Monday, August 2, 2010

The Almere Divorice (the real story)

In 2008, while playing for Tex Town Tigers in the Dutch First Division I had an outstanding year. During the year, as a DH I hit .411 and slugged .589 and had a .533 On-Base Percentage, while striking out only 3 times all year in 101 at bats. I also paced the team as the #1 starting pitcher, pitching 117 1/3 innings, striking out 100 batters and averaging 6.9 innings per start, I threw 4 complete games, 1 shutout and had a 3.8 E.R.A. in 17 starts. As the pitching coach I also helped take a team that finished 11th out of 12 the prior year, to the middle of the pack and we were competitive against even the strongest First Division clubs including recently demoted from the Dutch Head Class, Almere Magpies. Against Almere I pitched 9 innings and giving up just 1 earned run in an extra innings loss, then followed up the performance by going 3 for 4 with a double and home run at the plate the following game against them. This was enough to warrant serious interest from Almere and over the winter they made me an offer with the goal in mind to promote back to the Head Class for the 2009 Season. When I arrived in Almere things were very disorganized and I started the year living in the attic/laundry room in a student house with three 18-year old students who partied late until the night. I slept on a bed no bigger than a small couch and did not have the necessary living environment for a professional athlete. The team moved me to a new house after a couple of weeks and I stayed in a small room in the house of a couple my age who supported the Almere'90 baseball club. It went very well but there was definitely a lack of privacy for a 25 year old male and when it came time to renegotiate after the season I made the living arrangements the number one point. The 2009 season with Almere was nothing sort of magical. We started the season on a 16 game winning streak and only lost 3 games during the entire regular season. I started the year as the closer converting every save chance successfully, then moved into a long relief role when our young starting pitcher who was pitching for the national team, Jim Ploeger, went down for the season with an injury. After the summer stop, I moved into the starting rotation and was the starting pitcher in the first game of the playoffs against PSV when we clinched the First Division Championship with a 7-3 victory in mid-August. I finished the regular season with 74 1/3 innings pitched, in 20 appearances and 5 starts. I had a won-loss record of 7-0 with 3 saves. I struck out 54 batters, gave up 52 hits and had an E.R.A. of 2.30 with an opposing batting average of .192. We earned the right to play against the last place team from the Head Class, RCH, in a 5-game promotion/degradation series after the Dutch Baseball governing body ruled that despite some financial woes the series should proceed even if Almere was not in a situation to actually promote. The 5 game series was to take place over 5 days, however, which made us a long shot, having only 2 starting pitchers and 2 able bodied relievers against RCH's pitching staff of over 10 pitchers. I started Game 2 and out-pitched RCH's foreign pitcher, leaving the game in the 7th inning with 2 runners on base and a 5-3 lead. The bullpen blew the lead and the series was tied 1-1. The next game, the following day, was rained out after 3 innings, and I was asked to start Game 3 (on 1 day rest after over 110 pitches) and did not make it out of the 2nd inning. We won Game 4 the following day to even the series at 2 games a piece and force a decisive Game 5 at Home. I came out of the bullpen in the 3rd inning, trailing 3 to 1, and pitched 6 innings in relief again on one day of rest, while holding RCH to just one run, we took the lead for good in the 7th inning and hung on to win 5-4 and clinch the promotion series. There was still one last hurdle to promote to the Head Class and Almere had to plead its case to the KNBSB that it had proper finances in place to play the 2010 season in the Head Class. Because the promotion series went far into September I was unable to return to Detroit, Michigan to begin my 2nd year of law school, so instead of just taking the semester off, I chose to play winter ball in Perth, Australia to prepare for a possible opportunity to play Head Class with Almere. It isn't very often that a player, like myself, a foreigner with no U.S. pro ball experience gets the chance to be a Head Class import, in fact, Almere's previous import was Ivan Coffie, a former Major Leaguer. When I received word in late October , while in Australia, that Almere was choosing to bring me back for another season after they successfully won their chance to play in the Head Class I was elated. In negotiating my return, I agreed to the same payment (no raise even though I was the winning pitcher in the decisive game to promote) and the only thing I harped upon in my return was that proper and adequate housing was provided. I was even successful in recruiting a phenomenal shortstop, Mitch Graham, an Australian born former Philadelphia Phillie minor leaguer, who was in the Australian national team selection, to come to Almere as our additional import. We were given our contract during November, which included the standard return flights, proper transportation, housing costs, meals at the club to go along with our decent salary even though we were the most underpaid foreigners in the Head Class. When we arrived at the end of March there were problems from the start. The house that Almere provided was nice, but only with 2 livable rooms, and in order to cut costs, the organization decided to place an American softball pitcher in the house. This was troubling because for an entire month, Mitch and I had to alternate sleeping on a mattress on the living room floor because there was not enough room in the house for everyone. After a few weeks it became a bit uncomfortable... we were cramped, every night one of us was awaken when our third housemate would come in the house and walk over us to get to the stairs, even the night before games, and we repeatedly requested and were told that we had to deal with it and reach a solution within the house. No one making decisions at the club had ever looked at the house or been inside long enough to realize it was not made for 3 foreigners to live in simultaneously so our requests went ungranted. There was even a confrontation during this time with our manager during a conversation regarding the sleeping/living arrangment he actually pointed at me (in front of Mitch) and said for the rest of the week I should "sleep on the floor because I'm only a pitcher and Mitch is more important (as the everyday shortstop)." We couldn't believe our ears. This guy wasn't kidding. Who says that to your #1 starting pitcher, a foriegner, and after all the guy who got you into the Head Class by winning the championship last year???
By our third week there we had to make a stand because the resolution was not in sight. We decided that we would no longer do training/coaching for younger players until there was a solution on the living arrangements. This actually brought about some action, but after we spoke up on a Monday and were assured that third person would be moved by Wednesday, then again by Friday, then again after the weekend, it was unfulfilled promises and our conditions were not changing. In a meeting the following week, our other foreigner, finally declared that if the housing was not adaquetely restored to what we agreed on, he would leave. Simply put, after another round and few days of guarantees, promises and a heated meeting amongst concerned parties, no action was still taken. The other person in the house (the softball girl) was left with a ton of options (living with a teammate, a hotel, or going home) but she wouldn't move. The woman on the softball side of Almere, responsible for bringing her over (a 9 or 10 player team in the Dutch 3rd division) also wouldn't budge. They stymied any sort of solution by holding up the big trump card: they payed for 1/3 of the housing costs and therefore they would withdraw their financial support if she was moved. Almere Baseball's lack of fortitude was disturbing, they couldn't see the writing on the wall - chalk up the extra 300 euros a month for a few months and save the season or keep fighting only having regard for finances and not a player's well being and happiness. Mitch didn't bluff, he re-booked his flight and left on May 1. On April 30, the American softball player finally moved out, a full month after we requested a solution. So in the end the team ended up having to pay the entire housing costs, and all for me (one player). The meetings also brought about a new glitch in our season, in which we were told it was becoming problematic to secure a proper sponsor (that we assumed was in place) and that our salary could not be guaranteed the rest of the year (factoring in the other foreigner's decision to leave). I stuck with the team... too much history, some really great teammates, I enjoy playing in Holland especially at arguably the highest level in Europe, the importance of making my mark on coaching and training some of the most talented youth players in the region, and my other job scouting for the Houston Astros throughout The Netherlands. For the following two months I had to deal with the constant strife of never getting my salary on time, (our contract stipulated that I would be paid on the first of every month but this did not happen until June), there was a disagreement over not being paid for arriving and playing the last week of March (a squabble where the club refused to pay me a meager 150 Euros)... I also dealt with the strange phenomenon of literally receiving no run support until my 7th start of the season. Without complaint I went out every first game of the series, routinely facing off against every other Head Class team's number 1 starting pitcher, and except for facing the top 2 teams in Holland, almost always pitched into the 6th inning. I had some strange splits. Pitching away, I started 5 games, 27 2/3 innings, yielding 24 hits, 10 Earned Runs, Walking 13 and Striking out 19 for an E.R.A. of 3.25, with 2 losses and 3 no decisions. At Home, things were quite different - in 5 starts, or 19 2/3 innings I gave up 23 hits and 15 earned runs, yielded 15 walks and only striking out 9 for an E.R.A. of 6.86 and a Won-Loss record of 0-5. This could be attributed to facing one of the best teams in Europe, twice, DOOR Neptunus, although I did not pitch well in either start, I really wasn't given the chance to pitch much past the first few innings. In the first start I lasted 3 innings giving up 4 earned runs, not great but not that terrible either, however, we were no-hit in 7 innings. I was pulled early because I was told I could come back later in the weekend in relief if needed since it was clear we were going to lose the game anyways. Later in the season, I started again at home against Neptunus, was pulled in the top of the 2nd inning with the bases loaded and down 1-0. We went on to lose by a lot again. Puzzling as it may have been, when I came in relief in the final game of the series with the bases loaded to and 2 outs in the 4th inning to strike out the cleanup hitter, which was a Tuesday make-up game from the no-hitter weekend the last week of April, our manager actually violated, despite being warned, a new import pitching rule for this season where a starting pitcher can not be used in relief. We lost 2-points in the standings (and of course the game). Aside from the Neptunus games I had a pretty good season pitching for the last place team - 43 1/3 innnings as a starter, 42 hits given up, 17 earned runs for a 3.53 E.R.A., 27/19 Strikeouts/Walks. In all those innings I only received 4 Runs in support on 18 hits. So even if my E.R.A. was 1.00, I would have still lossed 6 of the 7 games I did during the season. (My only win came in relief against Kinheim the first week of the season). The last loss was especially tough to swallow. During the week I was in 3rd place for the All-Star game voting on the internet for the North squad, and pitching against Amsterdam Pirates in the last start before the 5-week summer stop I was prepared to leave it all on the field. During the previous week game against Sparta-Feyenoord, I was clinging to a 3-2 lead heading into the 7th inning having thrown 110 pitches already. With 1 out, the leadoff batter smashed a base hit, the next batter was the first walk of the game and I was clearly tiring with the #3 hitter coming to the plate (who was already 2-2 against me). Our manager left me in, and the batter sent a 1-1 fastball to the wall for a stand-up triple to take the lead. I exited the game shortly after, disappointed with the outcome, and still hungry to prove I could win without great run support.
After he pulled, our manager, actually said to me - "see that's what happens when I let you decide..." He really had a knack for timing and for understanding how baseball managers should handle game situations. The next week, against Amsterdam Pirates in my last start before the month-long summer stop, I faced off against Rob Cordemans (possibly the best European pitcher over the last 10 years and also a member of various Dutch Olympic baseball teams and Dutch World Baseball Classic teams )... I came out firing but in the 2nd inning two of their players from the Dutch WBC team put 2 consecutive hits together, and they opened up a 2 run lead. They wouldn't get another hit. I knew this was my last start before break (in the back of my mind maybe thinking the last start of my career with the way things had been going in Almere) and so I just started to literally throw so I can blow my arm out. It's funny, with a change in mentality, the complete disregard for my health, I started pumping gas. I usually get hit on my 4-seam fastball, it's not THAT hard and it's too flat. Well against one of the best hitting teams in Europe, I started dominating with my fastball. mixing in some sliders here and there, they were late on everything. I got like 6 pop ups to 1B, it was strange. In the 7th we were still trailing 2-0, Cordemans had given up 3 hits to our punchless lineup but we could never push a guy across. I got an out then walked a guy full-count with the #8 hitter who i have scouted and is about 0-7 on me lifetime coming up. With a pitch count of 77 and absolutely getting better as the game went on my manager just walks up and pulls me. The previous week he asked me how i was doing with 40 more pitches under my belt, and then to be pulled in that situation while we're trailing is again, beyond puzzling. The reliever proceeded to give up 4 straight hits and 3 runs, which is too bad because in the bottom frame they had pulled Cordemans and we finally put up 3 on their bullpen. the managerial tactics (if you can call them that) are frightening. pull your starter on 77 pitches, with a 4 week break coming up, down 2-0 with a #8 hitter who is 0-7 lifetime against him. don't pull your starter when he is at 120 pitches up by 1 run, with still a week of games left, and a #3 batter coming up who is 2-2. Before the game I had read on team's website (in Dutch) that they were looking for a new house for me. This was the first I had heard of it. The previous week against Sparta, they mentioned they wanted to meet with me after the Sunday game, but when I went looking for our team president he told me the meeting was cancelled. When I asked what it was concerning, he mentioned that the house was too expensive and we had to talk about it. His exact words. After our last game Sat July 3, we had a team bbq and the team informed me that the cost of the house was too high for one person so I had to move out. The argument being quite flawed of course, because, if the other foreigner was still here, they would also have to be paying his salary in addition to the rent (which would be the same). I found out later that they actually hadn't paid the rent in 2 months since he had left and the owner said if they didn't pay by july 1 i would have to leave. Instead, I was told they couldn't renew it for another 2 months because it was too expensive. They were also aware of my plans for vacation, leaving on July 5 to Hungary for a week, and in the meeting the mentioned if I could give them 3 weeks they would hope to have a new place for me to live (probably a room in some random person's house).
1. we agreed before the season to having my own (or with another player) private place. I lived like that last year, I lived like that in Australia, this was no way for a 26 year old single male to live. Sorry. I uphold my end of the contract I expect them to uphold theirs, no excuses about the costs, we have an agreement - this wasn't it.
2. i wasn't going away for 3 weeks, i was away for 1 week and the fact that they couldn't guarantee a place for me to come back to, means I am going to be homeless by my own team. That is not how you treat an employee. One of the board guys I was meeting with said I could stay at his place when I come back, for a few weeks, until they found something more permanent, and of course - that's great for maybe a 22-year old guy out of college who has never had this experience before, but I am a professional, I've been on the road for 4 years, we are marred in a last place season and I've been treated like crap all year, I said this was unacceptable. they said it was my choice what I wanted to do. I said my choice was to stay where I was at, they said it wasn't an option - so I said - it's not really a choice then is it. You better send me home.