FORT MYERS, FLA. – Jason Bartlett had transitioned into the non-baseball lifestyle. He woke up early to take his children to school. He went to the gym with his wife. Even when he wasn’t doing anything, he wasn’t bored.
“I love just chillin’,” he said.
Bartlett left baseball because his right knee told him in 2012 that he couldn’t be athletic anymore, which is kind of a problem for a shortstop. A year later, following surgery and rest, his right knee signaled him to give baseball another try. So while he was perfectly fine with his life at home, he jumped at a chance to relaunch his career. He can chill later.
At age 34, Bartlett is back in spring training. His Mohawk haircut gives him distinction. The grey whiskers give away his years. But he has a chance to win a job at Twins camp as a utility player, as he has been in Fort Myers since early February, taking grounders at second, short and third, preparing to battle for the job.
“I told my wife that one of the reasons I came back was that I wanted my kids [Jayden, 5, and Jagger, 2] to see me play,” Bartlett said. “Jayden loves being around the clubhouse. It will be something for the kids to see again. I have a different mindset now. Just have fun, don’t put stress on myself and enjoy the last few years.”
The website baseball- reference.com already has kicked Bartlett to the curb, listing “Final Game” under his biography. That was May 14, 2012, when he went 0-for-2 for San Diego against Washington. Three days later, he landed on the disabled list because of a sore right knee, batting .133. He ended up having surgery.
“There were two big pieces of cartilage on each side that came out,” Bartlett said. “It used to catch every time I bent down.”
He rehabbed the knee but was released by the Padres on Aug. 20, 2012. He looked into playing in 2013 but was told by his agent, Ryan Ware, that he probably needed to play winter ball to help his chances of getting offers.
“I said, ‘That’s OK, man. I need to clear my head and relax my body,’ ” Bartlett said. “I did that and after that I was like, ‘I’m done.’ ”
At 33, Bartlett was at home in California with two kids and his wife, Kelly, who wondered what it was going to be like to have her husband around all the time.
“The first month he was home, I was like, ‘How about you go out and golf or do something,’ ” Kelly Bartlett said. “As a mom who was pretty much single for eight months out of the year you get in your groove, your routine. After that first month it was pretty awesome.
“He would do school dropoffs and we’d be able to do things that hadn’t done during the season. We took up tennis together. We started playing golf and taking some lessons. Going on more frequent vacations. We got into our own groove.”
They also ran in a number of 5K races together. Through all the activities during 2013, Bartlett realized something.
“My knee wasn’t hurting anymore,” he said. “I started squatting and squatted more than I ever had without any pain. So that slowly started getting in my head, that I need to play again.”
Ware called around during the offseason, and found that the Twins were interested. It was a good fit for the Bartletts because they were moving from San Diego to Naples, Fla., not far from the Twins’ year-round facility at the Lee County Sports Complex.
The Twins traded Brian Buchanan to San Diego for Bartlett in 2002, and he made his major league debut in 2004. Eventually becoming the everyday shortstop, he batted .271 in four seasons with the Twins before he was dealt after the 2007 season, along with Matt Garza and Eduardo Morlan, to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie.
Bartlett’s career took off with the Rays, as he helped them win a pennant in 2008 and was named to his only All-Star team in 2009, when he hit .320 with 14 homers and 66 RBI. He batted .288 over three seasons with the Rays before being dealt to San Diego.
He has 24 games of postseason experience, 21 with Tampa Bay and three with the 2006 Twins. That appeals to a Twins team looking to change its losing ways.
“He brings some veteran presence and some leadership to the table,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said. “We will have to see what he looks like in spring training. It’s an opportunity for him. If it works out, it will give us an experienced guy who knows what he’s doing and with the ability to play shortstop.”
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will play Bartlett around the infield and outfield in spring training games to see if he can handle the role. Eduardo Escobar looms as his main competition. The utility role will be even more vital if the Twins take 13 pitchers north. That leaves a three-man bench.
“He’s going to take [fly balls] in the outfield too,” Gardenhire said. “I told him, ‘First baseman’s mitt, outfield glove. If you are going to make the club that’s what we have to do. You have to play around.’ You don’t have that many guys on the bench anymore. Got to have guys who can move around.”
Bartlett is lugging gloves all around spring training as he knocks off the rust following his 1½-year absence. And his wife better get ready to take over dropping the kids off at school. The old man feels young again.
“I haven’t seen a pitch in a year and a half, but that should come naturally in spring training,” he said. “I feel good man. I had lost that athleticism and that’s why I wasn’t having fun anymore. I’m now running around, doing jump throws. Where was this?
“It took a couple weeks, but I feel like the old Barty.”