Column: After years of bouncing around, David Aardsma hopes to find home with Dodgers
He is baseball’s ultimate leadoff hitter, its definitive No. 1 starter, the first name penciled on history’s all-time lineup card.
Now he’d settle for a job.
Meet David Aardsma, tops in the baseball encyclopedia but buried on the Dodgers depth chart.
After spending a roller-coaster career as baseball’s alphabetic ace, he is hoping to become a Dodgers reliever.
“I’d like to be known for something more than my last name,” he says with a grin.
That name is the first one listed in the game’s annals, ahead of Hank Aaron. But right now the 33-year-old journeyman right-hander is more interested in finishing ahead of Sergio Santos and Dustin McGowan for one of the last spots in the Dodgers bullpen.
“I want to work hard, throw hard and sign as many autographs as people need,” he says. “Although at this point, I’ve signed so many, I don’t see how they can be of any value.”
The perspective that players such as Aardsma bring to spring training is of immense value. He fills the team’s clubhouse with grace, and gratitude for the opportunity he has after more than a decade bouncing around the game, quite literally from A (AT&T Park) to Z (the New Orleans Zephyrs).
“When a guy like this makes it, it sort of energizes everybody,” says Farhan Zaidi, the Dodgers’ general manager. “I mean, everybody loves a good story, right?”
Even by baseball’s nomadic standards, Aardsma’s story is a doozy.
Since being selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by the San Francisco Giants, the former Rice University star has played for 23 teams in the major and minor leagues.
He has played for the New York Yankees and Mets, and also for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox.
“I guess I’ve been around, huh?” he says.
One season he played for three teams in three different time zones, from Mesa, Ariz., to Jackson, Tenn., to Norwich, Conn. He has played in ballparks within shouting distance of the real Statue of Liberty (Staten Island) and the fake Statue of Liberty (Las Vegas). He has driven a Lincoln Navigator while playing for the Norwich Navigators.
He has broken more apartment leases than bats, has more caps than Foot Locker, has been traded four times for a total of three major league players, has played in every current major league park and, you know what, let’s just let him tell it:
“Let’s see, I’ve been a Lugnut, a Pawsox, a Knight, a Giant, a Grizzly, a Cub, a Navigator, a Redbird, a Zephyr and a Diamond Jaxx,” he says. “Among others.”
Now, five injury-plagued years after he saved 69 games in two seasons with the Seattle Mariners, he wants to be a Dodger. Aardsma says he is once again feeling his 90-mph-plus fastball, which he showed off for scouts in a last-ditch tryout a couple of weeks ago.
Yeah, it wasn’t even easy for him to get a spring training locker, as he had to first throw for a couple of dozen scouts on a mound outside a gym in Tempe, Ariz., in hopes that someone would give him a shot.
“It was really, really nervous, like my whole career was being decided at that one spot,” he recalls. “I threw for 10 minutes, about half the guys left, and I’m like, ‘Ohhhh.’”
The Dodgers stuck around. They loved his numbers last year for the St. Louis Cardinals’ triple-A team in Memphis, Tenn., where he had a 1.29 earned-run average in 35 innings after overcoming elbow, hip and groin problems. They also loved his veteran savvy, which could be important in a bullpen filled with new faces.
“Last year he was one of the best triple-A pitchers in baseball, he spent the winter working with a biomechanics group with which we have some familiarity, and now we think he has a chance to make an impact,” says Zaidi.
He finally signed a Dodgers contract just a couple of days before camp began. He was so thrilled, he broke the news himself on his Twitter account: “Excited to be with the @Dodgers this season. Should be a great year!” he wrote.
If nothing else, Aardsma is happy that, for at least the next month, he might actually stay in one spot. This is why, after his bullpen work early in camp, he was the one guy who would pound gloves with his catcher, thank the pitching coaches, thank the observing scouts, put an arm around anyone within reaching distance.
Says Zaidi: “We make a priority of going up to different players and introducing ourselves, but David was a guy who actively sought us out, and you have to love it. It’s a very disarming trait.”
Says Aardsma: “I’ve learned this is special, this isn’t forever, you have to do this with a smile.”
He’s learned the hard way, literally leaving pieces of himself at ballparks from coast to coast.
“At the end of every season, I box up a bunch of stuff and bring it to the clubhouse and just drop it there if anyone wants it,” he says. “There’s a part of me everywhere.”
In his first professional season, which included a brief stint with the major league Giants, he was sent to the minor leagues seven times. Two seasons later, he was sent down six times.
One time he was sent down while jogging in the outfield before a game. “I hear this voice from the dugout, ‘Hey Aardsma!’ and, oh man, I just knew,” he says.
Another time he was summoned and sent down while he was hanging out with his family after a game. “Pretty sad,” he says.
What has kept him going is the other type of move — the glorious times he was promoted. Once, it happened in the middle of a flight from Memphis to Tacoma, Wash.
“We landed, my phone blew up, they told me to grab my bags and get back on a flight to Miami,” he recalls. “Now, that was a great day.”
He has found stability with a wife and two children in his permanent home in Scottsdale, Ariz. But, appropriately, even that didn’t come easy. He met wife Andrea when he heard her heckling him during a bullpen session at spring training in Mesa.
“She was just wearing me out, telling me to get back to the bench, all kinds of stuff,” he recalls. So finally I just had to ask her out, you know?”
Of course. After all these years, Aardsma’s family and baseball are permanently intertwined. On his back are tattoos of the handprints of his children, 4-year-old D.Z. and 2-year-old J.D.
“I know I’ve been everywhere, but I’m always in the same place up here,” he says, tapping his head, referring to his constant feeling of stability.
He does keep one souvenir of his career, handed to him by a bullpen cop in Cleveland. It’s a pendant he stores in his glasses case and carries with him everywhere.
It is a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
“Guys are always asking me if I played for a certain team,” Aardsma says with a smile. “If I haven’t, I say, ‘Not yet.’”
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