November 21, 2019

From Pizza Delivery to the Big Leagues: Jim Rushford and His Amazing Journey Through Baseball

August 24, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Research shows that only about 0.5 percent of high school seniors who play baseball will get drafted by a baseball team; and less than 11 percent of varsity baseball-playing college seniors will get the call. Of those few that become a draft pick, less than one in five will eventually play in the majors. These numbers all make what Jim Rushford did all the more special.

Growing up outside Chicago, Rushford was a huge fan of baseball. A solid high school career landed him an opportunity to play collegiately with San Diego State University. The left-handed thrower and hitter was a versatile asset for the Aztecs, playing outfield and pitching. Sometimes, he would play right field, be brought in to pitch to a left-handed batter and then be sent back to the outfield. There was even a stretch during his senior year where he filled in for injured star first baseman Travis Lee, who went on to be the first overall pick in the 1996 draft.

After going undrafted and spending some time working in the “real world,” Rushford was signed to play ball for the Dubois County Dragons of the independent Heartland League.  Pitching and playing a little outfield and first, he hit .341 and posted a 4.35 ERA, proving that he had more than enough talent to play professionally.

Rushford became an independent league star, culminating in 2000, when he hit .329 with 12 home runs and 53 RBIs for the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the Northern League. His hard work was drawing attention and it all paid off when he was signed by the Milwaukee Brewers after the season when he was 27.

Despite his unorthodox path, Rushford immediately showed he belonged. In 2001, his first season in the Milwaukee system, he played half a season at High-A and the other half at Double-A, hitting a combined .354 with 21 home runs, 91 RBIs and 103 runs scored in 122 games.

Hitting .316 in 2002 at Triple-A, Milwaukee decided to give Rushford a big-league shot. Called up in September, he played regularly for the remainder of the season, appearing in 23 games, hitting .143 (11 hits in 77 at-bats) with a home run and six RBIs.

Although he did not get another chance at the majors, Rushford went on to play professionally through the 2010 season, working in the minors, Mexico, Venezuela and spending his final two seasons back in independent ball. He also played in the systems of the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies. He finished his 14-year professional with a career batting average of .296 in the minors and .322 in the independent leagues. Not bad for someone who went undrafted out of high school and college and more than once thought his baseball journey was over.

Keep reading for more, as Rushford generously shared memories of his time in baseball.

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: I used to throw a rubber ball against the brick wall of my house between two sets of windows. This gave me great control because there was so much riding on each throw. I loved the pressure and the adrenaline it gave me.

I used to pretend I was Nolan Ryan (Astros) blowing fastballs by people. I’d go all nine. I loved that he could power his fastball by anyone for nine innings.

My other favorite pretend scenario was that I was Steve Carlton (Phillies), because he was left-handed like me. I would go eight innings and then Tug McGraw (Phillies), also a lefty, would come in pounding his glove like he used to do and close out the ninth.

Then I would pretend I was Ozzie Smith (Cardinals) playing shortstop and making acrobatic game-saving plays. I always wanted to be the first major league left-handed short stop. There was always something about the soft hands and footwork of the middle infield I enjoyed.

I always admired Pete Rose (Reds & Phillies) for his hard-nosed aggressive play. Nobody ever played with greater intensity than Charlie Hustle. The best player ever would have to have that ingredient as a part of his game.

Lastly, I grew up a Cubs fan in a northwest suburb of Chicago. I liked Bill Buckner, and later, Leon Durham, because they were great left-handed hitters. I also liked the acrobatic Ivan De Jesus at shortstop, the always great and consistent Ryne Sandberg at second base, and big Lee Smith coming out of the pen to close the game out.

How disappointed were you to not be drafted and how did you come to play in independent ball?: It was a little hard to take not being drafted. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself next other than finish school. I had plenty of warning that it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t drafted my junior year and I barely played my senior year. I wasn’t being contacted by anyone showing any sort of interest. But you still sort of hope that by some crazy fluke, some team takes you in a late round or contacts you after the draft about signing as a free agent or something.

I initially was sent to Salinas, California to play in the Independent Western Baseball League by Coach Jim Dietz at San Diego State. I made the trip up to NoCal, but never signed the contract. I figured it was over for me and I should just move on with my life. I ended up working as a roofer in San Diego for $7 an hour all that summer.

The following year, I realized that I had made a big mistake and that independent ball was not necessarily a dead end. I tried out for the Springfield Capitals in the Frontier League as an outfielder. I made it to the final cut but didn’t make the team.

Next, I headed up to Chicago where I grew up to visit some old friends. We were drinking beer in a bar and watching Sports Center. They were showing highlights of home runs that were hit that night. I looked at my friends and said, ‘I can do that.’

The very next day I started calling every old baseball contact I could think of. Through an old collegiate summer ball coach, Coach Rich Hinzo from Southwestern Junior College in San Diego, I was put in touch with a player he once had, catcher Donnie Diffenbough, who was playing in southern Indiana for the Dubois County Dragons in the Heartland League. Donnie put me through to the manager, RC Lichtenstein. I quickly told RC that I was a very capable left-handed pitcher and I’d like to play for him. He invited me down to tryout and the next morning I drove from Chicago to Jasper/Huntingburg, Indiana and pitched an inning. RC liked what he saw, and I was put on the roster as an additional pitcher. I soon talked RC into letting me hit. I pitched and hit for the Dragons and put up some good numbers which became my de facto baseball resumé. It was a great summer!

What was the best and/or strangest off-season job you had when you were a player?: I laid concrete, built the roof on a new Kmart, delivered pizzas, was a fitness trainer at a gym, was a bus boy, bouncer, and bar back at a high end bar in downtown San Diego (Croce’s), worked as mover for a moving company, and was a stagehand for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. I also did baseball camps and private hitting instruction. Some were off-season jobs, and some were failed attempts to start a new career path.

The moving job was by far the worst. It was physically grueling and a very negative environment. Pizza delivery and the gym were by far the most fun. I love fitness and weight lifting and who doesn’t like pizza. It was a fun positive environment for both.

How did you find out you were going to be signed by the Brewers, and did you believe that you were going to end up in the majors one day?: In the fall of 2000, my old Dubois County Dragons manager, RC Lichtenstein called me. He said he had been following my baseball career and he was now a pitching coach in the Brewers organization. He told me that the Brewers were cleaning house and revamping their farm system. They had a spot for a guy like me. They wanted a more experienced player who could play well and set a good example for their young prospects.

First of all, I had already had so many occasions where my hopes had been high only to be disappointed in the end. It was hard to imagine this time being any different. Yet, it did seem different. It was going to really happen this time I thought. But I proceeded with cautious optimism.

Reading between the lines, I wasn’t on their radar to be a future Major Leaguer at all. But still, this was the one seemingly insurmountable obstacle in my baseball career… A chance with an affiliated team.

Greg Riddoch, the farm director, later called me and then I knew it was real. But still, I didn’t tell anyone until the contract was mailed to my house and I had signed it. I even kept checking the transactions just to make sure it was real. I was just waiting for the catch in all of this and the disappointment to come and blind side me.

What an incredible exciting moment when I really felt thoroughly convinced that this was really happening. I had a real Major League organization that I belonged to. Forever I could say that the Milwaukee Brewers had signed me! They might not have had big plans for me, but I was going to take my opportunity to turn heads and change minds.

What do you remember most about your major league debut (against the Chicago Cubs)?: I was very nervous. I had never really even spent any time in a big-league clubhouse including spring training. I didn’t know how things worked up there. So, I was struggling to feel my way around. I wasn’t sure how to get into the stadium or what to wear or any of the etiquette involved. I didn’t know the players either.

When I stepped foot out onto the field, and it was a mix of thrill and excitement along with fear and uncertainty. The Cubs were taking batting practice and Sammy Sosa introduced himself to me. I said, ‘Nice to meet you. and he said, ‘The pleasure is mine,’ as if I was the superstar!

We started taking batting practice, and I guess I had a ton of adrenaline, because one of the coaches, Cecil Cooper, who knew me fairly well from the minors, kept telling me to dial my swing down a notch. I remember hearing a ball clang around in the bleachers after one swing I took, but I’m not entirely sure if I had hit it out of the park or if it was some other ball. The tempo of BP pitches was coming at me too fast, one after another, to be able to look. I grew up in Chicago as a Cubs fan. I used to go to Wrigley Field all the time as a kid. It would have been nice to know if I had actually hit one out of there that day.

After BP, one of the coaches, Gary Allenson, took me out to left field and made me run down a few dozen balls off his fungo. I had just had a minor groin pull in Triple-A Indianapolis, which almost cost me my call-up. I realized that they were testing my groin out to make sure that they weren’t putting an already injured player on the major league roster. I wasn’t certain at all that the groin wouldn’t pop at any second, but I made it through the test without raising any red flags. It wasn’t until after all of that, I went into the clubhouse and signed a mountain of paperwork which I assume was my big-league contract.

Matt Clement pitched that night. I was playing left field. I remember feeling very uneasy about it because I had always only played right field. Between my iffy groin, playing out of position, and it being my major league debut in my childhood hometown I was very nervous.

In my first at bat, I figured I’d take my usual patient approach and see a pitch or two first to size it up. Clement laid the first pitch fastball right down Main Street and I took it all the way for strike one. I’ll always regret not taking a big healthy hack at that first pitch. What if I had deposited the first major league pitch thrown to me in the bleachers of Wrigley Field? How cool would have that been!? It would have taken so much pressure off of me right away too. After that, the pitches just got nastier and nastier. I managed to avoid striking out and hit a grounder to short resulting in a fielder’s choice.

Out in left field, I was every bit as nervous. There were dozens of people I had known from growing up in Chicago who had just happened to be at the game that night. The bleacher creatures were ruthless, and I was now on the enemy team.

The starting pitcher, David Pember, was also making his MLB debut. In the first inning, Fred McGriff hit a high fly down the left field line into foul territory. It was dusk and very hard to see the ball. I had to run a good distance and deal with the bullpen mound in the field of play. There was a runner on third tagging. Fighting to track the ball, I ran up the front of the bullpen mound and caught the ball on the run. Then I stepped down the backside of the mound, set my feet, and delivered a perfect one hop long hop strike to home plate. It was a bang bang play, but the runner was called safe. Jerry Royster, the interim manager named after Davey Lopes was fired, came out to argue. Not an easy play at all, but I was just relieved that I came through.

A few innings later, Moises Alou hit a liner over my right shoulder with two outs and runners on base. I took a good route back but put my glove up an inch or two off the mark from the hooking liner. The ball deflected off my glove and rolled all the way back to the wall. Two runs scored on the error. The fans in the left field bleachers were turned up their heckling to a level 10 and absolutely started wearing me out. I wanted to dig a hole and climb in it.

I just remember looking at the scoreboard saying it was only the third inning and then looking at the clock indicating we were only an hour into the game. I felt like it had been 6 or more hours since the game had started, and I was absolutely exhausted. I was so nervous that my entire perception of time was completely distorted. Not a good mental state to be in for baseball. The problem was that I had always been the underdog with something to prove and someone to prove wrong. I was the man with nothing to lose. Now, all of a sudden, I had everything and felt I only had everything to lose… or at least so I thought. This was completely new territory for me. I didn’t know how to deal with it mentally.

A couple of innings later, a soft shallow liner was served out to left in front of me. Remembering my earlier faux pas, I desperately wanted to make amends. I charged the ball aggressively. Seeing that I was going to come up a hair short, I left my feet towards full extension. I gained just enough distance with the dive to cover the needed ground and made an absolute web gem.

I didn’t get a hit in the game and we lost. I actually didn’t get my first hit until my 12th at-bat. My error and my diving catch were re-played on Sports Center and Baseball Tonight for the rest of the 24-hour news cycle. It really hit me how everything in the majors is under a microscope and meticulously scrutinized. The pressure can be enormous if you don’t know how to handle it right.

Were there any pitchers who were active when you were in the majors that you would have liked to face, but did not get the chance to do so?: No. I didn’t play the day Randy Johnson threw against us. It would have been cool to face him for the novelty, but I think they did me a favor not putting me in that situation.

I faced many big-name pitchers between the minor leagues, winter ball, and major league spring training though.

What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: There were so many great memorable moments during my baseball career. The ones that stand out to me the most were getting signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, winning the single season minor league batting title, and hitting my one and only major league home run.

Getting signed by the Brewers was completely exhilarating. I had done so much and failed so many times that it seemed as though the impossible had just happened. I had spent years in independent ball, went to scout league games, tryout camps, and you name it for years without any success. A number of times I had been extremely hopeful about a possible opportunity only to be disappointed in the end. Many other times, nobody was interested in me at all. Sometimes the scouts would flat out tell me I wasn’t good enough. So signing that first contract with an affiliated team, the thought that I could say that I played with the Milwaukee Brewers organization for the rest of my life, and knowing that I was going to get a real shot to prove myself within an affiliated organization charged me up with nuclear-sized energy that lasted all the way through that first year with the Brewers.

My next best and proudest moment was when I realized I had won the single season minor league batting title in 2001. I had a phenomenal first year with the Brewers organization, batting .363 in High Desert (A+) and then .342 in Huntsville (Double-A) with 21 home runs and a combined .354 batting average.

I was reading a Baseball Weekly publication at the end of the regular season and they did a feature on the 2001 minor league batting champion, Rangers top prospect Hank Blalock. I went back and calculated my stats and realized that I had hit .354. I then double checked to see what the criteria was to be eligible and I couldn’t find any reason that I shouldn’t have been declared the winner. I called my agent, Pat Arter, who then called Baseball Weekly and it was determined that they had made a mistake. To make it up to me, they did a feature spread on me in a subsequent fall issue.

I consider winning the batting title that season my single greatest baseball accomplishment ever, because it required an entire season of grinding it out and staying hot from start to finish. Anybody who has ever played a full season of professional baseball understands how difficult that is to do. It doesn’t happen without an enormous amount of effort. You have to earn that for sure.

Lastly, the moment I wouldn’t trade for the world and the moment that made it all worth it, was when I hit my one and only major league home run on Friday, September 13th in Arizona. I was battling Rick Helling with two strikes. I spoiled five pitches or so fouling them off. Then he left one where I could handle it. It was a hanging curve that didn’t quite make it all the way down and in. I met it well enough to know it would have the distance to clear the fence, but I had pulled it directly down the right field line and it was questionable whether or not it would stay fair. I started running and watching the ball, just holding my breath. As I was rounding first base, I saw the ball hit the inside of the foul pole and carom into the right field bullpen. The base umpire signaled fair ball and that it was a home run.

At that moment, I felt the weight of the entire world lift off of my shoulders. All of the hard work, disappointments, failures, successes; they all had culminated into this one moment. No matter what, the stats would show that I hit one home run in the major leagues for the rest of eternity and nobody could erase it even if they wanted to.

Getting called up to the majors was huge, and getting my first major league hit was bigger, but nothing even came close to hitting a dinger in the Show. I finished that game 3-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs. I did a TV interview on the field after the game and the Phoenix paper’s sports section headline read ‘Pizza Man Delivers Brewers Over Helling, Diamondbacks’. For one day in time, I stood at the top of the tallest mountain. I saw the view and it was amazing!!!

You played professionally in different countries, which non-US country was your favorite and why?: I played in Puerto Rico (US), Venezuela, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. I enjoyed all of them. Venezuela was by far the most exciting for me. The atmosphere at the games was like what you would expect at World Cup soccer matches.

The energy at the Magallanes vs Caracas games was complete pandemonium. It was the equivalent of a Yankees-Red Sox World Series matchup. M-80s would be blown off in the stands the entire game. I even had a few thrown at me out in right field that exploded very close to me. The fans would do the wave and throw their Polar beer up into the air, showering everyone around them. Between innings, a dozen or more armed security guards with AK-47s and German Shepherd guard dogs would circle the perimeter of the outfield for protection. It was so deafeningly loud that you couldn’t hear the person directly next to you and I even lost my sense of balance due to my equilibrium being thrown off from the excessive noise. They would play loud music between every pitch and the Pepsi girls would dance suggestively in the stands wearing tight blue spandex outfits.

I was paid well and treated like royalty. The U.S. dollar goes a very long way in Venezuela, so I lived like a king. There was a very exciting night life and great restaurants. It was fun, scary, and exciting all at the same time. I did very well there too, which always makes a difference. Looking back on it, playing winter ball in all of these countries gave me invaluable playing experience and offered a great opportunity to see other places and cultures.

What, if anything, would you have done differently in your baseball career?:Despite always giving 100% and doing what I thought was best at the time, there are many things that I wish I had done differently.

I regret every time I ever threw my equipment or had a meltdown on the field. It does no good and it just draws attention to your mistakes and makes you look bad.

I didn’t understand the business aspect of baseball. I didn’t know how to sell myself to the organization, the fans, and the media. I didn’t understand how important the social and political aspects of the clubhouse could be. I just didn’t see the big picture. I was a real Forrest Gump. I just put my head down and went hard all of the time and I thought that would be enough. Good performance is mandatory, but the whole package matters a lot too.

I mostly wish I could have done my time in the major leagues with the wisdom and experience I had at the end of my career.

What are you up to these days?: I live in Sahuarita, Arizona with my wife of 22 years, Danielle. We have 3 children, Kelly (17), Milo (15), and Mia (12). I drive a haul truck at a copper mine and Danielle is a medical bill coding manager. Kelly is an accomplished ballerina, Milo is an up and coming baseball player, and Mia is an excellent horseback rider.

I was a volunteer coach for Milo’s varsity high school baseball team this spring and I managed his varsity team this past summer.

We are a host family for an Independent League player who is playing for the Tucson Saguaros in the Pecos League. The Pecos League is very similar to the type of Independent league that I got my start in professional baseball in.

I’d like to find some sort of employment in baseball in the next few years. I’m probably most qualified to be a coach or a scout, but I’d be open to anything baseball related.

I like to lift weights and run. I also have found a passion for economics. Most people’s eyes glaze over when the discussion turns towards economics, but I find the subject very exciting. Maybe that is related to my fascination with baseball statistics. I’m really into MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) which is a heterodox (non-mainstream) subset of post-Keynesian economics. I’ve probably read enough economics literature to have a PhD in it by now.

Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew or on Facebook.

He has also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) on baseball that are available on Amazon

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