From Fort Wayne to Fruition: George Kottaras

Welcome to the fifth installment of our new series here on “It’s All Relative”, From Fort Wayne to Fruition, a look at players that have spent time during their minor league careers with either the Wizards or the TinCaps and then have gone on to play Major League Baseball. The word fruition, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as ”the state of being real or complete”, and for our purposes that’s very fitting. Players reaching the majors have their dream come to fruition, although by no means does that mean their journey is complete. Some of the players in this series have had storied MLB careers, while others have only seen a few games of time in the show. However, the odds of ever making it onto a Minor League Baseball roster, let alone an MLB one, are slim, and so it’s worth recognizing those who have been fortunate and talented enough to reach the apex of professional baseball in the United States.

I’m going to go in no particular order with any of these players, but if you do have any requests, please do let me know and I’ll be happy to accommodate you. (You can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter, @MikeCouzens.) As of today, the list of former Fort Wayne players to have reached the majors stands at 118. Some of the more notable alums include LaTroy Hawkins, AJ Pierzynski, Torii Hunter, and David Eckstein, while some names you may not be as familiar with, like Mike Baxter or George Kottaras. Each one of them has a story–where they’re from, how they got to Fort Wayne and, ultimately, how they got to play in Major League Baseball.

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Just imagine…Mean Girls is one of the most popular movies in America, George Bush has just been re-elected for a second term in office, Lance Armstrong has won his sixth Tour de France title, and George Kottaras is playing catcher for the Fort Wayne Wizards. Obviously, one of these events is significantly less important than the other (sorry, Lindsay Lohan).

Kottaras was selected by the Padres in the 20th round of the 2002 MLB draft as a draft-and-follow, and he spent the next year at Connors State College in Warner, Oklahoma. If you’re not familiar with what the draft-and-follow refers to (it’s a since-eliminated option for drafted players), here’s Baseball-Reference.com to explain:

“A draft-and-follow is a player selected usually in the later rounds of the amateur draft by a team that does not intend to offer him a contract immediately . The typical draft-and-follow pick will be attending a junior college or will be a college player with at least a year of eligibility remaining as a player. The team that drafts him has a year to decide whether to offer him a professional contract before the player becomes eligible for the next year’s amateur draft. This allows the drafting team to see him play for another season before making this decision.”

(Much more on the elimination of draft-and-follow can be found here http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070531&content_id=1997066&fext=.jsp, including thoughts from former Padres Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Grady Fuson.)

Kottaras signed with the Padres and headed to Idaho Falls (now a Royals affiliate) for the 2003 season, playing in 42 games with the Padres’ rookie-level club.

The next season Kottaras opened the year with Manager Randy Ready and the Fort Wayne Wizards. Statistically speaking, the catcher put up good numbers: .310, 7 HR, 46 RBI in 78 games. He also did something that most players will never get to do, and that’s represent their “country” in the Olympics. The Canadian-born player has Greek lineage, which allowed him to represent the host country that year:

“Baseball is not big in Greece,” Brewers catcher George Kottaras said. “They’re kind of learning about it. They’re trying to learn the game, basically.”

Kottaras should know. The Canadian played first base and caught for Team Greece seven years ago.

Not surprisingly, Kottaras was one of the very few guys on the team who could actually speak Greek.

“There were only about one or two others,” Kottaras said. “I’m fluent so I was kind of like the tour guide. They wanted me to talk to people for them. It was kind of cool.”

Kottaras’ parents immigrated to Toronto from Greece, but not together. They met in that beautiful international city and George was born almost 28 years ago in Scarborough, Ontario. His heritage and baseball skills made him eminently qualified for the Greek Olympic baseball team.

“I think one of your great-grandparents or something had to be born there,” Kottaras said. “Both of my parents were born there. They were just trying to find people who could play. We had an OK team. It was a good experience for us.”

Not as good as for the Cubans, who won gold, or the Australians, represented by former Brewers Dave Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd, who finished second. But it was certainly better than the Americans, who didn’t even qualify for the Olympics at their own game.

But for two Greek players and a whole bunch of North Americans, it was an encouraging start. Kottaras, who was listed as American-affiliated because he was playing for the Fort Wayne Wizards at the time, had a three-hit game against Italy in the only tournament victory for Team Greece.

What he cherishes most, though, was the goose-bump raising sensation caused when he was part of the Greek delegation that entered the stadium last on opening night to thunderous, emotional cheers of “Hellas, Hellas.”

“The greatest experience was going to the opening ceremonies,” he said. “Everyone was just going nuts. It was a bone-chilling experience I’ll never forget, for sure.”

The lone Greek victory came against Italy that year. Team Greece also had Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis on the roster.

Kottaras missed about a month of the season for the Olympics, with a gap in his MiLB stats from July 31st to August 30th. He closed out the season with the Wizards, playing the final eight games of the year with the club.

His progression following that season was much quicker, as he reached Double-A Mobile in 2005, and Triple-A Portland in 2006.

During the middle of the 2006 season, he talked with Baseball America regarding his physical size and defensive skill:

“BA: How about your defense behind the plate? Is there anything you’ve been working on defensively?

GK: I’ve been trying to get my transfer and release down a little better. It’s been tough–like it’s tough to do it in the games because everything’s happening so fast and there are so many factors that can go wrong. So I just try to stay positive with it and look at it as an uphill climb. I just want to keep getting better and climbing uphill.

BA: You take it as a personal challenge when someone tries to steal a bag from you?

GK: Definitely. Everything’s personal. They’re up against you. There’s the pitcher’s speed in how quick he is to the plate–that’s just one factor to consider–but I get mad when someone steals on us. And when someone does, that just re-focuses me for the next time and it kind of fires me up more to get the next guy who tries it.

BA: Some scouts have knocked you in the past because of your size (Kottaras is listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds) at your position. How do you feel your size affects your ability to not only catch, but to also be a productive hitter with power?

GK: I think the size thing is people tend to question my longevity and durability in going through a whole season. Last year was the first time I played an entire full year of full season ball. I worked out probably more this past offseason than I had before to prove that I could do it–to prove that I belong where I am, and I think my numbers both offensively and defensively will speak for themselves when it’s all said and done.”

On August 31,, 2006, he was traded to the Padres in a deal for David Wells, who the Padres hoped would boost their chances for a playoff run. (They got eliminated in the first round by St. Louis.) Here’s what an ESPN.com article said of Kottaras at the time:

“Kottaras, 23, was rated San Diego’s No. 2 prospect by Baseball America before this season. He has a smooth swing and excellent plate discipline, and he posted an exceptional .392 on-base percentage in his first three seasons in the minors.

The main criticisms of Kottaras: He’s a bit undersized for a catcher at 6-0 and 185 pounds, and some baseball talent evaluators question his durability. While Kottaras has a strong throwing arm, his accuracy also comes and goes at times.

Kottaras grew up in Canada and got a late start playing baseball, so the Red Sox think he has some room to refine his game. The Padres, who have Josh Bard and Rob Bowen on their roster along with Mike Piazza, are convinced they’re covered at the catching position for the foreseeable future.

Kottaras began this season hitting .276 in 78 games with San Diego’s Double-A affiliate in Mobile.”

(Side note: Who remembered that Mike Piazza went to the Padres for a year? Even as a Mets fan, I forgot about that.)

At age 24, Kottaras spent his 2007 season at Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox), splitting playing time with Kevin Cash. (If you’ve never been to McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, I highly recommend you make the trip. It’s an older venue, but one of the best in Minor League Baseball, in my opinion.)

McCoy Stadium  - Home of the Pawtucket Red Sox

McCoy Stadium – Home of the Pawtucket Red Sox

The 2008 season saw Kottaras again travel the International League, until it all came to fruition on September 13 when he made his MLB debut against the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time, he was one of four catchers on the Red Sox roster, which presented a bit of a dilemma for then-Manager Terry Francona:

“How he gets into games, or if . . . I really don’t know,” Francona said. “The opportunity may present itself at some point. . . . You’re always trying to strike a balance and trying to stay ahead of everything so that if something comes up you don’t miss an opportunity to maybe get a Kottaras an at-bat. But I don’t know how you can game plan how to get four catchers in a game. Something’s either going to go wrong or terribly right . . . but even if he’s working in the bullpen with Tuck, it’s an exciting time for him.”

When 2009 rolled around, Kottaras made the Red Sox as a backup to Jason Varitek, and was primarily used as the personal catcher for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Former Wizard George Kottaras celebrates a Red Sox win with Tim Wakefield.

Former Wizard George Kottaras celebrates a Red Sox win with Tim Wakefield.

Even in spring training, mastering the art of the knuckleball proved no easy task for the former Midwest League backstop, wrote Adam Kilgore, then of The Boston Globe:

“Twice a day, Kottaras fields a bucket of balls shot through a pitching machine meant to mimic a knuckleball. Those sessions take place with only bullpen coach Gary Tuck and a few fellow catchers watching. This was different. The go-ahead run stood 90 feet away, under the lights, and in front of 11,113 fans, a record for Steinbrenner Field.

“Just trying not to have the anxiety of letting it go by you,” Kottaras said. “Just taking as it is, like with nobody on, basically. Still trying to catch them all and keep them in front.

“You can only work on it so much. Once you’re in the game, it’s a different feel, because you don’t know what the ball is going to do.”

And Wakefield had saved some of his most devilish knuckleballs. He threw one that started at Damon’s stomach and dived to his feet as Damon swung over it. Kottaras stabbed at it, his mitt rubbing the dirt, and caught it. The next knuckler followed a similar trajectory. Again Damon swung through it, and Kottaras caught the ball.

Damon fouled a pitch off and then dribbled an infield single; Gardner scored anyway, but Kottaras’s performance imbued Wakefield with confidence, which Kottaras had been doing all night.

“I’m as comfortable with him as I am with [Kevin] Cash last year,” Wakefield said.”

After that season he was released by the Red Sox and picked up by the Brewers, where he played in 2010, 2011, and 2012. He played for Oakland (27 games) in 2012, too, after being traded for pitcher Fautino De Los Santos. In 2013, he was claimed off waivers by the Royals and played in 46 games for Kansas City. Then, in November of last year he was traded to the Cubs for cash, marking the fourth MLB team he’ll have played for.

This year it looks like the Cubs will aim to have Wellington Castillo as their #1 catching option, with Kottaras as a possible backup:

“Last year veteran Dioner Navarro was an important mentor to Castillo, and he also had a career year at the plate, batting .300 with 13 homers.

Navarro signed with Toronto this off-season, and the Cubs have turned to another veteran, George Kottaras. The 30-year-old Kottaras has played for Boston, Milwaukee, Oakland and Kansas City, putting up a career hitting line of .214/.324.406 with 29 homers.”

Here in Fort Wayne, we’ll continue to follow Kottaras’ career, as we fondly observe the career of the 77th Fort Wayne player to reach the big leagues.

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If you have any memories of Kottaras, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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MUSICAL GUEST

Red Hot Chili Peppers…take it away!

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to get in touch, you can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter @MikeCouzens.

MCsig

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