Scottsdale, Ariz. -- It's 7:32 a.m. Thursday morning and I'm walking through the players' parking lot at Salt River Fields, making my way into the Colorado Rockies' side of the facility they share with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Minor league outfielder Bobby Stahel is ahead of me. I think about jogging up and introducing myself; he turns in another direction before I can. Oh, well. I guess I'll get him on another day.
As my attention turns from Stahel back to the walk, I see a man standing out on the curb, buried in his phone with a big bag of stuff beside him. As I get closer, I realize it's Brock Huntzinger. I interviewed Huntzinger two weeks earlier for a feature on his career in baseball, his long journey to get to this point, and his relentlessly positive attitude throughout.
That feature was supposed to run tomorrow.
At first, I'm excited to see him. Huntzinger is one of the good guys, a very approachable man who always seems to have a smile on his face. But looking at his bag, and his body language, and the fact that he was quite literally kicked to the curb outside the team facility when all the other players are walking inside, I put it all together.
Oh, shit, I think as I got closer. Please don't tell me he's been released.
"Hey, Brock, what's going on man? How are you?"
"Hey, good to see you man, I'm doing good," he responds, pausing. "I actually just got released."
He looks back to his phone, and then back to me.
"What? Oh no, man. I am so sorry to hear that."
He trails off.
"We were just going to run that interview on you, too, man, it was going to be perfect with the season starting up," I awkwardly say, clearly not knowing how to approach this delicate situation.
"Ah, man," he smiles. "That's OK."
He trails off again. We don't have much to talk about.
"Well, there are a lot of opportunities out there," I reason.
"Yeah," he nods. "I've just never been released by anybody before."
"On the bright side, every team needs pitching, right?"
"Yeah, absolutely," he says, nodding. "Everybody needs arms."
"Well," I pause, still not really sure what to say. "Uh, hey, it was really good to meet you."
"Yeah, you too," he responds, shaking my hand. "It was great to meet you."
"Good luck," I say, walking away past the backfields to the team's offices.
In a few hours, dozens of players will be on those fields getting ready for another morning preparing them for another summer of baseball. Life, and the game, will move on. I imagine Huntzinger will be at home with his wife, trying to make sense of what just happened. Or maybe calling his agent about another opportunity. Or maybe just playing with his daughter, leaving the game behind for a few hours before he has to face reality again.
The following feature was supposed to run tomorrow. In light of Huntzinger's release, I wanted to bump it up to this morning. It's no longer applicable—Huntzinger will not be pitching for the Rockies or their minor league affiliates this season—but maybe there's still some universal truth, or some significant takeaway here.
Or maybe I just want a better last memory than walking away helplessly, leaving him alone out on the curb, waiting for a ride home.
★ ★ ★★ ★ ★
It's been a long road the last nine years, and Brock Huntzinger has nothing to show for it. After the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the 3rd round out of an Indiana high school back in 2007, Huntzinger has known 13 different affiliates, appeared in 305 career games, and thrown exactly 797 innings in small towns around the country and in the Dominican Republic.
He moved to the bullpen in 2012 after topping out as a starter in Double-A. He's spent November in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Twice. He's pitched well in Triple-A across several different full seasons, for several organizations. And yet, he hasn't yet broken through to the big leagues.
But just like Eddie Butler, his throwing partner this spring in Rockies camp, Huntzinger isn't bitter about it.
"You can go one of two ways, you can be frustrated about it and be mad at the world, or you can say hey, I’m still employed, and I have another opportunity," Huntzinger tells me in the Rockies' clubhouse. "Obviously, every time you don’t get called up in September or whatever, it’s disappointing. You can whine and cry about it, but that usually doesn’t go to well. So I try to stay positive, confident, and I’m just waiting for something to line up to where I get my opportunity."
The right-handed reliever felt Colorado was the best place this spring to match up his aspirations with a fair chance at earning innings; whether he starts the season in Triple-A or elsewhere, he liked what he saw from the Rockies and signed early for what little job security he could find in a precarious industry.
"When free agency started, they called early," Huntzinger says about the Rockies. "I have my wife, and my daughter is going to be a year old here in another month, and it’s like man, what are we going to do, are we going to vet this thing and wait it out, and try to guess to see who signs where? You can do that for two months and they'll sign seven people in the meantime."
"It being my third time through, they just made me feel really comfortable," he adds, "and they said I was going to get a chance to show what I can do. I felt comfortable, so I was like, let’s do it. And here I am."
Rockies manager Walt Weiss has liked the work Huntzinger did for the big league club this spring before the team reassigned him to minor league camp, too.
"We’re excited to get him, he's a big strong guy that has pitchability," Weiss says. "He got down here early, worked hard at the complex, and got familiar with some of his teammates. He’s done a good job."
"He’s been in the minor leagues for a while," Weiss adds, "and he’s earned some stripes on his shoulders. He's not exactly a rookie kid you’re counting on, so it’s nice having him in the fold for sure."
The stripes Huntzinger has earned, to use Weiss' metaphor, may have never come in the big leagues, but he has endless experience just below the ultimate level. The righty has strong Triple-A numbers, logging a 3.24 ERA, 7.8 H/9, 3.9 BB/9, and 8.6 K/9 over 178 innings pitched. Along the way, he's learned to master the level mentally, too.
"Triple-A is a funny animal," he muses. "There are a lot of guys that are bitter, a lot of guys that are happy to be there, and then guys like myself that are like, this is the year, this is the year, this is the year."
"I love playing baseball," he adds. "Whatever I do this year, I want to just stay employed for next year in whatever capacity that is. Obviously, hopefully that’s a big league uniform somewhere. Hopefully here. But you can look at things one of two ways; half-full or half-empty. Baseball can humble you, and humiliate you if you let it, so I just try to stay right in the middle."
Huntzinger may be experienced in Triple-A, and he's been in professional baseball a long time, but he also doesn't want to be seen as an old guy in the clubhouse considering he's still not yet 30. Nevertheless, he relishes the ability to positively impact his teammates, especially younger ones who are trying to get where Huntzinger has been.
"I’m only 27 so I’m not a salty, old bitter person," he laughs. "But in Triple-A, the older guys that have big league time can set a bad example. I experienced that a few times, and I was like, man, I’m not going to be that guy. People enjoy positive people, and they want to be around someone that’s fun to be around. I consider myself someone that’s fun to be around."
Butler, who threw with Huntzinger all month in camp, agrees with that assessment.
"You don’t want guys seeing you being bitter or angry that you’re down there," Butler says of Huntzinger being stuck in Triple-A. "He’s been down for six, seven years and he’s still got that drive to get up there, he’s still got that passion. And that’s something a lot of the guys can take from that, myself as well, in trying to control our emotions and being able to fight for it."
Butler has been impressed with Huntzinger's work on the field, too.
"He’s done great things," the Rockies' young starter adds. "It’s taken him a little while, but that’s something he’s been really excited about, being up here, being in camp, and getting that opportunity. He’s working his butt off every day trying to stick. Great guy."
At the outset, though, sticking with the team may not even on the right-handed pitcher's radar yet; he just wants to make one first. After years of good work in Triple-A and never so much as a September call-up, the Indiana native really wants that first opportunity, and it's clearly been frustrating for him not to have gotten that yet, even though he's had full seasons—like in 2013 in the Red Sox organization—where he's put up ERA numbers below 2.00.
"I really discovered myself that year, but everything really predicates off of what the big club is doing," Huntzinger acknowledges about what was maybe his best shot at a big league debut with the eventual world champions in 2013. "They were winning ball games, and positioning themselves for September and October and getting ready for a playoff run, so they were making different moves than they would have made if they were in last place and doing auditions."
"I felt like I had earned a call-up, and in another situation or another year, it might have happened," he adds. "But there’s nothing really else I could have done. You can’t control 90% of the things that happen. When I went home, it was just like, you know what, that’s fine, there’s nothing else I could have done."
Still, it's obvious that it stings.
"It is in the back of your head, like man, that should have happened for me," he says, shaking his head. "And you can think like that, and you give yourself a month or so to feel like that, but then it’s like, OK, I gotta get ready for whatever is next."
Huntzinger left the Red Sox after 2013, his minor league odyssey taking him to the Triple-A affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics over the next two seasons, before plopping him with the Rockies—his first venture into the National League—this spring. He's used to organization hopping by now, though, and as a non-roster invitee to big league camp, he's more or less expected everything he's seen.
"There are certain guys that did something last year for the team, and they are going to have their innings, but there’s two ways to look at everything," he says, going back to his glass-half-full mentality. "You can be bitter about ‘oh, I should get this or that' or whatever, but I need to be ready when the phone rings. If my opportunity is throwing four innings, or if it’s throwing an out, I've just gotta be ready for whatever comes my way. That’s where I’m at right now."
Many of Huntzinger's opportunities this spring have come through throwing just an out. The Rockies have used relievers on the margins like him, Nelson Gonzalez, Simon Castro, and Brian Schlitter to mop up innings when hurlers on the top of the depth chart needed some help, and for Huntzinger, that's been just fine.
"If that’s my opportunity, if I get to face one batter or ten, that’s what I get, and I’ve got to embrace that," Huntzinger says. "Hopefully those turn into longer stints at some point. But if you go out there and show that you can’t control the game, or guys are running all over you, or you’re just all over the place, it’s like, 'oh, well I’m glad that’s over, let’s get the next guy in.'"
That's been an adjustment for Huntzinger, too, in controlling the game as a reliever. Drafted by the Red Sox as a starter, the pitcher made it to Double-A before it was painfully clear he didn't have the stuff to face a lineup multiple times. To his credit, he recognized it at the time and actually asked the Red Sox to move him to the bullpen.
It saved his career.
"My thing was turning over the lineup, and it just became like beating a dead horse," he reminisces about his time in minor league rotations. "It’s just like, OK, it’s not happening. There’s a draft every year, and there’s always somebody coming, and I told my pitching coach I think my stuff would play up a little bit if I came out of the bullpen, and he agreed. I think there were some guys kind of nipping at my heels a little bit."
"I like throwing a lot, and as a starter you have to wait five days whether you have a good game or a bad game," he adds. "I like the fact that you go out and do good, hey, get ‘em tomorrow. You go out and do bad, hey, get ‘em tomorrow. I didn’t look at it as like, ‘oh you’re not good any more, go hang out with all the misfits behind the outfield wall.’ They need these guys, too, and if this is my fit, then this is my fit."
Huntzinger's fit isn't just in the bullpen, either; to hear him tell it, he hit it off from day one in Scottsdale, connecting with teammates and finding that his personality has meshed well in what is his fourth clubhouse in four seasons.
"Everything here is super inclusive," he acknowledges. "I’ve been in clubhouses before where it’s like, 'all right rookie, don’t even look over there.' Here, it’s more wide open. You’ve got people from ten years of service time to A-ball guys playing cards together. That doesn’t happen everywhere."
"We all eat together, the front office guys are kind of like family, and that’s the feel that you get," he adds, echoing a sentiment I have heard elsewhere in the organization. "It’s nice to know that you don’t have to walk on egg shells everywhere when you’re trying to go out there and perform. That was nice, and why we—myself and my wife—felt confident and comfortable with it."
Asking around to his teammates, it seems like nobody has anything to say about Huntzinger short of praise, either.
"He’s awesome, and he’s one of the guys you have to root for, because he’s such a great dude," catcher Dustin Garneau says.
Garneau, who himself knows a bit about going on a long minor league odyssey, marvels at Huntzinger's mental approach.
"When you’re going through a Triple-A season, it’s very easy to doubt yourself and get down on yourself and whatever," the catcher adds. "But the more you stay positive like he is, it just makes it that much easier to show up to the park and have that shot to get called up."
Rockies rookie catcher Tony Wolters agrees—and even seemed to take it personally about helping Huntzinger in camp.
"He’s a worker, a grinder, he wants to make the club, and he will do anything he can," Wolters, himself a grinder, says. "I see him working out early and he’s always trying to be the best. I’ve learned being a catcher, one of the things I love is you’re helping another guy trying to succeed. I want to frame that pitch for him, because he strives to be the best, and I want him to be."
It seems like "great dude" might be an apt way to describe our subject.
"He’s a great dude," reliever Justin Miller says, echoing Garneau. "He’s come into camp with a level head, and he’s been a really great guy, a really great teammate."
All this 'great dude' talk certainly reflects back to Huntzinger's relentless optimism, even in the face of some very mentally challenging times in Triple-A. Perhaps another fit he's found with the Rockies has centered on that attitude, too; as Weiss tells it, the club preaches to their own players something Huntzinger has learned along his journey before ever coming to Colorado.
"I talk a lot about gratitude to our team, and maintaining that perspective," Weiss says. "It’s easy to lose sight of that, but obviously he hasn’t. I don’t care what your circumstances are, whether you’re an All Star, or you’re in Brock’s shoes, it’s important to be grateful."
Perspective can be a worn-out topic, and yet it's especially applicable to a man like Huntzinger, who makes his offseason home in Indianapolis with his wife and one-year-old daughter, both of whom travel with him to each new outpost he's assigned every summer.
"We’ve been fortunate enough to where she’s not working, so she travels with me, so that’s been really nice," Huntzinger says of his wife. "We just kind of make it work. There’s no outline of how to do things, and everyone has their idea on how to do this or that, how to raise kids or travel or whatever. We just kind of do what makes us feel comfortable."
"The job security year to year is not very good, though," he admits. "You don’t know where you’re going to be week to week, day to day. But that’s just something you deal with, and we’re on the same page with just about everything, so it makes it easy."
Garneau, also married and living life on the Major League margins, understands that delicate balance.
"When you start having kids, you want to provide, you want to be a provider like that," the catcher acknowledges. "And the minor leagues is not exactly a glamorous job or position to be in. But the more you can not think about that, the better you’ll play."
"But," he adds, pausing. "It's definitely there."
Huntzinger most certainly feels that pressure; in addition to his young daughter, his wife is expecting another child in July, too.
"That’ll be another wrinkle, I think it’ll get a little bit harder," he says, chuckling. "We’ll have to see if we have to tone back this whole traveling circus after another couple months. But we’ve been really lucky. I know every parent probably says this but my daughter is so good. She’s chilled out, she doesn’t really thrown tantrums or anything, and she sleeps a lot, so we’ve had kind of a cake walk compared to some others."
"It's perspective," he adds. "I could go out and have a terrible series and come home, and my daughter’s there. It’s nice having them around, for sure."
All that perspective and these warm and fuzzy family moments aside, Huntzinger ultimately has one obvious goal this summer. But he's intending to go about it a little bit differently than he did a year ago, when he was stuck in purgatory with the Athletics' Triple-A affiliate in Nashville.
"I got into a rut where I was pitching well, people were going up and down with injuries, and it was like, I wasn’t the guy picked so I've got to do something better," he admits. "Then you start putting all this pressure on yourself, like, 'hey, I can’t give up a hit, can’t give up a walk, can’t let anyone score.' And I don’t think there’s ever been anyone in the history of baseball to have a zero ERA at the end of a year."
"I’ve been in situations where I’ve had two good weeks, and then I’ll have a bad series, or a bad road trip," he adds, assessing his past shortcomings honestly. "There are so many things I can say, and so many clichés I can use, but it’s really just about being ready for whenever I get that call."
Maybe Huntzinger will get it this year with the Rockies; maybe he'll again find himself stuck in Triple-A all summer. Either way, Dustin Garneau is right: Brock Huntzinger is an easy guy to root for.
★ ★ ★★ ★ ★
Sometimes, baseball is brutal.