In a Game of Failure, Stubblefield Finds Success in a Second Chance
Signing up to play professional baseball means that you expect to fail.
You expect to fail in the field.
You expect to fail at the plate at least 70% of the time.
And worst of all, you are expected to fail in your pursuit of playing Major League Baseball, as nearly 90% of players in Minor League Baseball will never reach the majors.
Statistically speaking, former Fort Wayne TinCaps infielder Tyler Stubblefield, who has officially retired from playing baseball, is among the 90%, but by no means would he consider himself a failure.
The 2013 Fort Wayne TinCaps season came to a close September 9, 2013, with a playoff loss against the South Bend Silver Hawks at Coveleski Stadium. The only things that stood between the players and their trips home were a two-hour bus ride and the cleaning out of their lockers the next day.
Stubblefield, who’s now 26 years old, was on the first shuttle out of Fort Wayne the next day. He was in his car by 7 a.m. and driving home to Georgia, where he was born and where he played his college ball at Kennesaw State University. Other than home, he wasn’t quite sure where he was headed. Until his phone rang…
The 2013 season was an up-and-down ride for the fourth-year pro. He opened the year like he had each of the previous three seasons—at Spring Training in Arizona. Except this season, the day before players broke camp to head to their respective assignments, Stubblefield was cut by the Padres. He was a player without anywhere to play. It was then, he started to learn, that baseball is not only a business, but it’s also a game that is built around relationships.
When Stubblfield played for the TinCaps in 2011, the first of his three seasons in Fort Wayne, he was managed by Shawn Wooten. Stubby, as most everyone in baseball knows him, had a great relationship with Wooten who, for the last two seasons was the manager of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Advanced-A affiliate of the Padres. (This year Wooten will be the hitting coach for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts (Dodgers), which will be managed by former Great Lakes Loons skipper Razor Shines.) Wooten told Stubby that he’d help find him somewhere to play, and he came through for his former player. With the help of TinCaps hitting coach Morgan Burkhart, who had previously been a manager in the Frontier League, Wooten landed Stubblefield a spot with the Southern Illinois Miners. It wasn’t affiliated baseball, but it was a gig.
While Stubblefield was getting settled at Rent One Park in Marion, Illinois, the home of the Miners, Stephen Carmon, a shortshop out of the University of South Carolina-Aiken, had locked down the starting gig for Jose Valentin’s team. Then, one day about three weeks into his stay with the Miners, Stubblfield got a text message from the man in charge of the minor leagues for San Diego’s system — Padres Director of Player Development Randy Smith.
“What league are you in,” it said.
“Frontier League. What’s up?” Stubblefield wrote back.
“Would you be interested in being a Padre again?” the reply read.
“Tomorrow would be fine,” an interested Stubblefield typed in response.
Carmon had gone down with a season-ending injury, and the TinCaps were in need of a shortstop. Stubblefield was back.
On the other end of that early-morning phone call was Stubblefield’s college hitting coach, Ryan Coe, now a scout for the Texas Rangers. Coe had given Stubblefield one opportunity—the chance to play college baseball—and was about to present him with another.
“He told me, ‘You’re 26 years old and you’re in Low-A. Why don’t you stay in the game and keep making money?”
Coe had heard that there were some open scouting positions within the Padres organization, and made a call to recommend Stubblefield for one of those spots.
Stubby, who’d always been one of the most cerebral and well-liked players on the teams he played for in Fort Wayne, wasn’t quite sure about leaving the game just yet.
“My plans for after the season depended on how I did. If I got there and had an average year and got benched, I was gonna be done,” he said. “I had the best statistical year through the Frontier League and playing in Fort Wayne. I was leaving there and thought I felt like I bought myself another year to ply. I’ll never know if I did or not.”
The next day, Stubblefield got a phone call from Chip Lawrence, who is the Southeast regional scouting supervisor for the Padres.
“He put me through a little interview process on the phone,” Stubblefield said. “At first I was a little shocked and he was like, ‘Ok thanks.” I thought (the chance to work for them) was over. I was deer hunting a week later and I was in the deer stand and I saw a phone call pop up from San Diego. It ruined my hunt but it was (Padres Director of Scouting) Billy Gasparino and (the PadreS) were going to have me out to interview in Nashville.”
Stubblefield has always “gotten it” when it comes to baseball. He knows what it takes to get a starting job and be on the field every day. He knows that doing interviews with local media and team broadcasters is part of the gig, like it or not. He knew the tricks of the trade. However, he wasn’t used to formal settings.
“I’ve never done any (job) interviews. Any interview I’ve ever done in my life has been on a baseball field. I was nervous, I was shaking, sweating,” Stubblefield said, thinking back to his suit-and-tie meeting with the Padres in Nashville.
With some of the team’s most important player development personnel in the room, Stubblefield realized he was still talking his favorite language: baseball. The interview wasn’t formal at all, he said, but more of a round-table discussion with questions targeted toward how he might fare as a scout:
-What are you going to do when you’re driving through the boondocks on a Tuesday night at 12 a.m. on the way to see another player?
-Will you be confident enough in yourself to stand up for a player you think is going to make it to the big leagues?
After the questions were done, Stubby got the answer he wanted to hear—the Padres liked his baseball knowledge and he was set to begin the next chapter of his baseball career as a scout.
When I caught up with Stubblefield, he was just leaving a hotel in North Carolina. The top two players in next year’s draft, North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon and East Carolina University’s Jeff Hoffman, are both there and he was in the area for a visit. Sure, the Padres don’t pick until the 13th spot, but they’ve got to be prepared for everything.
“I’ve spent seven nights in a hotel in the last eight days. It’s Minor League Baseball except I’m driving and I make my own schedule. Six months of tearing the roads up, putting miles on your car and stressing over paperwork,” is how Stubblefield describes his new profession.
“I love the game of baseball. I’m gonna attack scouting like I attacked playing. I was an overachiever on the field. I never should have played at the levels I played at. I’m going to take my overachievability and outwork other guys. I just came off the field with players who are at the Low-A level so I know what a pro athlete looks like and what these players look like. I can compare a lot of these guys to what I saw.”
While he’s gotten to making up new words like “overachievability”, he’ll have to get used to an entire dictionary of new scouting terms. He says that, along with the paperwork for player evaluations, will be the biggest adjustments.
“It’s an artwork to sit down at a computer at night and paint a picture with words for your general manager and your scouting director to read and like. For me it’s a huge learning process, and if I don’t get it, it will hinder me from being the scout or employee that I want to be. I think I see the same things that more veteran guys see–they can write a little check mark and write a paragraph off of that. I have to write the whole paragraph and then go back and make it longer and better to make it understandable for my bosses.”
Stubblefield’s territory covers Northeast Georgia, all of South Carolina and all of North Carolina. He’s again signed up for a thankless existence, one that comes with even less recognition and accolades than playing in the Midwest League, and most days even that’s not saying much, unless you’re playing in Fort Wayne.
“What I’ll remember most is how awesome the fans were and the field and the atmosphere that we got to play in every night,” Stubblefield said of his time in a TinCaps uniform. “I’ve done three in-home visits with high school kids and the first thing I talk about is how much of an impact the fans and the atmosphere Fort Wayne brings to the table.”
He’ll still be eating fast food, still be watching baseball, but now he’ll be getting paid more than he was as a player. But when your paycheck is $1,100 per month, as it is in the Midwest League, it’s not hard to go anywhere but up.
“Right now,” Stubblefield says, “the decision is easy. I thought it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It still might be come April 1st when all of my buddies break camp, but right now for me it was being 26. I want to be able to have a family or have money and start a life and actually have something to put in the bank and sit back on. It’s time to start.”