Climbing the ladder...Justin Gordon should open 2002 at High Desert after a solid 2001 campaign at Beloit. (photo courtesy of The Diamond Angle)
Brewerfan.com recently had a chance to sit down with Milwaukee Brewer minor leaguer, left-handed starting pitcher Justin Gordon. Gordon was a 32nd round pick in 1999 out of Massasoit Community College in Brockton, Massachusetts. After spending his initial pro season with the Helena Brewers, Gordon had a stellar season in 2000 at Ogden with the Raptors. While at Beloit of the Midwest League in 2001, Justin appeared in 27 games (24 starts), compiling a 3-4 record with a 4.42 ERA. More importantly, the Snappers had a record of 18-6 in Gordon's 24 starts, and Justin most likely will be off to Adelanto, California to begin the 2002 campaign with the High Desert Mavericks and their new manager, Mike Caldwell. While certainly much of our discussion focused on the specifics of Justin's career, we also hoped to get some insights into what it's like to not only be a minor leaguer, but specifically a Brewer minor leaguer. Our big- time thanks go out to Justin.
brewerfan.com (BF): Justin, please tell us the story of how you came to be drafted and signed by the Brewers in 1999. It's a pretty unique story from what we hear.
Justin Gordon (JG): It was my first year at Massasoit. We had a very successful season (38-5), and we were playing in a postseason double-elimination tournament. I had played first base throughout the season and had hit and fielded my position well.
BF: So you hadn't pitched at all to that point?
JG: Not at Massasoit. I played mostly outfield in high school, and then 1B at Massasoit. I had pitched when I was younger, and had a couple of no-hitters in Babe Ruth ball, the type of no-hitters where the final is like 7-2 because of errors and walks. So I had pitched some, but I wasn't one of the kids from the local area that was supposed to go on beyond high school as a pitcher.
So we're in the tournament, and we get rained out after three innings on the first day. We pick up the game on Day 2, and end up losing a real emotional, tight game. It was the first game we lost up north all season, as our earlier losses came during a Florida trip. Because of the rainout, we had to come right back 30 minutes later in our next game. Things looked good early; I hit a 2-run HR to put us up in the first, but then things kind of fell apart and we're down by eight late in the game.
The manager asked me if I wanted to pitch the final two innings, and I'm in the dugout with my eye black on and I said "Sure". So I came in and threw the ball as hard as I could, right down the middle, and I struck out all three batters I faced in my first inning. I get back to the dugout, and my teammates were saying, "You gotta be kidding me." It turns out the only professional scout on hand at that point in the game was Tommy Tanous of the Brewers. He told me later he ran out to his car to get his radar gun after that inning hoping I'd pitch another inning. I did, with three more strikeouts. Tommy will tell you that most family members will come up to him and tell him about 'their' player, and the player almost never lives up to the talk. But Tommy told my father later on that I was better than my father said, which was unusual.
BF: So what was the next step in the process of becoming a Brewer?
JG: This was in May, and next I went to a tryout camp held by Tommy, invite- only, which was made up of all the local players Tommy had an interest in. A Brewer cross-checking scout was there as well. When it was done, I didn't feel real strong about it all because I wasn't into leaving home at that time, and was doing well at school academically as well.
So the draft is in June, and the Brewers call me on the first day of the draft, and ask me if any other teams had spoken with me. And I make the mistake of saying "no". So instead of taking me in the 11th - 15th round like they had told me they would do, I get taken in the 32nd round. Tommy calls me about getting me some signing info, and basically I told Tommy that "I'll see you next year. If you guys think I'm as good as you say I am, you'll take me higher next year". So they get back to me again, and eventually Tommy arrives with a signing package that was right in line with what their 11th round pick (Will Ford out of Rice) and their 15th rounder (Terry Mayo out of a North Carolina high school) received. I signed two days later.
BF: In addition to the signing bonus, what enticed you to sign?
JG: The college costs were a big factor. No matter what might happen, the Brewers will pay for four years of my college education. They take the cost of attending a state school in Massachusetts and allocate that much money, but I could go to any school that I wish and have that dollar amount available to me.
BF: Tommy Tanous also signed current Brewer Allen Levrault. Was it a big help to know someone that had been through the process?
JG: I really didn't know Allen well at the time, but we're good friends now. When I first got out to Helena, I really wasn't sure I belonged, because we were playing before 700 people each night, and while that might not seem like a lot, it's about 680 more than I was used to. But by the end of that first year, I had my confidence built up and I worked my way into the starting rotation. It was then that Allen had told me I had made the right choice.
BF: So what is life away from the ball park like in Helena, Montana and Ogden, Utah?
JG: There's definitely a lot of free time, even with all your scheduled workouts and practice time. Helena was beautiful, and I got to go fishing there, which was great. Ogden was also real nice, but I was pitching very well at Ogden, and really just tried to stay focused on baseball and hung out at my host family's place a lot. For me, a second season in rookie ball in the Pioneer League was the best thing that could have happened to me. I figure that even today, I've only pitched about 250 innings in my life. So hopefully there are lots of innings still in there.
BF: You mentioned a host family in Ogden. How does all that work itself out?
JG: In rookie ball, you're given the option of staying with a local host family if you want. My first year, at Helena, I wanted to live on my own. I met a lady who was a booster of the team, and rented her house at $320 a month, where five of us lived comfortably, split dirt rent, and had a blast. Then, in 2000, I heard the host families in Ogden were really nice, and stayed with a family where I had the basement to myself, my own room, couches, TV, VCR, it was just as nice as my room at home. I had to get used to the low ceiling (note: Justin is 6'5"), but the family let me use either their '96 Dodge Ram or '98 Cherokee whenever I wanted. It worked out really well.
In Beloit this past season, there was an apartment complex where they are used to renting out to Snappers players. I ended up renting a nice place, perfect size, with Ben Hendrickson and Chris McGee. I've been real lucky with roommates up to now, because you do hear horror stories about other guys trying to get along. In our case, I really didn't know Ben and Chris going in, and as it turned out, we all liked to do our own things, and with each of us having our own room, we got along great. We were each so different, we had time for ourselves. And you're not going to party there anyway. The older people in the complex know exactly who you are and what's going on.
BF: I know you come from a close-knit family. Do you keep in touch often?
JG: It was pretty easy to get a phone plan where the calls to my home area code were free, so yes, I did call regularly.
BF: Beloit's only about 70 miles from Milwaukee, so it's obviously easier for Brewer front-office staff to "pop in". Were you and your teammates aware when you had visitors from Milwaukee?
JG: Yeah, you'd know when Dean Taylor was there, because he'd sit right in front. Our code word was that the "brass" was in town. But nobody played any differently, you had your good and your bad games, just as you would when they weren't there. You can't really think about that.
The other nice benefit of playing close to Milwaukee was meeting the big leaguers during their rehab assignments. Jeff D'Amico was down there a couple of times, and he was awesome, hanging out with us afterwards, eating with us. There was one game where D'Amico, Tyler Houston, and Mark Leiter were all down. It was something being out there with those guys.
BF: But Beloit didn't win that game, did they?
JG: (laughing) Now that you mention it, I don't think we did.
BF: Fans always seem to hear about the bus rides and the rigors of travel as a minor leaguer. How have you found it so far?
JG: In the Midwest League, it's not too bad. Our longest trip was to Dayton, about seven hours. But I remember 15 hour rides to Medicine Hat in the Pioneer League. You stay at Days Inn / Holiday Inns in the Midwest League; at least they're clean and nice. Each year you advance the hotels seem to get a little better.
BF: OK, so fill us in on all the groupies.
JG: Well, I did meet my girlfriend Amy in Beloit, but it had little to do with being a Beloit Snapper. She had never been to a game. I knew Amy's sister from around town, and she suggested I meet her sister, since neither of us hung out a lot. She's an international studies student at Northwestern, and will end up making more money than I will. Her GPA is about the same as my ERA, and that's better for her than it is for me :)
BF: Not many fans understand much about instructional league activities. Can you fill us in?
JG: I've been invited to instructionals twice, at the end of the 2000 and 2001 seasons. It runs from September 15th through October 20th, and it's good to be invited, although some guys are ready to stay home by that point in the season. It's like spring training all over again: work outs, conditioning. It's harder on the position players; if you're not scheduled to pitch that day, you do your lifting, your running and cardio work, and then either go back to the hotel or go play golf. And even when you do pitch, it's no more than two innings at a time; I only pitched about 12-13 innings this past instructional.
BF: Will the 2002 season at High Desert be your first chance to work with Mike Caldwell?
JG: No, Mike was our roving pitching coach my first year in '99, and I've worked with him at the minor league complex each of the past two spring trainings, and now in instructional ball the past two falls. Every time I've worked with him, I've picked up something from him. Just to be able to work with a former major leaguer with over 130 wins, that's huge.
BF: And Caldwell being a lefty as well must be beneficial. Of course, with Caldwell the manager there will be a pitching coach in place as well (Dave Osteen). What are your thoughts about that - hopefully they'll be on the same page.
JG: I'm sure they will be, and I look at it as if there will be two pitching coaches available to me. Definitely a plus.
BF: The High Desert ballpark is definitely a hitter's park, and within a hitter's league. Are you concerned about that?
JG: I'm going to High Desert to get my work in. It will be great to help the High Desert Mavericks win ball games, but the goal is to eventually pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers. If I get in a quality 150 innings at High Desert, but happen to have a high ERA, that's more important than if I had a 3.00 ERA someplace else, where I wasn't doing the things asked of me to help get me to the Brewers. Just doing what is asked of me, that's the main thing.
BF: Of all the teammates you've had in the minors, do they all play because they feel like they can get to the major leagues? It would seem that some of them must have been more realistic about their dreams than others.
JG: Lots of guys say "I'm not going to make it", or "I'll be lucky if I'm here next year". They may say that, but in their minds they're expecting to be there (in the majors) some day.
BF: Well, to that end, do the players keep track of how other players in the organization are doing? Certainly even though you are teammates or all "Brewers", you're really all competing for a very limited number of opportunities at the major league level. Happenings like trades, or injuries to other players, affect your own chances to get those opportunities.
JG: You definitely keep track of that type of news, whether it's online or through the grapevine.
BF: So do some of the players have desktop computers or laptops? If so, do they check out fan sites and such?
JG: I'd say most of the players have computers. I can only speak for myself, and for me personally, I'm hardly online at all. We did learn about brewerfan.com this year, and I did check out the Midwest League site to check out stats on other players, but for me, that's about it.
BF: Does the organization keep in touch with you during the offseason?
JG: The trainers will call every two weeks to check on how your workouts are going. And (Director of Player Development) Greg Riddoch will call 4-5 times during the offseason just to say hi and see how it's going. Riddoch's great; we all have his cell phone number and he encourages us to call him anytime if we have something we'd like to discuss. And if he can't take your call right away, he gets back to you QUICK. Last year, I had a couple of questions about my reporting date, and that I wanted my travel ticket to be scheduled so that I could get down early. I left a message and he got back to me within the hour, no problem.
BF: How often did you get to Miller Park?
JG: One of the first things you do (at Beloit) to start the season is compare your schedule with that of the Brewers and Cubs. I got to three games at Miller Park this season. The Brewers would take care of you, but for me it was just easier to have Allen (Levrault) leave tickets for me. There was one game against the Astros early in the season when Allen was still in AAA, and Ruddy Lugo, who was still with us then, arranged for tickets from his brother Julio, the Astros' SS.
BF: How important is it to you that when you reach the majors, it be in a Brewers uniform?
JG: The goal is to get to the majors with the Brewers, to do whatever it takes. I like the organization, the people in it; I've had no conflicts with anyone. I like Milwaukee. It's away from home, but not that far away. Do I want to play in Boston, like Brian Rose? (Note: Brian Rose also pitched in southeastern Massachusetts, close to Justin's home town.) Do I want to worry about 50 people at my every game? No, I think that really hurt Brian. Now, would I play with another team other than the Brewers? Of course, I'd play with any team that put me in a big league uniform. But to play in Milwaukee would mean I worked my way up through the system, that I wasn't released or bounced around. And that would make it special.
BF: Justin, you've very articulate. You realize you have a broadcast career in your future once your playing days end, right?
JG: While at Ogden, on days when I was charting pitches, I was able to go into the broadcast booth and provide color commentary. I guess that's how I learned to keep talking, like I am today.
BF: You're talking just fine, and providing a lot of great insights that Brewers' fans will appreciate. Let's wrap things up with questions specific to the season just passed in Beloit. Many Brewer fans see the lack of on-base percentage as the biggest problem with the current major league club. Then we see the OBP's at the minor league level, and wonder just how hard it is to stress to young prospects the importance of taking a walk. What did you see from Don Money and his staff?
JG: Don Money is an old-school manager in that he really stresses manufactured baseball and the fundamentals. That's how he learned the game and that's what he focuses on. Situational hitting. Right-handed batters punching the ball to the right side to advance runners, left-handed batters rolling their wrists to accomplish the same. Getting the fly ball when needed. We'd be in one of these situations, and he'd ask us, "OK, so what do we need to do here?" I mean Jude Voltz had 18 HR's and Money had him bunting in several situations. Working the walk was part of all that.
Money was so big on old school that we never wore shorts one single day for batting practice. This is our job, these are our uniforms, and that's the way it is. What he knows got him a great major league career, and if I have to go a summer without wearing shorts in warmups, you better believe I'll do that. At the same time, Money was real personable, and you could sit down with him any time and just talk, just as we're doing now.
BF: As a former position player, do you try to get any AB's in?
JG: Well, pitchers don't bat until they get to AA, and even then only with and against National League farm clubs. The last time I took swings against live pitching was back in an intrasquad game in Ogden. The coaching staff in Ogden asked the front office if I could swing as a pinch-hitter if they really needed a left-handed bat some time, and they were told a big NO! So for fun this past season, every day I would stand by Don Money when he posted the lineup, and I'd ask him "I'm not DH'ing again today, huh, skip?" I do get to take some BP swings about once every two weeks.
BF: How did you find the level of umpiring?
JG: Good, very good.
BF: And how have you been health-wise throughout your career?
JG (as he desperately looks for wood to knock): Great. A lot of that must be that I hadn't thrown many innings prior to signing; the Brewers have been able to teach me the proper mechanics since they got a hold of me, pretty much from scratch.
BF: Let me mention a few of your teammates at Beloit this year and you tell me what comes to mind (note: brewerfan apologies to those not mentioned in the time we had with Justin). Let's start with your catchers.
JG: I loved throwing to all three of our guys, Elio Alfonzo, Brian Foster, and Matt Ceriani. Roving catcher instructor Tim Blackwell was another guy you could sit down with and talk pitching to. Elio would keep reminding me to keep my elbow in by pulling down his arm like he was tooting a horn. Brian Moon is another guy that I've thrown to who is just an unbelievable catcher. He just needs to hit .230/.240 to get to the big leagues. It's going to happen for him.
BF: Ben Hendrickson?
JG: My roommate, good kid, great curve.
BF: Daryl (D.J.) Clark?
JG: Yeah, I'd call him Daryl. He hated it. My roommate at instructional, and early in the year at Beloit, my apartment was right above David Krynzel, Scott Candelaria, and his place. The only time I went back upstairs was to sleep. Incredibly quick hands at the plate.
BF: Todd West?
JG: Todd makes plays that Nomar, Arod, and Jeter make. He's amazing. We would look at the plays he'd make and laugh. And the Beloit infield is tough. Very, very tough. And he'd still make every play. When Tyler Houston played third for that one game, a routine grounder came up and whacked Houston in the chin. After his next at-bat, the coaching staff asked him if he wanted to go back in the game, and there was no way he was going back in. The field is that tough.
Here's what happened one of the few days West made an error. There was a ceremony before the game where I would catch a ceremonial ball thrown from a fan, and I grabbed his glove for the ceremony. On the first pitch of the game, he made an error. After that, I wasn't allowed to touch his glove any more.
BF: Derry Hammond?
JG: Didn't get to know him very well, but on his way to being a very good power hitter.
BF: Why so many no-decisions for you this season?
JG: The pitch count is 95, and we played a lot of tight games when I pitched, but I felt like I put the team in a position to win, and our record was pretty good when I started, so I felt good about that. For my first three appearances, I "piggy-backed" the starting pitcher, because we had seven starters. David Pember and Ben Wallace were both in the rotation at Beloit then, along with Dustin Lansford, who got hurt. I didn't want to be the piggyback guy; I wanted the ball to start the game. But you just do what the coaches ask of you.
BF: Congratulations on having your contract assigned to Indianapolis as we approach the Rule V draft.
JG: Well, that's only a paper transaction, as I know I won't be starting the season with Indianapolis. But it was very nice to have it assigned to the AAA level; I believe only Roberto Maysonet is younger among the pitchers who had their contract assigned to that level. It puts you in a position to be added to the 40-man roster next year if all goes well.
BF: What does that mean financially to a minor leaguer?
JG: The first year you are on the 40-man, it doesn't make any difference financially. You're still getting paid the same monthly salary as you would be otherwise. But for guys entering their second year on the 40-man, like Gene Altman and Matt Childers this season, that means a $38,000 salary. That's some pretty decent money for a guy like Geno, who will probably be pitching at AA to start 2002.
BF: I know that in my profession, I know the benefits, the salary structure, things like that. Anybody who is employed is familiar with those things as it relates to their job, so I guess it shouldn't surprise fans that you minor leaguers are very aware of all the ramifications of contract assignments, Rule V, issues like that.
JG: You need to be aware of those things, and we talk about them, but not overly so. Like you said, it's the same with anybody else and their job.
BF: Your friend and former first rounder JM Gold was added to the 40-man roster recently. Do you think the organization treats its higher draft picks any differently than the rest of you?
JG: No, on the field, it's up to the player, if you seek out the extra instruction time, you'll get it. We're all the same. Greg (Riddoch) gives us all the same access. I talked to JM and congratulated him, just as he would me.
BF: I understand you hosted a pitching camp back home this November.
JG: Yes, for 9-to-12 year-olds; it's a way to get some off-season income. Allen (Levrault) was a guest speaker; it went very well.
BF: Justin, it's been a pleasure speaking with you today. Please accept as a very small token of our appreciation, the very first brewerfan.com bumper sticker to be presented to a member of the Brewers' organization, and our best wishes to you in your Brewer career.
JG: Thanks, I'll give it my grandfather. I'm sure he'll put it on his car right away.
Jim Goulart can be reached at email@example.com