Cubs' nonroster invitees still chasing their baseball dreams
They come to spring training with the odds against them, especially on a team as stacked as the Chicago Cubs.
Some are on the wrong side of age 30, but they come for love of the game or just one more shot at the big leagues.
They are the veteran nonroster invitees, and camps across Arizona and Florida are teeming with these guys.
When you ask what keeps them going, the response can be interesting. Some years ago, the Cubs had veteran center fielder Calvin Murray in camp as a nonroster man. When I asked him why he was there, he suddenly grabbed my notepad and voice recorder out of my hands.
"How long have you been a reporter?" he asked, turning the question around in a friendly manner. "What would you be doing?"
Murray said he was there because he had been playing baseball for a long time, and he wasn't ready to quit.
"It's just like waking up and breathing," he said. "You don't even think about it. If I snatched that notepad from you this time next year, you'd have to think about it for a while. That's something that's connected to you right there. You've been doing it for so long. You don't know what you'd do without it."
So it goes again this year. The Cubs have several interesting nonroster players in camp. Here are a few of their stories:
Back with the Cubs:
Jim Henderson pitched in the Cubs' minor-league system in 2007-08 after they took him in the Rule 5 draft from Washington.
A bout of shoulder problems derailed his Cubs career. He wound up with the Brewers and saved 28 games in 2013. Shoulder surgery in 2014 kept him out of the big leagues in 2015 before he bounced back to appear in 44 games with the Mets last year.
"When I was a Cub in the minor leagues, it was easy to get addicted to the culture here, the Cubbie way and everything," he said. "It's one of those things I had a chance to experience. I never got called up. I was very close, Triple-A. It's one of those things now: unfinished business. Hopefully at some point I can get on the home side."
The 34-year-old native of Calgary will pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. He was on Canada's gold-medal winning team at the 2011 Pan-American Games and was inducted, along with the rest of the team, into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Being inducted was very cool," Henderson said. "Then they repeated, winning gold again. So it's a pretty good tradition they've got going."
However it turns out, Henderson said he proved a lot to himself coming back last year.
"Yeah, that was probably one of my greatest moments, making that opening-day roster last year after surgery late in '14, and '15 was kind of a long struggle for me," he said. "Now I just want to make it from Day 1 to the last day of the season."
All in the family:
Jemile Weeks is in camp wearing the No. 8, same as his brother, Rickie Weeks Jr., who is in camp with the Tampa Bay Rays as a nonroster man.
"It was actually a number I had last year in San Diego," Jemile said. "I believe there's a purpose behind everything, so if the team gave me 8, I believe there's a reason to have 8. So I'll run with that unless something else pops up."
Running last year was difficult for Weeks, who appeared in only 17 games for the Padres because of a hamstring strain.
"Very frustrating," said Weeks, who suffered a sprained ACL in game action this past week. "To leave with an injury was a very disappointing thing for me and also frustrating at the same time. You live and you learn and you get better and you come back this year and try to put the pieces back together."
Weeks said he speaks with his brother as often as he can.
"We've definitely stepped back away from the game a few times" he said. "I've definitely just understood the magnitude of having two kids from the same household from the same parents come out to become major-league baseball players and also first-rounders. It's not common. It's pretty rare."
Speaking of family, Weeks said he felt like family when he played for Kane County Cougars in 2008.
"That was my first year in pro ball," he said. "Smaller town, but definitely a good baseball town. I had a lot of fun. Honestly, coming through there kind of catapulted my career because we had a good team that year."
He has finally landed:
David Rollins was all over the place this winter, even as he sat at home. The 27-year-old left-handed pitcher was claimed off waivers five times in the off-season, beginning with the Cubs in November.
He was then claimed by the Rangers, Phillies, Rangers again and again by the Cubs.
"It was tough bouncing around from team to team," he said. "It kind of takes a toll on you. I'm here now. I'm excited."
If there was any consolation, it was that the Cubs expressed interest all along, even as they waived him a first time.
"One of the first conversations was, 'We put you waivers and you got claimed. Hopefully we'll run into each other at some point in your career,' " he said. "It just so happened to be a couple weeks later."
Rollins got into 11 games for the Seattle Mariners last year. He spent the rest of the year at Class AAA Tacoma, where he won the Dan Wilson Minor League Community Service Award. Wilson, a graduate of Barrington High School, is a former Mariners catcher.
"I just did a lot of community work with children's hospitals," Rollins said. "Every time there was a chance to go there, I would take advantage of it, going there and seeing kids smile for five minutes, it just makes your day better.
"I like Dan. He's a good dude," Rollins said. "He's always been one of those guys you look up to. Getting that award meant something to me, just to give back to the community and getting it presented to me by him, that was probably the coolest part."
Nobody has more fun:
Munenori Kawasaki is back in Cubs camp as a nonroster player for the second straight year. Few players bring more enthusiasm than the 35-year-old native of Kagoshima, Japan. He converses in English and Spanish, and he does so quite confidently.
"I love Chicago and I love my teammates," he said, without help of a translator. "I want play with my Chicago Cubs teammates. Baseball is very fun because I love baseball. There is no bad day."
Kawasaki spent most of last year at Class AAA Iowa, but he did get into 14 games with the Cubs. In spring training, he is a frequent good-natured foil of Tim Buss, the strength and conditioning coordinator.
"I love Bussy," he said. "I never understand, but he says, 'Kawa, you are a teammate.' Oh, thank you, Bussy.' "
Beyond fun, manager Joe Maddon said there's a good reason the Cubs like Kawasaki, who has logged big-league time with Seattle and Toronto.
"Math doesn't always pick up on guys like that," Maddon said. "I've always wanted people like that on my team. But beyond that, he's a good baseball player. If he had that personality and couldn't play, he wouldn't be here. But he can play a little bit, too."
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