Jason Hirsh is on the mound. The Rockies’ 6-foot-8 pitcher is in mop-up mode. Colorado down 6-0 in the third at home; Hirsh is trying to slurp up a few innings and maybe build up credit toward getting his rotation spot back in 2009. The problem with the young righty is that he walks too darn many. In 19 starts in 2007, the second-rounder allowed 48 to have a free pass. No surprise he’s stuck in a three-and-one count to a rookie.
Fastball. Middle in. Gone. Fans at Coors Field probably didn’t flinch. After all, at Coors they have a better chance of catching a baseball in the outfield bleachers than in the second deck behind home plate. The blast was mundane for Rockies fans, but for Padres rookie second baseman Matt Antonelli, it was the shot heard around his home town of Peabody, Mass. It was his first major league home run. At the time, he must have felt like he was at the bottom of the Rocky Mountains beginning his climb, not the apex....,
Antonelli eats cereal out of a cup. He’s in his sweats, alone in his house in Massachusetts, sitting in the dark eating the breakfast. The only light shines from his Web cam. Fans type him one question after the next; everything from his football picks to his favorite color to breaking down his batting stance. Amidst his live chat, somebody unveils the elephant in the chat room: “what team are you going to play for next year?” The anonymous person asks. “Well, there are a couple teams that have asked about me,” Antonelli says politely, then moves on to talking about his favorite animal and making inside jokes with his social media-friendly bud and former teammate Dirk Hayhurst.
He didn’t seem thrown off. Then again, how much can a 25-year-old sitting in his PJ’s eating cereal out of a cup be thrown off? Said elephant isn’t as much that Antonelli is a free agent, more so that he didn’t turn out to be what the Padres -- or the player himself -- expected after being drafted in the first round of the 2006 amateur draft. Talking about his free agency is like calling him a failure.
Antonelli didn’t fall short of expectations because he couldn’t cut it, rather because injuries cut him down and tossed his swing for a loop. The Wake Forest standout hit 21 home runs and stole 28 bases in 2007 between single and double-A. During the next two seasons in triple-A, he struggled, hitting .209 with 11 home runs in 187 games of injury and swing agony. Eventually, he was forced to have surgery to repair a broken bone in his wrist.
After missing the entire 2010 season hurt, Antonelli felt he was finally back on track with both his ailments. Wrist - check. Swing – check. Motivation –check. However, at the same time the ever in-flux Padres needed a roster spot. They decided to non-tender Matt, making him a free agent.
When his agent called, Antonelli was sitting in a Mexican restaurant. “When he first told me, I really didn’t understand this whole ‘non-tendered’ business,” he said. “But, I’ve been around the sports world long enough to know what ‘free agent’ meant. It meant for the first time in my career I could go anywhere I wanted. That didn’t seem like such a bad situation. It also meant for the first time in my career I didn’t belong to a team or even have a job for that matter. That was something I wasn’t used to.”
A few websites reported “Antonelli non-tendered by Padres,” and a few of his web friends offered their condolences, but mostly the baseball world went back to worrying about where Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre would call home in 2011. The world sees another former top pick drifting into obscurity, the player sees a life-long winner being told he isn’t wanted.
“There are a lot of different feelings that come with being let go by the team that drafted you, the team that you made your Major League debut with, and the team that you were planning on building a long and successful career with,” he said. “For a lot of guys, including myself, it’s the first time in your life you’re told by someone in some way, shape, or form, ‘sorry, but we are going to go in a different direction.’ I had never been cut by a sports team from the time I was a little kid, and I washed dishes and bagged groceries well enough in high school and college to avoid the dreaded call into the boss’ office. Although I’ve had hundreds of teammates and friends released, traded, or ultimately call it quits, I never pictured myself having to go somewhere other than San Diego to play ball. It took a few days for me to fully comprehend how different 2011 would be.”
How different would 2011 be? February will bring a different Spring Training location, different apartments, different roommates, different coaches, different food, different trainers and even different fans. You meet new friends and – more often than not – never see the old ones again.
People lose their jobs every day. Few can find sympathy for a player who earned $400,000 in 2009 to play in the minors. And so many would go to unbelievable lengths to achieve the moment of euphoria Antonelli had on Sept. 15, 2008 against Jason Hirsh. But, professional athletes aren’t average Joe softball players who could crush high school fastballs. Beyond the physical skill it takes to be a Major League Baseball player exists the ability to press forward. It didn’t begin for Antonelli when he was non-tendered by the Padres, it began with his first strikeout in Little League.
Antonelli says he’s never experienced failure before being let go. Funny, coming from someone who plays a sport where you fail 70 percent of the time. That’s baseball. That’s Matt Antonelli. He continues to play because the next time up might be a three-and-one fastball from Jason Hirsh. The next one, in this case, came in the form of the Washington Nationals.
A few days after eating cereal out of a cup in the dark at his kitchen table, and two-and-a-half years removed from his Coors Field bomb, Antonelli learned he’d been signed by Washington. “When someone tells you they don’t really need you anymore you want to prove them wrong,” he said. “I want to return to the field and show the Padres that it wasn’t the right decision to let me go, and the Nationals that they made a great choice in signing me.”
At 25-years-old, Antonelli stands at the crossroads of his career. He can now see the line between being a star and a never-was that wasn’t there when he was a 23-year-old making his MLB debut. As much as you must shrug off failure in baseball, one must also never look too far ahead – just ask any team who has gone into the ninth with a lead and lost. Matt Antonelli is somewhere around the fourth inning of his career – and, as he must do with every plate appearance – he’s only seeing the now.
“This year will be a fresh start for me, and what better way to start off fresh than with a fresh new team,” he said. “In the end, everything that has happened over the last few months is part of the game. It happens every day to guys from all over the world. You have to learn from it, and no matter how it makes you feel, it’s your job to move on and do the best you can do. I’m still playing baseball and it will be with a great organization. I’m feeling good things for 2011.”
Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
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