I've had the honor of spending my last two summers working with the St. Paul Saints organization as a Media Relations Assistant. It's been a tremendous experience, and has allowed me the honor to interact with guys such as Mike Veeck, Georgs Tsamis, and Kerry Ligtenberg. These guys have played in the big leagues or offered significant changes to baseball operations. However, there was always one guy who stood out to me. If you're not aware of the rise/fall of Mark Hamburger, let me give you a brief background.
Originally signed by the Twins as an un-drafted free agent, Hamburger is one of only three players the organization has signed through a try-out camp. After spending most his minor league career as a closer in the Twins farm system, he was traded in 2009 to bring back Eddie Guardado from the Rangers. Hamburger would eventually climb the ladder and make his big-league debut with the Rangers in 2011. Although Hamburger did not make the postseason roster, with a fastball that regularly topped 95 and flashes of dominance he seemed on his way to success at the highest level, something which might have seemed laughable just a few years earlier.
The next spring, however, Hamburger failed to make the club out of spring training. After being assigned to Triple-A Round Rock, he struggled and wound up with an ERA over 6.00, leading to his release. The Padres claimed him off of waivers, but he failed to have success there, as well. After allowing ten earned runs in just five appearances at Triple-A Tucson, he was designated for assignment. But the potential remained, and he was picked up by a third team in just two months. Signing with the Astros, his lackluster outings continued, and he finished the year at Triple-A posting a 4.71 ERA.
So how did a guy who contributed down the stretch to a team that went to the World Series end up struggling for three different teams at Triple-A so quickly?
After an already frustrating season, in February of 2013 Hamburger was suspended 50 games by the MLB for violating the substance abuse policy. The substance in question was marijuana. He was now a 26 year-old free agent with no calls from big league teams. Hamburger quietly went back to Shoreview, MN and moved back in with his folks.
On April 11, Mark Hamburger signed with an independent league team: the quirky yet respected organization known as the St. Paul Saints. While many in his position might be bitter or even ashamed, Hamburger is VERY open about his past, and is not afraid to say things such as, "partying with the boys started catching up with me." Over the course of his abysmal 2012, Hamburger lost around 10-15 pounds. But more importantly for a professional baseball player, he also lost 5-7 MPH on his fastball.
For some former major leaguers, getting let go by three teams over the course of one season and getting suspended might be enough to send their life into a tailspin. But not Mark Hamburger. When asked about it all, Hamburger had this to say:
"That the opportunity is so small. You realize there are so many guys in the minor leagues and so few guys in the Majors. The fact I'm an open tryout signee, I don't really deserve the Big Leagues. I thought with everything I was doing the last couple of seasons I would get a 50 game suspension. I told myself I would never let it get beyond 50 games because I would probably never come back from a 100 game suspension."
If you were wondering whether his guy was just another entitled, talented athlete - that couldn't be further from the truth. After spring training breaks at the end of February, he will still have to serve the 50 game suspension. But this was a risk the Twins were willing to take, and it should speak volumes both about his talent, and his character.
While with the Saints, he was a lovable guy in the clubhouse and actually had the offer to sign with the Twins towards the end of July. He elected NOT to sign because the Saints were in the middle of a playoff race, and he felt that he couldn't leave his teammates hanging and wanted be a part of the playoff push. Keep in mind that this was while he was playing for an independent league team that can draw around 5,000 a night, while he had a contract offer from his hometown major league team sitting on the table.
The reason most of these independent ball players still play is the hope that a team will notice them and come calling. The Twins came calling for Mark Hamburger, and he told them that what he had previously committed to was more important.
It's safe to say that I know who I'll be rooting for next spring training. But assuming that you, too, want to root for him (and you should) here's what you need to know about him.
- Though Hamburger spent most of the season with the Saints as a starter, it was the first time in his professional career that he spent the majority of a season as a starter; he came up through the Twins organization as a reliever, and this will most likely be what will happen again.
- His fastball is once again regularly touching 95mph.
- In his one season with the Saints, he broke franchise records for strikeouts, innings pitched and complete games. (GAMER!)
- Opponents did hit .270 against him, but Aroldis Champan and Jonathan Papelbon struggled as starters, too.
I am obviously a bit of a homer having worked with the Saints and having been exposed to him, and now he'll be contributing for my favorite team. Regardless of what happens, I (and everyone else) wish him nothing but the best on the climb back to relevance.