Jim Fuller could see the summit. After seven seasons in the minor leagues with three different organizations, the Major Leagues were in sight. The left-handed pitcher joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason and was flat out dominant after receiving an invitation to Major League spring training. In 10 games, he allowed just one run over nine and two-thirds innings, walking none while striking out eight. It appeared as though his big league dream was finally going to be achieved. But then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
“Last year was, by far, one of the tougher years I had to go through,” Fuller recalled via telephone this week. “I got hurt right at the end of spring training. Numbers were great in spring, and everything was feeling real good. All of a sudden, injuries happened and kind of set me back. It was real frustrating just sitting there watching the games and not being able to play.”
Fuller suffered a forearm muscle strain that would keep him out of action until the end of May. After recovering from the injury, he appeared in three games for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and allowed two runs in three and one-third innings. Despite overcoming the initial injury, it had residual effects on his left shoulder which had been surgically repaired in 2011 after tearing his labrum. Fuller’s season was over in a flash, and that reality was difficult for him to bear.
“It’s one of the toughest things you have to do in sports,” he stated in reference to sitting out the remainder of the year. “You know you can go out there and compete at a high level, but you physically can’t because you’re injured. It’s really tough mentally. I have good family that love me, support me and give me good words of encouragement. It’s just going out there and knowing that everything is going to eventually be okay, and you just have to fight through this.”
The 29-year-old made the decision this winter to ensure that all would indeed be just fine. The positive support he received during the year, coupled with his strong performance last spring, gave him the confidence to get back up on the proverbial horse and begin his quest back towards the big leagues. Most importantly, Fuller dedicated his time to figuring out what might have been the reason for these injuries and how he could correct the problem.
“I took some time this offseason and really thought about what could possibly be causing me to have the same arm issue year after year,” he noted. “I looked at some video of myself and kind of narrowed it down to these little things that I was doing which were putting a lot of pressure on my shoulder. I really took some time and did a lot of things to help out my mechanics and take a lot of that pressure off.”
The results thus far seem to be exactly what he was hoping for. Although he has yet to pitch in a game, the Massachusetts native is feeling strong, both physically and mentally, and believes he has found his groove once again.
“I’m in a good spot right now,” Fuller said, his voice teeming with excitement. “The ball’s coming out great, and my velocity is really good. It’s probably among the best it has been in my career.”
2017 will present a new experience for the former New York Mets draft pick. After spending eight seasons in Major League organizations, Fuller will get his first taste of the Atlantic League. Even though he does not have a vast knowledge about the league as a whole, the reviews he has been presented with have made him eager to run head-on at this new opportunity.
“My agent had a couple of guys who played on the team last year,” Fuller noted. “He said it’s a really good place to play and that I’ll have a fun time. I know it’s good competition, and I’ve heard everyone who has played [in the league] has said it’s a blast to play there. Honestly, I love playing the game and competing and that’s probably the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Fuller has done a little bit of everything in his career. He spent most the first three seasons of his career in the starting rotation and did incredibly well, compiling a 16-11 record and a 2.29 ERA in that span. After missing the entire 2011 season and most of 2012 with his shoulder injury, the Mets organization moved him to the bullpen. Despite the switch, Fuller found success in a relief role too. He posted a 0.84 ERA in 2013 at Advanced-A St. Lucie, went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 2014 with Double-A New Britain in the Twins organization and was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA while at Nashville (AAA, Athletics) in 2015. The lefty has enjoyed both roles, and though the Ducks view him as a reliever, his versatility could be an asset.
“As a starter, I really liked going out there every five days and getting the ball to throw five or more innings,” Fuller stated. “I like to compete, and I like to have the ball as much as I can. I’ve really enjoyed relieving as well. It’s a little different than as a starter, but I like getting the ball and having a chance to pitch every day. I enjoy that mindset of going out there and just letting it go for an inning.”
With spring training underway among Major League organizations and the Atlantic League season approaching on the horizon, it is nearly time for Fuller to take the mound again. With the frustration of 2016 well in his rearview mirror, it will be important for him to make sure that those negative thoughts and memories remain in the past. One of the key factors in helping him do that will be the relationship he forges with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn. After focusing all offseason on altering his mechanics to avoid injury, Fuller will look to Horn to make sure that he is doing all the right things.
“I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your pitching coach,” he opined. “They see things that you can’t see yourself. Any kind of advice you can take from the pitching coach you have, every little thing helps. If he sees something I can’t pinpoint that I’m doing, we’ll work together to try and figure things out.”
In addition to developing that bond, Fuller knows that the onus will be on him to keep his good vibes in place. He took it upon himself to overcome the injuries, figure out the problem and correct it this winter. Now, his mental toughness and focus during the year will be the key in maintaining both health and success. When asked about what it will take to avoid thinking about his past, Fuller was confident in his reply.
“I’m just going to think about what I did this offseason. I put in a lot of hard work, looked at a lot of video and did a lot of work off the mound. I’ve done just about everything. I’ve figured things out, and I think I’m in a good place right now. I’m going to take that into this season and not think about the past couple of seasons.”
With a mindset like that, Fuller just might be able to soar back up the mountain and land at the top.
The Atlantic League has become a place where many former Major League players have come to play to continue their baseball careers. If a big league organization has not signed them to either a Major League or Minor League contract, independent leagues become a viable option for them to continue playing competitive, professional baseball. Some former big leaguers may come in with the mentality that they are “better than” an independent league and believe they will be signed shortly after beginning play there. Others view it as an opportunity to showcase the talent that they have while primarily focusing on helping the team win.
The latter is the viewpoint of Blake Davis, a former Major League infielder who was recently signed by the Ducks for 2015. He comes to Long Island without any previous independent league experience but has played nine seasons of professional baseball. Although he ideally would still be a part of an affiliated team, the Atlantic League has given him the chance to keep playing the game he loves.
“I’m just real excited about the opportunity,” Davis said in an interview on Wednesday. “I was a little disappointed not getting picked up by an affiliated team, but I’m real thankful for the opportunity the Ducks are giving me to get a chance to play every day and we’ll see where it takes me.”
Davis was born in the warm climate of Southern California and continues to live there in a town called Fountain Valley. He played his collegiate ball near home at California State University – Fullerton, but upon getting drafted in 2006, he would shift his career to the east coast. The Baltimore Orioles chose him in the fourth round, and ever since that point, the furthest west he has played was Indianapolis, where he spent the 2014 campaign with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.
The high point of Davis’ career came in 2011, when he earned a call up to the Major Leagues with the Orioles. After spending five and a half seasons in the minor league ranks, he had finally achieved the dream that so many young ballplayers have. When that time came, he was almost speechless.
“I got called into the office after batting practice, and our manager just said ‘Congratulations, you’re going up,’” Davies reminisced. “It was one of those things where you knew it might happen, but when it does, it’s like it’s not real because it’s something you’ve dreamed about your whole life. When it happened, I just sat down and didn’t know how to feel. I looked back on my whole life, and it was such a great feeling. Then after getting up to the Major Leagues and being around the guys, you settle back in a little. It’s one of those things though where once you get that taste, you want it so bad again.”
Now in the Majors, Davis wanted to get two monkeys off of his back as quickly as possible to shake the nerves: his first hit and his first home run. He didn’t have to wait long for the first one. After a rocky debut that included an 0-for-4 at the plate and an error in the field, Orioles Manager Buck Showalter put him back in the lineup in the next game, and he delivered. Davis went 2-for-5 in a win over the Cincinnati Reds, and his first big league hit was a two-run triple off of Edinson Volquez. The second big milestone would have to wait nearly two months, but his first longball would be a memorable one. The reason? It came off of his former teammate and future Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
“You face a lot of great guys along the way, and to get my first homer off of Max Scherzer, who I played with in college on Team USA, was kind of cool,” Davis said. “Getting that first hit out of the way though, especially after my first game, helped me settle in a little bit, and my nerves settled down.”
Following a 2014 season that saw Davis appear in just 85 games, he was released by the Pirates in November. The infielder was hopeful that another Major League organization would give him an opportunity, but the phone remained quiet heading into spring training. That’s when Davis reached out to another close friend of his and former teammate: Lew Ford.
“We texted a bit last year when I was with Pittsburgh and he was with the Ducks, and then I texted him this year and told him that I hadn’t signed with anybody,” he recalled. “Having that friendship with Lew I think kind of helped me get this opportunity.”
Davis and Ford were teammates in 2012 with the Norfolk Tides, Triple-A affiliate of the Orioles, after Baltimore signed Ford from the Ducks. Ducks fans will remember Ford tearing it up and Double-A and Triple-A en route to returning to the Major Leagues for the first time since 2007. In fact, he ended up playing against the Yankees in the American League Division Series, a moment that still resonates in the minds of players who celebrated the 2012 Atlantic League championship by watching Ford on television in the Duck Club at Bethpage Ballpark. After seeing Ford’s story play out in a successful way, Davis became increasingly open to the idea of playing for Long Island.
“I’ve seen so many guys that I’ve played with in affiliated ball that just got picked up from the Atlantic League,” he noted. “I felt like it would be a gateway back into signing with a Major League team. Lew’s story was definitely a confidence booster. I understand that you have to play well to get picked up, but seeing it and being around some of the guys that have come from this league is definitely something that interested me.”
So now, with veteran Ducks shortstop Dan Lyons and 2014 Ducks second baseman Cody Puckett returning to the squad, a Major League veteran will join the mix. While Davis has spent the majority of his career as a shortstop, he primarily played second base with Indianapolis and has experience at third as well. Puckett also has experience at third to go along with his primary spot at second. The versatility of the Ducks infielders will certainly be a positive for Ducks manager Kevin Baez. The fact that Baez and bench coach Bud Harrelson are former infielders was another big reason for Davis’ decision to join the Flock.
“I’m excited to work with the coaching staff since I play middle infield,” he said. “I know that Kevin and Bud both played shortstop with the Mets, so I’m eager to learn from them and see what happens.”
Ultimately, Davis has a strong desire to return to a big league organization and eventually, the Major Leagues. However, the 31-year-old understands the opportunity that has been presented to him and is ready to begin a new chapter of his career. While getting back to affiliated ball is important for Davis, improving as a ballplayer is paramount in his mind for 2015.
“I just want to get back to being able to play every day and produce at the plate,” he noted. “I think I would like to steal more bases, show I can get on base a little more and keep doing my thing on defense. I really just want to do the best I can and worry about helping the team win. I feel like I still can play and produce at the Major League level, and hopefully, I’ll get that opportunity again someday.”
As we enter the homestretch of the offseason, the roster continues to take shape for the Flock. A total of 15 players have now been signed. Davis becomes the fourth former Major Leaguer to join the team for 2015, and Ducks fans should be excited to watch him play on Long Island. With strong play and the right opportunity, his story just might turn out to be a replica of Ford’s.