Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Briggs

MIRRORS OF SPORT

Camaraderie, playoff race keep Mud Hens veterans coming back

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    Toledo Mud Hens catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2003. He's hit over 100 home runs at the major league level and won a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox in 2013.

    BLADE

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    Toledo Mud Hens designated hitter Chad Huffman takes a swing.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

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    Toledo Mud Hens' Jarrod Saltalamacchia waits for the ball to tag out the Buffalo Bisons' Ian Parmley on June 7, 2018, at Fifth Third Field.

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Not long ago, Jarrod Saltalamacchia stayed in Ritz-Carltons, flew on luxury jets, and banked more in a week than the average lawyer does in a year.

Today, he is the backup catcher for the Mud Hens, life coming at him faster than an Aroldis Chapman heater.

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Toledo Mud Hens catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2003. He's hit over 100 home runs at the major league level and won a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox in 2013.

BLADE Enlarge

I caught up with him on a recent afternoon upon Toledo’s return from an overnight tour of America. The team had played a late-afternoon game in Norfolk, Va., then bused the 660 miles back home. Saltalamacchia reported to his bed at 10 a.m. to steal a few hours of sleep. Another game loomed that night.

“It’s a little different,” he said.

Funny thing, though.

Know the first guy in the home clubhouse that day? Yep, the 33-year-old former first-round pick who earned more than $32 million in 11 big league seasons.

There was Saltalamacchia setting up the baseball equivalent of a workplace water cooler: a new poker table in the middle of the room.

The dealer then leaned back in his patio recliner — a veteran perk, along with the TV remote — and waited for his teammates to roll in. Soon, the table was full, the place roaring.

If Saltalamacchia resents his lot, he has a strange way of showing it.

“I remember what this game has given to me, the veterans before me who helped me out,” he said. “I need to help these guys here to repay them.”

Saltalamacchia’s good spirits struck me, because we tend to associate the minor leagues with youth and wide-eyed dreams. But the best teams are a mix of prospects and been-there-done-that veterans, the 30-somethings in the final innings of their career playing for the thrill of the chase — and perhaps one more shot at the big time.

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Toledo Mud Hens designated hitter Chad Huffman takes a swing.

BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Guys like Saltalamacchia, a veteran of seven major league teams — including the champion Red Sox in 2013 — is on his first extended farm assignment since 2010. And Chad Huffman, more of a Crash Davis type, his career filled with long balls and longer bus rides. In between winning the Triple-A home run derby in 2009 and again this year, the 33-year-old Hens outfielder enjoyed only two cups of coffee, getting 18 at-bats for the Yankees in 2010, and 14 for the Cardinals last season.

Read their bios, and you’d expect two guys crustier than burnt pizza. I found just the opposite, two baseball men their teammates swear by who — with their phones not exactly ringing off the hook — could not imagine being anywhere else but in this playoff race in Toledo.

“I don’t know if there’s anything else out there can simulate being in the locker room with the guys after a win,” Huffman said.

Saltalamacchia feels the same way. He sees the writing on the outfield wall. He spent the second half of last year out of work — save for a side gig as a Red Sox studio TV analyst — and is batting .156 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 56 games here. A man with enough money salted away to provide for 10 generations will earn $150,000 for his troubles.

Still ...

“I’m just not ready to walk away,” he said.

The future can wait, the dealer remaining all in to the end.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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