On the frontier of fame

__Former Tribe shortstop Kyle Padgett finds himself on the fringe of pro baseball__

Kyle Padgett never saw it coming. It was the summer of 2005 and his future employer didn’t bother to tell him he was a top candidate in a pool of hundreds of qualified applicants. To the men debating his merits, he came with four years of statistics to analyze. Was he a five-tooled prospect or a bust?

p. Other than the numbers next to his name, the men knew little. One, maybe two scouts from the organization had ever seen him in action. But that didn’t matter so much in a business that prides itself on requiring multiple psychological questionnaires that probe future employees on such weighty issues as “Would you rather be a bus driver or an airplane pilot?”

p. The news came late June 7, 2005, after he sat at his computer for hours, anticipating a job offer. The day wore on when familiar names flashed by on the screen. And then the phone rang. It was the Florida Marlins.

p. Welcome to a two-day, 50-round marathon, otherwise known as the MLB Amateur Draft. Before his selection as the 546th overall pick in the 18th round of the 2005 draft, Padgett was the College’s primary shortstop for four years. Throw out a year-long sophomore slump in 2003, and he hit over .300 for his career.

p. Most notably, he was a kid who nearly set the school record for games played, and succeeded current Tampa Bay Devil Rays infielder Brendan Harris as the next standout Tribe shortstop.
Kyle dreamed of playing professionally since his prep career in the Boston suburbs, and all he could do was wait and watch the 2005 draft unfold on the computer screen. In the weeks prior to draft day, scouts from the San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox among others contacted Kyle to tell him he was on their draft board. All that was history when he picked up the phone and the scout told him he’d be a Marlin.

p. Within weeks, he was shipped south to play for the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Marlins, the organization’s rookie ball affiliate, in Jupiter, Florida. The Marlins were, in his words, a great organization and he couldn’t wait to start his career with them. Just two years removed from a World Series title, their farm system was once again in need of young talent.

p. On a balmy July evening this summer at a ballpark in the northwest part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, the manager of the visiting Washington (PA) Wild Thing’s signaled to the dugout for a replacement when his starting shortstop for the game injured his leg trying to beat out a hit. As the Wild Thing’s cleared the bases in the top of the fifth inning, leading the host Traverse City (MI) Beach Bums 3-1, the summoned player emerged from the dugout and made a beeline across the diamond. The PA announcer’s voice could be heard over the incessant chatter of the crowd. “Now playing shortstop for the Wild Things, Kyle Padgett,” he told the 3,142 fans in attendance.

p. Two years and a month removed from the 2005 MLB draft, this was the same Kyle Padgett that signed to play with the Florida Marlins. To be sure, he hadn’t lost anything from his lightning fast arm that won him praise during his college career.

p. Tonight’s game was a match-up between two foes in the Frontier League, an amalgamation of independent teams scattered across small towns in America’s heartland. The league was arguably the lowest level of professional baseball, featuring players who dropped under the scouting radar in college or were released prematurely from affiliated baseball.

p. And this was where Kyle came to resurrect his career. “I wanted to come here and prove that I can play when I got the everyday starting job – something I never got to do with the Marlins,” he told me.

p. As recently as the summer of 2006, Kyle was a Marlin’s farmhand, but after falling out of favor with the organization they cut him unceremoniously last January. Before the advent of numerous independent leagues in the early 1990s, a released minor leaguer ran out of career options and inevitably retired. As a Frontier Leaguer, Kyle had new life. If he got a call from a scout or an invitation to spring training from a big league organization he wouldn’t think twice about leaving the Wild Things.

p. “It’s always in the back of my mind,” Kyle said of being signed an MLB team. “I’d love to get the phone call tomorrow, but you can only control so much. If you start worrying about things outside your control, then it gets in your head and you don’t do well.”

p. It was June 2005 and the Marlins organization had a new look after dumping big money talent and bringing in young and unproven prospects. If someone failed on the big league level, the nature of the business meant players in the farm system would advance. “Coming into the system I was thinking if I did well, I’d get pushed along quickly,” Kyle said.

p. Waking up every morning at the crack of dawn, Kyle endured workouts and then played a game starting each day at noon as the Florida sun reached its peak. At 22, he soon discovered he was one of the oldest players on the GCL Marlins, and one of the few who had spent four years in college.

p. Appearing in 35 games, Kyle batted .227. “I tried to do too much too quick,” he said. But according to Kyle, the team coordinators were mainly concerned with potential. Along with batting average, a stat was kept for hitting balls hard, and when the coordinators were in town they saw Kyle’s results weren’t reflecting his high level of play.

p. Without warning, the manager brought Kyle into his office after a game and told him he’d be leaving Jupiter the next morning and flying over 1,000 miles north to New York to play for the Jamestown Jammers of the New York-Penn League, a short season low-A affiliate of the Marlins.

p. “I was completely caught off guard. Nobody said, ‘Hey, you’ve been doing a good job, you might be promoted’,” Kyle said. “I was completely in the dark.”

p. In the minor leagues, many players report there is poor communication with management. Will Rhymes, a close friend and teammate of Kyle at the College, who is currently in the Detroit Tigers system, was promoted to the double-A Erie SeaWolves this past summer at the same time his family and friends were flying to Lakeland, Florida to see him play for the Tiger’s high single-A affiliate.

p. In Jamestown, Kyle played in only six games, even though the team didn’t have an everyday shortstop. In his brief tenure for the low-A club, he batted .208 in 24 at bats.

p. Unlike his first stint with the GCL Marlins, there would be no handshake waiting when the Jamestown manager brought him into his office after a game. Just a ticket back to the Gulf Coast League.

p. As much as professional baseball was a physical grind for Kyle Padgett during the summer of 2005, the mental aspect was tougher. “I sat around and thought about if they were satisfied with me. I kept asking myself if I was doing enough,” he said. “It ate at me.”

p. Fast forward to the spring of 2006 and Kyle was at the Marlins spring training complex vying for a spot on the Jupiter Hammerheads, the Marlin’s high-A affiliate.

p. He knew that if the Marlins thought you were good enough to play in the high-A Florida State League (FSL) in just your second year of professional baseball, in their eyes you were quickly becoming a top prospect in the organization. Somehow the tryout seemed too good to be true.

p. When Kyle saw his name on a list for extended spring training, it meant he would drop the two very same steps he had advanced, and continue spring training in the GCL, while higher affiliated teams began their regular seasons. It was the last thing any player wanted in his second summer of pro baseball. When he reported to rookie ball, the manager kept telling him he’d be the first guy promoted. Kyle thought that meant he’d be gone in a week, hours away from what he described as, “the worst place in professional baseball.”

p. Nearly a month later he was told to report to Jupiter, instead of Jamestown as he had envisioned. Upon arriving, Hammerhead’s manager Tim Cossins promptly inserted him into the lineup, and Kyle answered with a hit and a walk in his debut. The next two nights he watched the action from the bench, before being demoted to the GCL. “I was basically giving a guy a day off at shortstop,” Kyle said.

p. It was the first of nine times that he would bounce between the Marlin’s high-A and rookie ball affiliate during the summer of 2006, in which time he started to realize his role in the organization had morphed into a spot-filler.

p. Why was he trapped in a game of ping pong? Both the GCL Marlins and Hammerheads play at the Marlins spring training complex, permitting the organization to send a player over from the rookie ball team in a moment’s notice, instead of disrupting someone at another level.

p. “There’s a surplus of players in the GCL, and you have players come over to Jupiter a lot for injuries who can fill in. Kyle Padgett was that guy,” Cossins said.

p. Despite struggling offensively and seeing sporadic playing time, Kyle believed he would be back for spring training in 2007. He had little reason to think otherwise after a late season streak bumped his batting average up nearly 100 points to .214 at Jupiter. What no one knew at the time was that the Marlins had other plans.


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