ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The home opener in St. Louis is serious business. Fans flood downtown hours before first pitch, Hall of Famers return to the field and by the time the Clydesdales make their circuit around the outfield, winter seems like a distant memory.
For the players, it’s a reminder of how voracious this town is for baseball and how much they are revered- whether they’re in uniforms or wearing red jackets.
But Jeremy Hazelbaker is just happy to be here. All he knows about the home opener is what he’s heard, and the report has been fairly overwhelming.
“It’s not like any other,” he said before the game. “They’re pretty crazy and pretty unreal. That’s what I expect and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
In truth, he’ll be lucky if the day is much more than a blur.
Not only is it his first home opener, not only is it his first time in St. Louis, he’ll be in left field and batting second for a team that a year ago signed him to play in Double-A when he was unemployed.
“We were looking at a time where we were dealing with some injuries and needed someone to take some at bats for us,” GM John Mozeliak said. “I know it sounds sort of funny, but the timing was great for us and he needed a job.”
Hazelbaker took that opportunity and converted it into a promotion. He went from Double-A lineup filler to Triple-A lineup muscle in a matter of 40 games. He finished the year with 233 plate appearances in Memphis, over which he hit .333 with 10 homers 10 doubles and seven triples.
When this February came around, Hazelbaker found himself in big league camp, the finish line just one productive March away. As the days went by and the camp roster dwindled, Hazelbaker’s name kept being printed in lineups. He became too versatile, too intriguing to cut. He has what Mozeliak calls “survival tools.”
“There’s not just one thing he does that he has to do to stay around,” he said. “Very good defensive player, has speed. From an offensive standpoint he can be someone who can hit the ball out of the ballpark, but also can get down a bunt. He has a lot of flexibility in his game, and when you play like that, it’s really easy for a manager to find a use for you.”
When spring closed, his manager had found plenty of uses for him.
“I think he was already prepped that things might not go the right way. So it was a little entertaining the fact he was already dragging his head when he walked in (my office),” Mike Matheny said. “I think he’d been in the principal’s office before and gotten the message he didn’t want.”
Hazelbaker has played more than 700 games in the minors. He’s been to Triple-A three times. He’s played in foreign winter leagues, and seen stadiums everywhere from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Portland, Maine. He’s had plenty of conversations that didn’t go the way he wanted.
“You never know where you’re going to end up. You could be somewhere else the next day,” he said. “So a lot of hotel living, but you welcome that in this situation.”
For now, the only place he knows how to get to in St. Louis is the baseball stadium. But Monday, when baseball returns to the city and 40,000 fans get to lay eyes on their team for the first time this year, he’ll be out there in left field.
“I’ve been through a lot, but at the same time, I don’t think it prepares you for this,” Hazelbaker said. “I don’t think you can really be prepared for opening day at Busch Stadium.”