By: Noah Frank
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” —Thomas Gray
Those familiar with the baseball classic Bull Durham may recognize the line above. It is the one used by Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, as Crash Davis sets the all-time minor league home run record in utter obscurity, only the two of them aware of what he has accomplished. It signifies that many victories in life go unseen, unheralded by the masses.
In that vein, most of the 12,161 fans that attended the August 27th contest between the Grizzlies and rival Sacramento were focused on the highly publicized story of the evening, that Billy Crystal was in the ballpark to film scenes for his upcoming motion picture. While the attention of the crowd was captured by the ballpark being transformed into a Hollywood set for the night, there was another script unfolding, one which even the most softhearted of tinsel-town producers would probably reject, considering it too preposterous to be believable.
This is the story of Jason Stevenson. It is one that includes several acts, but which is perhaps just beginning to enter its most interesting phase, beginning with that night.
Act One of Stevenson’s baseball career seemed promising enough. The Redding, California native was selected out of Sacramento City College in the 12th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft by the Montreal Expos, advancing as high as Triple-A by 2004. But in 2005, when the floundering Expos were moved to their current home in our nation’s capitol, Stevenson went just 6-14— including a 1-9 mark with an ERA over 10.50 at Double-A— and decided to hang up his cleats.
From there, Stevenson’s life fell off track. He doesn’t like to talk about that period of his past; not in specifics, at least. He mentions in passing “the path I was on” or “troubled times”, referring occasionally to his time spent at “the bottom”.
“The first few years away I really just didn’t do much, I stayed away from the game,” he recalls as we chat after batting practice on August 25th in the home clubhouse, nestled under the right field concourse at Chukchansi Park. “It was a point in my life where I still wanted to stay in shape because the day that I gave baseball up I still had regrets.”
In spite of his lifestyle, though, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew the value of keeping his blessed left arm strong. He played a variety of sports— flag football, competitive softball— and kept himself active. Nevertheless, it took several years for his frustration and contrition to come to a head.
“I was really tired of the way I was living my life,” he admits. “I finally got to the point where I could trick my mind into thinking that I was better than what I was doing, what kind of person I was. Then I started seeing guys that I played with … just certain guys … I knew I had the same stuff as them, and my competitiveness started coming back to me.”
He tried out for the independent league Chico Outlaws in 2009, but did not receive an offer. He did so again in 2010, but again manager Mike Marshall was not willing to sign him until Stevenson fully committed to becoming a professional athlete again, in every aspect of his life.
“[This year] I decided I was going to make an effort, off the field completely and on the field completely,” Stevenson explains. “I just tried to pick up from where I left off in ’05.”
Maybe the difference was finally realizing that he was playing for more than himself.
“My daughter is seven years old, and I haven’t had her in my life the past two or three years through off the field stuff,” Stevenson says, his voice becoming strained with emotion. “But I want my daughter to have a good life and I know that, for me playing baseball, if I can make it, I can make things a lot better for her. For my family, for myself and for everybody.”
He gained inspiration from the story of top prospect-turned-heroin addict-turned-MVP Josh Hamilton, whose story has risen to the national spotlight over the last couple of years. Stevenson took that story to heart, and felt he could provide the same inspiration to others through his own comeback.
“I wanted people who may have taken the path I took once I gave up baseball to see that there is hope,” Stevenson says.
As we speak, I notice that he doesn’t strike the eye as a natural athlete the way that someone like the 6’4”, 240 pound Hamilton does. Of course, the Rangers slugger was the first overall pick the year prior to Stevenson’s draft, going 344 spots above him. Stevenson’s blondish hair is buzzed close to the skin, the crown of a receding hairline creeping backwards around his scalp. Listed at 6’1”, 175, he is clearly in good shape but, having just celebrated his 30th birthday, is fighting the slow march of time in a room full of players mostly younger than him, and without a five-year career gap.
“Through the five years that I played Minor League Baseball I was a young guy, I was younger mentally than I was my age,” he explains. “I didn’t know how important the off the field stuff was— the working out, the going to sleep early, the focus that you have to have even off the field to be able to take it on the field.”
Stronger in mind and body, Stevenson finally earned a spot with Marshall’s Outlaws this spring. All he did from there was go an outlandish 8-0 in eight starts, also earning a three-inning save in his lone relief appearance. He logged an ERA of just 1.68, striking out 76 in 64.1 innings of work. That was enough for the San Francisco Giants, Stevenson’s hometown rooting interest as a Northern California kid, to take a flier on the southpaw. With a rotation depleted by injuries and promotion, the Grizzlies became Stevenson’s first professional destination, as he was penciled in for a spot start at Las Vegas on August 22nd. It was a far cry from Chico, and a much farther one from his life the past five years.
“Obviously playing for the team I grew up cheering for, it was pretty overwhelming getting that call,” recalls Stevenson. “But I knew once I got that call that everything was meant to be and that there’s baseball left in my career.”
His comeback began inauspiciously. The first batter he faced, Darin Mastroianni, homered. Stevenson surrendered a second longball in his first inning of work, the Grizzlies trailing 4-0 after one frame. But he settled in to shut the 51s down from there as he pitched into the seventh inning, allowing just four more hits while striking out seven the rest of the way. The offense did its part in the meantime, providing six runs of support to stake Stevenson to his first professional win in six years.
That gave the southpaw another opportunity, as he made his first home start for the Grizzlies in front of a packed house in the penultimate home game of the season. Of course, most of the fans had no idea of his story, but that didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that he was finally back where he wanted to be, where he needed to be. With the cameras rolling on the action taking place around the ballpark, Stevenson quietly went back to work on the mound, home once again.
“I’m just so thankful to have a second chance,” he says. “Not a lot of people get a second chance in anything they do, so a chance to play baseball again? I’m just taking it all in at once and just trying to do what I can.”
This is a lesson he has learned and has paid dearly for. It is one he is reminded of every day, one that he will not need to learn again.
“Quitting in ’05 was the worst thing I ever did,” he declares, but then qualifies his statement with a perspective only gained through experience and maturity. “Then again, it could end up being the biggest thing I ever did. Now I’ve grown up. I now know how much this game means to me. Baseball is my greatest love, so I play this game as hard as I can. This time I’m not going to give it up until I can’t throw the ball anymore.”