Once you’ve talked to a lot of baseball players, you discover none of them ever forgets his first hit: where it happened, who was pitching, etc.
And, unless it was a home run grabbed and kept by a fan, that baseball often becomes an important part of the ballplayer’s possessions.
Most of the time, anyway.
The mystery for Jamie Romak of the Albuquerque Isotopes is what became of the ball he swatted for a two-RBI double in a game at Coors Field.
“I wish I knew (where it was),” Romak said, sitting in the Isotopes’ dugout before a July ballgame. “I left it with a ‘clubbie;’ there’s been some confusion to where it might be, so we’re trying to get it secured right now.
“There’s a little panic on my end,” he added.
His first big-league hit came in a rain-shortened, six-inning, 6-1 Dodgers win at Coors Field on June 8. Miguel Rojas, a teammate of his with the Isotopes and also with the Dodgers then, got his first hit as the next batter; both hits came off veteran reliever Matt Belisle.
“Getting called up, that was awesome. Getting the hit, that was even better,” Romak said. “It made for a cool flight after the game from (Denver) to Cincinnati.”
Now, if he only had that baseball.
Romak, 28, got his proverbial “cup of coffee” with the Dodgers, where he was sent in late May and then returned to the Duke City on June 29. While with the Dodgers, Romak stepped into the batter’s box 23 times, walking twice and managing just that one hit in the other 21 times he batted.
Naturally, that won’t open many eyes. And, granted, it’s not an easy task, coming into a game as a pinch-hitter, often late in the game against a fire-balling reliever.
“There’s times where you go three or four days without hitting, and then you get up there and you might get to take one swing off a closer or a set-up guy,” he said. “I have newfound respect for guys that are able to do that.”
Of the 15 games Romak appeared in, three were in the outfield, one was at first base and one was at third base.
It’s that versatility he hopes will eventually land him in the big leagues to stay. But it probably won’t be with the Dodgers, already deep in the outfield (the Dodgers’ No. 1 prospect, Pacific Coast League outfielder Joc Pederson is a teammate in Albuquerque) and having veteran Juan Uribe anchoring the hot corner and perennial all-star Adrian Gonzalez, a former Isotope, holding down first base.
Romak knew what he was getting into and he’s been dealt before: He was a fourth-round selection of the Atlanta Braves when he was just 17 back in 2003, and has since played in the Pittsburgh, Kansas City and St. Louis organizations. Before he signed with the Dodgers as a free agent last November and started the season in Albuquerque, he’d played in the Pacific Coast League before, with Omaha in 2012 and Memphis last season.
“I just think I wasn’t ready for the amount of time you spend at the ballpark,” Romak said of his month-long stint with the Dodgers. “As a young guy, you’re on the first bus: 7 o’clock game, you’re there at 12:30 or 1. The games are longer and you take your time after the game to get home, and it’s midnight or 1 o’clock, and you turn around, get up and go back to the park.
“You play a three-game series, get on the flight and head to the next town,” he continued. “And then it’s getting to know the other team’s pitchers. It happens fast — I think the speed of it all surprised me, because here it seems so much slower-paced. I didn’t get here today until 2 o’clock,” he said of what was to be a 7 p.m. first pitch.
Another of his few big-league highlights was watching southpaw Clayton Kershaw throw a no-hitter vs. the visiting Rockies on June 18.
“He is so dominant, like the rest of the staff, that I didn’t notice anything was different until, like, the seventh inning,” he recalled. “Then I looked up and went, ‘They don’t have any hits and this is a pretty quick game.’ That staff — I can’t say enough — is unbelievable. Every time out, those guys are throwing, even, eight innings; one run, two runs, maybe. And you just sit back and watch … It’s pretty cool, a cool thing to watch. ‘Kersh’ is a true professional and goes about it the right way; he’s respected by everyone.”
Articulate and well-spoken, with a single use of the true-Canadian “eh,” Romak talked about what it took to make him a professional ballplayer.
“Growing up where I grew up (London, Ontario), I didn’t play a lot of baseball,” he said. “I played a couple months in the summer, just to pass the time till hockey season. And I spent so much time with my three best friends playing — literally — sandlot baseball, two-on-two with a tennis ball and just learning how to play the game that way.
“I never had hitting lessons or fielding lessons or anything. I just played for my hometown team and then kind of randomly got drafted (fourth-rounder of the Braves in 2003) out of high school,” he said.
“I’ve come a long way and the perspective of it all, sitting back in the dugout. We just had a chain-link backstop and a tennis ball and now you’re looking up and you can’t even count how many decks there are.”
Romak said, for a reason he can’t recall, his favorite team was the Cleveland Indians and he dreamed of being a big-league pitcher. Jaret Wright, was his favorite player, partly because they had the same build, and Romak copied Wright’s style of delivery.
A fracture in his right elbow ended that dream, “so I kind of switched to hitting and took it from there.”
It’s often said that minor-league players are playing for 30 big-league teams.
“It’s something that’s not lost on any of us. This is my fifth team, so that’s apparent: You play long enough, everyone gets to know you,” he explained. “Good, bad or indifferent, they know exactly what you’re all about, so you can’t take a game off. Big leagues, here, A-ball. Rookie-ball, Dominican, winter league — you can’t take a game off.”
For the season, heading into this week’s all-star break, he was hitting .272 in 64 Isotopes games, with 17 homers and 48 RBIs.
He likes the help he’s received here from Isotopes hitting coach Franklin Stubbs. “You’ve got to piece it all together and make it your own,” he said.
His baseball odyssey took him through the Braves’ minors, from rookie ball to high-A, before he was dealt to Pittsburgh in January 2007. Since then, he’s been a free agent four times; he spent time with Omaha and Memphis of the PCL in 2012, and all of ’13 at Memphis, where he hit .242 with 22 homers and 74 RBIs.
“If another injury comes up in the outfield or with a bench guy, I think there’s a fit there (with the Dodgers),” he said. “Otherwise, again, you’re just hoping to catch the attention of other (MLB) teams or teams overseas. Wherever there’s opportunity; obviously, I’d love to get back up with the Dodgers.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had,” he said. “It’s been a long time and a long road, and for them to sign me and give me this chance, not only to play every day in AAA, but to be a guy that was up there — I’m incredibly grateful.
“So they’ll always have a place in my heart,” Romak concluded. “That being said, I’m more than open to playing in the big leagues with anybody.”
His best advice for others — maybe recently drafted Josh Walker out of RRHS and the University of New Mexico — “You need to have tunnel vision on your goals: If you set the goal of becoming a major-league baseball player, you have to have the undying belief that you can play there, that you will get there. You don’t have the answers for the why’s and where’s, that you can get there, but not have the blinders on and be able to look around and say, ‘Why is that guy going and I’m not going? What is it that that guy can do that I can’t do? What do I need to get better, to get that opportunity?’
“The best thing that happened to me in my career, oddly enough, was when I wasn’t a prospect anymore and I looked around and said, ‘OK, I’m not a major league player anymore. That’s not in the cards. What do I have to do to get there?” And I taught myself how to play third, play first, play the outfield — you took a good offensive player and made him versatile, so there was a role for me there.”
That advice breaks down to having some awareness, believing in yourself and making adjustments you need to make to reach your goals.”
Not everybody can play big-league baseball, he said.
“Find what you’re good at and go after it — put everything you have into it and you’ll find your place in this world and everything will work out great,” he advised.
IsoTopics: The Isotopes were 45-53, 11 games behind first-place Las Vegas in the Pacific Southern Division, as the all-star break arrived. Pederson is the Isotopes’ lone triple-A all-star; former Isotopes infielder Dee Gordon was one of four Dodgers selected for the MLB All-Star Game.
… The “second half” begins Thursday with the opener of a four-game series with Sacramento. Game times at Isotopes Park are 7:05 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 6:05 p.m. on Sunday. Fresno then visits for games Monday-Wednesday at 7:05 each night, and the finale is at 12:05 Thursday.