(BaseballStL) -- Baseball is a cruel mistress. Even though you love it doesn’t mean it loves you back.
So if it’s so capricious, so heartbreaking, so frustrating, why then, do former players and coaches have so much trouble giving it up?
George Kissel, called “The Professor” because of his extraordinary baseball knowledge and the architect of many of the techniques and procedures still in use by the St. Louis Cardinals today, was a regular at spring training in his 80s. Red Schoendienst still dressed for Cardinal home games long after he was 80.
Steve Carlton, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, tried to play even after he lost a foot on his fastball and had trouble getting the batboy out. That is not an unusual story. Giving up baseball is the hardest thing a player can ever do. As one succinctly put it, “Every baseball player dies twice.”
“You always think you’re going to play forever,” said Peoria Chiefs pitching coach Jason Simontacchi. “You have to approach it that way. But it always ends. For everybody. It’s just so hard to give it up.”
Simontacchi’s career with the Cardinals started so promisingly but ended as many do. After going 11-5 in 2002 with St. Louis and 9-5 the next year, he pitched only 15 innings in 2004 before he tore his labrum, ending his season. He was released by the Cardinals at the end of that year and missed the 2005 season. But he was not ready to give up.
In 2006, he pitched 10 games in the independent Atlantic League for the Bridgeport Bluefish with an ERA of 0.84. He then pitched for the Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Winter Baseball League and in his five starts went 3-1 with a 2.02 ERA over 27 innings.
In 2007, he was a non-roster invitee to the Washington Nationals in spring training, and was projected to be in the Nationals starting rotation, until a groin injury sidelined him. He rehabbed in Triple-A and was called to the majors in May. In his second start, he pitched 5-1/3 innings, and collected his first major league win since 2003. By mid-July, he was 6-7 with an ERA of 6.37. He experienced elbow soreness after a start on July 15, and five days later landed on the disabled list due to right elbow tendinitis. Simontacchi became a free agent at the end of the season.
He pitched in the Independent Atlantic League in 2008 with Long Island Ducks and in 2010, he was a starting pitcher for the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic Baseball League during the 2010 season. At 36, he had finally come to the end of the line.
These days, Simontacchi is finishing studies at Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis to finish a degree in sports management. “Before I got this job (as the Chiefs pitching coach), I wanted to coach in college and I needed a degree,” he said, pausing as he watched the Chiefs prepare for their game with Kane County, the Cubs’ affiliate.
“I love this. It’s such a great game.”
His story is common throughout baseball.
Erik Pappas, a major leaguer with the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs and now hitting coach for the Class A Peoria Chiefs, said he returned to baseball because he realized that’s all he wanted to do.
“I tried business,” Pappas said of his life after baseball. “But with this, it’s all in my head, it’s all here. I know what I need to know.” A former first round draft pick out of Mount Camel High School, Chicago, Pappas had an enormous upside as a strong hitting catcher. Slowed by nagging injuries, his career was cut short not long after his best season, in 1993 with the Cardinals in which he hit .276 in 82 games.
He played 15 games the following year before being sent to AAA, where he spent the next three years with three different organizations, tying to get back to the show. He quit after playing 106 games with the Rangers AAA club in 1996. He had played 104 games in the majors and 1,166 in the minors. He was 30 years old and all he had ever known had come to an end. He had one last taste of the game when he played for the Greek national team in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Now, years later, he is back, teaching young men how to hit a baseball in the same organization in which he had his major league success, however brief.
“I love this,” he said simply, during the Chiefs’ final series against the Cougars, his 12-year-old son sitting on a folding chair nearby.
Like honey, a taste of baseball is often worse than no taste at all.