career had been sidetracked by overuse. He went 4-1, 1.73 for Indiana State as a freshman and 5-3, 2.33 as a sophomore. But as a junior, his workload jumped significantly because he worked as a starter in addition to still pitching in as a reliever. The result was a 4-8, 5.60 season, as he threw more innings in 2004 than he had in his previous two seasons.

“His college team was using him midweek and on the weekend. We tried to baby him the first year,” said Martz, now the pitching coach for the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies. “When he came back the second year he was throwing in the high 80s and low 90s. We asked him what happened? He said ‘I’m finally healthy.’ “

Given that second chance, Thatcher went 5-2, 1.27 for River City, which was enough to catch the eye of area scout Brad Del Barba. The Brewers signed Thatcher, and just two years later he made his big league debut with the Padres after a trade.

Kinney’s story was somewhat similar. After going undrafted, he was planning to give up baseball and become a fly-fishing guide. But the Rascals persuaded him to give independent baseball a try, at least for one summer. Just three starts of his high 80s stuff from a near-sidearm delivery was enough to convince the Cardinals that they could use him. Five years later he was pitching in the World Series.

Making Contacts

Catcher Kelly Gulledge is an example of how it’s just as important to network as it is to go 3-for-4. A two-time Baseball America Independent League All-Star catcher, Gulledge had a minor league career before he went the independent route. But after failing to stick in two spring training stints with affiliated clubs and a year off because of personal problems, he figured his chances of ever getting to the big leagues were long gone.

As a 27-year-old, the Texas native decided to call the nearby Fort Worth Cats. The American Association club gave him a contract, and he responded by hitting .302 with 12 home runs while also showing solid defensive work. All of that may not have been enough, though, if it hadn’t been for Maury Wills. The longtime Dodger great is also a vice president for the Cats. After watching Gulledge play last year, he called some of his contacts in the Dodgers organization and got him a spring training invite.

Gulledge responded by playing well enough to earn a spot on the Double-A Jacksonville roster coming out of spring training. He’s since been promoted to Triple-A Las Vegas as a backup.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Maury Wills. If Maury hadn’t called, I wouldn’t be a Dodger,” Gulledge said.

Gulledge learned a lesson from his experience, and that of former Fort Worth teammate Nick Martin. Martin went 7-5, 5.23 for the Cats in 2007, not the kind of numbers that usually get you noticed. But by calling as many teams as he could and persuading teams to let him pitch bullpens for them, he earned a contract with the Tigers. He’s now pitching for high Class A Lakeland, where he was 1-0, 2.08 in his first 13 innings.

“He made it by self-promotion,” Gulledge said. “A guy who thinks he has a chance to be picked up has to do the legwork.”

Hit Enough To Get Noticed

Justin Christian’s legs have carried him to Triple-A. But back in 2003, he was left wondering what had gone wrong.

“I was told if I hit for average, played well, everything would work out. But that never happened,” Christian said.

Christian had a solid senior season at Southeast Missouri State, and was even mentioned in Baseball America’s 2003 predraft coverage as a solid senior sign. When the draft rolled around, though, roughly 1,500 players were drafted and Christian wasn’t one of them.

“For me, I bounced around from school to school so I think I got lost in the shuffle. It was hard for scouts to get a read on me,” Christian said.

Christian realized his chances of becoming a major leaguer may have ended before they ever got started. But with few options, he decided to head to the independent leagues. He signed on with Martz at River City, where he hit .301 as a rookie second baseman. The next season, as his arm strengthened, he moved over to shortstop. He stole 26 bags in his first 30 games. But sometimes he was still worried that it was all for nothing.

“You may have a great game in indy ball, but if there isn’t a scout or someone else there to see it, you have nothing to show for it,” Christian said.

That’s not always true. While having contacts in affiliated ball, or playing well on a night a scout happens to be in town is the easiest way to make the jump, sometimes putting up impressive stats can get a guy noticed.

In Christian’s case, he hit a ridiculous .450/.518/.700 in 120 at-bats. The Yankees signed him sight unseen and sent him to short-season Staten Island. Now he’s playing for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, one step away from the big leagues. But in his heart, he’s still an indy leaguer scrapping for everything.

“I’ve never been the best player on my team, so I never allow myself to relax,” he said. “(As an indy leaguer) you have to play twice as hard as the next guy. But when I get there to the big leagues, that’s going to make it something special.”

It’s a consistent theme among former independent leaguers. They’ve come up the hard way, so they generally are the kind of guys who don’t take any at-bat, pitch or game for granted. And as long as there are scouts checking in, there always will be plenty of guys hoping for one more chance.

“I don’t think it’s easy, but they are getting noticed,” said Martz. “That’s the reason you coach in indy ball. The success stories that come out make it all worth it.”