The lives of baseball players can often take unconventional turns throughout their careers. It’s the rare exception when you witness a player sticking with one organization, in the likes of Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr., and Tony Gwynn.
With ballooning contracts and astronomical money being spent on premier talent, players are largely on the move, looking for the best opportunity to win and get compensated for their talents on the field.
However, the flip side of that are guys that have been moved from team to team, with hopes of catching on with an organization and being able to play a role in their team’s success. One such player is former first-round (22nd overall) right-hander, David Aardsma.
If the name sounds familiar it may be for one of three reasons: he pitched with the New York Mets in part of the 2013 season, after signing as a free agent at the end of May. He got to throw against Tim Tebow during his showcase last season. And the last reason is a part of a fun trivia fact: Aardsma is listed as the very first name in the alphabetical order of all baseball players who ever played the game.
Aardsma fits the role of the journeyman; having been a part of thirteen different organizations, fourteen now as he’s pitching for the Independent League Long Island Ducks. His career started off promising; being selected in the first round of the 2003 MLB Draft by Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants. He made the major league roster the following spring, after only appearing in 18.1 innings in 2003 with the High-A San Jose Giants.
After bouncing around through several organizations from 2004-2008, Aardsma found his role as closer with the Seattle Mariners in 2009. From 2009-10, he racked up 69 saves, pitching to a combined 2.90 ERA, a 143 ERA+, and 9.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings.
Hip, elbow, and groin injuries struck the right-hander though, undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011 along with hip surgery. From 2011-12, Aardsma only appeared in 11 games between the Mariners minor league system, the New York Yankees minor league system, and one appearance with the Yankees in Toronto in September 2012.
Aardsma paired with Top Velocity, a program that looks to bio-mechanics and how to properly optimize one’s body to perform the pitching motion on a consistent basis, specializing in baseball performance enhancement. Aardsma credits Top Velocity with getting him back into peak shape, as he was witnessing diminishing velocity from his normal mid-90s fastball, paired with ongoing groin issues that he couldn’t comprehend as to why they were reoccurring.
Since his tenure with the Mets in ’13, Aardsma has kept busy. He had the opportunity to pitch to Tim Tebow last year during his showcase for scouts, as the former quarterback was looking to get back into baseball. He signed on with the Long Island Ducks this season, looking to get back into the majors. And, Aardsma has been heavily involved with his very own weekly podcast, “The Bullpen with DA”. Along with his co-host James the Greek, the pair talk baseball and feature high end guests, such as, Omar Vizquel, David Wells, Tom Glavine, and Ken Griffey Jr.
I had the privilege of speaking to Aardsma last week, where we touched on the draft, getting to be teammates with Ken Griffey Jr and Ichiro, his tenure with the Mets, and of course, Tim Tebow.
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
David: I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan. I grew up in Denver and we didn’t have a team at the time and no one really to root for. So you had TV to entertain you baseball wise, so coming home from elementary school and then moving out to California it was WGN or TBS and out in California you had the Dodgers out there. But every day the Cubs would be on TV and I’d get home and (watch) the Cubs game, and so I really grew up a Cubs fan.
Loved Harry Caray and really that ’89 Cubs team was the first team I really, really remember. Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, I loved the Hawk (Andre Dawson), Rick Sutcliffe. I loved everything about the Chicago Cubs growing up and still am, still a big Cubs fan.
MMO: Walk me through draft night for you, did you have any idea the Giants were looking to take you 22nd overall in the 1st round in 2003?
David: I was not aware. I was told afterwards by my agent that he was aware that that would be a fallback position for me. What you really want to know is, you want to know where the worst place is that you could be picked. A lot of guys want to know the possible places where you can be picked, but you want to know the worst ones. You want to know the teams where you’re like okay, worst case scenario they’re taking you.
I didn’t know that going in so I had a really good summer the year before that kind of put me on the map. But towards the end of the college season I didn’t pitch all that well. And so, it kind of put it up in the air exactly where I was going to go. So going into it I was nervous. The draft was during the day and in high school I was told kind of by everybody that I’d be top seven rounds, probably seventh rounder. A lot of the scouts even told me that and I was never drafted. It had a lot to do with scholarships and stuff like that. But I sat there next to the phone all day long waiting to get picked, and never got picked. It was strenuous and not fun by any means.
I was not going to make the same mistake twice, so I sat back and decided with my parents to get distracted. My dad and I went and started washing his car to alleviate all that stress. So let’s just say that the draft was 1 pm; 1 pm comes, 1 pm goes, nothing. So we’re getting all nervous, wash the car again. 1:15 comes, 1:15 goes, nothing. And back then it was all done on a conference call and you could listen online, but that was it. There was no presentation, ESPN didn’t cover it, nobody covered it. So we didn’t know and we weren’t listening to it, and so 1:45 I’m freaking out, my dad’s freaking out assuming I’ve dropped and I’m definitely not a first rounder.
Then I get a phone call from somebody with the Giants, it was Brian Sabean (Giants GM). He told me, “Congratulations, we just drafted you in the first round, 22nd pick overall, we’ll be in touch.” So I hang up the phone and I go, I just got drafted! My dad goes, “Oh my god, that’s amazing, by who?” And I go, oh, oh, I don’t remember! (Laughs) And I go, I don’t know, I think it was the Giants, but I don’t know! So I ended up calling my mom and then my girlfriend at the time were listening online so they ended up telling me yes, it was the Giants. So they knew before I did. (Laughs)
MMO: Getting the direct call from Sabean must’ve been a pretty surreal moment for you.
David: Yeah, it’s amazing and it was pretty cool. You know, it’s one of those moments you worked your whole life to be at that moment. Obviously you know, I guess it’s different, you grow up saying, I want to play in the big leagues. Well you have to get in an organization first so at that moment it’s like, you know we knew we were going to get drafted but it’s like how high? And that’s just the process and so it’s weird how much of the moment that is. It really doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day, it’s amazing. But it’s basically like them pointing at you and saying, you get an opportunity, and that’s it. You still have to perform and get to the big leagues and if you don’t it’s a big let down.
MMO: You made the leap from Single-A to the majors after one season in the minors for a total of 18.1 innings pitched. What was it like when you heard you had made the major league roster out of spring the following year you were drafted?
David: So I went to High-A ball and pitched extremely well in High-A. I then went to Instructional League down in Arizona and man everything just clicked. I get invited to spring training and I didn’t have it in my contract so it wasn’t one of those things that was a forgone conclusion.
I remember the first day of spring training I’m going around meeting the trainers and meeting the guys, just some 22-year-old kid. Now that’s not a big deal but back then it was a huge deal that I was that young. And I remember this Double-A trainer saying, “Very nice to meet you I’m the Double-A trainer for Norwich, Connecticut. I’ll be having you in Norwich this year so we need to get comfortable with each other and get to know each other.” I remember in the back of my mind just saying, screw this! I’m going to work my ass off and I’m going to make sure I’m never there. They might have had this plan that I was going to be in Double-A no matter how good I pitched. But I was going to do everything I could possibly do to show them I was ready for the big leagues, and it was crazy that it worked out.
MMO: After bouncing around through a few organizations, you found great success with the Mariners in 2009-10. You saved 69 games and posted a combined 2.90 ERA w/ a strong 9.60 K/9. What was it about Seattle that you were able to put it all together like that?
David: 2008 was really the season that everything came together. You could look at that year statistically and it’s just a horrendous season. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. I had somewhere around a 2.50 ERA going into the All Star break. I was throwing extremely well, I was starting to get some setting up opportunities, starting to get some big moment opportunities and pitching extremely well.
The day before the All-Star break I tore my groin. We didn’t know it was torn at the time and I just went on the DL and tried to rehab it, but it really messed me up for the rest of the season. I tried to pitch through it and it didn’t work. So I knew going into 2009 if I was healthy it was going to be a big, big season for me. And so my 2008 numbers, I had the 2.50 ERA through thirty games, and the next six games my ERA bumped to like 5.00, or whatever it was. So if you really look at the half, split the season half and half, it’s almost an anomaly that the numbers should be that high because of how I pitched. All those numbers came in a couple of outings while I was trying to pitch through an injury.
I went on the DL twice for it and so I knew everything was happening. Jack Zduriencik, the GM of the Mariners at the time, sat me down and said when they traded for me, “David, I believe in you. I saw what you did in the first half of 2008. Your age and your career where how much experience you have, you’re in a perfect position to explode. And we need a guy at the back end of our bullpen; I think you can be it. I think you’re about to step into the perfect prime of your career and we’re the ones you’re going to have the uniform on for when that happens.”
That gave me the confidence, that little extra boost and then going into spring training I just had a great spring. Came out as a setup man and then Brandon Morrow unfortunately had some arm trouble and I got the opportunity to close.
MMO: You had the chance to play with a couple of legends in Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki during your tenure in Seattle. Do you have any cool memories with those two specifically that you could share?
David: I mean those guys are great. Ichiro and I were locker mates right next to each other. For me, watching Ichiro was watching him every day prepare. Be ready for the game every day the same way and his consistency. It didn’t matter rain or shine, Yankee Stadium or Seattle or San Diego, he was prepared and ready every game. And to see him do that was just amazing, to see that process and the joy he had in playing the game and still loved it.
And Junior, Junior’s just an amazing guy. He’s just the coolest guy ever. One of my fondest memories, and I’ve got so many fond memories, but the one was I get done with a game and I’m usually one of the last ones out of the locker room. I’m taking my time, I mean I’m really milking it this time. My wife and my father-in-law were there, and my mother-in-law was there. I come out of the locker room, and it’s probably like midnight at this time, and he had been hanging out with my wife and my in-laws for probably two hours, just talking! Sitting on the hood of his car and just talking. Talking about baseball, talking about life, talking about everything.
And I looked at him and I go, Junior, what the hell are you doing? He goes, “What else am I going to be doing? I could go home and watch TV or I can be hanging out with people and talking.” And I’m like, good for you dude. That’s why he’s the highest percentage ever in the Hall of Fame because of that. Because that’s what he brought everybody. He brought that to the fans, he brought that to media, brought that to ballplayers. That was him and that’s the cool thing about it.
MMO: It makes him more personable. He has this myth-like aura about him, but at the end of the day he’s just one of the guys.
David: He’s just one of the guys, and that’s cool man, and that’s really what he is. He’s nothing more than that, he’s just a great guy who happened to be the best ballplayer in the world.
MMO: In May 2013 the New York Mets signed you, and by June you were with the club. How did you enjoy your time with the Mets?
David: I loved that time with the Mets. One of the best memories I have with that was getting to become extremely close with LaTroy Hawkins. One of my closest teammates within baseball, Scott Atchison, the three of us kind of became just boys. I think we were teammates for about a month and then LaTroy just looked at me one day and goes, “How old are you?” And so this was 2013, four years ago. I go, I’m 31. And LaTroy goes, “Screw you!” I go, what are you talking about? And he goes, “I thought you were like 36, I thought you were one of us, you’re just a pup!” I go, yeah dude, when we got traded for each other (May 2005) I was 23! (Laughs) And he goes, “Jesus!” (Laughs)
It was a frustrating year because I thought we had a very good team. I came into the team and we were battling for second place in the division, battling for a wild-card. I want to say it was mid-June when I joined the squad and we had a good team. It’s just frustrating to see pieces of that team just not work out. David Wright getting hurt really just screwed us. David Wright goes down and we just collapsed. Then we’re sellers. We ended up trading John Buck and it was tough because I saw a lot of potential in that team. But really what I saw was the potential in our starting pitching staff coming up. You know Harvey was just going crazy that year and then he had the Tommy John unfortunately. But we kept hearing all the stories about Syndergaard. I was starting to see Wheeler growing up and becoming really good.
It was a blast, I loved it. I loved taking the 7 train in every day, pretty much every day other than when my wife came out and then I would ride home with her. I would take the 7 line in, and ride home with her. I remember me and (Carlos) Torres would take the 7 line home and it was always a blast hanging out with him after games. I loved getting home because I was staying in the city right around the Flatiron Building and I’d get home from the train or from the ride the team would provide like a car service for us, and the city would still be alive. I could go grab a beer if I wanted to or go grab dinner because I’m usually a night owl so I’d grab another bite to eat or something after that. And it was just so much fun, it’s not necessarily fun, it’s energy. You feel good, win or lose, there’s still some energy going on and I felt that at the stadium, especially with the 7-Line Army out there going crazy and that’s taken a whole world of its own now. But it was a blast to see that developing and being a part of that.
MMO: You underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, but initially you tried rehabbing it but then the ligament tore several weeks later. Can you talk about the thoughts you had about Tommy John surgery at the time, and what the process was like for you?
David: I had hip surgery before that. I had hip surgery in January of ’11, it’s something I hurt at the end of ’10. During my recovery, during my rehab that’s what I hurt and during that process and during my very first outing on my rehab assignment that’s when I tore my elbow. And so that process really changed my body, changed how I threw, which ended up hurting my elbow.
The surgery was actually relatively easy, I woke up after the surgery and was hungry and wanted to go eat. The recovery sucks, because it’s just tenuous and the same thing over and over and over again. But you just know that you’re going to come back, that’s the thing about TJ surgery. You know you’re going to be fine. Very, very rarely do people not come back from that still pretty close to how good they were. So I knew I was going to come back it’s just with the hip and the elbow together it just took me a long time. And a lot of people just assumed that the TJ was hard to come back from, it was really the hip that kind of set me off and that’s what changed my career was the hip. Without that, the elbow would’ve never happened because I never had an arm problem before then and after then I’ve never had an arm problem. The hip really screwed things up and that’s what I had to come back from and that’s what really up until 2015 I was still struggling to come back from.
MMO: Is that when you started working with Top Velocity?
David: Yeah, you know Top Velocity began as an answer to my hip. My velocity really started dropping; I knew I wasn’t the same pitcher as I was in the past. But in my heart though, because I would still throw and I’m like God, my arm feels great, I’m throwing hard with my arm, I feel my arm moving. But my legs just felt like there was nothing there and the velocity was just not coming out. So I’m sitting there beating my head against the wall and throwing 88-89 miles per hour, when I used to be throwing 100, and it’s like what the hell happened?
Then I hurt my groin and because of like I said in 2008, I hurt my groin too, and I’d always battled groin injuries ever since then. I just never went on the DL for it. I’d have a twinge here and there, a little pull and pitch through it. 2011 was one of those years I had a twinge all year long but I pitched through it no problem. In 2012 on my rehab assignment I hurt my groin also, so I always was battling it and I tore it and had surgery in 2014. And so I called Top Velocity to really say hey, what am I doing that no one else is doing because no one else is really having groin problems like I am? That started that process and I think that changed my career at that point.
MMO: Tell me about your podcast, “The Bullpen with DA”. How did this get started, and how did you meet your co-host, James?
David: So James and I became friends through his work at XM Radio. He was one of the producers for the fantasy and the baseball channel. So we got to know each other, became friends off the radio. And we just stayed in touch and we’d end up talking on the phone all the time and then all of a sudden my wife is like, “What the hell are you guys doing? You’re talking so much why don’t you guys just record it?”
That got James really thinking and he came up with the idea. So he called me up and said, “Hey, let’s do the podcast, I think it could be fun. Let’s find out what would happen if we do this.” And we’ve just been having fun with it; that’s the idea man, just to enjoy talking sports, getting a chance to talk to the people we want to talk to, and just have fun with it and have a blast and it’s been fun and it’s been going extremely well.
MMO: Would you be interested in a broadcasting career down the line?
David: That’s always been something that’s interested me when I was playing in ’09 and ’10, I’d have a bi-weekly little segment on XM Radio. I always liked it, I always liked that side. I always feel like, I can’t ever be the host because I don’t have enough to say. I don’t come up with interesting topics but if someone asks me a question I end up having a ton to say, it’s a weird catch-22 for myself. I’ll sit there and have a hard time coming up with stuff but if someone asks me a question I’ll talk all day long.
So I’ve definitely thought about that and I think it would be fun and I think it would be a blast to pursue it. And I’d love to, you never know, just be hanging out and watching a ball game and just getting to talk about it as you’re watching it.
MMO: You got to pitch to Tim Tebow last year several times, including his showcase for scouts. First off how did you get that gig, was it through Chad Moeller?
David: Yeah through Chad Moeller. I know Chad Moeller, when I was going through the Top Velocity process my first year, I knew I needed a place to throw and Chad has a facility pretty close to my house. I was using his facility to throw and prepare and get ready for the ’15 season. So I heard Tebow was there and I texted Chad and I’m like, Chad come on, I got to see this! Please let me know when he’s going to take BP, and so I could watch I won’t tell anybody I just want to check it out.
And he goes, “Are you still throwing?” And I said, I had just shut down from throwing at the time because the last year I didn’t get re-signed and I decided to shut down and prepare for this season. So he goes, “If you can get ready, I want you to throw some live BP.” I said, hell yeah I’ll get ready! So I ramped it back up in about a week to get back into it, and came out, threw live BP to him and that’s kind of how I hooked up with it.
MMO: And what were your initial reactions of Tebow as a ballplayer and as a person?
David: As a person he’s awesome, he’s engaging. I had met him one time before that. Engaging, really kind of draws you in and seems like a really genuine human being. No matter how you feel about him, anybody that’s ever met him everybody walks out with the same idea, like man this is real, on how you’re supposed to live your life is how he’s doing it.
As a ballplayer I felt like he’s somebody that loves competition, wants to be out there and prove himself. You can’t blame somebody for choosing football, and then when football basically tells you you’re not good enough, to him still wanting to compete. And seeing if he had what it takes and I can’t blame somebody at all.
A lot of the conversations with guys with where I’m at now in Indy ball get frustrated because he took somebody’s job, and that’s what they all say, he took somebody’s job. It could’ve been one of us that could be playing instead of him, but at the same time you can’t blame somebody for thinking he’s good enough for an opportunity. And he seems to be liking it. Riding the bus, and that was a big thing, everyone talked down on him that he’d never ride the bus. Well, he’s riding the bus; he’s staying at the crappy team hotels, probably with a roommate. And he’s doing everything you would ask of another player, and let’s find out where it lies. If it doesn’t work out, the guy still played and still did it, and still did it better than 99 percent of baseball players that get to pro ball.
MMO: You have been a part of 13 different organizations, 14 now including the Long Island Ducks. How difficult is it to be constantly on the move from organization to organization, and how does one stay mentally focused and prepared for when that time occurs?
David: What a lot of people don’t realize is just the whole process that’s involved. And that you literally have no control and there’s no other business that’s like this. People say well, come on, we get fired and we get transferred and stuff like that all the time. Yeah, but it’s always your choice. If you get fired, okay fine that’s obviously not your choice, but then you can get another job in the exact same industry, probably in the same location just down the street, and so not a whole lot changes. Or at worst you have to go somewhere else to get the same job in the same business in just a different city.
For us there’s really no choice, you really have no say in it. My very first trade when the Giants traded me to the Cubs, it was just kind of a big realization that how little control you have on anything in this game. You control your work ethic, you control your focus and energy and stuff, but outside of that the second that ball is out of your hand you have no control over anything. Brian Sabean when he traded me after he drafted me told me that real quick; hey man, this is a move we had to make for our big league team. We love you, we thought you were great, but we have hard choices to make and this is one of them.
That one wasn’t even that hard, getting traded from the Giants to the Cubs because you’re getting traded from an unbelievable organization yes, and that’s sad, to your dream organization. So it’s like, God, I really hate leaving the Giants but if there was ever a team to leave them for it’s the one I got traded to. Then my dreams came true to play for the Cubs and put on the uniform, play at Wrigley Field and do all that. But then the next one was hard, getting traded from the Cubs to the White Sox. It’s your dream team; your dream job tells you we no longer want your services.
Good or bad or whatever, it still hurts. You realize really quickly how much of a business it is, and I realized that early. After that, it just becomes a normal merry-go-round. My wife jokes all the time about how it’s a fit every year in a new uniform.
MMO: Thank you so much for your time today Mr. Aardsma, best of luck to you.
David: My pleasure, thank you for reaching out.
You can follow David Aardsma on Twitter, @TheDA53.
You can listen to “The Bullpen with DA” on iTunes.