Spearman Brings Versatility

KODAK, Tenn. – Jemel Spearman is a man of many nicknames, and also a man of many positions on the baseball field. He has logged time this season on both sides of the infield and every spot in the outfield for Double-A Tennessee.

Spearman doesn't know where he's playing until he sees the lineup card posted by manager Pat Listach.

"I know I'm going to play anywhere, so be ready," Spearman said. "I never set my sights on one position because I know it will mess me up. I tell myself I might play anywhere, take a quick glance and (assess) the situation so I am not surprised."

Spearman can also enter a game at a moment's notice.

When infielder Gary Cates broke a finger in the sixth inning of a July 13 game on a bunt attempt, Spearman was summoned from the bench and inherited a 0-2 count. He drove the first pitch he saw into right-center for a single.

"Desire to play," Spearman said of his approach to situations such as those. "As a little kid, I always wanted to play. When you didn't get to play or didn't get the job done, it builds up and you say, ‘Once I get the chance again, I want to do something.' I've always had a fire burning inside of me so whenever you get a chance, hopefully you get the job done and keep the momentum going."

Spearman, 26, was drafted by the Cubs in the 16th round in 2002 out of Georgia Southern, a school with a storied baseball tradition.

"I was happy I was drafted," said Spearman, a native of Atlanta. "I was sort of upset because I thought I was going to go a little earlier. It hurt me a little bit because I knew a couple of the guys that went ahead of me and I felt like I could play with them.

"I was happy also because Chris Walker and I went to school together. That was good knowing somebody," Spearman added.

Walker, 27, an outfielder drafted by the Cubs in the sixth round in 2002, started the 2007 season with the Smokies and was promoted to Triple-A Iowa in late April. He returned to Tennessee in mid-July – after spending five days with the Single-A Daytona club – but injured his ankle sliding into second base and was placed on the disabled list after playing just five games with the Smokies.

Walker and Spearman were roommates at Georgia Southern and were happy to have a brief reunion in Tennessee.

Despite growing up in sports-rich Atlanta, Spearman didn't gravitate toward any particular pro teams.

"Little bit of everything, but mainly baseball and basketball," Spearman said of following sports as a youngster. "I never liked one specific team, but I liked certain players."

Spearman used his time at Georgia Southern to help prepare him for handling life as a pro.

"Atmosphere, being around different personalities and being on my own," Spearman said of the benefits of going to college. "That was the biggest thing – growing up, maturity and knowing the benefits of having a routine and sticking to your principles. That was the biggest thing that helped me out by going to college."

He combines that maturity with a genuine love of the game and a loose attitude in the clubhouse.

"Carefree, easygoing, and he works hard," Listach said of his utility player. "He works hard in the cage, works hard on his defense, and he needs to continue to work hard to get better. He's a joy to be around and he's one of those guys that all the players like. They pick on him a lot. He's got a thousand different nicknames. He goes with the flow. He's a fun guy to be around."

Spearman said the genesis for most of those nicknames is his manager.

"Pat gave me most of them," Spearman said. "He probably gave me 999 of them. First one is ‘C.C.,' which is short for ‘Chocolate Cowboy.' Next one is ‘Pooty,' long story. Those are the main ones."

Spearman's friends just call him "Spee," which is short for his last name. It could also stand for "speed," as Spearman leads the Smokies with seven triples this season.

He entered the season as a career .284 hitter in the minor leagues – he missed nearly the entire 2005 season with a wrist injury – but hovered around .250 for the Smokies this season.

He finished the regular season on Sunday with a .259 batting average, 16 doubles, seven home runs and 41 RBI.

"He's hit the hardest .250 I've ever seen in my life," Listach said. "He hits a lot of balls hard that get caught."

Spearman winces a little when reminded that, with a little luck, he could be hitting at least .280 this season.

"I hope they notice," Spearman said of the organization's talent evaluators. "I don't really get into too much about what they think because then you get caught up in all that stuff, but it's more so frustrating for myself because I normally hit for average better. I've hit more home runs, but I normally hit for high average. Home runs are fine, but I like getting on base and running. It's been frustrating."

Like many players, Spearman's off-season will be spent lifting weights, staying in shape and getting in the batting cage.

"I'll take about two weeks to a month off, relax, get your mind away," Spearman said. "I start lifting weights in October. I don't like sitting around. I get antsy. And about November, (I) start swinging and getting ready for Spring Training."

Spearman has one big event planned for December. He is getting married Dec. 27 to his sweetheart, Sophia.

For now, the season has been extended for the Smokies. The regular season ended Monday at Carolina, but Tennessee clinched the Wild Card spot in the Southern League and will face Huntsville beginning Thursday in a best-of-five playoff format.

"Everything is crucial," Spearman said of being in the playoff hunt in the waning days of the season. "We can't take anything for granted. Every pitch counts. Every at-bat counts. We have to do the little things. Focus on each pitch and then move on to the next pitch and I think everything will take care of itself."

Spearman will pack two gloves for the trip to Huntsville – one for the infield and another for the outfield. He has played second base and all three positions in the outfield this season, having also logged 11 games at third base (including the last one of the regular season despite not having played there in weeks), a position he played a lot for Daytona in 2006. In all, Spearman has seen action in 115 games for the Smokies in 2007.

"For this league, he's a veteran," Listach said. "He's good to have because of his versatility. His best position is probably second base. He hasn't been there much because of Cates, (Nate) Spears, and (Joe) Simokaitis, and (Carlos) Rojas and the backlog of middle infielders that we've had here.

"He's helped himself out. He's played all three outfield positions. He played third all of last year. I played him at third a few games this year. I wouldn't be scared to put him at short if I had to in an emergency. He's very versatile; he can run; he's got a good arm and he has good at-bats."

Spearman knows that versatility will come in handy and will bolster his chances of playing in the big leagues.

"Continue to be versatile in the infield and outfield," Spearman said of what he needs to do to get to Chicago. "Be consistent at the plate. Have a consistent approach and plan. When the ball is in the zone, square it up."

Listach believes that Spearman's bat is ready for a promotion now.

"He can play at the next level now," Listach said. "He's consistent enough. Offensively, he gives good at-bats. He can hit major league pitching right now with his bat speed."

But Spearman has to improve defensively and that can be a challenge when a player gets chances all over the field instead of being able to focus on just one position.

"He's got to tighten up his defense," Listach said. "That's the big thing. Routine plays, he's got to make them. And he's got to be more consistent on defense."

Spearman agrees with that assessment. His versatility will help punch his ticket out of Tennessee, but he also has to find a way to stand out in the field.

"You don't have to make great plays, (just) routine plays," he said.

Spearman and Listach were well matched this season, as both take an easygoing approach to the game.

Listach would sometimes share sunflower seeds with fans as he walked to the third base coaching box, often greeting the regulars at the ballpark.

Spearman himself is rarely without a smile in the dugout or the clubhouse.

"It's fun," Spearman said of playing for Listach. "He's light-hearted. He's laidback. He says, ‘It's baseball. It happens in the game. Let's go out there and play hard.' It's awesome."

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