JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- In the heat of yet another summer season in minor league baseball, Jeremy Hazelbaker got the news no minor leaguer wants to receive.
After spending seven years bumping along in relative obscurity with eight different teams in the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations, Hazelbaker was being released.
“I never thought about what I would do if I wasn’t playing baseball,” he said from the Cardinals’ clubhouse at their spring training site in Jupiter, Fla. “I just took it for granted that I would be playing baseball.”
Now 28, the lean outfielder is having the spring he needs to have if he is going to make that final push to a big league roster. His batting average has hovered around .300 and his outfield play has been steady. He’s not yet ready to say that this is his last, best chance to make a major league roster. He can’t afford to think that way.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2009 amateur draft out of Ball State University, located in Muncie, Ind., his hometown, Hazelbaker played five years for the Red Sox and went to the Dodgers in 2014. His best season at the plate was in high A where he hit .279. In his one trip to Triple A Albuquerque with the Dodgers, he hit just .222.
The release shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was hitting just .245 in Tulsa (Class AA) and showed no power. But it was.
“I went home and waited. I worked out and kept in shape, hoping someone would call me,” he said.
But no one did. Hazelbaker waited in baseball purgatory, staying physically ready for a call that might never come. “I had some school left to finish. I knew I’d have to find a job somewhere. I really didn’t know what I would be able to do. Baseball had been my life, my main goal.”
After 10 days, and as hope began to fade, the St. Louis Cardinals – their minor league system largely depleted – signed him to a contract and told him to report to Springfield (AA). His impact there was immediate. A living, breathing example of a man given a second chance, Hazelbaker wasted no time. He hit .308, slugged three homers, three triples and 13 doubles, driving in 20 runs in 40 games before he was promoted to Memphis (AAA).
In Memphis, he realized his true potential. In 58 games, he hit .333 with 10 home runs, seven triples, 10 doubles and 46 RBIs. His OPS was .998, earning him an invitation to the Cards’ major league camp this spring.
“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he said at his locker in the Cards Jupiter, Fla. clubhouse. His average has hovered around the .300 mark in 11 games so far this spring and he has flashed some speed, stealing four bases. His goal is simple; “I just want to be with the team. I’m trying to open some eyes. That’s all I can control. I’m swinging well. I’m playing with an edge to my game. Getting released gives you that edge.”
The signing of Ruben Tejada to play shortstop eliminated a crucial roster spot for which Hazelbaker is competing. But it also ended any chance shortstop Aledmys Diaz would make the 25-man roster, enhancing Hazelbaker’s chances slightly.
Whatever happens, he’s grateful for the opportunity. “The difference with the Cardinals’ organization is that they give guys chances. They look to promote from within. And there is a team unity here. Everyone is very professional, from the major league starters to the rookies. The veterans will help you and give pointers to you. That’s what I like about being here.”
As the Cards slowly trim their roster, Hazelbaker realizes the ultimate decision is drawing nearer. Few if any roster spots remain. All he can do is stay ready.