On tough days at work, many of us look out the window and dream of being a ballplayer, leaving the worries and the stress behind. Demanding bosses, unclear assignments and changing roles and responsibilities send us to daydreaming about the better way, on the field.
But the next time you think about the big time, consider Jason Kershner.
Jason joined the Blue Jays in 2003 and proceeded to have an excellent season. In 40 games, Jason had an ERA of 3.17 and held opponents to a .217 batting average. Blue Jay fans pencilled Jason in as a ďlockĒ for the 2004 club. He looked like he was set. But 2004 changed all that. Robert and I recently caught up with Jason Kershner in Syracuse. Jason had been demoted ten days earlier and thoughts of his time in Toronto were still fresh in his mind.
Toronto began 2004 with two left-handed relievers, Valerio De Los Santos and Jason. April was not a good month for Jason, or for many of his teammates. He made eight appearances in April, pitching 5.2 innings. Opponents hit .320 off him and his April ERA was 7.94. May was much better, as Jason pitched in eleven games and only once conceded a run. His ERA dropped to 4.05, but his opponents batting average remained over .300. On June 1, Roy Halladay was unable to make his start against Seattle, and Jason got the call. He had started before, but not regularly:
My last start was June 2002 in AAA with San Diego. I had been in and out of the rotation in the minor leagues. For five years, it seemed that whatever I did at the beginning of the season, I was doing the opposite in June. Itís not that I had never started before; I hadnít built my arm up to be a starter. I had not pitched more than four or five innings since against the Yankees last year. I was lucky last year, because I had so much rest. For the first start I had in the Seattle game, I had been up throwing for the previous four days before that start.
In that start against Seattle, Jason allowed four runs (three earned) on six hits in 3.2 innings. He thought he did OK: I really did not throw that bad; we had some defensive lapses and Edgar hit a double off me. Other than that, we were all right. I more or less cruised until the fourth. I was tired by then. I had a two-run lead, got two out, full count, and I cannot shake the fastball off. But I knew I could not throw it for a strike because my arm was too tired. I was starting to push the ball. I thought I could throw a change for a strike better than my fastball. Olerud hit it back to me and I flat out missed it. Then the floodgates opened and I got some pitches up.
As Jason recalls, the Mariners scored two runs in the first inning on the double by Edgar. One of the runs was unearned on an error by Josh Phelps. There was a second error in the inning that allowed Ichiro to go to third after a steal. Jason was excellent after the double, retiring 11 of 12 hitters. But the wheels fell off with two outs in the fourth. Single, triple, single, single, walk, and Jason was done. Jason believes he tired early because he had been up throwing the four previous days. He appeared in games on May 29th and 30th, pitching 1.1 innings.
In his next start on June 6th, Jason struggled in the first, allowing four runs. He was done for the day after three innings.
Unbeknowst to the fans, Jasonís legs have been hurting in 2004. When asked about the difference between 2003 and 2004, Jason says: My legs didnít hurt last year. As a pitcher, if your legs hurt, youíre in trouble. My arm feels great, [but] I started having problems with my legs in April and, as a pitcher, if you cannot use your legs, itís tough; you start using more arm. You have to be able to push off. Itís the quad and groin. I had acupuncture 10 times up there.
Jason made three more appearances in June after his starts, but was removed from the roster and assigned to Syracuse on June 22nd. Was he surprised to be sent down? Yes, but as a player, you have no control; you do what they say. If they say you Ďre going to be up here, then do the best you can. If they say youíre going down, you go with it. What can you do? You can take two attitudes. You can get pissed off and pitch badly, and then you donít get back up there. Or you can just keep your mouth shut and work as hard as you can and put up numbers.
The Jays told Jason why they were sending him down. They just said I wasnít the same pitcher as I was last year. Jason acknowledges that, but attributes his struggles to his leg problems. But he never considered the DL as an option. The DL is the worst place to be in the world, as least in baseball. Everybody plays through something, a little injury here or there. Sometimes itís better to suck it up, and thatís what I did.
Now that Jason is in Syracuse, he is trying to get his legs and his pitching back in shape. I just have to go out there on a regular basis and throw. My legs are starting to feel a bit better. Itís frustrating to come down after the year I had last year. As a young player, I have no control over that.
Jason can be a free agent at the end of the season, unless the Jays call him up before then: I donít know if Iíll go back up there. If I worry about whatís going on up there, then Iím not thinking about pitching well down here. I need to come down here and get my velocity back up a little bit and work on my slider a little bit more. If I do that, then everything else will fall in line. If I donít get called up, I can walk. The ballís in my court; if I put up numbers, then theyíll have to make a decision.
When asked about which role he prefers in the bullpen, Jason refers back to his time with the Blue Jays: If you talk to pitchers on other teams, you know whoíll pitch in blowouts, you know who has to go three innings, you know who will pitch the eighth, and you know whoíll be in in the ninth. You still have to be ready to pitch whenever, the second, the fifth, whatever. Most teams had established roles. That was not the case in Toronto. The lack of established roles might have more to do with the inability of the bullpen to regularly ďdo their jobĒ which left Carlos Tosca to mix and match to find roles that work. The emergence of Vinnie Chulk and Jason Frasor as setup-man and closer might have fixed this issue.
Now Jason has an uncertain future. He likely will be looking for work in the off-season. In baseball, itís a case of ĎWhat did you do for me today?í Jason was not pitching like he did in 2003, and so he was demoted. In my job if I under-perform I am unlikely to be sent hundreds of miles away to get my act together. There is a transience to being a fringe major leaguer, changing clubs, up and down to the minors, looking for a new opportunity in the off-season. When we wish we were playing we see ourselves in one place, we do not think of changing teams and cities, moving apartments, and having a new boss. It is an under-appreciated part of being a professional baseball player.
In Syracuse, Jason has pitched six innings in five games. His ERA is 4.50, but his opponentsí batting average is only .182.
Best wishes Jason.