Pearsall still in love with game of baseball

By the end of the 2002 season. J.J. Pearsall’s 30-year-old mind, if not his body, convinced him he h
At the age of 41, J.J. Pearsall, a graduate of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, is still a starting pitcher in the Albany Twilight League.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
At the age of 41, J.J. Pearsall, a graduate of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, is still a starting pitcher in the Albany Twilight League.

Categories: Sports

By the end of the 2002 season. J.J. Pearsall’s 30-year-old mind, if not his body, convinced him he had enough of professional baseball.

His heart never got the message.

Thirteen years removed from that frustrating season that saw him bounce between four teams and two organizations, the former Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake pitching standout is thriving in the Albany Twilight League.

Not on the bench. He is taking a regular turn in the Albany Athletics starting rotation.

With a 41-year-old left arm.

“The first time I saw him, I thought he was a coach,” said A’s catcher Ryan Henchey, who, at 19, is one year older than Pearsall’s eldest daughter. “I didn’t know he was our starting pitcher that day. I’m used to playing with guys around my own age.”

Pearsall, it turns out, still had the fire, the drive, that made him a prospect in the first place.

“I’m very competitive. I’m always looking to push myself, push my body,” Pearsall said after a recent six-inning start for the A’s that saw him give up four hits and strike out nine with Henchey behind the plate.

“I do take it seriously, I have a job. I work 9-to-5, and when I come here I always have as much fun as possible. But I’m definitely here to achieve a goal. Every time I throw, it’s with a purpose.”

After eight years in the minor leagues — pitching mostly out of the bullpen for teams in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers, Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers organizations — Pearsall realized in 2002 that his goal of making the major leagues was not going to happen.

“I was used in a lot of roles. I’d be three innings, closer, long relief, wherever. I became valuable to minor league teams, but it didn’t translate to the big teams,” he said.

“My last year I lived in four cities, was with two organizations. It was a crazy year. That’s when I questioned whether I should stick around.

“My last team, Detroit, asked me if I’d be willing to come back the following year at the Double-A level. I said no.”

That ended a minor league career that started when the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him out of the University of South Carolina in the 15th round of the 1995 MLB amateur draft.

He went back to South Carolina to complete his bachelors degree in geography, then returned to the Capital Region and took a job as a tax mapper for Rensselaer County.

But playing baseball on a regular, competitive basis was not part of the mix for the 1991 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake graduate.

Seven years removed from the game he grew up playing, Pearsall turned to the Capital District Men’s Senior Baseball League as an outlet.

“I was 36. I missed it. I had heard about the men’s league. I said. ‘Let’s go see what this is about,’ ” Pearsall said.

In 2011, his second and final year in the league, Pearsall was the MVP of the 35-plus division. His 0.28 ERA and 90 strikeouts (in 50 innings) helped the Brooklyn Dodgers to a 19-1 record.

That only convinced Pearsall he needed a bigger test.

“I had a blast in the men’s league, but I wanted more of a challenge,” Pearsall said. “And I had never played in the Twilight League.”

He contacted A’s manager Joe Altieri, a former Mickey Mantle teammate and high school rival.

“He had played a few years in a men’s league, and he reached out to me saying he needed more competition,” said Altieri, who grew up in Guilderland. “We had played on the same team as 15-year-olds, so we had a history. I just needed to know he was serious about it, because we have high expectations every year.”

Altieri took Pearsall for the 2012 season, and the pitcher rewarded him a league-high six wins, striking out 62 in 48 innings.

The Athletics went on to win the AABC World Series that summer.

“That was the best moment I ever had on a baseball field,” said Pearsall, who, in an irony specific to the Capital Region, swapped levels in the Florida organization in 2002 with former Siena pitcher Tim Christman.

He returned for the 2013 season, but chose not to play last year, citing the combination of job and parental responsibilities. He has two teenage daughters, and running Pro Edge Baseball in Albany with A’s teammate Dan Barbero left little free time.

Over the winter, he reconsidered, rejoined the A’s and is again a contributor to one of the league’s perennially strong teams. He’s mixing a circle change he picked up from a minor league pitching coach in with the usual fastball and breaking ball.

He’s also winning over his younger teammates.

“It’s impressive watching him get guys out,” said Henchey, in his first year in the ATL. “He probably throws mid to upper 80s, but he was getting guys out with that changeup.”

“This isn’t a hobby for him,” Altieri said. “He really has a passion for it.

“He makes himself available to the younger pitchers. They are learning from him.”

“I go to them and say, ‘Listen. I’m here to compete on my day. Feel free to come to me,’ ” said the 6-foot-2 Pearsall. “My delivery is far better now than when I played in the minors. I still enjoy it, and I’m performing at a level I’m happy with.

“I drive to the game from my work in Troy, I’m getting dressed in the car. I go home and my back is sore.

“Is it worth it? Yeah.”

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