By Eric Benson
It was late on a Friday night last July, and Jeremy Barfield, a corner outfielder for the Sacramento River Cats, was getting ready to celebrate his 25th birthday when he was summoned into a postgame meeting with his manager, Steve Scarsone, and his hitting coach, Todd Steverson. Barfield steeled himself for bad news.
For the last five years, Barfield had been rising methodically through the Oakland A's organization, and after 605 minor league games and a pair of minor-league all-star selections, he'd finally earned a promotion to Triple-A Sacramento. But in his two months with the River Cats, Barfield had seen limited time and little success at the plate, hitting only .188. As Barfield sat down in front of Scarsone and Steverson, he figured he'd soon be on his way back to west Texas. Midland. Double-A ball.
Steverson, who was hitting coordinator for the entire A's farm system, told Barfield that the organization had another idea. The A's didn't see Barfield advancing to the majors as an outfielder anytime soon, but they were intrigued by his powerful left arm. Steverson presented Barfield with the kind of choice that Don Corleone would have admired: Either Barfield could accept a demotion to Midland, where he would be assigned to the phantom DL (meaning that, although uninjured, he would ineligible to play), or he could report to Arizona, where he would begin training for a new position. The A's wanted Jeremy Barfield to become a pitcher.
Barfield was shellshocked. He bolted from the ballpark without packing up his locker. Early the next day, Barfield asked a clubhouse attendant to open up the locker room so he could gather his things before the other players showed up. "I was trying to avoid having the same conversation 24 times," Barfield said.
Nine months later, I was standing with Barfield in the shade of a sprawling mesquite tree at the A's player-development facility in Phoenix's Papago Park, a serene stretch of Sonoran desert punctuated by sandstone buttes, immaculately groomed ball fields, and a crystalline view of the iconic Four Peaks looming to the east. Barfield -- a towering 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, with bounteous enthusiasm for Xbox, Twitter (where he has over forty-five-thousand followers), and down-home cooking ("if it's on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, I'm there") -- had been working out in Arizona more or less nonstop since last July. And while he hadn't picked up a bat since the previous summer, at times he still sounded like he was waiting to be woken up from a bad dream.
"I had heard it my whole career no matter how well I was hitting," Barfield told me. "Coaches, scouts, experts -- just everybody who has an opinion in this game -- it was 'you gotta use that arm, you should pitch.' Didn't matter how well I would hit, that's what they saw the most."
Barfield had long known that baseball careers often don't go according to plan. And the morning after his meeting in Sacramento, he reached out to a group of people who were happy to remind him of that fact. First, he called his dad, Jesse, a retired Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees right fielder who, in 1986, led the majors in home runs. The elder Barfield, who ended his big-league career in 1992 as an injury-plagued 32-year-old, advised his son to swallow his pride and take the deal: "Jeremy said, 'Dad, I don't understand, I'm an All-Star.' I said, 'Son, they have All-Stars in the big leagues on the bench -- an All-Star in Double A means nothing. You have a chance to make it to the big leagues as a left-handed pitcher. I would take that opportunity.'"
Next, Barfield called his older brother, Josh, a former big-league second baseman. Josh had taken the majors by storm in 2006, at age 23, starting for the San Diego Padres and hitting .280. But Josh hadn't seen a big-league pitch since 2009 and was spending the 2013 season with the independent Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks. He told his younger brother that he was lucky to have a job and reminded him that being a lefty pitcher was a pretty good route to a long and lucrative career.
Then Barfield called the man who would oversee his transformation, A's special assistant and rehab pitching coordinator Garvin Alston. Alston, a former pitcher who threw six big-league innings during his 11-year professional career, was a satellite member of the Barfield baseball family and had known the young slugger since he was a kid. Alston told Barfield to take a few days off, get his mind right, and then show up at Papago Park to start the next phase of his career. Within the week, they were together -- sensei and grasshopper in the Arizona heat.
"When we first talked, I asked him, 'What do you know about pitching?'" Alston told me. "He said, 'I know how to hit it.' And I was like, 'First things first: we got to change your mentality. You got to think the other way now.' He said, 'Gee, it's going to be hard for me. I'm a hitter.' And I said, 'I know you are, but this is where we at.'"
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When I arrived at A's facility at the end of March, on what qualified as a lazy Sunday in no-days-off spring training, Barfield was throwing long toss, going through defensive drills, and practicing pick-off moves, much of the time with Alston watching nearby. Barfield wasn't scheduled to pitch for another two days, and his team officially had the afternoon off. But as a member of the lowly Stockton Ports, he was obligated to stay on the premises to watch a mixed squad of more advanced A's minor leaguers take on the Langley Blaze, a youth team from British Columbia. Barfield looked on half-heartedly. This was his sixth year in the organization. He'd been through a lot. He didn't want to spend his Sunday afternoon watching a bunch of Canadian high school kids.
When Barfield began his conversion to the mound in 2013, it was the height of the Arizona summer. For the first few weeks, in triple-digit heat, he spent his time running, building up his arm strength, lifting weights, and explaining to a bunch of just-drafted 18-year-olds why the Triple-A home-run hitter was now performing beginners' pitching drills. In early August, Barfield got to the mound. He was wild, and his body was stiff. He stretched out his hamstrings and hips, and squatted until his quadriceps were bursting through his jeans. His command slowly improved. It was time to build up his repertoire.
Alston had tried to teach Barfield a circle change-up, but Barfield, with the hands of a basketball power forward, couldn't get a feel for the pitch. Barfield suggested that they try a split-fingered fastball instead. The A's organization has a policy against the splitter, due to the stress it places on a pitcher's elbow, but Alston told Barfield he could give it a try. Barfield fired the pitch and watched as it dived dramatically below Alston's glove and hit him in the knee. "He was laughing," Alston remembers. "I said, 'OK, we'll work with it.'"
As the months progressed in Arizona, Barfield would seek out the advice of the wise men in the Barfield baseball family, not just his dad and brother, but his godfather, former Indians closer Mike Jackson, and another close family friend, Hall of Fame outfielder Rickey Henderson. Standing under the mesquite tree, Barfield recalled their conversations, imitating the distinctive voices of both men with unabashed glee.
"Mike Jackson, he was so intense on the mound, but he's so laid back in person," Barfield laughed. "He calls me, 'Hey, what's up six-five? He calls me six-five, because I'm 6-foot-5. He goes, What's up, six-five. You chunking it?"
"You chunking it?" I asked.
"Yeah," Barfield said. "'You chunkin' it?' That means, 'How you throwing? 'You breakin' 'em off? Good! You better use that slider!'"
When it came to Henderson, the conversations were less about slider grips or mound strategy than savory food and old-fashioned banter.
"Me and Rickey, he'll text me all the time, see how things are going," Barfield told me. "We used to have a deal when I was hitting. Whenever he was in town, if I would hit a home run he would order me a chicken pot pie from this place in Oakland, have them shipped out -- best pot pies ever. It got to the point that if Rickey would be in town for five days, I'm hitting two, three home runs just because I want the pot pies. Last year, he came to Midland, and I homered in three straight games. I said, 'You owe me three pot pies!'"
Barfield, smiling ear to ear, paused before breaking into Henderson's gravely inflection, "He said, 'I'll get em to ya. I'll get em to ya.'"
Henderson, Barfield continued, had three daughters but no sons, and he had taken it upon himself to craft his buddy Jesse's kid into little Rickey.
"He used to always dress me up like him and drive me around, and it's funny because I ended up batting right-handed and throwing left-handed like he did. When I was starting to play catch, my dad gave me two gloves: a left-handed glove and a right-handed glove. Rickey hid the right-handed glove and so I just picked the left-handed glove. That's how I ended up throwing lefty."
That turned out well for your pitching career, I said.
"Absolutely," Barfield said. "I just wish I would have hit left-handed too. Then this whole thing wouldn't be happening."
* * *
The A's minor leaguers were now clobbering the Langley Blaze in Papago Park (the final score was 15-3), and as Barfield looked on at the hapless Canadians, I asked him about the travels of his baseball life. He'd begun his minor-league career in Vancouver, had lived for a summer in Japan when his father played for the Yomiuri Giants, and had spent two weeks in 2012 playing for the Cardenales de Lara in the Venezuelan fall league.
"And actually after the instructional league here, I had to go down to the Dominican and live in our complex down there," Barfield said.
"How was that?" I asked.
"That was the longest three weeks of my entire life," he laughed. "You're in the middle of the jungle. It's hot and humid every day -- bugs crawling everywhere. The electricity would go out for four, five, six hours. The running water would stop. You're waking up at 6 a.m. every day. It's 17-, 18-, 19-year-old guys that barely speak English. There's no real communication with the outside world. And you're eating really sketchy food -- they got this stuff called mangú. Then we're talking salami for breakfast, room-temperature hot dogs, mystery meats. You couldn't drink the milk cause it's unpasteurized and would turn your stomach inside and out. Baseball-wise, pitching-wise, it went really well. I had six outings. I got a lot better. I was feeling comfortable on the mound. But it really put things in perspective for me."
Back in Arizona, Barfield segued back into a cushier baseball life. To make money in the winter, he got a job installing high-end Christmas tree light displays on ballplayers' houses, and suddenly Dontrelle Willis, the former Marlins ace, was helping him out with his slider, and Braves outfielder Justin Upton was inviting him to parties. "They don't care that I'm a minor leaguer," Barfield said. "When I'm hanging lights on their 12,000 square-foot houses, it gives me something to look forward to."
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Does Jeremy Barfield have a 12,000 square-foot mansion to look forward to? Will he ever make it to the promised land and have the kind of eternal career that made lefties like Darren Oliver and John Franco rich men? A month into his minor-league pitching career, he has 18 strike outs in 12 innings and a 3.75 ERA -- promising enough numbers, particularly the strikeouts -- but he's pitching in Class A ball. There are a lot of coach buses and grueling practice sessions and maybe plates of mangú ahead of him.
Still, he can look for inspiration to a number of position players who became successful pitchers. In late summer 2011, an oft-injured A's first-base prospect named Sean Doolittle made the transition to the mound. Less than a year later, he was promoted to the majors, where he has become a dominant reliever. In 2009, a light-hitting Dodgers minor league catcher named Kenley Jansen was encouraged to take up pitching. He debuted for the big league club in 2010, and over the past five seasons he has an ERA of 2.17 and has struck out batters at a rate of more than 14 per nine innings. Trevor Hoffman, a seven-time all-star with 601 career saves, began his professional career as an infielder in the Reds organization. Even Barfield's godfather, Mike Jackson, had barely pitched until he signed a professional contract after college.
As I was making my way around Papago Park, I stopped Keith Liepmann, the A's director of player development, to talk with him about Barfield's progress. "The adjustment is going to take a little while, but he certainly has been able to get a lot of swings and misses," Liepmann said. "He throws strikes, there's a lot of movement on his throws, everything looks good so far."
But, Liepmann continued, Barfield was going to have to work harder than Doolittle and Jansen to get to the majors: Doolittle had been a star pitcher in college and he could throw in the high 90s. Jansen's cut fastball is almost unhittable, and his velocity can approach 100 mph. Before last summer, Barfield hadn't thrown a pitch since his sophomore year of high school, and while he was known for his cannon arm in right field, that power hadn't yet translated to an overpowering fastball.
"We had thought just because of the way he was as an outfielder -- he always led the league in assists -- that the velocity would flash right away," Liepmann said. "But it really didn't. He's throwing 90, 91. He's just not going to be a dominating guy like some of the pitchers who are throwing 98. He's going to have to be able to pitch: to changes speeds, and to do all the other things that have taken other pitchers years to acquire. So it is a daunting task."
* * *
Two days later, Barfield made one of his final spring training appearances, taking the mound in the bottom of the 8th inning against the San Jose Giants with the score tied 3-3. Barfield challenged hitters with his fastball. He got swings and misses on his slider. And then with two runners on and two outs, Barfield unleashed what is now his best pitch, his splitter, inducing a harmless flare to the shortstop to end the inning. He'd faced five hitters, and thrown 22 pitches -- sweat-inducing work. But he'd preserved the tie. He was learning how to pitch.
That night Barfield, wearing a black t-shirt that read "work hard, play hard," was chowing down on a full-rack of Bali Hai barbecue ribs at a high-end Polynesian-fusion restaurant in Scottsdale, surrounded by a group that included his agent, Greg Maroni, and another Maroni client, Dutch minor-league outfielder Kalian Sams. In a few days, Barfield would head back to northern California, where he would suit up for the Stockton Ports and live in the guest room of Maroni's house in nearby Sacramento.
Barfield and Maroni had a buddy-comedy rapport. Barfield had complained that his agent was taking too long primping at the W Hotel and had left in a mock-huff to meet me at the restaurant. When Barfield learned that a friend of Maroni's with a dog was currently occupying his room, he flew into a comic display of operatic rage. Maroni, playing the straight man, assured him all would be fine. "You will have a non-soiled living space in Sacramento!" the agent decreed.
"I actually know a guy in reality TV who joked that it would make a great show," Maroni said of their roommate arrangement. "You have this little nerdy white guy and this big angry black man -- it would be perfect!"
Sams, 27, although buddies with both Maroni and Barfield, wasn't quite so fortunate. He was a minor celebrity in his home country -- a documentary film crew from the Netherlands had shadowed him during spring training, and the Dutch baseball magazine Fastball had put him on its March cover -- but the Texas Rangers had released him two days earlier. Sams was now looking for a job. (He was since been picked up by the Atlantic League's Camden Riversharks.)
The comings and goings, the uncertainty, the tumble-wash of baseball got Barfield and Sams reminiscing. They laughed about Bull Durham-like antics in fourth-tier minor-league towns: "You guys ever play in Visalia? There was that host mom there…" "Bakersfield is bad, man! That's where I got a staph infection in my knee…" "So we're in Beloit in 2009…" But soon the talk turned more sober.
Barfield brought up the story of Vinnie Catricala, a Seattle Mariners minor leaguer who in 2011 had torn through Single and Double A, hitting .349 with 25 home runs and 106 RBIs. Sixteen months later, he retired from baseball.
"He just lost it," Barfield said. "He quit to become a cop."
Barfield and Sams then puzzled over the even more curious case of the former A's prospect Grant Desme. In 2009, the then 23-year-old Desme had demolished single-A pitching, hitting 31 home runs, then followed up his breakout season by winning MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League. Two months later, in January 2010, Desme announced he was leaving baseball to become a Catholic priest.
"We had another guy, Adrian Cardenas," Barfield said. "He didn't like baseball anymore. He wrote an article for the New Yorker about it. Now he's at NYU getting a degree in liberal studies or something."
Cardenas had gone all the way to the big leagues, making 67 plate appearances in 2012 as a pinch hitter for the Chicago Cubs, but had turned down an invitation to major-league spring training in 2013 and quietly retired. In the New Yorker piece, he writes, "To put it simply, other players were much better than I was at separating the game of baseball from the job of baseball … These players, at once the objects of my envy and my admiration, are the resilient ones, still in the game. I am no longer one of them."
"How do you feel about guys like that?" I asked Barfield. "Someone who gets so close and then gives it up?"
"It's not for everybody," he said. "Most people would be happier without baseball in their lives."
Back in Papago Park, I'd asked Barfield if he'd ever thought about quitting. When the A's told him they wanted him to convert to pitching, did part of him want to walk away?
"Nah," he said. "For me, it was really a pride thing. It's like, man, I pride myself on being a good hitter and a great outfielder. And just to hang that all up? It still hurts. But at the end of the day I want to be a major leaguer. If that's me hitting, if that's me catching, if that's me pitching -- I want to be a major leaguer. It's funny, I was feeling good about my career. I'm 24, and I'm in Triple A! And then, boom! I'm 25, and I'm in rookie ball."
Photos via Jeremy Barfield and California Sports Management
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Eric Benson is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Grantland, and The Oxford American. He lives in Austin, Tex.