By George, It Wasn’t An Easy Road
Hall of Fame baseball writer Jerome Holtzman wrote a book called “No Cheering in the Press Box.” I understand the sentiment … but sometimes something special comes along where you have to fudge the rules just a little bit. For me, the exception to the rule is the Dodgers newest arm out of the bullpen, George Sherrill.
Sherrill is a talented big league reliever. An All-Star with the Orioles just last summer. A guy with 31 saves last season.
But it wasn’t always that way.
It was 8 summers ago, back in 2001 when I first heard of George Sherrill. I was broadcasting games for the Schaumburg Flyers of the Northern League and Sherrill was playing his first season in the Northern League with the Sioux Falls Canaries.
Sherrill was 24 years old, undrafted out of Austin Peay University, and had already kicked around for a couple of seasons in the Frontier League (an independent league with an age-limit) and the Northeast League (another independent league). Getting a chance to play in Sioux Falls was actually a big-time step up on the minor league baseball ladder,
Just to be clear. Any form of independent baseball is a tough racket. Indy ball is the very first step in the world of pro ball … or the very last step on the way out. Indy ball is made up almost exclusively of guys (and occasionally a woman, Ila Borders) who have gone undrafted out of college or guys who have been released by teams in affiliated ball. The goal? To get out of independent ball and hook up with a minor league team that is affiliated with a big league organization.
Sherrill was pitching out of the bullpen for Sioux Falls. He was the match-up lefty who came in in late-game situations and faced a tough left-handed batter or two. It was hardly glamorous work. When the announcers around the NL gave each other scouting reports for new guys in the league … Sherrill was a J.A.G. … or Just Another Guy.
Boy, were we ever wrong. During the course of that summer of 2001 I never saw Sherrill give up a run. I checked my old scorebook …. no runs allowed in 5 games against the Flyers. (A 37-year old Matt Nokes making a comeback with the Flyers had no chance against Sherrill.)
You’ve got to love baseball to play in the Northern League. In 2001 meal money was $15 a day and usually two of your three daily meals were PB&J at the ballpark. Often times an 1-for-24 week at the plate and you’re released. Blow two saves in a row and you’re demoted to mop-up relief. Have another bad outing and you’re gone. In the Northern League the lighting is poor, the bats are second-rate and you have to buy your own cleats.
But Sherrill played on. And on and on. In fact Sherrill eventually played 5 years of independent unaffiliated baseball before the Seattle Mariners offered him a contract in 2003 to join their Double-A in San Antonio. He would make it to the Mariners in 2004 and earned a big league spot for good in 2005.
When George and I caught up in the air-conditioned Turner Field visiting team clubhouse I asked him why he spent nearly a half-dozen years Indy ball in Sioux Falls, Evansville, Quebec City, Lincoln and Winnipeg. I asked him if he felt angry that he hadn’t been noticed earlier. He said, “Nope, it just took me a while to figure out how to pitch.”.
With apologies to Jerome Holtzman … that’s the type of guy that I cheer for.
— Eric Collins