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You could say it was the surprise of his life.
A.J. Sager was on the golf course one day in June, 1988, figuring he had no particular reason to pay much attention to baseball’s amateur draft.
A couple months earlier, though, he had one of those career days pitching for the University of Toledo at Kent State. And how that came about was rather surprising, too.
A few scouts, including one representing the San Diego Padres, were in Kent that day to watch the Flashes’ starting pitcher. As sometimes happens, they walked away talking about the other guy.
And that’s how A.J. Sager became a Padre, and then a member of the Colorado Rockies, and then a Detroit Tiger.
“It caught me off guard,” Sager said of the draft. “I’m out golfing and then three days later I’m on a plane to Spokane, Washington. I thought it might be a pretty cool summer job that year. And here I am, 26 years later. It’s a little peculiar how it all came about.”
Sager, who pitched all or parts of five seasons in the big leagues, including 1996-98 when he went 11-11 with the Tigers, is set to begin his sixth year as pitching coach for the Mud Hens.
He was born and raised in Columbus, but since being recruited to UT as a quarterback for the football team Sager has been a Toledoan. He and his family — wife Dana and 10-year-old daughter Emersyn — make their home in Perrysburg.
Baseball may be Sager’s life now, but that wasn’t the case coming out of high school in Columbus. He picked UT over Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina State because of proximity, the prospect of competing for playing time rather quickly, and because of the bond he built with head football coach Dan Simrell, offensive coordinator Fred Jackson, and his primary recruiter, Steve Gwin.
“Jim Kelso was a fifth-year senior when I was a freshman, so I knew I’d get a chance to compete my second year,” Sager said.
There was some thought in the back of his mind about playing baseball in the spring, but he’d already climbed the depth chart to second team by the end of his first summer camp.
“I realized I’d have a good chance to win the job for the next season, so it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to be able to miss spring football practice,” he said. “I figured that was it for baseball.”
So Sager played football for four years, was the starting QB for the 1984 MAC championship team, and to this day his name shows up on many of the career passing statistical lists.
After his senior season ended, Sager learned the NCAA allowed five years of athletic eligibility.
Since he had never red-shirted he was able to join UT’s baseball team that spring and play the following year, as well.
“Coach [Stan] Sanders gave me an opportunity,” Sager said. “I hadn’t picked up a baseball since high school but it turned out I still had some command, I could still get it over the plate.”
Sager’s baseball numbers at UT weren’t spectacular, but he did have that one spectacular start and, as he puts, 26 years later he’s still making a living from the game.
For the last five years he has enjoyed the luxury of a 10-minute drive after home games to sleep in his own bed.
“You know, I love the job,” he said. “I have a lot of passion for going to the park every day and working with players who are trying to get to the big leagues. So it’s a great job and often a very rewarding job.
“But, truth is, it can be a crummy job for families because a lot of guys, away from home all summer, living in an apartment somewhere, miss so much. You hear stories about the baseball coach who never sees his own kid play baseball.
“The way you tend to move around it’s probably a short list of guys who get to sleep in their own bed. I’m happy to be on that list.”
Because of that and because of the quality facilities the Mud Hens enjoy at Fifth Third Field, Sager likes to say he has the 31st best job in baseball. The 30 jobs ahead of it, in his case, are the pitching coach positions for major league teams.
“I don’t know that every minor league coach aspires to be in the big leagues, but I certainly do hope for that opportunity,” Sager said. “To teach and coach at the highest level is an experience and a challenge I’d relish.
“But I know I’m fortunate to be where I am. I like the Triple-A atmosphere. I like keeping my cell phone nearby every night because [player] moves are discussed regularly. Some of them happen, some don’t. But we’re always in on the discussion and it keeps us tied into the major league race.
“Maybe I’ll be part of that close-up some day. In the meantime, I know I’m fortunate to have this job in the city I consider to be home.”
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