Life After Baseball, Part 2

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s second piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

This is also the second installment of a two-part series exploring the lives of baseball players after their playing careers are over. You can find Part 1 here.

The Scout and the Coach

Rene Tosoni and Pete Orr shared the World Baseball Classic clubhouse with Chris Leroux, learning of his impending stint on reality television as they were about to embark on new careers of their own.

The games Canada played against Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Team USA were Orr’s swan song. The squad’s starting second baseman finished his playing career the previous season after 16 years. He spent parts of eight of those in the majors with the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies. He stayed in shape for a year after his career came to an end with the aim of helping his country’s squad in Miami.

As for Tosoni, he wasn’t sure where the season might take him after Canada’s run at the Classic came to a quick finish. The outfielder had played the previous season — his 10th in professional baseball — in the independent Atlantic League with the Sugar Land Skeeters and had an offer to return. The former Twins outfielder had just spent the entire offseason looking for a coaching job, reaching out to all 30 affiliated clubs, hearing nothing.

In the midst of their playing careers, neither Tosoni nor Orr had given much thought to life after baseball. Tosoni felt that his focus on the game led him to stay on the field as long as he did, and Orr knew that someday he would have to face his future, but both hoped that day would just never come.

“When I was still playing, I didn’t know what I was going to do after baseball,” Orr said. “It was something I kind of feared. I knew it was coming, but I just wanted to keep playing. Then once family and kids got involved, I started to really think about it, and I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. It is a little scary, but you take it as another challenge.

“I was fortunate. I had a year after I stopped playing; a full year to kind of let it all sink in that I wasn’t a baseball player anymore, so that helped me. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I know I’m going to miss it for the rest of my life, but I’m okay with that, and I think it’s a good thing that I’m going to miss it. I don’t mind.”

Added Tosoni: “I was thinking of staying in baseball, that’s it. I was thinking about trying to work my way back to the big leagues. Three years ago, my first daughter was born, so I started to think about what I might do after baseball, and I wasn’t sure. I was exploring my options of certain things at home, and coaching was definitely one of them, whether it was going to be high school or college, but coaching was where I wanted to go.”

The first offer to land was one to Orr. His former Team Canada teammate Taylor Green was scouting with the Milwaukee Brewers and was about to take on the role of pro scouting director for the organization. Green knew that Orr was finished playing and wanted to know what might be next for the infielder.

Orr was grateful for the offer from his friend and former teammate — and a little surprised, having never given scouting a whole lot of thought previously — but initially declined the opportunity. It took a casual conversation months later, after Orr had thought about his options and what was next, for him to ask Green if they had filled their vacancy. The Brewers had not and hired Orr to evaluate minor leaguers, as well as to assume draft coverage of Canadian amateur players.

“I definitely put my wife and kids first,” the 38-year-old said. “They sacrificed — my wife, for sure — so much to be with me during my career that it wasn’t my turn anymore. That was kind of how I looked at it.

“So there were some things that I turned down or didn’t pursue, because it wasn’t the right time to do it, and then the scouting thing kind of came up. It was one of those things where you have relationships with teammates, players, coaches, and they reach out to you, and eventually I gave in.”

Tosoni was in shape for the season and ready to keep playing beyond Miami, after not gaining any momentum in his offseason search for a coaching position. Spring training had begun for affiliated teams, and he and his family had made the decision to return to the Skeeters after a great experience the previous year.

Then, when he least expected it, an offer came along.

“The Braves lost a coach and they reached out to [Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] Greg [Hamilton] to see if he had anybody in mind who would like to get into coaching,” Tosoni said. “I was actually talking to Greg throughout the winter about doing the transition to coaching and wanting to coach with the junior team and stuff like that, so it kind of worked out. It fell in my lap…

“The way I ended my career in Sugar Land and at the WBC, I really wanted to play. But now I have two kids and, realistically, I really needed to start getting a career going.”

Tosoni became the fourth coach with the Double-A Mississippi Braves out of spring training last year, splitting duties as first-base coach and bench coach during games. Gaining an understanding of the job from a hitting and managing perspective, he was promoted this season, becoming the hitting coach with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs.

“I’m the guy now,” the 31-year-old said. “I’ve got more responsibilities now. I’ve got to do reports. Last year, I really didn’t have to do reports. I threw batting practice and hung out in the dugout, and I actually related with the kids really well because I just got out of the game, so I had a good time. It was lots of fun. We discussed certain things in the locker room, but I have a more important role now, and I’m looking forward to it because I wanted to keep moving.”

Tosoni knows how fortunate he is to have found a fit in the game beyond his playing career, especially after spending so little time focused on life after baseball while he was between the white lines.

“Oh, 100%, I got lucky,” he said. “I applied to every team all winter, starting in November, and I heard nothing. I applied and didn’t have any intentions of going back to Sugar Land, but they contacted me and I had nothing going on at the time, so my wife and I discussed, and I was totally open with my manager, and he didn’t think I was coming back either… I told him that if something came up midseason, I wasn’t scared to leave, and he was totally okay with it. Then right after the WBC, the Braves called, so it was awesome. It literally fell in my lap.

“I had a couple buddies who were taking online classes during their playing careers and I was always thinking, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re going to be in the big leagues for a long time.’ That was just kind of my mentality when I was playing. Maybe that’s what pushed me harder, because it was all I wanted to do. I really think it was 50-50 on guys having plans for after baseball.”

Added Orr: “The majority of guys aren’t ready. There are some guys who are already doing stuff while they’re playing, and I wasn’t good at that by any means, but I didn’t fear it. I didn’t fear not playing. I’d say 80% of guys aren’t ready for it, because it happens quick. And baseball is like a train — it doesn’t stop. You think it’s a big part of your life when you’re going and you’re in it, and then when you’re out, it doesn’t stop. It just goes by, and you’re off the train, and you better figure it out quick.”

The Entrepreneur

Adam Stern was more prepared than most for his life after playing.

Though he would dispute Orr’s notion that “Stern was one of those guys who was planning his retirement from the day he signed,” the hero of Team Canada’s 2006 World Baseball Classic win over Team USA — hitting an inside-the-park home run to leave him a double shy of the cycle, and making two outstanding defensive plays in center field — was ready for his second phase of life when it came along.

“I got released in 2008 from Triple-A,” Stern said. “I was in the Baltimore Orioles organization and it was one of those wake-up calls. All in one year, you get designated, then you clear waivers, and then you get released, and you’re on your way home. It’s a reality check that, at that time, anything can happen. I went by the model that I didn’t want to leave it in someone else’s hands.

“That phone call woke me up and made me realize I needed to start planning the second stage of my life. In the same sense, I wasn’t done playing, but I was also very aware of the situation that, at any time, you can have the game taken from you and the opportunities aren’t there, especially to be a major-league baseball player, because that’s what everyone strives to be. I didn’t want to kick around in the minor leagues forever. I wanted to make a career in the big leagues, and if that window was starting to close, I had to open up another one.”

Stern spent a decade playing professional baseball, with stints in the majors with Baltimore, Boston, and Milwaukee. The native of London, Ontario, returned home during the offseasons and often had difficulty finding places to hit, long toss, and remain in the best baseball shape possible.

He found a couple of small but adequate spaces to rent early on and quickly realized that if you build it, players will come. Along the way, other local players — like Londoner Jamie Romak, Dorchester’s Chris Robinson, transplanted Vancouver native Jeff Francis, and many more — were also looking for space to get their baseball work in and remain close to home.

As time went on, Stern saw the need grow and had a desire to fill it. With an eye on the end of his playing career, he found a bigger space and worked to get it ready while he was still on the field. Centrefield Sports, in its current capacity, opened its doors in 2010. It is now a 45,000 square-foot facility serving a variety of baseball teams, leagues, players, and professionals, as well as a multi-purpose building filled with soccer, football, cricket, softball, and more.

“It started out of a necessity to have the chance to be able to live back home and stay in shape for baseball to get prepared,” the 38-year-old said. “It started off as a couple cages, served a purpose, created a little business around it, but I knew that I was taking off. My last year of baseball, I knew that was it for me, so the planning for the bigger facility started.

“I knew that once the curtain dropped on the season in 2010, that was my last game played and I was fine with it. I was fine to move on, and I was excited about the next step. I had planned it throughout the season. I was designing the baseball facility and ordering all the equipment from Nashville, where I was playing, and it was something exciting that I looked forward to, and I was ready to take that jump.”

Stern credits his father and brother — both business owners — for helping him prepare for the next steps of his life while he was playing and believes that his family helped him achieve a level of self-awareness that allowed him to see the bigger picture.

“They helped guide me while I was young, and when I signed, they helped me down that path and were good mentors in what life after baseball could be,” he said. “We had those discussions around the dinner table, and we’re very real as a family with what it is, and I had a great opportunity to play baseball, see that all the way through, but at the other side of it, I had to be prepared for a big chunk of life after baseball. You have to be real with your career. I didn’t make life-changing money or anything like that.”

Though Stern always seemed to be simultaneously focused on his playing career and his future, he believes there is a need for players to be focused on the game while they’re in it, and understands how hard it can be to do that and to look ahead at the same time.

“When you’re in the middle of it, it’s very difficult to step outside and look at what it is,” he said. “You’re focused on your baseball career, and you should be: it’s a very small window that you can capitalize on. If you get the chance to play into your 30s, that’s considered a huge success. So while you’re in the game, you’re investing all your energy into your career to try to make the most out of it.

“Some guys are well prepared — I played with other guys who have had great success after the game — and with some guys it does become a rude awakening after the spotlight is off them. I can’t speak to everybody, but some guys do a good job and some guys it’s nose to the grindstone, see how long it can last, and then they take the uniform off, and they get into a little bit of scramble mode.”

Playing with a variety of personalities and seeing where a lot of careers have taken his friends and former teammates, Stern still doesn’t know just what the difference between those types of guys is.

“Everybody’s wired differently,” he said. “You don’t know what guys’ end goals are or what they want to do after the game. Some guys want to work on Wall Street, some guys want to sell real estate, and it depends what you envisioned for yourself. You can’t paint anyone with a specific brush. Some guys go back to school or do schooling while they’re playing, and I think that’s extremely difficult.

“I got done three years of college and never found the time to go back, so I haven’t officially graduated, not that I’m proud of it. It’s just the way the situation and my career lined up. There are guys who finished their degrees, and I tip my hat to those guys. They get to utilize that down the road.”

For some, that road is long and winding; for others, it goes by in the blink of an eye. Though these players have seen life away from the ballpark, they’ve all found their way back to the game. Maybe there really is no such thing as life after baseball, because it’s always there. And prepared or not, it helped each one of them find their way.

A competitive baseball player growing up, Alexis Budnicki has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, and written for Baseball America, the Australian Baseball League and Canadian Baseball Network, among others. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.

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  1. Rob says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Terrific stuff. More of this, please!