Reusse: Born into baseball, lefty Thielbar works way to Twins roster

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2013 - 6:51 PM
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Rochester Red Wings pitcher Caleb Thielbar in June.

Photo: Mike Janes, Associated Press

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RANDOLPH, MINN. - Caleb Thielbar and his parents, Calvin and Janet, lettered in the same sport for the Randolph Rockets. We're not talking about a sport divided by gender, such as basketball. We're talking baseball.

"I don't imagine that has happened too often in Minnesota," Janet said.

She graduated from Randolph High in 1976 as Janet Johnston. She came from a farm family and was turned into a baseball player by two older brothers.

"They were throwing baseballs to me, and I was swinging an old broken bat at age 2, I'm told," Janet said. "Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to play Little League in Randolph as a girl, and that hurt my hitting."

There were two junior boys out for baseball in 1975, so Janet joined in. They all sat on the bench behind nine seniors that spring. And then as a senior, Janet was the Rockets' starting shortstop.

"I had a good arm, and at a little under 5-foot-4, I drew a lot of walks," she said.

Calvin Thielbar was the assistant baseball coach at Randolph in 1976. Eight years later, Calvin and Janet were married, and Calvin's three daughters from a first marriage lived with them. Caleb arrived as the little brother in January 1987.

Caleb and his neighborhood buddy P.J. McIntee killed much grass in two-man ballgames in the Thielbar's sprawling backyard. "We were out there every day in the summer," Caleb said.

The 6-foot Thielbar spent more time shooting a basketball. "If you had asked me when he was in the eighth grade, I would've said Caleb would play basketball in college," Janet said. "He was a very good shooter and a tremendous leaper."

Caleb wound up as the No. 2 career scorer for the Rockets. He broke the school record for three-pointers held by his cousin, Kevin Lee. He broke the school record for free-throw percentage held by his cousin, Wade Murray.

Thielbar graduated in 2005 and headed to Brookings, S.D., to pitch for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Why there?

"That was the only Division I school that wanted me," Thielbar said.

He pitched the full four seasons for the Jackrabbits. The Brewers took him in the 18th round of the 2009 draft.

He was 6-1 with a 1.59 ERA for the Brewers' rookie team in Arizona. The professional career hit a roadblock when he arrived in Appleton, Wis., the next season to pitch in the low-A Midwest League.

"The Brewers didn't like my slider, and I didn't like throwing a changeup," Thielbar said. "I was a two-pitch pitcher, fastball and curve, and my velocity was down to 84-85, from 88 to 90."

Sore left arm? "No, I'm a max-effort pitcher, and my mechanics were messed up," he said. "It was a bad year. I wasn't surprised to get the call."

That would be the call from the Brewers in midwinter telling Thielbar that he had been released.

Thielbar lives in Randolph with his parents and his black Lab, Cliff. He was going to name him Johan, in honor of his pitching hero Mr. Santana, but decided a one-syllable call was needed for hunting purposes. So the high-energy Lab was named in honor of another lefty, Cliff Lee.

The hometown location figured in Thielbar's decision to sign with the St. Paul Saints rather than other independent teams that made offers for 2011. "I signed with the Saints because it was a 40-minute drive to the ballpark," he said.

In mid-August, after 43 appearances and 62 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings, Thielbar became the first-ever Saints player to be signed by the Twins. He went through three levels of the Twins organization in 2012 -- from Class A Fort Myers to Class AA New Britain to Class AAA Rochester -- and now is on the 40-player big-league roster in advance of spring training.

Thielbar turns 26 on Jan. 31 and ... well, you never know where a team might land with a lefty specialist in the bullpen.

To prepare for his first test with big-leaguers in Fort Myers, Thielbar has had regular 6 a.m. throwing sessions with Keith Meyers. Caleb pitched a couple of summers for the Randolph Railcats and knew Meyers as a townball legend for Cannon Falls.

"I'm feeling good about my pitches," Thielbar said, "except the changeup. That's never been my favorite pitch, but I know I have to work on it."

Face it, Caleb: If Johan Santana is your hero, you need a changeup.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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