Jeroloman out to shed 'phantom ballplayer' label
In camp with Indians, catcher has been to Majors, but yet to play in a game
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- This was the conversation Brian Jeroloman had waited for his entire life. All those backyard games with his brother, the Little League tournaments, high school, playing at University of Florida, enduring long bus rides in the Minors, it all was for this moment.
On the morning of Aug. 23, 2011, Jeroloman stood before his Triple-A Las Vegas manager, Marty Brown.
"You're going to The Show," Brown said. "They want you."
Those were words Jeroloman dreamt of hearing, but it did not feel right. The moment was wrong. There was a knot in the catcher's stomach as he digested the news. This was not the way the catcher envisioned his first trip to the big leagues.
"I'm sitting there like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Jeroloman said.
Nine hours earlier, in the seventh inning of a 6-4 loss to Fresno, Jeroloman drew a walk and then sprinted to third base on a single by Darin Mastroianni. As he rounded second, the catcher had no way of knowing the baseball gods were plotting against him. Jeroloman slid into third, felt a sharp pain shoot through his right hand and knew instantly it was bad.
Jeroloman immediately informed Brown that he was hurt.
"Right when I got up, I said to my skipper, 'I broke my hand,'" Jeroloman recalled. "I knew it right away."
The Blue Jays were told Jeroloman injured his throwing hand, but a brief meeting with a doctor had the team convinced it was only a sprain. Jeroloman could still come to Toronto as the third-string catcher, get used to the Major League environment and potentially prep for a possible stint as the team's backup behind the plate the following season.
So, Jeroloman did what players going to The Show do. He called his parents and his fiancee, and he tried to sound as excited as they would expect. When he called his older brother, Chuck, who spent seven years as an infielder in Boston's farm system, he was honest about the situation.
"My hand is messed up," he told his brother.
There is a baseball term for players who only get a taste of the big leagues. Those with one career game appearance, or perhaps only one at-bat, are referred to as "cup of coffee" players. They got their sip, a pat on the back and ride off into the sunset.
The most famous of these is Moonlight Graham, who was popularized in W.P. Kinsella's baseball novel, "Shoeless Joe," and later by the film, "Field of Dreams." Archibald Wright Graham was a 27-year-old outfielder for the 1905 New York Giants. He played in one game, but never got an at-bat. That is, until he discovered that fictional diamond built within a corn field in Dyersville, Iowa.
A cup of coffee in the Majors would seem like the ultimate tease, but there is a smaller category of players who would argue otherwise. Baseball jargon has dubbed these men "phantom ballplayers." They were placed on a big league team's active roster for a period of time, but never appeared in a game. You will not find any official record of them even having been in the Major Leagues.
Right now, Jeroloman is one of the few phantoms in baseball's long history.
"I always tell people not to feel bad for me," Jeroloman said. "This is part of baseball. It's part of the life I chose."
Jeroloman spent 37 days with the Blue Jays in 2011, but his ailing right hand, swollen on a daily basis and often shaking uncontrollably, kept him sidelined for his entire stay in the bigs. Toronto wanted to keep the injury out of the media, so the catcher came in extra early for treatment and waited until reporters left each night to head back to the training room.
As the days turned into weeks, and curious reporters asked Jeroloman about his long wait to see even one inning of action, the catcher bit his tongue and repeatedly offered the same line.
"I'm ready to get in there. Waiting my turn."
Two years later, Jeroloman is still waiting.
This spring, the 27-year-old catcher is in camp with the Indians as a non-roster invitee. On the depth chart, he has Carlos Santana, Lou Marson and Yan Gomes ahead of him. On Monday, Cleveland manager Terry Francona informed Jeroloman that he will be re-assigned to Minor League camp soon -- likely with a ticket waiting for Triple-A Columbus.
Jeroloman knew that news was coming.
"I'm glad I chose to come here," Jeroloman said. "This is a great organization with great personalities, and a great team."
Tim Gradoville's season with Double-A Reading was over and he was back home in Colorado, staring down the start of another long offseason. Roughly 1,800 miles away in Philadelphia, catcher Mike Lieberthal was fighting a bout with back spasms, and the big league club did not want to be caught short-handed while in the thick of a playoff push.
On Sept. 5, 2006, Gradoville's phone rang. He was going to The Show.
"I was at home that week and I was a little frustrated," said Gradoville, who had been discussed as a possible callup for the Triple-A postseason. "They called me back and said, 'You're not going to Triple-A.' They said, 'You're going to the big leagues. I was like, 'Really?' I was pumped up."
Gradoville -- 26 at the time and in his sixth year of pro ball -- scrambled to pack his bags and catch his flight to Philly. In a matter of hours, the catcher went from unwinding at the start of his winter to preparing for a 10-game Major League road trip through Miami, Atlanta and Houston in his first taste of the Majors.
For the first eight games, Philadelphia split the playing time behind the plate between Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz, giving Lieberthal time to rest. Gradoville watched from the bench, wondering if he would get the opportunity to play in a game. As the National League Wild Card race got heated, and Lieberthal healed, Gradoville's chances of seeing game action diminished.
The Phillies started to work Lieberthal back into games and decided they did not need to carry four catchers. Even though teams can carry as many as 40 players in September, the ballclub called Gradoville into the manager's office and told him he was going home. On Sept. 23, he was sent outright to Triple-A and removed from the roster.
Gradoville took the demotion in stride, but there was still a level of disappointment.
"When I was up there, we were in a pretty tight payoff race," Gradoville said. "I understood I wasn't going to get a token start or a token at-bat or anything like that. We were always a half-game or a game behind. When I got the news I was getting outrighted, there were about 10 games left in the season.
"I think what was frustrating for me was knowing there were only 10 games left. I could've just rode out the rest of the regular season."
Gradoville's level of frustration climbed on Sept. 29, as he watched from home as the Phillies routed the Marlins, 14-2. With a full-fledged blowout in the works, Philadelphia began pulling its regular players, giving a handful of the reserve players an at-bat or two. All Gradoville could think about was what could have been.
"The announcer says, 'The Phillies are emptying their bench right now, getting everybody at-bats,'" said Gradoville, who allowed himself to laugh a little years later. "I'm sitting there going, 'Oh, man.' If I could've stayed there a little bit longer, maybe I could've had one at-bat."
Gradoville pushed himself that winter -- motivated by his 18 days in The Show -- with the goal of getting back to baseball's biggest stage. He never did realize that dream as a player. Two years later, Gradoville accepted a job as a bullpen catcher for the Phillies, but his chances of playing in the Majors were shot.
"That opportunity never did come again," he said. "I was never really heartbroken like, 'Oh, I never made it back.' I was there. I was really close. And those were the best two weeks of my playing career."
Tony LaCava, an assistant general manager for the Blue Jays, has watched Jeroloman play since the catcher's amateur days. He watched Jeroloman grow as a player as he ascended Toronto's farm system, and saw the wave of injuries that took a toll on the catcher's progress.
"Things of that type have kind of sidetracked him," LaCava said.
LaCava believes the tools are still there for Jeroloman to accomplish his goal of reaching the Majors.
Jeroloman never had "classic throwing mechanics," as LaCava worded it, but the catcher has always excelled in stopping the running game. He is defensively sound -- the kind of player teams love having in the system to work with pitchers. At the plate, Jeroloman has always had a knack for getting on base, even when his batting average lagged.
"The ingredients to play in the big leagues are there," LaCava said. "Now it's a matter of hopefully him getting another opportunity. When you've got a catcher that can stop the running game and is a left-handed hitter with a good swing and good plate discipline, that should translate into some big league time."
Jeroloman also prides himself on being a student of the game.
During his five-week stay in Toronto, the catcher spent his time in the film room, analyzing the Blue Jays' pitching staff and studying opposing hitters. If he could not get in a game -- the excruciating pain felt during batting practice made that prospect seem impossible -- he would at least use his time wisely with an eye toward 2012.
"It's not like I sat and I did nothing," Jeroloman said. "I was in there so early. For a night game, I was at the field from 10:30 [in the morning] to almost 11:30 or 12 at night, studying non-stop. I wanted to see all these guys pitch through videos, and learn all the ins and outs."
When he was not working behind the scenes, or spending time in the training room, Jeroloman was trying to keep his sanity. An X-ray revealed a fracture in his hand near the wrist, but Jeroloman was not allowed to wear a cast in front of reporters. The catcher could not keep a cast on full-time until the offseason, killing his plans to play winter ball.
Jeroloman confided in a couple of teammates to have an outlet for his frustration. He said teammates Kelly Johnson and DeWayne Wise were especially helpful during what the catcher called "the toughest situation I've ever gone through in my life."
"I just basically told him to try to stay focused," Wise said. "I've been through it most of my career, having to battle every year. I just tried to keep his spirits up and try to let him know it is a hard game, but if you want to succeed in this game, you have to work hard."
Jeroloman did not make it back to Toronto last season.
He was limited to 43 games in the Minors due to a right knee injury that wound up being worse than initially thought. At the start of the offseason, he had an exploratory procedure to find out why he felt like he was being electrocuted every time he squatted down. It turned out that scar tissue had fused a nerve to bone around his knee.
Jeroloman was able to walk just fine shortly after the surgery.
"I've been unfortunate with injuries," he said. "But I've been blessed because I've learned so much through it all."
The catcher is healthy now -- after playing through a torn hip in 2009, the broken wrist in 2011 and the knee problem last year -- and hopes to avoid any more health-related setbacks. That is easy for a catcher to say, and harder to do. Being banged up often comes with the territory when one makes a living behind the dish.
Jeroloman is still relatively young, and he still has the strong arm and good eye that made him a highly-touted prospect during his early days in Toronto's farm system.
"Once upon a time," he said.
Jeroloman's first trip to the Majors did not go as hoped -- for him or the Blue Jays -- but the catcher might be able to one day shake the phantom label.
"If this were the end of the line, you would feel bad," LaCava said. "But I feel like he's still going to have other opportunities to get in a game. It's not like he's some broken-down guy that was getting his last chance [in 2011]. It just seemed like, 'OK, well, he'll have other chances in the future.'"
Gradoville, who now works for the Department of Defense outside Philadelphia, knows first-hand the kind of emotions a player experiences while staring at his big league dreams from the bench. The 33-year-old former catcher hopes Jeroloman keeps pushing toward getting back to the Majors.
"Whenever you're still in the mix, you've always got a shot," Gradoville said. "You're one injury or one freak accident away, especially for catchers. As long as he can still keep playing and he has a family that supports him, then he should go for it as long as he can."
Jeroloman plans on doing precisely that.
"When I do get back up there," Jeroloman said, "it's just a matter of coming ready."