A few weeks ago, I was able to interview then Clippers catcher Chris Gimenez. As of July 10th, Chris was called up by the Cleveland Indians as a backup catcher. I spent some time with Chris in the Clippers clubhouse and asked him about his time in both the major and minor leagues.
Last year you were with the Indians for 45 games before coming back to Columbus. How did your experience in the big leagues change your approach as a ballplayer when you came back to Triple-A?
CG: There were a lot of things I changed in my approach. Being up in the majors and performing in the way that I did, I learned a ton as cliché as it may sound. Becoming a bench player was probably the biggest adjustment I faced in the majors. I was so used to playing every day in the minors which makes you gain a sense of timing. It doesn’t matter if you’re facing 98 miles per hour that day or 87 miles per hour, you’re going to have that timing in the batter’s box if you play often. When you play every five to six days, you start to lose that sense of confidence in the batter’s box. You might start taking pitches you might normally don’t take or swing at a ball you might not normally swing at because you don’t have that sense of timing and confidence about hitting.
There wasn’t an adjustment to the pitchers as much. The pitching level is better in the big leagues; the pitchers there are the best of the best after all. However, it was my approach of going up to the plate, and sticking with my strengths that mattered. Understanding what I am good at along with getting a good pitch to hit and not miss it was the biggest part of facing big league pitching. Don’t get me wrong, the pitching in the big leagues is better, but it was never to the point that I felt I couldn’t get a hit off of pitchers like Zach Greinke, who was the AL Cy Young winner the year before.
Were there other changes you noticed in the majors?
CG: There is more of an emphasis on the little things in the majors such as moving runners over, or being able to control the barrel of a bat in a hit-and-run. In the majors, I got called to bunt a couple of times last year. It’s not that the little things aren’t stressed in the minor leagues, the little things are just emphasized in a “Hey, we NEED you do this” manner in the majors. You take the spot of a role player as a new call-up to the majors. In Columbus, I was hitting higher up in the order where you didn’t bunt as much. It’s not that I can’t bunt, in fact I feel that I am a really good bunter. But in the big leagues, most of the recent call ups are in the 7-8-9 hole where you bunt more often. You are pretty much taking one for the team when you come up to the big leagues.
You were in the minor leagues for about 5 years, you then got called up by the Indians in 2009. How did you keep yourself focused to improve while so much was changing around you?
CG: The average guy in the minors stays there for four years and then is done. There are a couple of guys who are called “AAA-lifers.” Hopefully as a player, you don’t get grouped in that category as a player.
For me it was my dream to make it to the majors. You just got to have that passion and drive to know you could belong there in the majors. Improving and maintaining focus requires believing in yourself. You have to know “you can do it,” and go up to the plate with a plan and sticking to it. It’s a long season. Things will eventually work itself out if you just keep believing “I’m going to attack this ball and my approach is the right way.” When you keep repeating your approach, something is bound to happen, someone will notice your efforts, and things will eventually workout in your favor. Then you start gaining confidence and the belief you can play at the next level or in the big leagues.
What was it like being in the majors?
CG: If you haven’t gone there, it is hard to see what it is like. You hear stories from everyone who has gone to the majors and they tell you how great it really is. In every category, there is nothing that is not better up in the majors. We have a great clubhouse here in Columbus and there is a lot of fun stuff to do, but being on the buses for eight to twelve hours in the minors, it’s a physical and emotional toll. There is a toll in the majors as well, but it is all worth it. In the majors, there are neat places and cities you get to play in and nice hotels you stay at. You get to fly everywhere, which makes cross country travel a lot nicer. The best of the best play there and they get treated well for that reason. That’s why guys like Alex Rodriguez get paid the millions per year because they go out there on the biggest stage and perform consistently year in year and year out.
Now, you have another set of guys who have been there and are now in Triple-A like myself, and are doing everything they can to get themselves back to the majors. As a player, you have that little bit of taste and saw what its like in the majors which makes you want to do anything you can to get yourself back there.
How did you explain your big league experience to younger players on the Clippers?
CG: I feel like it is my role to let the younger guys know certain things you can and can’t do in the big leagues.
Do you remember when you got called up to the big leagues and what was your initial reaction?
CG: I remember it like it was yesterday. I got called up on May 30th of last year. It was my little brother’s birthday so my family had a little get together for my little brother and his wife back home. Before the game started, I was in the bullpen warming up the pitcher and suddenly I got taken out of the game. My parents, who were listening on the radio heard the announcers say, “Chris Giminez just got pulled from the game.” It just so happened to be that night, Victor Martinez got hurt after I got taken out of the ballgame. I was supposed to be called up for Grady Sizemore but then some started speculating that I got called up because Victor got hurt. My family is hearing the ball game back home and is going nuts since my family had no idea what was going on. After the game, I was told that I would be going up to the big leagues. I called my brother to wish him a happy birthday and told him “I’m sorry to take your thunder, but I’m going up to the big leagues.”
My first day up in the majors, we (the Indians) were playing the Yankees in Cleveland. It was just an unbelievable opportunity to get called up for that series and an amazing experience.
The first game I played in was at Minnesota. I was completely ok until I stepped into the batters box for the first time. My heart was beating a million times a minute. It was so hard to calm myself down because I’m standing in the batters box thinking I can destroy the baseball like I have super-human bat speed. It was also tough because when I looked at first and saw Justin Morneau, and behind the plate catching was Joe Mauer. I struck out my first at-bat, but after that I thought, “I can do that, its not like I’ve never struck out before in my life.” I became calm and collected and put some good swings on the baseball after that.
What is it like being a veteran on a relatively young club in Columbus?
CG: It is actually kind of fun. We have a pretty young group of guys here. I’m only 27 years old, which I like to think is not very old, but on this team it definitely is. It’s great to see a young group of guys who are so energetic, the young guys bring the best out of everybody.
For one, we are one of the best teams in the league this year, which makes playing a lot of fun. It’s great playing here, being able to be part of a young team. I’m a big believer in that you’ve got to have a loose clubhouse, you’ve got to have a loose team. Guys who are uptight don’t play that well. I’m the first one to crack a joke or mess around with someone during the game or batting practice. This is a game--you are supposed to have fun doing it. The guys that can do that are the most successful.
Everybody has a great time in here (in Columbus). You spend so much time together, you have to have an enjoyable camaraderie in the clubhouse. You can’t have guys on the team who are bitter at each other all the time. You spend eight months out of the year this close to each other all the time. There will be little flare ups or what not from time to time like every clubhouse but you need to have this looseness in the clubhouse or you’re going to get eaten up alive out here.
You are in a unique position. You can catch, play the infield or even the outfield. How do you transition between playing positions that are so different?
CG: Believe it or not I really do enjoy playing different positions. I love the fact that I can come in and see a different number on my name in the lineup everyday. It’s a unique challenge to play many positions.
With regards to catching, first and foremost I’m a catcher but I can play anywhere else. I feel like my best position is catching but I have played the outfield before and I’ve played the infield before. Playing multiple positions is a lot of fun because it makes batting practice the hardest part of the day. I’ll field groundballs in the infield, I’ll take fly balls in the outfield, some days a couple of guys and I will do catching drills during batting practice as well. I use batting practice as my chance to stay sharp because you never know when the manager says “Gimenez, you’re going to be in the outfield,” or “Gimenez, you’ve got to play third base.” I have to be at the drop of the hat ready to go. I get a kick of being able to do and I feel like a really can play all three areas on the field. After playing in the outfield, infield, and catcher, you get a sense of confidence that you can play anywhere on the field whenever you need to. I feel like I can make myself stand above somebody else because I can play a range of positions.
You were drafted out of high school by the Colorado Rockies in 2001 but instead went to the University of Nevada. What made you decide to go that route?
CG: Getting drafted out of high school, the Rockies wanted me to go a junior college in a draft-and-follow. This meant the Rockies had the rights to sign me until the June 2002 draft. If you go to junior college, you get a year of experience at a higher level. You have a little bit of leverage with the contract as well by going to a junior college.
For myself, I felt the decision was easy to go to the University of Nevada. It wasn’t a situation where it would even be worth missing four years of school for financial reasons. I also made a commitment to the University of Nevada. If I spent a couple of years at college and played at a Division I skill level, I felt I would benefit myself more. I could hone my baseball skills a little and obviously get my degree if I went to Nevada. Although it was a big risk to go the University of Nevada, my decision paid a lot of dividends. It happens to a lot of kids where they get drafted out of high school, don’t sign and go to college. Unfortunately, they then get hurt in college and don’t get drafted by a team again. Thankfully and luckily for me, my situation didn’t turn out like that. I went to school and my baseball skills got much better. I got stronger, and gained some great experience having to face the three guys from Rice every other weekend it seemed like; Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, and Phillip Humber (all three pitchers were first round picks in the 2004 Major League draft). Going to school also helped me maturity-wise. Luckily, I met my wife there so it my decision all seemed to work out.
If you had a son who was drafted out of high school what would you tell him?
CG: My advice to him would be to weigh your options out. I felt I had the opportunity to go a four-year school, get an education, play baseball and gain the college experience. Gaining the college experience is the best experience anyone can make. You grow up at college. You learn how to become someone who is capable of living on their own outside, getting a job and going to the real world so to speak. I feel like it’s a necessary step for some people. It’s a necessary step to become well-rounded.
Once the season is over, what do you do in the off-season?
CG: I go back home to Northern California in the off-season. My wife and I have a house in the East Bay, so that’s kind of our own home base. When I was in the lower levels of the minor leagues, I worked for my grandfather. In the lower levels you don’t make a lot of money and you have to do something as work as well along with maintaining your work-out routine. I got to help my grandfather on the ranch, which was a lot of fun. I got to hang out with my grandparents, who are just unbelievable people. I helped coach at the local junior college during the off-season as well. Last year I was in the big leagues so I didn’t have a job in the off-season. However, in addition to working myself out and getting ready for the upcoming season, I played winter ball and got married, so it was busy off-season.
Do you have any superstitions?
CG: You’re probably talking to one of the most superstitious people on Earth. I hate to admit it because superstition just occurs for me. If I get a couple of hits one night, I’ll eat the exact same thing I ate the day before or I’ll wear my pants a certain way from then on. I will have little superstitions like that. As a player, you’re looking for anything you can to keep your luck going, especially with a hitting streak.
Thank you to both Chris and the Clippers organization for being very accessible for the interview. Game day for a player can be a very tense time, yet Chris was very accommodating for the interview. Kudos to him for getting called up to the Indians.
-Eitan the Intern