Baseball Men - The Dreamer

Our interview series, "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Mike Porzio, veteran of 11 Minor League Seasons and 51 Major League games.

The very best baseball players know how to dream. It's an undeniable reality in the game. If they didn't dream, they wouldn't become Major Leaguers in the first place.

 

After all, it's the National Pastime that features the deepest, most global talent pool in American sports, and every professional career begins with a kid's vision of beating out several million competitors across several continents. And, after entry into pro ball, players' careers are sustained by the bright hope that they'll somehow combine the God-given talent, good health, and luck necessary to beat out the estimated 90% of Minor Leaguers who never do play a game in the Major Leagues.

 

Baseball dreams aren't just about beating the most daunting odds, but about the hope and vision needed to break through a staggering amount of hard work. The fact is, for every Vlad Guerrero or Felix Hernandez breezing through the Minor League system, the typical Major League position player has to play more than 450 games (three-plus seasons) before his debut at the highest level. It's a good bet that prospects aren't sticking around through all that for the sheer pleasure to be found in Minor League towns like Chattanooga or Rapid City.

 

No, baseball players have to believe in themselves and their future and, what's more, their dreams die exceptionally hard. They know that, in baseball's meritocracy, dreams can work.

 

Aspiring players might know that Scott Seabol believed in himself enough to endure parts of 10 Minor League seasons before winning a job with the league-leading Cardinals. They might note that stubborn, never-say-die types like Aaron Small went through parts of 17 seasons in the Minors before sparking the Yankees' current playoff run with an improbable 9-0 record. They might even recall that a guy named Wade Boggs once found the perseverance needed to go through no less than seven Minor League seasons before establishing himself as a future Hall-of-Famer with the Red Sox.

 

All ballplayers have an ability to hold fast to a Major League aspiration, and it's as much a part of their game as their hard work and physical talent. Indeed, it's a primary and indispensable part of the work, because an individual's belief in a better future makes all the dues-paying effort and performance possible in the first place. Everyone knows that most ball players, including multi-millionaire superstars, never do leave the playing fields on their own terms; a lifetime in the game almost always leaves the elites with a constitutional inability to quit on themselves.

 

Mike Porzio may be the one who knows the most about those kinds of dreams and realities. That's because few playing today have pursued a Major League job through more obstacles and adversity.

 

After a standout career as a college player at Villanova and Western Connecticut University, Porzio signed with the Cubs organization as an amateur free agent in June 1993. He was released soon afterwards; then passed through the Red Sox, Orioles, and Braves systems before a July 1998 trade brought him to the Rockies organization. It was with Colorado that Porzio, age 27, made his Major League debut in July 1999.

 

If Porzio beat severe odds to play 16 games with the Rockies back in ‘99, he still hasn't beaten the odds in sticking around for very long since. The rookie's 8.59 ERA in Denver's thin air led to an October 2000 release, but he bounced back to sign with as a free agent with the White Sox for the 2001 season. The young player made it into 35 games in 2002-03, putting up a career-best 4.81 ERA as a long reliever in '02, but ineffectiveness soon led to another demotion. 

 

The seasons since have seen more setbacks for Porzio. The White Sox let him go and in 2004, so did the Indians, his seventh Major League organization. In 2005, while rehabbing an arm injury, the lefty reliever put up a 4.30 ERA in 37.2 innings with the Atlantic League's Bridgeport Bluefish. The possibilities for a 12th year in Spring Training tryouts next year are, at best, iffy.

 

Without a doubt, baseball has presented a long and winding path for Mike Porzio. On August 30th, a soft-spoken but very upbeat individual discussed his life in the game and the reasons why, despite it all, he's still working, still playing, and still dreaming of the Majors.

 

 

How did you first get interested in the game? Was your Dad a fan?

 

My Dad didn't really know a whole lot about baseball - he grew up in Italy. No; as a kid, I just enjoyed watching those who played the game well. Guys like Frank Viola, Nolan Ryan.

 

When did you first realize you had a talent for the game?

 

From the time I was little, I was always a standout. I might have been 16 or 17 before I lost a baseball game. Less than a 1.00 ERA. Definitely, I had some God-given ability to begin with.

 

When did you first think of baseball as a future career?

 

When I got to my teenage years and I was still better than most. At that point Matt Reed, who was a youth coach in the area, confirmed that I had the potential to make the Major Leagues. He was a former pro player himself.

 

But, you know what? I would have played anyhow, just for the fun of it. I think if you asked 100 baseball kids if they wanted to play in the big leagues, 99 would say yes.

 

What was it like when Major League scouts first started coming around to see you?

 

I enjoyed talking to them. They like to talk to you and get a feeling for who it is they might be drafting; I felt it was exciting. That's the one thing that everyone wants - enthusiasm, self-motivated players. They knew I loved playing.

 

What was the most surprising thing about the on-field experience in pro ball?

 

Most of us, we just kind of threw the ball and got people out. When I got to pro ball, though, that wasn't nearly good enough. I mean, I'd throw a shutout and they'd tell me I wasn't throwing the ball well.

 

I started hearing terms I never heard before. ‘Keep your front side closed'. ‘Stay back'. The list goes on and on. ‘Stay tall'. ‘Don't collapse on your back side'. ‘Keep a stiff front leg'. It was stuff to help us avoid getting hurt. It was all new to me.

 

Well, you signed for a modest bonus in 1994 and played for an even more modest salary as a Minor Leaguer. How worried were you about getting hurt before you ever made Major League money?

 

That was my only fear, really - that I would get hurt before I got a chance for the big leagues.

 

Other than that, I didn't think about getting hurt. I mean, it's like getting into a car. That has the highest probability of accidents, but how many people go for a drive and think, ‘I might get killed today?' It's the same thing in baseball. I was aware of [the possibility of injury], but only in the back of my mind.

 

What was the toughest part of the mental game?

 

Basically, it was tough to learn what I was doing without interrupting what it was I was doing. In the pro game, I had to learn enough from coaching to get back to that natural ability, where I was a kid playing in the back yard again.

 

I mean, the mental part became huge. I know that I could have pitched better games at times if I weren't thinking about certain mechanical things. But, they needed to be done.

 

Were you surprised by the level of competition in the Minors?

 

As a pitcher, I noticed that the hitters knew the strike zone better. The hitters forced you to make good pitches.

 

Also, the level of strength was greater. In college ball, a good pitcher can knock the bat out of hitters' hands. Not so in the higher levels - even when they make mistakes or guess wrong, they can hit the ball hard.

 

Was it hard to get used to the lifestyle?

 

Every day there seems to be some kind of adjustment, whether you're getting off a long trip, going from hot weather to freezing cold, all kinds of things; lousy food, lousy motels. There are so many daily stresses outside people aren't aware of. The long bus trips and constant travel seem to cause retirements for Minor Leaguers, more than anything else.

 

Everyone knows that the long distance relationships are brutal, too. Wives make tremendous sacrifices while their husbands play. The thing is, a lot of wives are working back in their home towns. They might have a good job, and they usually need to keep it for the money. I know [recent Milwaukee Brewer] Brooks Kieschnick's wife stayed behind in Texas while he played baseball. Often, in the Minors, it's about finding a way to raise a growing family without a lot of salary.

 

It's not really a family game, at least not for the ballplayers. It takes a really strong wife or girlfriend to tolerate the traveling and lifestyle.

 

What was it like in trying to advance through the Minors?

 

There are so many levels, at least six for every organization. That if you're in the big leagues within three years, you pretty much flew through the system. It's like the army - you don't start off as a general. You've got to work your way up.

 

(pause) One of the things people say is that ‘the players are overpaid'. I don't like to hear that too much. In baseball, there's no guarantee that all the hard work in the world will ever pay the rent.

 

I heard a story once. There was this famous artist at a restaurant and someone asked for him to sketch something. So he did and the person asked the artist how much he owed. The artist said ‘$500'. The person said, ‘What are you talking about? That took you a few seconds'. The artist said, ‘No, it's taken me a lifetime'.

 

It's the same thing. They look at TV, but they don't see the whole process that went into it. The way that it can take years and years to get the opportunity to play one day in the big leagues.

 

What did you learn from your coaches?

 

I've had a lot of good coaches. I've learned something from every one of them.

 

It's different with each coach and each team. Some like to work more and some like to work less. The goal is to become your own coach - when you make a mistake, you don't have to look to someone else for the answers.

 

Generally, it's kind of sink-or-swim mentality, where you're always learning. Coaches are in the background, where they want you to play and they can help when things go awry. They try to make you aware of your tendencies so you can stay on top of them.

 

Did any of your teammates stand out as good teachers?

 

I've learned a lot from fellow pitchers. When I played in Colorado, [the late] Darryl Kile was on the team. He had a tremendous breaking ball, as everyone knew, and he helped me throw a curveball. It became one of my best pitches.

 

You started off in the Cubs system; then moved on to the Red Sox, Orioles, and Braves in the Minors. Do any of them stand out in their coaching and style?

 

When I was with the Atlanta organization, I had Bruce Dal Canton as a pitching coach. He kept it fun. With the pitching staff there, it was a friendly rivalry and that made it an exciting team to pitch for. They had guys who went out there and expected to win. I wanted to pitch as well and one-up the guys, and they wanted to one-up me. Several of us made the big leagues.

 

In 1998, the Braves traded you to the Colorado Rockies, and they called you up to the Majors in July 1999. What was that like?

 

That was clearly the most exciting day for me. The way it went, I didn't know how close I was to the big leagues. I heard people tell me, but I didn't see myself as just a step away, to be the one who was going to be called up. I always hoped, but . . . .

 

The manager came up to me and said, ‘Take it easy, kid. I don't want you throwing'. I said, ‘What are you talking about? I do this every day'. He said, ‘Well, I want you to be rested for Mo Vaughn tonight'. (laughs) He started laughing and said, ‘You're going to the big leagues, kid'.

 

It was a big coincidence. One other Norwalk, Connecticut native was in the Majors at that time, and he happened to be the guy you faced as your very first batter.

 

Yeah, that's the way it turned out. Of all the guys - it was an interleague game against Anaheim [July 9, 1999]. I don't know if he remembered me from Norwalk, but he was always a big-time prospect. I certainly remembered him.

 

What did you do with him?

 

He flew out on a 2-2 pitch, a changeup. (smiles) In Colorado, you never quite know if it's going to go out, but it did stay in. That, to me, was exciting.

 

The other very enjoyable moment was going to Yankee Stadium with the White Sox [on September 13, 2002]. I came in during the sixth and struck out two out of three in the inning. I held the lead and we ended up blowing them out. That was exciting. Like you, I grew up going to Yankee Stadium as a kid.

 

Did you think of yourself in a different way after you finally got the call up?

 

No, you need to see yourself as a Major League player all along. You have to think of yourself that way to go through all the years of six-hour bus trips and waiting and physical grind and moving from town to town, across the country.

 

I thought of myself as a Major Leaguer because, otherwise, I'd be on the field all the time, saying (excited) ‘Wow! That's Barry Bonds! That's Mark McGwire!' You can't really pitch to a guy on a pedestal, obviously.

 

But that didn't mean you can have an attitude - you always hear about someone who won't sign for kids or won't do this and won't do that. I don't think that's what being a Major Leaguer is all about. Most of the guys I knew, if not all of them, would agree.

 

Did any of your Minors teammates ever turn down autograph requests?

 

Not that I can remember. The unfortunate part is, with game time coming, you have to stop, so some kids might not get an autograph. We tried to get them after the game.

 

Have you ever turned down an autograph request?

 

I've never intentionally passed on an autograph. By the way, one of the things I liked was seeing the reaction - it's far greater in the big leagues. In Triple-A, they still like it, getting the ball signed, but in the big leagues, kids really light up.

 

One time, I had a lady say (rudely) ‘Hey, you, sign my ball here'. You know? I said, ‘Is that the nicest way you can ask for an autograph?' She said that it was part of my contract. I kind set her straight - ‘It's not part of our contract to sign balls. We do it because of the kids and, because you've got a five-year old kid here, I'll sign for him. But I can promise you, you're not going to get too many autographs if you keep asking like that'.

 

(smiles) At Yankee Stadium, I remember hearing ‘Hey, bum, how ‘bout ya signing a ball for me?' Typical New York. Sure, I signed.

 

What do you think of ‘Bull Durham'?

 

Entertaining, entertaining. I enjoyed it. Most of the movies, though, they don't really capture what it's about. They're not documentaries.

 

‘The Rookie'?

 

I liked that movie, too. That focused on dreams and stuff, and I enjoyed it. It has a happy ending!

 

Do you have a favorite memory in the game so far?

 

There've been so many; I really don't have a favorite. Some of the long bus trips, even, were enjoyable. You know; just playing cards and talking ball with the fellas for hours and hours.

 

At this point, several organizations have let you go. Why have you decided to keep trying?

 

I think you have to do is a realistic self-evaluation. Look from the outside and say, ‘What is it that I do well? What is it that I don't do well?' The basic thing is where you are and where you think you are aren't always the same.

 

Some people get a chance to work through bad streaks and some don't. Is it the general manager? Is it the timing? I don't have the answer to that. Unfortunately, I've never had the situation where a skipper says, ‘Here, it's your ball; here's ten starts; just go with it.' I've always been on a start-by-start or game-by-game basis in the Majors.

 

Dozens of left-handers have pitched for 10, 15 years. Were they all better than me? At this point, I'd have to say so. But, I believe, if I get the right opportunity, it'll be different. 

 

I've always believed I've had a lot of things going for me. I see myself as a work in progress, as a kind of diamond in the rough. I know I have the elements to get back to the big leagues if I can get more work in.

 

Have you ever thought about managing?

 

I have thought about managing, but I have to get this out of my system. I don't want

to watch other kids going off to the big leagues, thinking to myself, ‘That should be me'.

 

Have you ever thought about going over to play in Japan?

 

Yeah. I've had the opportunity before. But, again, I didn't want to give up on playing in the big leagues. Was that the best financial decision? Probably not.

 

Where are you now in your effort to get back to the Majors?

 

Well, I got hurt last year and now I'm getting my arm strength back. I'm pretty much all the way back so I'm going to head off to winter ball and pitch in front of some people. I'll see what kind of opportunity might be out there. If things don't work out that way, it'll be time for me to move on and think about something else.

 

Right now, it's almost out of my system. I still have to give it everything.

 

If doesn't end up working out, do you think you'll regret your time in baseball?

 

When you go into it, you don't anticipate some of the adversity and difficulty and challenges, but in the end I really wouldn't trade them away. They shape who you are as a person and as a baseball player as well. I really wouldn't trade any of it.

 

I simply enjoyed playing the game. That's why I still play today, even though I haven't made a fortune playing it. I think the game's been great to me and I definitely still love it the same. When I don't love it enough to put all the work in, that's when I'll be ready to hang it up.

 

What inspires you in the game?

 

You see a guy like Mike Remlinger, who didn't really take off until he was in his early thirties. I just heard a story yesterday, about a guy who got called up after something like 5,000 Minor League at bats. He was batting .397! Obviously, he could hit, but he also had the perseverance. I tip my hat to someone like that.

 

Right now, it's become a competitive thing. Some people, when they're beaten, they'll say ‘I'm beaten'. Other people will say, ‘I want a rematch'. (smiles) My attitude was, I wanted the rematch. Along with the support of my family, that pretty much kept me going.

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