JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) – The Springfield Cardinals (AA) were not playing very well in the summer of 2015 when pitching coach and former St. Louis Cardinal starter Jason Simontacchi asked the young Redbirds a question.
With coaches seated around the room and players in a relaxed, informal setting, Simo, as he is known, asked this; “If you weren’t playing baseball, what would you be doing right now?”
The question was jarring for the young men sitting in that clubhouse. The message was unmistakable; you better start thinking about it.
“When you’re in Double A, you’re on the fence,” Simontacchi said. “Your career is either just starting or ending. I was immature when I was that age. I did not set myself up to succeed. I didn’t give myself the best opportunity be successful by eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, not drinking alcohol. I was a dumb ass.”
He wanted the young Cardinals to avoid what nearly happened to him - self-induced failure. “Now, they’ve got the resources and the opportunity to prepare 24 hours a day. But it’s a short window. It closes fast. I wanted them to think about that.”
The young Cardinals did not have to look far to find someone who could relate to that window closing. Just that week, Jeremy Hazelbaker had joined the club after the Los Angeles Dodgers released him, a move he was afraid had ended his career.
“It was my first day there,” Hazelbaker said. “I had just been signed after being released by the Dodger organization. “I was asked to share what I had been through, what it was like to sit at home and hope (a team) called me.”
That discussion and Hazelbaker’s experience helped turn around the young Cardinal team, which rallied to stay in the playoff picture until the final few days of the season.
While Hazelbaker’s ultimate fate is unknown, Simontacchi turned around his career and pitched four seasons in the majors, including an 11-5 record for the division winning St. Louis Cardinals, which won 97 games in 2002. But it was a long, dusty road to the majors, an improbable journey through the independent league, three foreign countries and several minor league systems.
Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1996, he was released the next year. “I decided I’d go into the Army because I didn’t have any money and I wanted to go to school. But a team wanted me to pitch in the Frontier League (Independent) so I did. I was picked up by the Pirates the next year and released again.”
It was about this time he realized his opportunity for a career was slipping away, he says. He pitched in Australia and then went to Italy where he pitched for that country in the 2000 Olympics. The Minnesota Twins gave him a look but released him after he advanced to Class AAA ball in 2001. “Their Triple A team played in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada),” he said. “I remember one time they canceled a night game at noon because it was 25 degrees and the temperature was falling. They had a turf infield and a grass outfield. I’m a ground ball pitcher. How well do you think I did with a turf infield?”
Left with few options following his 2001 release, he went to Venezuela where he was pitching in relative obscurity until former Cardinal pitcher and minor league pitching coach Dave LaPoint advocated for the Cardinals to give Simo a look. They signed him in January 2002. He was 28 years old. “I was signed and they fired LaPoint,” he remembers.
“I was excited. I was in an organization that had had a chance to win. I remember my first camp we spent 45 minutes doing nothing but stretching. And we weren’t allowed to talk. For 45 minutes. But hey, that was the job. I was there to play baseball and that’s what they wanted. “I remember one time sitting between Lou Brock and Bob Gibson in the dugout. I thought, ‘wow, here I am sitting between two Hall of Famers.’ They had no clue who I was of course.”
He played for the Cards for just three years before the injuries began that would ultimately end his career. After he left the game, he says he didn’t enjoy going to Busch Stadium with his family because to them and the people with whom they went, it was a social outing. He was still a player, watching the subtle aspects of the game that go unnoticed by average fans. Now, as pitching coach for the Springfield Double-A minor league team, Simontacchi stays in touch with a part of himself he could not let go.
“I get something from these young guys. I get energy. Yes, it’s a job that puts food on the table. But I want to give something back to the game and to these kids. I want to give them the chance to experience what I was blessed to do. If you can just get to one of those 30 teams, you are in your own bubble. You are part of that exclusive group that made it major league baseball.” When he made his debut in 2002, Simontacchi was the 15,667th player to ever play in the major leagues, a pretty exclusive club.
But more, Simontacchi does not want those young men to experience the regret he narrowly avoided.
“Last year, in that meeting, we told them, ‘If you are going to do something, do it the best you possibly can. If you don’t make it, you have nothing to worry about. You did the best you could. So work hard, control those things you can control and don’t worry about the rest of it. Play as hard as you can.”
He wants his young pitchers to avoid the near-heartbreak he suffered, realizing too late that it’s all in front of you, until it’s not.