Lefty couldn't break away from game the first time

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2011 - 9:04 AM

Jake Stevens is in the Twins' minor league camp a few years after finding retirement wasn't right for him.

CAPE CORAL, FLA. - The pitcher and author Jim Bouton wrote, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

Jake Stevens let go of baseball. The game didn't let go of him.

Ask Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson or a minor league staffer to name a sleeper in Twins spring training camp, and they might mention Stevens, a third-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2003 who quit the game during the 2007 season, only to realize that his soul remained in the game's grasp.

Stevens, a lefthanded reliever, isn't in Twins big-league camp. After returning to the game in the Orioles organization in 2009, he spent last year at Class AA in the Giants organization, then signed last fall with the Twins. He officially will begin practicing Friday, when minor league camp begins.

So to find Stevens, you needed to cross the bridge from Fort Myers to Cape Coral, and visit his alma mater, Cape Coral High. On a recent weekday afternoon, Stevens was helping his old high school teammate, Mike Gorton, coach the Seahawks.

"I'm hoping to throw well in spring training and break camp with the Triple-A team," Stevens said. "That's my goal, and then we'll see how it goes, see if anything opens up."

In 2007, Stevens found himself spending his fifth year in the Braves' organization, and he had made only one appearance above Class A. He quit before the season ended.

"I was really struggling, thinking, 'I'm not having fun out here like I should be, and I don't want to take up somebody else's spot that actually wants to be here,' " Stevens said. "At that time, I was young and struggling, felt like I wasn't going to go anywhere. All I was looking at was the big picture, I'm not going to ever make it to the big leagues, so ...

"When I left, I realized it would be nice to make it to the big leagues, but just being out there playing is enough for me. I think that's what helped me have success last year, was I was just out there having fun."

During his baseball hiatus, Stevens enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University and took whatever job he could find. Between his temporary retirement and other winters, he's worked as a surveyor, courtesy van driver, car parts transporter, satellite TV salesman. He worked in marketing and gave private pitching lessons.

He still takes classes online during the season, hoping to obtain a degree that will enable him to coach.

"I think I'm going to finish a math degree, and help my buddy out here if baseball doesn't work out for me," he said.

Stevens might sound like a long shot, but the Twins rave about his stuff, and he is a reminder of an old baseball saying favored by Tom Kelly.

"He's got two things going for him," Kelly used to say of certain pitching prospects. "He's lefthanded. And he's breathing."

Stevens wouldn't be the first pitcher to take a break from baseball and bounce back. Twins closer Joe Nathan quit baseball early in his minor league career, partly because the Giants wanted to switch him from shortstop to pitcher. And Stevens' uncle, a horse trainer in Fort Lauderdale, wound up doing some work for the wife of Roy Halladay, who told him that he once doubted he'd ever make it to the big leagues.

Halladay even sent Stevens a book entitled "The Mental ABC's of Pitching," that Stevens still reads.

Missing baseball during his retirement, Stevens played in an 18-and-older league in Cape Coral. Because he played with the son of Orioles Class AAA manager Gary Allenson, he was able to land a tryout with Baltimore.

Even if the rest of the story doesn't make baseball history, that tryout transformed Stevens' personal history. He's lefthanded, and he's breathing in the sweet smells of baseball. He's given himself another chance.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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