Saints pitcher Hamburger makes major life changes in minors

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2013 - 7:03 AM

Drug use cost Mark Hamburger his big league career, but he’s cleaning up his life and starting anew with the St. Paul Saints.

 

Hands pressed together and eyes shut, Mark Hamburger meditated on the yoga instructor’s statement.

“Let your devotion be your doing,” Nora said into heavy, 90-degree air in a muggy studio in downtown Minneapolis.

For most of the St. Paul Saints pitcher’s young adult life, he had been devoted to, and was doing, the wrong things.

“I wasn’t secure with myself and the things I was doing,” Hamburger said after one of his daily yoga sessions, which help him maintain a newfound direction in his life. “I was thinking about making other people happy. I wasn’t making my life happy.”

The lifestyle included drug use and excessive spending. It depleted his bank account, once fattened by $16,000 bi-weekly paychecks, and left him feeling betrayed. He eventually was suspended from baseball for two failed drug tests within six months, most recently in February, and interest waned in his 94-miles-per-hour fastball.

Newly committed to staying clean after a stint at Hazelden treatment center, Hamburger is hoping his stint with the Saints — where he makes $600 every two weeks — can rekindle that interest.

The Shoreview native had turned second and third chances into a career in professional baseball, signing initially with the Twins after an open tryout camp. He made his major league debut with the Texas Rangers in 2011.

As a Rangers reliever, Hamburger threw eight innings, won a game, and struck out six in five appearances. He even watched from the dugout as the franchise won an American League championship and went to the World Series.

But everything that appeared to be good in Hamburger’s life began to fade over the next year. He chose to comfort himself by smoking marijuana. Once he was on a major league 40-man roster, it became as much a part of his daily routine as playing catch.

His performance suffered. The Rangers waived him. The San Diego Padres did, too. The Houston Astros picked him up in July 2012, then waived him in February after his second failed drug test triggered a 50-game suspension and his release from affiliated baseball.

With nowhere else to go, Hamburger came home to his parents’ basement.

And the team that taught him to love baseball as a kid gave him his fourth chance. Saints manager George Tsamis had heard of the release and reached out to him.

“He should get a chance. Or someone should take a chance on him,” Tsamis said. “He has a future [in baseball] and it’s up to him to stay on the right track.”

On Feb. 28, Hamburger checked into Hazelden in Center City, Minn., for 30 days.

Almost five months after leaving what he calls the “biggest blessing of his life,” Hamburger, 26, is among the best pitchers in the American Association of independent professional baseball. He has a 5-6 record, leads Saints starters with a 3.47 ERA and has four complete games, 96 strikeouts and 36 walks in 119 innings pitched.

According to Tsamis, he’s also the most talked-about — and one of the most feared — pitchers in the league.

Opportunities come and go

Hamburger got his second chance in high school at Mounds View after quitting the team as a junior, when his coach took him back as a senior. The 2005 graduate attended Mesabi Range Community College in Eveleth, Minn., to play baseball on the recommendation of a Twins scout. He flunked out after his freshman year.

The Twins gave Hamburger a third chance and signed him in 2007. A year later, they traded him to the Rangers for former Twins closer Eddie Guardado.

Hamburger spent the next four years building what he thought was a future with the Rangers organization. He experienced the 2011 World Series in a Rangers uniform and assumed, wrongly, that he had made it. It started with his share of postseason player compensation. The $1,000 check he received was well under his expectations, nor did it match the lifestyle he wanted.

“I wanted to be a big leaguer with the money, and it captured me,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I didn’t have what I wanted and I was mad at [baseball].”

Within 18 months he was out of baseball. No one wanted a two-time drug offender with what looked to be a career in decline.

His craving for pot remained, and using was a way to forget. But Hamburger also knew his life was out of his control and that had to change. His only remaining possession from his big-league experience — health insurance — allowed him to check into Hazelden.

“I had a lot of taps on my shoulder saying ‘What are you doing?’ And I kept failing,” Hamburger said. “It caught up to me.”

‘Devotion’ to what’s right

The first five days of treatment were a “battle” and “purge,” Hamburger said. On Day 3, he read a Bible quote in the book of Zachariah that sustained him through the month and beyond: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin …”

Hamburger often recites the passage to remind himself everything will be fine. The 16-year-old who smoked pot has finally grown up, he said.

“The adversity he’s gone through, he doesn’t let it bother him,” Saints infielder and travel roommate Brad Boyer said. “He’s paying for it right now. But I don’t see it at all.”

It’s hard to hear any discontent in Hamburger’s clubhouse singing voice, or see it in the high-fives he hands out each time he travels to the Saints bullpen. He also makes time for the fans, remembering his beginnings as a youth running around Midway Stadium.

Several major league teams have taken notice of the redefined athlete. Tsamis said he has received calls inquiring about Hamburger’s progress from a handful of teams he wouldn’t name.

Hamburger knows the Twins and other teams are watching, but he isn’t dwelling on it. He’s focusing on having fun and growing up while doing it.

He hasn’t forgotten about the big leagues, though. If he can continue rebuilding his life in the right way — and let his devotion be his doing, as his yoga sessions teach — Hamburger said he envisions himself sober and pitching at that level once again.

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