Major feast: Big league players bring along a rehab bonanza

Iacobelli writes for the Associated Press.

Catcher Tim Federowicz was impressed with everything John Smoltz had to offer in his minor league rehab assignment.

The All-Star ace brought a lot to the plate: fastball and slider -- steak, ribs and fixin's, too.

Federowicz twice was called on this spring by the Class A Greenville Drive as Smoltz worked his way up to the Boston Red Sox. The second-year catcher discovered a patient, friendly and accommodating star, plus a generous, heaping postgame buffet.

"Most of the guys will buy you a spread," Federowicz said. "But it's not usually Longhorn's Steak House."

When a big leaguer like Smoltz, a 42-year-old star recently cut by the Red Sox, arrives for a rehab stint, it's sure to fill up the seats and bring out the local TV cameras. The appearance is also a boon for star-struck youngsters filled with questions about The Show and accustomed to stale bread and bland cold cuts.

The same way you don't talk about a no-hitter in the dugout, you'd best take care of dinner for the minor leaguers.

"It's kind of like the unwritten rule," Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer said.

Many, like Smoltz and Mauer, do more than that.

Mauer's brother, Jake, the manager of the Twins' rookie league team at Fort Myers, said Joe sent a half-dozen catcher's mitts to the club after he returned to Minnesota from a rehabilitation stretch in April.

And in what may still be the biggest minor league rehab bonanza ever, Roger Clemens in 2006 refurbished the Lexington Legends player's area with new carpeting, leather couches and a 42-inch flat-screen TV.

"He must have spent five thousand" dollars, said Alan Stein, Lexington's vice president and chief operating officer.

Smoltz shared his time during his stop in the South Atlantic League, answering questions, posing for pictures and signing autographs for his new teammates, several of whom weren't born when he first pitched in the bigs 21 years ago.

"He's the best of the best," Greenville manager Kevin Boles said. "He knows that all eyes are on him, but he takes the time to talk with our guys and it really helps out, especially with our young players."

It also fills the stomachs of young ballplayers weary of the nightly clubhouse fare.

New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez bought 900 Hooters wings last year for the team's training complex in Tampa, Fla.

Yankees reliever Brian Bruney played for the Trenton Thunder and set up the clubhouse with a meal from a local, high-end Italian restaurant.

Recently cut Kansas City pitcher Sidney Ponson, while down with triple-A Omaha, bought dinner from P.F. Chang's.

Mike Sweeney, Seattle's 36-year-old first baseman-designated hitter, has had five separate rehab stints with Oakland and Kansas City, and always picks up the postgame tab.

"Most times, guys are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pizzas and hot dogs. It's not healthy food," Sweeney said.

It's not just the food that inexperienced players hunger for.

Rodriguez spent considerable time tutoring Yankees prospect Bradley Suttle, who was recovering from a groin injury.

Suttle, a 23-year-old third baseman, was shocked to learn he'd work out with A-Rod.

"It was definitely a little bit intimidating," Suttle said. "Little ol' me working out with possibly one of the best baseball players in history."

Suttle said Rodriguez couldn't have been more giving. New York's megastar shared his routine and training techniques. The two renewed their workouts this spring when Rodriguez was in Tampa rehabbing after hip surgery.

Few experiences match playing alongside a major leaguer, even for a few innings.

Yankee pitchers Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy followed Clemens around in Tampa in 2007 before he rejoined New York's rotation that season. Kennedy got permission to watch Clemens' workout routine up close. "It's really neat. Not every player, not everybody gets to see that," Kennedy said.

Longtime Yankees coach and executive Billy Connors says the meetings can have a long-lasting impact on the young players.

"It can only benefit them," said Connors, who handles major league pitching rehab assignments for New York. "These guys watch those big leaguers go about doing their business and they'll know it's tough. You watch Clemens, it's like, 'I've got to do that.'"

Federowicz, since promoted to Boston's advanced Class A team in Salem, Va., fought off butterflies in prepping to catch Smoltz. Turns out, it was real easy.

"He's been pitching in the big leagues longer than I've been alive," said the 22-year-old Federowicz, actually 11 months old when Smoltz first took the mound for Atlanta on July 23, 1988. "He's been one of my heroes growing up, playing with him in video games. I was a huge Braves fan."

Smoltz was happy to share what he could with Federowicz and all Drive players. Greenville had been home to Atlanta's Double-A team for two decades and Smoltz made several previous rehab stops in front of appreciative Braves fans.

Smoltz's name still brought out the crowds in Greenville, which set an attendance record of 7,129 at 4-year-old Fluor Field, many wearing their hero's old Atlanta No. 29 jersey.

Stein, the Lexington executive, recalls the hoopla that surrounded "Rocket Relaunch" in 2006 as Clemens prepared to pitch for Houston. Lexington's Applebee's Park seats about 6,000, but Stein said they packed in an announced crowd of 9,222. Clemens, who's son Koby was on the team, signed autographs and talked with players and fans.

"He was very generous," Stein said.

Smoltz, a Detroit prospect traded to Atlanta in 1987, remembered how he collected advice and polish from major league stars like Dan Petry, Alan Trammell and Dale Murphy during rehab stints. "I've been trying to pass on what I learned," Smoltz said. "I think that in return is like passing the baton and will carry over and have a better effect on the game."

Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton has been on the disabled list twice this season and played minor league games with Triple-A Oklahoma City and Double-A Frisco. Paying for the postgame meal is a way major leaguers show those in the minors they haven't forgotten the rough meals and nomadic lifestyle.

"It just says a lot about you as a person," Hamilton said recently. "We're treated so well up here, and obviously money's different. You don't want to come off as somebody who doesn't care or want to give back at all."

Federowicz hopes he's in a position one day to duplicate what he saw up close from Smoltz, from the friendly gameday advice to the big league postgame feast.

"He's very professional," Federowicz said. "That's the first thing you notice about him. He signed all our autographs, took pictures with the guys who wanted it and bought the spread after the game, that's even better."

--

Associated Press reporters Dave Campbell in Minneapolis and Stephen Hawkins in Arlington, Texas, and freelance writer Mark Didtler in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°