Funny is a word. It can mean humorous or strange, joyous or difficult, or even something that’s rigged.
You know, a lot of people say baseball is a funny game.
That’s one word for it.
Tri-City ValleyCats pitcher Steve Naemark has seen every side of funny the game offers. Baseball has fueled his dreams since kindergarten, when he first set his designs on the big leagues. Baseball crushed his future, when his chance for a college education got snatched from him moments before it began, marooning him in years of despair.
And baseball, seen through a fast-food drive-thru window, brought his life back into focus.
Yeah, baseball is a funny game.
Sometimes, it’s not that funny at all.
And sometimes, it’s funny how it all works out.
FROM FAST PITCHER TO FAST FOOD
Naemark is the newest player on the ValleyCats’ roster and, at 25, the oldest — nearly 5 1⁄2 years older than his youngest teammate, fellow pitcher Juan Santos. Naemark is used to this: College teammates called him “Grandpa Steve.”
But in terms of pitching years, he is a mere 21, considering he walked away from the game for four long years between high school and college.
After starring for Mountain View High School in Tucson, Ariz., Naemark accepted a free ride to Central Arizona College. He put down his housing deposit and was preparing to depart. It was 2008.
But weeks before leaving, the school’s new coach called, telling the then-skinny 6-foot-3 left-hander that he did not figure into the team’s plans.
Not wanting to burn a year of eligibility, Naemark stayed home and enrolled in a few classes at the local community college. He got a job at Taco Bell. But he grew disillusioned, putting down his glove, intending it to be for good.
After a few weeks, he also stopped going to classes.
“I just had trouble balancing the work and school,” he said, looking out on Joe Bruno Stadium as the grounds crew prepared for a recent game. “And right out of high school, I didn’t realize the value of a college education, so I decided I would just work full-time.”
Naemark, whose high school teachers mocked him for saying his goal was to be a big league pitcher, now found himself without purpose. He worked at Taco Bell for a year, then at a call center, before returning to Taco Bell. He took a job at a local sandwich shop, before moving on to McDonald’s. Four years — what could have been a college career — rolled by.
“There was definitely a sense that I felt a little cheated,” he said. “I didn’t have a good direction in anything I wanted to do. I was kind of aimless. . . . You picture yourself in five years, and you can see yourself doing the exact same thing and making no progress in life.”
Baseball had become a distant memory. For four years, he didn’t work out, didn’t condition, didn’t even play catch.
Then a night-shift customer at the McDonald’s drive-thru changed everything.
AN OLD TEAMMATE, A NEW OPPORTUNITY
One night, David Jagoditsh, a high school friend and teammate, rolled up to Naemark’s window at McDonald’s.
“What are you doing?” Naemark asked.
“I’m pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates right now, in the minor league organization,” Jagoditsh replied.
The exchange woke up Naemark from a four-year daze.
“This was a kid who didn’t even pitch in high school,” Naemark said. (Jagoditsh would pitch three years in the minors). “It got me thinking. He persevered. He got his shot. There’s an opportunity if you work hard enough for it.”
The next day, Naemark answered a one-line ad in the newspaper and plunked down his paycheck, $285, to join a collegiate baseball league in town. He told the team he hadn’t played in awhile; an official said he probably wouldn’t be able to cut it. Naemark said if he couldn’t, just keep the money and he’d sit on the bench.
Like the teammate showing up at his drive-thru window, fate dealt Naemark another favorable hand: His coach was Doug Jones, the ex-major league reliever who is now a pitching coach in the Colorado Rockies’ system. At first, Jones wanted him to try his hand at first base, Naemark said, until the pitcher convinced him to watch a bullpen session.
It turned out he could bring it on four years’ rest.
“I was pitching every two days out there,” Naemark said. “A lot of [the college] pitchers were complaining of arm soreness, but I was as fresh as could be. I could pitch 100 pitches on back-to-back days.”
Naemark just wanted to get back on the mound and have fun; Jones pushed him to go to college. But by this time, 2012, Naemark was 22.
“Anything can happen in baseball,” Jones, now the pitching coach for the Boise [Idaho] Hawks of the short-season Class A Northwest League, said Thursday. “I told him there were plenty of opportunities out there. It’s exciting to see the kid take things to heart. Some kids give up on themselves too easily.”
Toward the end of that season, Naemark made a spot start for an ailing pitcher, and threw a complete-game shutout. Watching in the stands was the coach of Cochise College, a coach who recruited him four years earlier.
He offered Naemark a scholarship. And there would be no reneging on the deal.
The teammate at the window. Getting Jones as a coach. That unexpected start. Things just fell into place.
“That is a lot of really fortunate coincidences adding up in my favor of getting me back in the game,” Naemark said. “They say karma catches up.”
The day after getting the offer, he quit McDonald’s.
A HIDDEN BLESSING
For two years, Naemark starred at Cochise College, leading his team to the JUCO World Series both seasons and being named series MVP as a freshman. This past season, he played for NCAA Division II Angelo State, going 11-1 with a 1.37 ERA in 125 innings and being named the Lone Star Conference Player of the Year.
The former fast-food worker was a 40th-round selection last month by the Houston Astros. That makes him a long shot to make the bigs, which is better than a no shot.
He started the short season with Greeneville of the Appalachian League, and was surprised to get called up to Tri-City so quickly late last month. Although older than almost every player at this level, the left-hander with two fastballs that top out in the ’90s, a changeup and a curve doesn’t feel he has to make up ground.
“I’m not in a rush to get anywhere, because I feel I can pitch until I’m 40,” Naemark said. “Maybe because that’s me feeling a little bit invincible at this point.”
Getting this far affords Naemark a chance to look back and ask himself one of the more mind-bending of hypothetical questions:
Had he gone to college and played right out of high school, with no four-year hiatus slinging Big Macs and Gorditas, would he still be in pro ball?
“I don’t think I would have taken college baseball seriously enough to give me a chance to reach the next level,” Naemark said, also noting he is now 40 pounds heavier than the 155 he was in high school. “I think I was good enough, I but I didn’t appreciate the hard work that was needed. I don’t think at that age and that maturity . . .”
He paused, mulling his next words.
“I think I would have quit.”
You will hear professional athletes talk about how their season is a grind. Tell that to a fast-food worker. Naemark has that perspective; you’d be surprised how big an asset flipping burgers can be on your life resumé.
“It’s a grind what they go through every day,” Naemark said. “The hardest day in the offseason is better than the best day I had at McDonald’s.”
Tri-City pitching coach Chris Holt praised Naemark’s first outing with the ValleyCats, a scoreless relief appearance Tuesday by a pitcher who has started his whole career. But what really impresses the coach is the journey Naemark has taken to get to Troy.
“It’s a tremendous story,” Holt said.
And you just knew what was coming next.
“Baseball,” he said, “is a funny game.”
That’s one word for it — the only one you really need.