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Thursday, May 5, 2016

'The Word' is... 'Hola!'

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Former St. Mary's ace Eric Wordekemper is seeing the world through baseball. He's been everywhere from Venezuala to Taiwan, Mexico to Alaska, Canada to Yankee Stadium. Despite some hurdles in realizing his major league dreams, he remains positive and is pitching well and enjoying his unexpected second stint in Mexican pro ball.
Eric Wordekemper continues his world tour via baseball.

The former St. Mary's High School and Creighton University phenom, continuing an odyssey that he hopes will lead to a major league diamond one day, recently ended a pitching experience abruptly in Taiwan, and just as quickly landed a contract to play pro ball in Mexico.

He has played in minor league ballparks across the eastern U.S. from Florida to Pennsylvania while in the New York Yankees minor league system, played in summer leagues in Canada and in Anchorage, Alaska in back-to-back seasons, played in pro leagues in Venezuela, Asia and now both winter and summer ball in Mexico.

About to turn 29 on August 8, Wordekemper knows that his window of opportunity will only be open for so long. "You have to keep pitching, you just can't stop pitching," he likes to say. "As long as I can keep doing it and I feel good and enjoy it, I want to keep going."

It has been frustrating at times. Wordekemper left college for the pro draft, signed by the Yankees. With the team's nearly-unlimited resources to buy players on the open market, there was little opportunity for Yankees' minor-leaguers to get an opportunity to join the big club. The right-hander converted from a starter to the bullpen to improve his chances as he climbed the minor league rungs, even getting a taste of The Show in a Yankees split-squad game, but eventually smacked a glass ceiling at the Triple A level. When he signed, the rules allowed a minor leaguer to become a free agent after four years - so that if they were mired in one organization, they could have an opportunity to sign with another franchise for a better shot at a major league contract.

Major league owners lobbied for, and received, an extension to six years - a large segment of a young player's career. Players like Wordekemper were not "grandfathered in" with the four-year rule that existed when they signed.

Eric played out his six years for the Yankees, expecting to be resigned or that his agent would negotiate a deal with another club. When the Yankees suddenly released him, he found that his representation hadn't marketed him well, and he was a man without a team for 2012.

He signed to play in Taiwan for one season, leaving almost immediately. He enjoyed the culture and the new opportunity, but soon suffered another setback.

After several years of pitching from the bullpen for a few innings an outing, he was made a starter for the 711 Lions club.

Suffering from a bit of tendonitis while throwing many more pitches than he was used to, he asked the team to skip one start to let his arm recover, and they agreed. But two days after that exchange, he was told that the team was sending him back to the U.S. - basically releasing him, though they would be required to pay him for the rest of the season under his contract.

He had thrown about 60 innings in Taiwan, where play is at a fairly high level, and teams often sign former U.S. major league talent. He went 3-4, pitching well but let down by a lack of scoring and defensive errors behind him. Despite its shortcomings, the team won the first half of the split season that is played in Taiwan, is pursuit of the All-Asia championship, that is the continent's version of the World Series.

Eric's father Dale says that while the league is world-quality in pitching and hitting, it's fielding is not up to U.S. standards, and you don't see things like a double play. "He was doing pretty well considering he hadn't started for six or seven years," his father said.

Still determined to pitch, Eric signed immediately with the Tobasco Cattlemen franchise in Mexico, where play is similar to U.S. Triple A level, one step short of the major leagues.

He was brought in as a closer, but is working toward a starting job. As long as he gets to pitch, his father said, Eric doesn't care what his role is.

Eric says his team is located "about as far south as you can go in Mexico, surrounded by swampy jungles. He's played in all climates and conditions, and adapted easily - and playing a ballgame in Cancun isn't a bad day's work.

Eric's team is currently third in the Mexican standings, and his arm is now feeling good. He immediately jumped into the lineup with several appearances in his first couple of weeks since arriving, giving up just one run in nine or ten innings of relief - for an ERA of 1.9.

With each change of uniform comes a change in culture.

The people in Taiwan were very nice, but very serious about their baseball, Eric says. In Mexico, the competition is slightly tougher, but the culture is more layed back, and people tend to have fun and celebrate with baseball.

Eric has already been drafted to play winter league ball in Mexico, and is leaning toward accepting a contract.

The major leagues scout Mexico heavily, and he hopes to keep his arm sharp and try to land a higher-level minor league contact in the U.S. for next spring. With the right situation and a franchise hungry for pitching talent and experience, he still could find himself on a big-league mound if he gets the right break, he feels.

One of Eric's friends, who he played minor league ball with a year ago in the Yankees system, has just been traded to the Mariners major league club - the same team Eric was nearly traded to in 2008-09 before the Yankees squelched a deal. Eric and his family can't help but wonder where he might be now if that deal had gone through.

He doesn't spend a lot of time thinking beyond baseball, but isn't far from completing a bachelor's degree in elementary education, and has some interest in coaching at the college or minor league level.

Meanwhile, The Word goes wherever they will put a baseball in his hand and send him out for one more game, one more inning, one more pitch, one more day in the sun doing what he loves more than anything.

Seeing the world through baseball. His dad smiles. "When I talk to him on the phone I like to kid him and ask, 'Which hemisphere are you in today?'"

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