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Salt Lake Bees: Team vets remember call-ups, first big-league moments (with video)

July 23, 2016 GMT

Wearing only a towel after a postgame shower in the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds’ clubhouse, infielder Brendan Ryan walked into the manager’s office, wondering what kind of news he would hear.

Told to catch a flight and join the St. Louis Cardinals in Houston, Ryan hugged manager Chris Maloney. Yeah, you can guess what happened to that towel.

“The best awkward moment ever,” Ryan said, grinning as he retold the nine-year-old story, standing behind the batting cage at Smith’s Ballpark.

Whether the initial call came from the Los Angeles Angels or another organization, the Salt Lake Bees’ big-league veterans all have their tales to tell. From first-round picks to undrafted free agents, from Mike Trout to Matt Shoemaker, baseball players have that indelible memory of being told they’re going to the majors for the first time.

If clothing is optional, tears are pretty much mandatory. “I cried. I’m OK saying that,” said Chris Jones, a pitcher who briefly joined the Angels in May.

“Oh, yeah, I cried like a baby,” said Chuck Jones, remembering his son’s calling home with a message Chris had rehearsed repeatedly during 10 seasons in the minors.

Delivering good news is the best part of a Triple-A manager’s job. Keith Johnson especially liked sharing the joy with former Salt Lake players he once managed at lower levels of the Angels’ system, including infielders Andrew Romine and Efren Navarro, outfielder Jeremy Moore and pitcher Steven Geltz. Some moments resonate with him as much as with the players themselves.

“Before I could even finish my sentence, [Geltz] just started shaking … the tears were just rolling down his face,” Johnson recalled.

In a sense, NFL and NBA players get cheated. Except for the fraction of athletes who ascend from the NBA Development League, there’s no call-up involved. “It’s something that you hope everyone can experience,” said outfielder Todd Cunningham, who’s now up with the Angels.

Naturally, though, when someone else is summoned, “You wish it was you,” Cunningham said.

During spring training with the Baltimore Orioles, Jones remembers manager Buck Showalter remarking how only 750 players in the world are on big-league rosters at any time. “This ain’t easy,” Showalter said.

“That stuck with me,” said Jones, who was traded to the Angels in March and assigned to the Bees to launch his 10th pro season. During a game in late May, Bees pitching coach Pat Rice wryly asked Jones if he owned red baseball shoes. What? “You need red cleats to pitch up there,” Rice said. So Jones was off to Anaheim, just in case the Angels needed someone to pitch in long relief against Detroit.

Wouldn’t you know, Jhoulys Chacin worked a complete game the first night, Hector Santiago pitched into the seventh inning the next night and then Jones went back to the Bees. That stint marked the end of “a long, crazy road” that Jones, 27, a father of four sons, hopes he someday can repeat.

“There’s some motivation there,” he said. “Now, I know where I want to be. I’ve seen it now; I didn’t just hear stories about it.”

The guys who have appeared in the big leagues all have such stories. If they’re currently Bees, it means they were sent back to Triple-A, where their status is Roster Filler (even if they never would think of themselves that way) or Extra Angel, available whenever needed.

Even if there’s nothing quite like that first call-up, the veterans hope it happens again. “Every ballplayer wants to get 10 years, and I’m trying to get there,” said Ryan, 34, who has eight years and 82 days of official big-league service, while playing in nearly 900 games.

Having played for the Cardinals, Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Angels, Ryan has greeted dozens of newcomers to the clubhouse. He distinguishes between the entitled players — “guys who felt like they belonged there the whole time,” he said — and those who were “shell-shocked,” as he once was in Memphis, not believing what happened to them.

“Those guys are fun to work with,” Ryan said, who appreciates how teammate Aaron Miles helped him acclimate in St. Louis.

Unlike Jones (so far), these players all have detailed recollections of being at the plate or on the mound for the first time in the majors. Bees pitcher Javy Guerra, who debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers, heard the phone ring in the eighth inning of his first night at Dodger Stadium, where the bullpen mound faces the field. Sure enough, his warmup pitch went over the fence, toward the infield.

Cunningham joined the Atlanta Braves in 2013, facing Colorado’s Jeff Francis. The details are not exactly blurry to him: The pitch sequence was a curveball, a fastball away and a changeup that he lined into left field for a single.

Ryan’s first hit came only after he was sent down, then recalled again by St. Louis in 2007. Since then, he has played shortstop during Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez’s perfect game against Tampa Bay in 2012, handling four ground balls and scoring the game’s only run.

Bees third baseman Kaleb Cowart’s breakthrough came last August, after he was demoted to Class-A Inland Empire to start the year and then thrived with the Bees. In four months, he went from an apparent bust as a former first-round pick to a success story of perseverance — and then started 0 for 14 at the plate with six strikeouts for the Angels. His first big-league hit was a home run against Toronto, making him realize, “All right; this is just baseball.”

Of course, that’s not true. It never is only baseball for players who struggled for years to reach the major leagues — never knowing how long they’ll stay, but always being able to say they got there.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt