Jeremy Hazelbaker, Cardinals Are Match Made in Perseverance Heaven

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 2, 2016

Apr 14, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker (41) looks on from the on deck circle against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won the game 7-0. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Ears. You know something? Over seven or eight seasons of bouncing around the country’s bumpy roads on rattletrap minor league buses, a guy’s ears become pretty finely tuned.

And above all else over the past year, Jeremy Hazelbaker, the St. Louis Cardinals’ latest newly discovered gem, has listened and learned one thing.

The sound of 47,000 fans rising to cheer one of his home runs is a whole lot different than the sound his cellphone was making early last May after the Los Angeles Dodgers suddenly and unexpectedly released him from their Double-A Tulsa club.

As he sat at home in Indiana waiting for an organization to call and scoop him up, one day passed. Then two. Then three.

“Toward the end of a week and a half, I was thinking, ‘All right, that’s all she wrote. I’ll have to go back to school and get a job,’” says Hazelbaker, 28, a pleasant and polite young rookie who currently stands as the game’s poster boy for Perseverance, capital P.

He shakes his head. He looks around the Cardinals clubhouse.

Over there, Adam Wainwright is preparing to start tonight’s game. Over here, Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter and the rest of the gang are about to head out for batting practice.

“Amazing,” Hazelbaker says softly.

Here he is, 19 games into his major league career, with five home runs, 13 RBI, two steals, nine runs scored and a 1.064 OPS.

In St. Louis’ home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 11, Hazelbaker went 4-for-4 with a triple, a double, one RBI and one run scored. He became the first Cardinal to collect four hits in his St. Louis debut in 62 years.

Through his first nine games, he batted .481/.484/1.000 with three homers and seven RBI. Then, after going into an 0-for-16 dip, he slugged a pinch-hit, three-run homer during Saturday’s 11-2 romp in San Diego and then belted a two-run homer off Zack Greinke in St. Louis’ series-opener in Arizona on Monday.

Quite a difference from this time a year ago, when he was back living at his parents’ house in Selma, Indiana, working out at Wapahani High School and willing his cellphone to ring.

“All the guys I’d been friends with for years and years and years, I’d be home at 8 p.m., and all my friends were out playing,” he says. “I’d be thinking, ‘Well, they’re in the third inning now.’”

When the Dodgers released him, he was hitting .245 for Tulsa just three weeks into the season. He was called into the manager’s office after a four-hit game, of all times, and was told the Dodgers were releasing him.

“They released two guys that night, and I was one of them,” Hazelbaker says. “Word came through in a text message to my manager. That’s all he knew, just that they were releasing me.”

Hazelbaker would have liked some sort of explanation, a reason, but never got one.

“It was a weird situation,” he says. “I guess that’s how it goes sometimes.”

Sometimes it’s a numbers game. The Dodgers had plenty of outfielders and clearly did not see Hazelbaker in their plans.

When his cellphone finally did buzz last May, it was the Cardinals. They needed an outfielder at Double-A Springfield. But even then, it wasn’t exactly happily ever after.

He batted .308 with 19 extra-base hits at Springfield and was promoted to Triple-A Memphis, where he hit .333 with 10 homers and 46 RBI in 58 games.

Yet when rosters expanded last September, the Cardinals did not summon him.

So he became a minor league free agent, again, last winter.

This time, a handful of clubs did call. But he was both comfortable and familiar with the Cardinals organization, so he opted to go back.

And this spring, from a spot somewhere off the 40-man roster, he literally played his way onto the team.

“As soon as he got to Springfield last year, we saw he could play,” says Cardinals rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz—a teammate of Hazelbaker’s in both Springfield and Memphis last year before they both moved on to St. Louis this season.

“Very professional in the way he goes about his business,” All-Star catcher Yadier Molina says. “I’m really happy for him.”

“One of those great stories,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says. “He’s a talented player, and he forced our hand this spring. Which, really, is what we ask all of our players.

“The way he takes his at-bats reminds me a lot of what we saw from Carp [Matt Carpenter] early in his career. Fight, fight, fight the pitcher and stick with your game plan.”

Hazelbaker’s plan is to take every at-bat, every fly ball, every everything as if it is the last one he’ll ever get. That is the everlasting lesson learned from the day Tulsa unceremoniously sent him packing.

“That was a nervous time for him and for us,” says his father, Phil, the new tooling manager at Mursix Corporation in Yorktown, Indiana. “We were all upset about it, not knowing for sure what was going to come next. We were hoping for good things.

“A few days passed, but he never got off of his schedule. He kept lifting, he kept hitting, he kept working out so that when someone did call, he’d be ready.”

While Jeremy may have been thinking he was getting closer to finding a new life—he was on track for his business degree at nearby Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he was when the Boston Red Sox picked him in the fourth round of the 2009 draft—it was not something he and his parents talked about.

Hazelbaker while in the Red Sox farm system
Hazelbaker while in the Red Sox farm systemCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

“We never had that conversation about what if baseball was over, what are you going to do, because I didn’t even want to put that thought in his mind,” Phil says. “He felt he could do it. We felt the same.

“We just felt good things happen to good people, there are reasons why things happen, and we just hoped that things would work out.”

It was on the very last day of spring training, after a Grapefruit League game against the New York Yankees in Tampa, when Hazelbaker learned he had made the club.

It was down to him and one other player, Greg Garcia, and Hazelbaker had one bag packed for the long bus ride back to Jupiter, Florida, if he was to remain in the minor leagues and a suit to wear for traveling to the Cardinals’ opener in Pittsburgh if he made the big club.

After the final exhibition game against the Yankees, Matheny called Hazelbaker into his office.

“He had a little smirk on his face,” Hazelbaker, who swings left-handed, says, smiling. “I was thinking, ‘It’s got to be good news. It would be a weird thing for him to be smiling about if he was telling me I was going to go back to Memphis.’”

What Matheny basically told him: “I know you’ve been in here before, but it’s a little different this time. You’re a big leaguer.”

“We were waiting for the call,” says Phil of he and his wife, Becky, who runs a roller-skating rink that has been in the family for 75 years. “He got me at work, said hold on a minute, got Becky on the phone on a three-way call, and that’s when he told us he made the 25-man roster.

“That conversation was something I’ll never forget. Knowing he was so close, knowing all the work he put in over the years…”

The line score leading up to his big league debut: 751 minor league games played over seven seasons, 2,734 at-bats, three organizations (Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals) and too many fast-food meals to count.

His sister, Danielle, a physical therapist in Florida (and a pretty good volleyball player during her school days), and her husband, Keith, joined Phil and Becky in Pittsburgh to witness Jeremy’s first major league game.

Left to right: dad Phil, mom Becky, Jeremy, sister Danielle and her husband Keith (2016 Opening Day in Pittsburgh)
Left to right: dad Phil, mom Becky, Jeremy, sister Danielle and her husband Keith (2016 Opening Day in Pittsburgh)Photo courtesy of Phil Hazelbaker

“Best experience I’ve ever had, baseball-wise,” Hazelbaker says. “I think that’s the best experience my parents have ever experienced with me.

“They’ve suffered a lot with me in baseball, growing up, all the travel, basketball, baseball, my sister’s volleyball. For them to have preached all the hard work…they raised my sister right, and they raised me right.”

Then, after the Cardinals swung through Atlanta during the season-opening road trip, Phil and Becky were in St. Louis for Jeremy’s historic home debut.

“It’s been a dream come true for us and for him,” Phil says. “It’s been very exciting.”

“Our city is so great,” Hazelbaker says. “Fans know us wherever we go. That’s the thing I’m still getting used to.

“You don’t get that just anywhere.”

During the first homestand of the year in St. Louis, Jeremy, Phil and Becky went to lunch in the Italian neighborhood The Hill, at a place called Adriana’s On The Hill. When Jeremy placed a big order, the owner, who was waiting on their table, teased him: You sure you can eat all that? Sure, he said. She asked, “You look pretty athletic, do you play sports?

Sure do, Jeremy said. Baseball.

What team?

Cardinals.

“The St. Louis Cardinals?” the owner shrieked. “You’re Jeremy Hazelbaker?!”

So she hugged him, hugged Phil, hugged Becky. Then some of the other staff came over for hellos and welcomes and attaboys.

Photo courtesy of Phil Hazelbaker
Photo courtesy of Phil HazelbakerFrom left to right: Jeremy, mom Becky, dad Phil, sister Danielle and her husband Keith

From sitting at home alone at 8 p.m. thinking of his friends scattered around the country, playing in the third inning, to being the toast of St. Louis 11 months later, wow.

“We all kind of laughed and said how cool it is,” Hazelbaker says.

Same homestand, one of the owners of Pappy’s Smokehouse, Wainwright’s favorite joint, recognized Jeremy and his family in line and whisked them to a table straightaway.

Knowing Wainwright has his very own “Pappy’s Smokehouse” ball cap with his No. 50 embroidered on it, the owner brought out a camouflage Pappy’s ball cap with the No. 41 written on it.

“Go tell Waino he’s not the only one here with his own cap,” the owner ordered Hazelbaker, and they all laughed some more.

“So fun, and the best barbecue we have ever eaten,” Phil says.

There’s been a lot of delicious squeezed into these first few weeks of the season—on the field and off.

“We have chefs in our clubhouse in St. Louis, and I tell you, they make some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life,” Jeremy says. “I never had crab cakes before, but they served them there, and they were phenomenal.”

No telling what the rest of the season will bring, but after what he’s been through during the past year, Jeremy isn’t looking at the rest of the season. He is looking at today. His next at-bat. That’s where his concentration is.

“He knows what he does well,” Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry says. “He has quality at-bats. We’ve told him: Don’t do anything different. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

He also knows this game is designed in such a way that the ups are fleeting, while the downs can drag on. It is how you handle the downs that keeps the next opportunities coming. Yes, he hears that—loud and clear.

“There’s stuff that happens here every day you look at and you think, ‘I’m going to remember this for a long, long time,’” Hazelbaker says.

“Conversations with guys here in the clubhouse, or stuff that happens with them out on the field, I tell you, I’m going to remember it forever.”

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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