The Hit That Changed Maxx Tissenbaum’s Career
This article by John Nolan appeared in Volume 5, Edition 10 of GAMEDAY.
The turning point of Maxx Tissenbaum’s baseball career didn’t come in the batter’s box or on the infield dirt.
It happened at center ice.
“We were on the penalty kill and I received a pass, clearing the puck up ice,” the 22-year old from Toronto recalls from a hockey game during his sophomore year of high school. “And out of nowhere, I got absolutely crushed.”
Michael Del Zotto, who now plays in the NHL for the New York Rangers, knocked Tissenbaum to the ice with a blindside check.
Though a little woozy, the curly brown-haired Tissenbaum was fine. After all, he was a hockey player. His coach had no qualms about putting him back in the game for his next shift.
But after the game, Tissenbaum got blind-sided again. This time, though, it wasn’t by any future NHL enforcer. It was by the coach of his travel baseball team, Jack Brown, who had been in the crowd to see him.
“I’m really glad I got to see you play the last hockey game of your career,” Brown said to Tissenbaum.
Brown believed that if the shortstop on his travel team wanted to reach his goal of becoming a major league player, he’d be best served allowing his body a break from hockey’s punishment.
“I was stunned. It completely caught me off guard,” the 5-10, 185-pound Tissenbaum says. “But then I realized, he’s right. It’s probably not a good idea to have guys who are 6-6, 230-pounds taking runs at me just before baseball season starts.”
So Tissenbaum heeded Brown’s advice and put away the skates. Seven years later, and no longer fearful of center-ice hits, Tissenbaum is the TinCaps team leader in base hits this season. Fort Wayne’s manager Jose Valentin has called him the team’s offensive MVP. And to think, he may have been just one collision away from never getting to the Midwest League in the first place.
“I still love hockey, and it was tough to give it up, but baseball has always been my first passion,” Tissenbaum says.
Circumstances helped make it that way. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, points out that in hockey-crazed Canada, boys born in the first three months of the year have a far greater chance of moving up the sport’s ranks than those born in April through December. It’s a product of the country’s youth hockey league cut-off date of January 1.
Tissenbaum was born in July. So the odds were never in his favor to become a professional hockey player in the first place. Tissenbaum’s birth in Toronto in 1991, however, did come at the right time from a baseball standpoint.
The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993. Tissenbaum admits he was too young to remember either of those championships, but just a year or two later, before he was even in kindergarten, Tissenbaum was introduced to a VHS documentary on Toronto’s ’93 season.
“It was my first favorite movie. I’d sit there and watch it on replay for hours,” he reminisces. “Then I’d go outside and try to make all the plays Robbie Alomar made or take a swing like Joe Carter and do his home-run trot around the bases to win the World Series.”
Tissenbaum comes from a baseball family. His dad, Gerry, grew up playing baseball and his mom, Lisa, grew up playing softball. His younger sister Molly currently plays softball (and hockey) at Harvard. And perhaps most instrumental for Tissenbaum’s development, his grandfather, Sheldon Taerk, is a longtime Blue Jays season ticket holder.
The combination of factors, plus an unyielding work ethic, led Tissenbaum to make the Canadian Junior National Team as a high school junior. That’s the moment when the infielder says he thought he could make a career out of playing the game he loved, because, by his own scouting report, Tissenbaum isn’t a standout talent.
“I’m the kind of player that grows on you with consistency,” the left-handed batter says. “I can’t hit the ball 600 feet, or run a 6.2 (60-yard dash), or throw the ball 95 miles an hour.”
Hence, why Tissenbaum prides himself on his baseball IQ. It’s an acumen he thinks he developed in part by spending 35-40 nights a summer at Blue Jays games with his grandfather. Since he was as young as three, they’d sit just behind the visiting team’s dugout, which provided an up-close lens for learning. While most little kids were searching around for the nearest cotton candy vendor, Tissenbaum was studying the every movement of the big leaguers in front of him. From hometown heroes like Carlos Delgado to visitors such as Derek Jeter, Tissenbaum took notes and asked his grandfather for explanations about everything that was unfolding.
That background made for an incredible moment on June 11, 2009 when Tissenbaum received a phone call from the Blue Jays. Some 1,299 picks after Stephen Strasburg went first, Tissenbaum was taken by Toronto in the 43rd round of the MLB Draft.
“I was in the car when I got the call,” Tissenbaum says. “I covered up the mic on the phone with my hand and whispered to my dad trying not to sound too overly excited. But I completely freaked out. It felt like 10 years of work and practice everyday finally paying off.”
But Tissenbaum knew he wasn’t ready to succeed yet in Minor League Baseball, so he didn’t sign with the team he grew up watching and instead accepted a scholarship to play at Stony Brook University in New York. “Tiss,” as teammates call him, helped lead the Cinderella Seawolves of the America East Conference all the way to the College World Series his junior year.
During Stony Brook’s run to Omaha, Tissenbaum was drafted again. This time by the Padres, and this time, he signed. Now in his first full season of professional baseball, he’s been a vital part of the TinCaps’ success.
“I’d say he’s been our MVP so far on offense,” the 16-year MLB veteran Valentin says of his everyday second baseman. “Of all the guys, he’s been my most consistent hitter throughout the year. He’s a kid who has a good idea of what he’s doing when he comes up to the plate — a better approach than most.”
In addition to leading the team in hits, doubles, and games played at the mid-point of July, Tissenbaum is the only player on the team who has walked more times than he’s struck out. It’s a mark of his maturity, and an attitude to never give in.
“There were scouts in high school who told me I needed to play catcher because I wouldn’t be fast enough to play infield,” Tissenbaum says. “Then they told me I needed to be a corner infielder. So I’m proud of the fact that I’m doing it now at second and sometimes short.”
The time in high school when Brown told Tissenbaum to give up hockey may be the only time in his life he’s ever succumbed to a doubter.
“That pushes me, when someone says I can’t do something or I’m not good enough to do something,” Tissenbaum says. “It’s something I’ve always secretly liked.”