After long journeys, Bobby Cramer and Justin James join the A’s
on October 1, 2010
Many major league baseball players are out of the game before reaching age 30. If a player is going to make the major leagues, he could debut as young as 19 or 20 years old and usually no older than 26 or 27. Past that, and major league organizations have probably already given up on him.
Organizations had all but given up on Bobby Cramer and Justin James, two new Oakland Athletics pitchers who had both started off as promising young players, but whose careers had floundered due to injuries. By the time they were in their mid-20s, they both found themselves out of professional baseball. But because of a scouting philosophy employed by the Oakland Athletics, this September Cramer and James both became major league pitchers, James a few days before his 29th birthday, and Cramer at 30 years old.
“When you dream of making it, you don’t dream of making it as a 30-year-old,” Cramer said. “But getting here, it’s just as sweet. I don’t think it has diminished the feeling I have or the accomplishment of making it at 30 than at 23.”
While they play the same position, they have their differences: James is a right-handed relief pitcher from Oklahoma and Cramer is a left-handed starting pitcher from Southern California. James sports a clean-cut, boyish face while Cramer contrasts a buzzed hairdo with his scruffy, blonde beard. Their similarities lie in the paths they took to the major leagues, traveling separately but ending up in the same place at the same time.
Cramer and James will finish the 2010 major league baseball season—which ends Sunday—as members of the Oakland Athletics. But they weren’t even playing minor league baseball when the season began in April. While Cramer was technically under contract with the Athletics as a minor league player, the organization arranged to have him play in the Mexican League in Quintana Roo—Mexico’s most southeastern state. “I felt about as far away from my dream as I could have felt,” Cramer said.
But while playing in Mexico, Cramer was named the league’s pitcher of the year. The Mexican League season ended in July, allowing Cramer about two months to return to the A’s organization and try to reach the big league team in Oakland. After seven stellar performances for the Sacramento River Cats, the organization’s highest-level minor league team, Cramer was summoned to Oakland.
James, who signed a minor league contract with the A’s in June, began the season pitching for an independent league team called the Kansas City T-Bones. While he considered his stint in Kansas City a temporary stop on his trek to the major leagues, he had no idea he would be pitching for the A’s within a few months. “Mainly, I was just trying to get back into organizational ball,” James said—playing for a minor league affiliate of a major league organization.
Major league baseball is stratified into the major leagues—the highest level, which includes the Oakland A’s—and six minor league levels, in which each organization has seven or eight affiliated teams. An organization’s minor league affiliates are often called “the farm,” after the farm towns where they’re often located, and because the major league use these teams cultivate, or farm, their young talent. Independent leagues are considered to be professional baseball, but their teams have no affiliation with major league clubs, and their players are generally not wanted by the organizations for a variety of reasons, including injuries limiting their effectiveness or a lack of talent.
Every major league organization has a scouting department that is responsible for finding talented players who could join a major league team. Scouts generally seek out high school and college players in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and select the ones they like during the June major league baseball draft. Prospects from Latin American players do not get drafted; rather they are signed as free agents, often as young as 16 years old. While all 30 major league organizations seek talent in this manner, many of them are less inclined to monitor players in independent leagues—especially players in their late 20s who have never reached the major leagues.
The A’s are not above combing through these leagues looking for forgotten talent, said Craig Weissmann, the scout who signed Cramer. “The organization leaves no stone unturned,” Weissmann said. “The organization is always looking everywhere and anywhere for a player that can help.” The A’s are known for seeking a competitive edge through unconventional scouting methods—Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball documents general manager Billy Beane’s emphasis on scouting through advanced statistical analysis.
Cramer and James weren’t exactly unknown commodities when the A’s signed them, but they had both struggled to progress through the minor leagues, beset by arm problems and each year pushed closer to the exit by the inflow of younger players with just as much talent but without the baggage. But time away from the game allowed their pitching arms to heal and for each of their approaches to pitching to mature. Given the opportunity, they have proven they are capable major leaguers.
Cramer is considered a “crafty lefty,” a common term used in baseball to refer to a left-handed pitcher who doesn’t throw particularly hard, but is capable of successfully getting batters out through precisely locating and changing speeds of pitches. James is the opposite. He’s a hard-throwing right-hander who relies on his fastball to overpower batters, a highly valued trait for relief pitchers.
Cramer was drafted after his first year of junior college in 1998, but he declined to sign a contract and accepted a scholarship to play baseball at Long Beach State University, one of the better college baseball programs in the nation. He was drafted again, this time by the Seattle Mariners, after his senior year in 2001. But there was a catch: Cramer had an injured elbow, and the Mariners had drafted him with the hope he would recover. When Cramer’s injury was slow to heal, the Mariners passed on his services. Then in 2003, after Cramer had undergone reconstructive elbow surgery, he signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (the organization has since dropped “Devil” from its name). Weissmann, who would end up signing Cramer on three different occasions, was the scout who signed Cramer to play for Tampa Bay.
Cramer pitched well during two seasons in the organization’s lower minor leagues, but he faced competition from younger players and, at 25, was considered old for someone who had only played in the lower minor leagues. He was cut during the 2005 spring training—baseball’s preseason. “His career looked like it was over,” Weissmann said. “He’s 25 and hasn’t pitched above A-ball.” (A-ball, or Single-A, encompasses several levels of the lower minor leagues.) Yet although Cramer had been released a second time, Weissmann didn’t give up on him. Instead, he encouraged the pitcher to keep his arm in shape.
In 2007, the A’s experienced a rash of injuries to pitchers on their minor league teams, leading the organization to send a call-out to any able-bodied pitchers who could fill in. Weissmann called Cramer to see if he wanted to join the organization’s Single-A team, the Stockton Ports, which play less than an hour from Cramer’s Anaheim home. Cramer agreed, and ended up pitching the rest of the season. But his shoulder flared up while pitching in a winter league. The injury persisted into 2008 spring training, diminishing his effectiveness as a pitcher. The A’s released him before the season.
Cramer’s shoulder soon recovered, and he joined the Orange County Flyers in the independent Golden Baseball League. He was playing baseball again, but it wasn’t where he had imagined he would be playing at 28-years-old. “You start to think, ‘I keep trying and I keep trying, but maybe this isn’t supposed to happen,’” Cramer said. “Is God trying to send me a message? Am I supposed to shut it down?”
That winter, Weissmann hooked up Cramer with a pitching gig in Puerto Rico. After Cramer pitched well there, the A’s, through Weissmann again, signed Cramer for the 2009 season. He pitched well that season, and the A’s held onto him, save for loaning him to the Mexican League earlier this year.
While James’ professional career started the same year as Cramer’s, it took him longer to be out of a job. The Toronto Blue Jays drafted James out of the University of Missouri in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. While pitching in the Blue Jays organization, James ascended as high as Triple-A, the highest minor league level, meaning he was only one step away from the major leagues. That was 2007. Before the next season, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds organization, where he pitched at three different minor league levels before suffering a season-ending arm injury. James was released in 2009 during spring training. At 27, James’ likelihood of reaching the major leagues appeared dim.
He signed on with the T-Bones shortly after that, but with his arm at less than full strength, James compiled his worst statistical season as a professional—a bad sign, considering he was facing lesser competition than during six years in the minor leagues.
Coming off a miserable 2009 season and unsure if his arm would be healthy enough for a return to form, James said he was ready to give up the dream. He began looking into starting up a sports nutrition business. But earlier this year, James’ motivation to play baseball was rejuvenated by his 19-year-old brother, Chad James.
Less than three months after the older brother was released by the Reds, the Florida Marlins selected Chad James—then a high school senior in Yukon, Oklahoma—in the first round of the draft. Having signed his contract with the Marlins too late in 2009 to play during the season, the younger James didn’t make his minor league debut until this year. Realizing that he had always set an example for his younger brother, Justin James said he felt a sense of obligation to keep pitching, rather than walk away from baseball just as Chad was starting his professional career.
“I didn’t want to give up on him,” Justin James said. “So I stuck with it, and now that I’ve stuck with it, it’s been great. It’s showed him what it takes to do the things you want. I think that pushes him a little more knowing what I went through and now I’m a big leaguer.”
Since James, who has pitched in five games since reaching the major leagues, is a relief pitcher, he still has a chance to pitch one or two more times before the season ends. A relief pitcher can be called upon during any game, while a starting pitcher like Cramer generally pitches every fifth day. With the A’s playing their last game of 2010 this coming Sunday, Cramer likely pitched his last game of his storybook season on Wednesday in appropriately storybook fashion: by returning to home to pitch against his childhood team.
During the years when Cramer was on hiatus from the game, the Anaheim native had season tickets to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and he regularly attended as a fan. On Wednesday, he took the mound against his hometown team in the very same stadium. He allowed just one run and three hits in nearly seven innings of work. Among the 39,000 fans in attendance were his parents. Though his mother had previously flown to Kansas City to watch his debut against the Royals, it was the first time Cramer’s father had seen him pitch in the major leagues. When Cramer came out of the game, he acknowledged his hometown friends and family, tipping his cap to the crowd before entering the A’s dugout.
James said he and Cramer have not talked much about their circuitous routes to the major leagues, preferring to relish the realization of their lifelong dreams. “We both know what it was like, the feeling of being in independent ball,” James said. “You don’t really want to talk about it, because now is the best time of our lives.”
Hoping to continue calling the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum their home field, both say they will do what it takes to keep improving. That includes learning from teammates on a team whose two star pitchers, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, are 22 years old. Despite being nearly a decade older than Anderson and Cahill, Cramer said, “they’re still veterans compared to me.” Looking out toward the field from the A’s dugout, the 30-year-old said he tries to pick up whatever pitching knowledge he can from the young veterans. “You’re never too old to learn in this game.”
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