Baseball

My life in the major league

Warwick Saupold - Contributor

Baseball

My life in the major league

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Jonathan Schoop had just hit a grand slam to left centre field.

 

That made it 9-3, Orioles over the Tigers. One-out. Bottom of the eighth.

 

The phone rang in the Detroit bullpen, the visitors’ bullpen at Camden Yards.

 

“Saupold, you’re up.”

 

It was Saturday, May 14, 2016.

 

I was 19,000 kilometres from home.

 

I was making my Major League Baseball debut.

 

 

THE WALK TO THE MOUND

I’d always wondered what would be going through my mind the moment my MLB dream came true. I’d even asked Luke Hughes, another Western Australian who played with the Twins and the Athletics, if he had any advice about how to handle it.

 

Here’s what happened to me.

 

In the 90-odd metre jog from the bullpen to the mound, my mind went on a million-miles-an-hour journey through all the things that brought me here, to one of the most famous ballparks in the world, staring down Baltimore’s left fielder Hyun-Soo Kim standing at home plate.

 

I thought about growing up in WA. My parents, Deanne and Tony, taking me to tee-ball.  All the games and the training sessions and the hours spent throwing into a net because I didn’t have a throwing partner. Helping Dad out with his business – it’s called Dale Concrete, if you’re ever looking for a good concreter in Perth! – which I still do when I’m back home in the off-season.

 

I love working with my Dad, even if it is waking up at 5am to get the day started to beat the heat. It’s bonding time because I’m away so much and I love giving him a hand so he can relax a bit. I also enjoy working with Dad because it keeps me busy and reminds me of what daily life would be like if I wasn’t playing baseball.

 

My mind kept spinning. Choosing baseball over footy as a teenager. The ABL. The Perth Heat. The Heat’s manager, Kevin Hooker, telling me I’d been signed by the Detroit Tigers.

 

Moving to the US.

 

 

THE MINOR LEAGUE YEARS

The first stop was Grand Rapids, Michigan and a team called the West Michigan Whitecaps. Pretty soon I was off to Lakeland, Florida, a little place just east of Tampa on Interstate 4, to join the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

 

I spent a couple of months there before stepping up to the Tigers’ Double-A team, the Seawolves, in Erie, Pennsylvania. The next big step came in 2015 when I was called up to the Toledo Mud Hens in Ohio, just one step from the majors but a step many never get to take.

 

Life in the minors can be tough. There are no charter flights, no first class lounges. You’re all together riding buses through the night between games, trying to get as much sleep as possible to make the trip go quicker and so you don’t look like a zombie when you roll up to the ballpark the next day.

 

There’s a lot to deal with. It’s taxing on your body and there aren’t exactly a lot of healthy eating options in small Ohio towns late at night. So it’s a quick stop at the gas station to grab a bite to eat and back on the bus trying to get some more sleep. I always told myself one thing when I was feeling the strain of it all: I’m doing something I love. It always got me through. 

 

This was my life for five years. Then I got the phone call that changed my life.

 

At first, I thought it was a joke. I was just finishing up dinner in Toledo, Ohio when a number I didn’t recognise lit up on my phone.

 

I answered and it was Lloyd McClendon, the manager of the Mud Hens.

 

‘You’re going to the big leagues,’ he said. ‘Chris McDonald (our team trainer) will contact you with details.’

 

Life in the minors can be tough. There are no charter flights, no first class lounges. You’re all together riding buses through the night between games, trying to get as much sleep as possible to make the trip go quicker and so you don’t look like a zombie when you roll up to the ballpark the next day.

 

I hung up and was convinced someone was playing a prank on me. I’d been in the minors for five years and was having a good season for the Mud Hens, but the big leagues? The Detroit Tigers? Playing alongside some of the greatest players of the modern era in Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander? No.

 

But then C-Mac called and said, ‘Congratulations.’

 

It was happening. I was going to the big leagues.

 

 

 

THE ONE PERSON NOT CHEERING FOR THE OPPOSITION

Everything happened so quickly from there. I called Mum. I got off the phone to her and the next thing I know she has sent me a Snapchat of her boarding a flight from Perth to Sydney and onto the US. I thought to myself, ‘How did she do that?’. So about 25 hours later she was in Baltimore, in the stands, watching me live my childhood dream with a big Aussie flag. 

 

I also had a flight to catch and before I knew it I was at Camden Yards. I remember walking into the visitors’ locker room for the first time and thinking to myself, ‘This is crazy.’ It was so impressive and another world from everything I’d known in the minors and back home in the ABL.

 

So, there I was. Dressed. Warmed up. Standing in front of 32,174 people all cheering for the other team – except one, Mum. I stepped off the mound for a second to take it all in, as Luke had told me to do, and then it was straight to work.

 

My mind kept spinning. Choosing baseball over footy as a teenager. The ABL. The Perth Heat. The Heat’s manager, Kevin Hooker, telling me I’d been signed by the Detroit Tigers.

 

I threw a curveball to Kim. He grounded out to second base. My first big league out was in the books.

 

Mum didn’t really have any words after the game. She just looked at me and started bawling her eyes out. I said to her, ‘Why are you crying?’ She replied, ‘I don’t know, I’m just so proud of you.’ And I gave her a big hug and told her how happy I was she made it over in time for the game.

 

 

LAMBORGHINIS AND LIFE IN THE MAJORS

I’ve gone back and forth between Toledo and the Tigers since then, but have been fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time in the majors this season.

 

I get asked a bit what it’s like sharing a locker room with guys like Cabrera and Verlander. I guess that’s a fair question when their last two contracts add up to more than $US400 million!

 

But, honestly, I don’t think of them like that. When you’re playing together, you’re just a group of guys trying to accomplish the same thing. We all have a job to do. And I just want to do mine as well as I can to help the team out.

 

OK, there is the occasional time where it hits you just how big a celebrity some of these guys are. You might have read that Justin goes out with Kate Upton, but what you might not know is that he is a crazy collector of cars. Every now and then you’ll see him rock up in a flashy car, like a Lamborghini, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’

 

Life in the major leagues is a lot of fun. We are lucky enough to have a team plane so it’s very convenient for us and a lot more relaxing than the old minor league bus. And the hotels are just a slight upgrade on the ones we stayed in with the Whitecaps!

 

I get asked a bit what it’s like sharing a locker room with guys like Cabrera and Verlander. I guess that’s a fair question when their last two contracts add up to more than $US400 million!

 

I don’t feel as overawed in the majors now as I used to. At first, you walk into places like Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park and you’re blown away by the size and the history and the noise of it all because you’re not accustomed to it.

 

These days, it’s a bit easier to keep your concentration and block it out. I say that, but then I think about playing at Fenway in June when the crowd all began singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the eighth inning, which is a bit of a tradition in Boston. I was sitting in the bullpen covered in goosebumps.

 

The toughest thing I’ve had to endure so far was getting hurt covering first base in Los Angeles last year. My groin had been playing up for a while and it wasn’t getting better. I remember throwing the pitch and getting the ground ball to Miggy.

 

I went to take off to cover first, but felt my groin kind of pull on me. I kept running, the throw took me backwards and I felt this sharp pain like someone stabbed me in the leg with a knife. Not pleasant. Coming back from that was tough.

 

 

 

‘DO YOU HAVE A KANGAROO AS A PET?’

I think I’m the 32nd Australian to play in the majors but the novelty of being an Aussie over here doesn’t seem to have worn off. I get so many questions. The most common one, which probably won’t shock those of you who have been over here, is, ‘Do you have a pet kangaroo?’

 

Depending on who is asking I’ll tell them, ‘Yes, I do, and his name is Skippy.’

 

The one thing I picked up straight away over here is that we speak quite a lot faster than Americans and our accent gets in the way a lot. Even something simple like ordering pizza was a challenge! But I’ve learned the lingo and slowed down when I’m talking.

 

It’s great having a couple of other Aussies over here in the majors at the moment – Peter Moylan with the Kansas City Royals and Liam Hendriks with the Oakland Athletics.

 

We’re all in the American League – and Moylo is in the same division as me, the AL Central – and there’s heaps of banter between us. Moylo and I always catch up for a coffee when Detroit is playing Kansas City. He even gave me a ride to the field in his Porsche earlier in the season, which was sweet. Not quite at Verlander levels, though!

 

We all want to be successful and win for our respective teams, but we’re also really passionate about growing the game back home and getting more and more Aussies through the minors and up into the majors.

 

We might be playing for different teams, but that’s the common dream of a few West Aussies doing their best over in the States.

 

 

THE THANK YOUS!

Finally, I just wanted to use this column to thank all the people who helped get me to the majors (apologies to anyone I’ve missed!).

 

First, Mum and Dad. You took me to training, you took me to games, you put in countless hours watching me chase my dream. I can never repay you. To the rest of my family, thank you for pushing me when things got tough. My brother Craig and sister Rainee always knew the right things to say when things weren’t going well or I needed a pick-me-up. 

 

To the South Perth Baseball Club: you have been my second home since I was eight-years-old and I have loved every minute of it. I will always be a Cubbie.

 

To the Perth Heat family: there are no words for what we have accomplished over the last eight years. I’m so lucky to be a part of it. We truly are a band of brothers and will continue to be a band of brothers for the rest of our lives.

 

To Kevin Hooker, Jason Hewitt, Rod Drew, Don Kyle, Steve Kirkham, Mark Petitt: you guys helped me so much as a young peewee baseballer through to a major leaguer. I can never repay you for what you’ve done to get me to where I am today.

 

And to my partner, Georgia: thank you for being my rock and always supporting me. You are amazing.

 

Thank you. Thank you all so much.

 

Warwick Saupold  -  Contributor