On the mound to redemption
DES MOINES, IOWA – In 2009, former Brewers pitcher Seth McClung was coming off a season in which he helped Milwaukee advance to its first post-season appearance in 26 years.
In 2010, he was out of baseball, coaching girls high school basketball in Florida.
"Taking that year off was probably the best and the stupidest thing I've ever done," says McClung, in Des Moines to play the Iowa Cubs as a member of the Brewers' AAA minor-league affiliate, the Nashville Sounds.
"Spending time with my newborn baby was special, and you can't get that back. But you can't get it back in baseball, either."
During his time away from the game, McClung tried his hand at a few projects, from giving pitching lessons to blogging with OnMilwaukee.com. He attempted to get back in baseball in 2011 with the AAA affiliate of the Texas Rangers, but a knee injury that finally required surgery cut short his comeback.
"I got to the point where I couldn't even cover first base after throwing a pitch," says McClung, talking candidly for the first time about how his career almost ended. "I think they just thought I didn't want to run. It got worse, and I got released halfway through the year."
With a surgically repaired knee and eager for one more shot, this winter McClung e-mailed Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin, asking for a minor league contract with the team with which he most identified.
He'll tell it to anyone who asks: McClung loved playing for the Brewers. More than any other team he played with in a major league career that spanned parts of six seasons. He bonded with the fans and teammates and sensed that the feeling was mutual. He still speaks of the magic in that Milwaukee clubhouse in '08.
Over lunch, McClung reflects. "I told Doug, 'To tell you the truth, I don't want to go anywhere else.' The organization knows who I am and what I can do, and it feels like home. It means something to me. They were just patient with me, and (this spring) I was fighting through some shoulder stuff. Had I been in any other organization, I think they would've released me before I threw a pitch in a game."
But they didn't, and they installed McClung as the Sounds' fifth starter. It wasn't the first time McClung pitched for Nashville; he did a stint with the team on his way up to the Brewers in 2007.
"A lot of times, a player wants to be where he's had the most success," says first-year Sounds manager Mike Guerrero, who has been with the Brewers organization for 27 years.
"You always, as an organization, want somebody that wants to be with you but also has the ability, and he does have ability. There is a lot left in the tank ... we appreciate that."
Now, at 31, McClung is mostly healthy again, having shaken off a lot of rust. He knows this is his last chance to pitch his way back into the bigs.
For a veteran player, the long bus rides, the cramped clubhouses and the relatively modest salary – McClung earned $1.7 million in 2009; this year, he can make $75,000 if he pitches the whole season – have proven to be a humbling experience, but he's taking it in stride.
Some players, like prospect Mark Rogers, remember the veteran and how he contributed to the Crew during their playoff run. Other players are quite a bit younger, and while they won't admit it, perhaps view "Big Red" as a real-life Kenny Powers.
"I'm not throwing 103 miles an hour anymore," says McClung. "It's due to a few things: wear and tear, and being a swing guy. It's like the offensive lineman of baseball. It's a very valuable position but not glamorous. You never know if you're going to start or pitch three days in a row."
So McClung just keeps his head down and works hard. He doesn't ask questions. He just pitches.
"You can tell he's been around the game a while, just in terms of how he carries himself," says Sounds radio announcer Jeff Hem.
A kid's game in an adult business
It's a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in Des Moines. This team is struggling, having lost 10 games in a row. Until his last start, McClung hadn't done much to change that trend.
After a strong spring training, he's toiled on the mound, but McClung's numbers don't tell the entire story.
He took a no-hitter several innings before giving up four runs in his first start. In his second start, he pitched four innings (two of them strong) but gave up another four runs and was sent to the bullpen. His third outing consisted of 2.1 innings pitched, and he was tagged for five runs.
"He's had a couple of rough outings and couple of solid outings," says Hem.
Unfortunately, the rough outings caused his ERA to balloon over 11, but a series of injuries and call-ups brought him back to the rotation. In a game on April 22, where he was expected to soak up innings no matter what, he threw 96 pitches over 6.1 innings and gave up just two runs. With his back against the wall, "Big Red" earned himself another start.
Says Hem, "The team really needed that from him. The bullpen was really short-handed with no off-day for a few more days, and Wily Peralta had gotten called up. The rotation was in flux. The fact that he pitched well gave the team a great chance to win that day, but he helped rest the bullpen pretty significantly."
Being bounced around from role to role is nothing new for McClung. When in Milwaukee, he found himself starting, then pitching in the bullpen for long relief, and back in the rotation again. While McClung makes no excuses, it's clear that the mental preparation and the physical wear-and-tear of constantly adjusting your routine sets a player up for failure.
Only now, there's nowhere to go. McClung must pitch when called upon, in any scenario.
Says Hem, "Some guys might be higher priority based on their prospect status, but when you're in AAA, and you're literally one step away from the major leagues, most of the roster-filler guys have weeded themselves out by now."
Still, the odds are stacked against veterans in the minors. The team flew from Omaha to Iowa, but after the series in Des Moines, they will take a 13-hour bus ride back to Nashville, then be at the ballpark 10 hours later. Today, McClung walks with me over to Principal Park at about 3 p.m. In the hotel lobby before we leave, a family notices him, and thanks him for being a Brewer. He says this still happens with some regularity, but not as often as it used to.
Baseball, he says, is really just a business.
"It's not like Little League," says McClung, walking into the stadium. "As a child, you care about your teammates, you become buddies. Here, you want it to be that way. You're conditioned as a kid to be all about the team, but the business side of it is if you pitch poorly, get sent down or released, playing a kid's game is taken away from you."
After receiving heat treatment to his shoulder in the trainer's room, McClung sits in the cramped clubhouse with his right arm wrapped in bandages. The activities are the same, but this locker room looks nothing like the one in Miller Park. Some players watch TV or play cards, while others read magazines or books on their iPads. I walk into the coaches' locker room for a chat with pitching coach Fred Dabney and skipper Guerrero. They're upbeat even though the team is mired in a slump.
"(Seth is) only 31 years old, and certain guys can pitch into their 40s," says Dabney, pulling on his warmup gear. "The good thing about Seth is that his arm works very well. As for his pitchability, he's working on some things mechanically that he needs to do, as opposed to when he was up there before, where he 'outstuffed' guys probably a little more than he can now."
I re-introduce myself to Guerrero, who I last met in the Dominican Republic in 2005 while doing a feature on then Brewers prospect, Nelson Cruz.
He doesn't remember me, of course, but about McClung, he says, "His attitude is good. He works hard ... but what he did in the past is what he did in the past. Now is today, and things that he did back then he just can't do now. He realizes that – and (is) constantly understanding what he needs to do, delivery-wise, to have success."
"His arm works fine, and if he wants to get back to the big leagues, he'll (have to) sort out some stuff mechanically," says Guererro. "The main thing is execution of pitches, getting in good work habits and going from there."
At 4:20 p.m., the Sounds' pitching staff assembles in right field.
Peralta, who is on the Brewers' 40-man roster (McClung is not), throws his bullpen session while Dabney and his teammates look on. The trainer leads the group in stretching exercises in English and Spanish, and McClung finally picks up a baseball. I realize that, even though I've stayed in contact with him since I first wrote a feature article on Big Red in '09, this was the first time in three years I've seen McClung throw a pitch.
It's not, however, the first time that 35-year-old veteran catcher Paul Phillips has seen McClung in action. "He has to basically not worry about who's on his team, and go out there and do what he's supposed to do," says Phillips, who has played ball in the majors and minors for 15 years.
"Seth can only do his job. He can't do my job for me or anyone else's job. The way you have to look at it is that someone feels like you can help them in their organization or they wouldn't have chosen you to be on their team. Things change throughout the year, good or bad. As a player, every day you go out and try to get better. Some days you do, some days you don't, but the focus has to be that you are making that progression. If you stop trying, you are going to be out of the game."
McClung and Dabney play catch, gradually moving farther away from each other, until the coach squats down and McClung starts alternating between fastballs and breaking balls. After a time, the position players come out for stretching and batting practice, while the pitchers change back into street clothes.
At least one pitcher, however, takes BP along side the hitters. Rogers, the Brewers first-round draft pick in 2004, is tearing the cover off the ball, looking, well, not like a pitcher. When he's done, I ask him about McClung.
"I think it's pretty awesome – Seth was one of the first guys I met (on the Brewers). He was in the big leagues with us, doing his thing. I'll tell you what: he was the same guy then that he is now, which is pretty cool. He treated me the exact same when I was a 19-year-old kid as he does now. I thought it was pretty awesome. It's been cool to get to know him on a personal level and pick his brain," says Rogers.
"He has a lot of experience," adds Rogers. "I think that's what he has to offer a lot of these guys, too. He's throwing the ball really well, and I like sitting in the stands and watching a game with him. We have a lot of younger guys, and having a veteran is very helpful."
At game time, McClung, Peralta and RHP Brian Baker (McClung's roommate) take their place in the stands just along the first-base side of home plate. Their job tonight is to score the game and chart pitching. In the big leagues, this is handled exclusively by scouts. In AAA, the pitchers who aren't playing tonight take care of this task, too.
The temperature at first pitch is 50 degrees, but with a stiff wind blowing from right to left, it feels much, much colder. Maybe 500 fans have spread out in the stands, and the pitchers are wisely bundled up, using batting gloves to keep them warm. Baker is charting on a laptop; Peralta is confirming pitch speed while looking extremely uncomfortable, and McClung is scoring by hand as Baker's backup. From an outsider's perspective, it seems rather repetitive.
Watching a game with professional baseball players, however, is an experience I won't soon forget. Not only do McClung, Peralta and Baker notice details that are missed by casual and die-hard fans alike, the kids behind us are peppering them with questions. There's also a steady stream of adult autograph seekers dropping by with books filled with baseball cards to sign. McClung thinks a card of his is worth a few bucks, tops.
"Those guys are veteran autograph guys. I think most of the cards end up on eBay. It doesn't bother me, but I can see that if you're a Prince Fielder, it could be a hassle," says McClung.
The professional scouts in the stands are also jawing with the players about specific pitches, and keep in mind, the players are rooting along, too, for their teammates – when they're not on the lookout for hot dogs from the hot dog cannon.
The talk about what's happening on the field is pretty interesting, too. The pitchers discuss strategies and what their teammates will try to execute. Considering they've played baseball their entire lives, their guesses are usually accurate.
Tonight, the Sounds snap their losing streak with a crisp 3-0 outing led by Michael Fiers. But the game is filled with errors – ones that won't show up in the box score – that you rarely see in MLB games. A ball sails over the head of the I-Cubs' third baseman while the infield goes around the horn; sloppy base running and errant throws to first abound.
McClung winces and laughs. He knows the caliber of players he's working with; he just doesn't have any other choice.
After the game, McClung asks if I'm hungry, and I join him for a bite at a bar and grill near the ballpark. Three Brewers fans walk past and I watch their moment of realization. Even out of uniform, it's hard to mistake a 6-foot, 6-inch redhead wearing a 2008 Brewers Wild Card hoodie.
"You're f*cking Seth McClung!" the first guy screams, while he grabs his wife and his buddy. As the group high-fives its way to the bar to order drinks, I follow along and ask Ryan Lubinski what he thinks of McClung.
"I think he should be back on the Brewers, because he's better than half the relievers on the team," says Lubinski, perhaps a little star-struck. They walk back to McClung with a beer in hand.
McClung plays along, chatting and posing for pictures and signing a game ticket. It's obvious he's the farthest thing from annoyed.
Though, really, he'd have every right to be annoyed. He was set to start on Monday, but because of a rain out on Friday, he's just found out his next start has moved to Wednesday. Later, another rain out postponed this start to Friday. He'll throw a bullpen session Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m., then wait. And wait some more.
(That next start did come, by the way, 12 days after his last one. McClung gave up three earned runs in 4.1 innings, but behind shoddy defense, he was tagged for another five unearned runs. As of press time, his ERA sits at 7.71.)
Says McClung's manager, "That's why you have maintain your level of performance. You never know when that phone is going to ring."
The Sounds put a priority on pitching players on that 40-man roster. They try to get them to make their expected starts, even when interrupted by rain. Other pitchers – starters or relievers – sometimes sit for many days.
Yet, McClung keeps a positive attitude. Even when it's obviously frustrating for him, his teammates still see that "little league" attitude shining through.
"Oh yeah, that's what's fun about Seth," says Rogers. "He's working really hard, he has his goals. He wants to get back to the big leagues. That's why we're all here. I respect his work ethic, but at the same time, he has a good time, too. It's a game. You have to make it fun."
"The stressful portion of this game isn't the physical game, itself, it's the fact that this is our livelihood," says Phillips, who hopes to enter coaching the minute his playing career is done. "If we don't perform to someone else's expectations, then we may not be able to put food on our table. That's the stressful part."
"Even though it's a child's game, if you're not attempting to have fun, it'll beat you down," says McClung. "You want to stay loose but when it's time to work, you want to get serious."
So, seriously, do the people who see McClung day in and day out think his journey is a lost cause?
Hem says he doesn't.
"Sure, I could picture any of the guys on the roster in Milwaukee ... or one of the 29 other teams. Minor league guys are told that all the time: 'You're not just playing for the name on your uniform.' All the teams have access to your stats and have their own needs. There are scouts at every game every single night."
Dabney, of course, has to be noncommittal on McClung's chances, but says, "He shows flashes of things that he can do."
"Yes, he's had some bad outings, but he also worked deep into a ballgame and gave us a chance," says Guerrero. "You never know, right now, when the opportunity is going to come."
But McClung knows this is his last chance, though he'd consider pitching in Asia, probably in China or South Korea, if this comeback fizzles. He's not heavy-handed about it, but during my time with him, Big Red mentions faith and God and his "plan" more than once.
He's also very realistic.
"Nobody retires," he says, cracking just a little smile. "Somebody tells them they're not good enough to play anymore."
Nice article Hope he makes it back, I think he will because the Brewers pen isn't all that great.
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