The bonus babies knock down the huge contracts, generate the ink and more often than not, are provided every opportunity to take the fast path to the top as the organizations strive to protect and nurture their investments.
On the other end of the spectrum are the late-rounders and the previously-released free agents, looking for any edge they create find just to be noticed and given a chance to prove they too belong on the same field with the big boys.
The Hirsh family of Burbank, California has experienced both.
Older brother Jason was selected by the Houston Astros in the second round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, 59th overall, earning a reported bonus of $625,000. He rose quickly through the system, racking up impressive stats and awards at just about every step of the way.
His 2005 recognition included being tabbed as a starting pitcher in the Double-A All-Star Game and being named the Texas League's Most Outstanding Pitcher. And in 2006, after being named Baseball America's top prospect in the Houston system, Jason was the starter for the USA in the Futures Game during All-Star Weekend in Detroit, then pitched an inning for the Pacific Coast League in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
After posting a 13-2 record with a 2.10 ERA in Triple-A this season, Jason received the call. He made his major league debut on August 10 and overall posted a 3-4 record with a 6.09 ERA in nine starts.
Two-and-a-half years younger, and less imposing than his 6-foot-8, 250 pound sibling, but still formidable at 6-foot-5, 230, Matt Hirsh had followed his brother to Cal Lutheran for his collegiate experience.
After his junior year, Matt accepted the Houston Astros' offer and signed after having been drafted in the 30th round in 2005. He became a swing man, starting seven games and relieving in eight for the Greeneville, TN club in the rookie Appalachian League.
Hirsh posted a 1-2 record with a 5.61 ERA. He struck out 30 and walked 19 batters in 51-1/3 innings in 2005. He then went to 2006 Extended Spring Training for the Astros before being released on May 29.
Matt headed back home to California surprised, but his resolve was not shaken. Hirsh remained single-mindedly focused on again securing a professional contract. Yet, because the 2006 season was already well-underway, jobs were not easy to find.
While his brother was pitching in a pennant race against the likes of the Cardinals and Mets, Matt was toiling for the Tinseltown Terror, a local semi-pro team in California while also getting work on the mound with the MLB Urban Youth Academy.
There he attracted the attention of Cardinals West Coast Cross Checker Chuck Fick, who signed Matt to a Quad Cities contract on August 24. Now, Hirsh is pitching against area high schoolers with the Cardinals scout team this fall in preparation for his first spring training with his new organization in 2007.
Having recently turned 22 years old, Hirsh has already followed a most varied and interesting path in a relatively short period of time just to reach the Cardinals system.
It is a unique story, yet represents a variation on what others just like Matt Hirsh have gone through many times before and will again while chasing their professional dreams.
Matt, you signed following your junior year after being selected in the 30th round. What made you decide to go pro then?
I wanted to get my pro career started. I figured that was probably the best chance I was going to get. My brother being in the organization had a little bit of influence, but for the most part, I really wanted to start with my pro career and get on my way.
During your first professional season, you started and relieved. Which role do you prefer and why?
I prefer a starting role. I figure it helps me prepare. I have a routine that I go through. Being a reliever, you have to be ready. You don't know when you will pitch and have to get loose and come into a high-pressure situation or just do the job. So, I prefer starting. I like to throw more than one inning and go as long as possible.
What did you learn during your first season as a professional in the Appalachian League?
I learned a lot of things. I learned that everybody in professional baseball can hit. (laughs) Unlike college, where there are only a few select batters on each team who can really hit. I learned not to be afraid to pitch to contact. It is probably the main thing I learned. You don't have to strike everybody out to impress everybody.
This spring you went to Extendeds. Were you surprised you were released?
Yeah. Actually, I wasn't expecting it at all. I was quite surprised by it. I didn't have any idea it was coming. It just kind of came out of the blue. I knew they said they were going to be making some releases, but you never think it is going to be you. And that happened to be the case with me.
After the shock wore off, what did you do next?
I came home (to California) and my focus was to get signed again. I thought I was going to be home only a few weeks before I signed, either with an independent team or another professional team. But, things didn't work out that way. I ended up staying home all summer and picked up with a local semi-pro team and got some innings in there. And through my brother's tax broker, of all people, I met Derron Spiller and he set up for me to throw for Chuck and that was that.
You pitched with the MLB Urban Youth Academy this summer. What is that all about?
Through Alan Jaeger, who runs Jaeger Sports, we went down there and did a clinic for them and the head honcho there, Doug Tackaragawa, asked me if I needed any innings and I could come down there and throw for them. So, once or twice a week, I would go down there and throw two or three innings for them. And he could have some scouts come in and watch me. And a few did. It was just a good opportunity to get some innings in and get some work and talk to some kids and stuff.
So, you were doing that while pitching semi-pro?
Correct. The semi-pro thing was once or twice a week when I would throw and the Urban Youth Academy was usually Wednesdays and Fridays when I would could out and throw for them.
Did you ever get discouraged and wonder if it wasn't going to work out?
I knew that if I worked hard enough, another opportunity would come. I was discouraged when I first came home but I decided I was going to put in hard work and keep on going and sooner or later, something was going to pop up. But, I knew I was definitively not going to give up. It was in the back of my mind that maybe it wasn't me, but I put that to rest pretty quickly and got back to my normal routine and luckily, I ended up picking up with the Cardinals.
With several other teams looking at you as well, how did you end up with the Cardinals?
I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the minor league season wasn't complete yet and a lot of teams wait until after the season is over. A few teams were afraid to sign me because they didn't have a spot for me on their roster. So, I think if I didn't sign before the season ended, I probably would have had a few more people interested in me. But, Chuck saw me and he wanted to sign me there, so luckily it happened that way.
You are going to be working with the Cardinals Scout Team this fall. What is that?
There are scout teams all over. There are a few scout teams in Southern California. Just a bunch of high school kids, ranging from sophomores to seniors who try out and play against other scout teams. It is for college coaches and scouts to come out and look at the kids to see if they want to give them a scholarship to their program or if they are draft-eligible or if they see anything they like.
I am just going out there right now to throw, just to get some work in because I didn't throw that many innings over the summer. I just get my work in, throwing to six batters once a week and work on my off-speed, my pitches.
You are friends with Cody Haerther. Have you talked with him about the Cardinals organization?
I talked to him briefly. I think he has been in the system for three or four years now. I haven't really gotten to speak to him yet about all that the organization is about. But, he was happy he learn that I signed with the Cardinals.
You signed a contract with Quad Cities in the Midwest League. Is that where you hope to be assigned in 2007?
As of now, I don't know exactly where I am going. But, that would be great. I played rookie ball last summer in Tennessee and I feel that I have improved ten-fold since. Even during Extended Spring Training. So I hope that I can show them that improvement such that I should go to Quad Cities – or even higher if that is the case, that they think so.
Well, I guess you will be ready to go in Spring Training and take it from there…
Yes. I am going to be in my best shape ever and do everything that I need to do to get ready to go to Spring Training and show the Cardinals and Chuck that I am ready to play and show them everything I have.
Since Cardinals fans haven't heard of you before, what is your repertoire like? Give a little scouting report on yourself, please.
I have four pitches. I throw a fastball, curveball, slider and a change-up. I would say that I have good pitch location, work in and out. Smart, knows how to pitch. Works it in and up. Got a good curveball and a decent slider and change-up.
What part of your game are you working on most this fall?
This fall, I am working on my slider. I just picked it up last summer at Tennessee. Working on my off-speed, mixing pitches up, going in and out, up and down. Learning to pitch more than just throw. Work the count, change eye levels, just getting ahead of the hitter and do everything I can to get that batter out.
I imagine in other interviews you don't get this far into the discussion before your brother is brought up. Do you find that having a brother who has made the majors and is establishing a name for himself a positive, a negative or neutral?
I consider that a great positive. I can go to him with anything I have, any questions I have. He helps me out with mechanics and any pitch, he'll show me how he throws it. I think it is the greatest thing. He is there to give me advice and he can help me at whatever level I am at because he has been there and he has done that. I think that is a tremendous positive.
Being a couple of years behind Jason, do you yet feel as much pressure as you might feel later to compare your progress versus his?
He is at a different stage right now. He moved pretty quick. He was a high-round draft pick, in the second round, and I dropped down to the 30th round. Right now, obviously he is more developed than me because he has had four years. I personally think my progress has been tremendous over the last two years since I left college. I think I have become a much better pitcher, even after last year and after Extended Spring Training and after I was released. I think I get better and better every outing, learning different things that will help me take my pitching to the next level.
The Cardinals must feel the same way to have signed you when they did, giving you a chance to get a foothold before next spring…
I think it is a tremendous positive that I was signed before the season ended. I think it says something about Chuck. He sees the potential in me and he thinks I can be a tremendous pitcher for the organization. I really appreciate that and give myself a little pat on the back because I didn't give up. I worked hard through the summer even when it wasn't looking too good. The hard work paid off.
The good news that you are still young and you hopefully have a lot of baseball in front of you playing for the Cardinals.
Things happen for a reason. It is hard to move up in the Astros organization. I guess if they didn't feel I could be productive in the organization… well, it happened for a reason and now I am with the Cardinals and giving 100% effort to making them a better organization and giving them the best pitcher I can be.
With an attitude like that, I hope you go a long way. Matt, thank you for your time and best of luck to you.
Thank you very much.
(Note: For more information, check out Jason's and Matt's website, where they post news, stats and articles related to their careers.)
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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