Thursday, July 18, 2013

Interview Part 2: Chris Vasquez, Fresh Air

Chris Vasquez playing for the independent Madison Black Wolf. Vasquez played eight seasons in independent ball, after five in the minors. (Photo Provided)
Part 1: That Ability | Part 2: Fresh Air

Coming off five seasons where he had been unable to make it out of single-A, Chris Vasquez thought he had earned a spot on the AA roster for 1995. The Reds, though, felt different, Vasquez recalled.

It was enough for the outfielder from California to contemplate that his time in baseball was done, he recalled - then he got a call from an old friend.

The friend was a player name Jon Fuller, whom Vasquez had played with in the Reds system. The call was about independent baseball. Would Vasquez be interested? If he was, there were plenty of slots open.

The teams, Fuller explained, were fully independent. There was no larger organization to play for. But they still got paid to play ball.

"I said, 'That sounds good to me,'" Vasquez recalled to The Greatest 21 Days. "And I ended up staying there for eight years."

He stayed because, once he stepped on that new field, Vasquez recalled immediately liked what he saw.

"It was like taking a big breath of fresh air in, letting me play that way I knew how to play," Vasquez recalled. "It was. It felt like telling an artist, here's your canvas, do whatever you want."

Sioux City's Lewis & Clark Park in 2009. Chris Vasquez played at Lewis & Clark in 1999 and 2000 with the visiting Madison Black Wolf. (G21D Photo)
Vasquez spoke with The Greatest 21 Days by phone recently from his Iowa home, a transplanted Californian living in a city, Cedar Rapids, where he once played.

Vasquez touched on his roots, growing up playing baseball on successful teams in Southern California, then turning pro after a brief detour to college.

From there, Vasquez touched on the successes and failures of playing in the low minors, including getting sent home early from his first season, as well as the frustrations of not getting higher. Then, there was the new baseball life of independent ball that extended his career by almost a decade.

After five seasons in the minors without making it above single-A, Vasquez redoubled his efforts to improve after 1994. He recalled signed on with Jaeger Sports in California, trying to improve the mental aspect of the game. He even tried catching.

Returning to the Reds, Vasquez ended up getting into seven games at AA Chattanooga. Then, in the aftermath of the strike, Vasquez recalled getting told he would have to go back down to extended spring training. In his sixth pro season, that wasn't what he wanted to do, so he went home.

Then, on his old friend's advice, he tried independent ball. He got a few games in Little Falls, NY, in the Northeast League, then, after an injury played the rest of the year for Sonoma County of the Western League.
Sioux Falls Stadium in South Dakota in 2012. Chris Vasquez played at Sioux Falls Stadium in 1999 and 2000 as a member of the Madison Black Wolf. (G21D Photo)
Again, Vasquez thought that was it. Then he got another call, from a Sonoma County coach then with the Western League's Tri-City team. Did he want to play again? Sure, Vasquez recalled responding, why not?

"I ended up showing up and started the first game back," Vasquez said. "I didn't pick up a bat for a year, pretty much the whole off-season, and I jumped in there and started playing."

He ended up hitting .289 over 80 games that year. He didn't play in 1997, but returned to the field for 1998 after another call from Fuller, playing with Grays Harbor/Western Road Warriors.

That Grays Harbor team, Vasquez recalled, folded a few games into the season and the team didn't have a home for the rest of the year, essentially living out of a bus.

"That was awesome," Vasquez recalled. "It was like a rock band being on tour for a year. It was cool. We did, we literally lived out of a bus."

They did have a home base, in Chico, with fellow league-member Chico Heat. With that, Vasquez recalled his Western Warriors paying them back by beating them in the playoffs and making the championship series.

From there, Vasquez moved to independent Madison in 1999, returning there in 2000. In both seasons, he hit over .300, including .346 in 1999.

He recalled playing well enough to get a look by the Rangers. But, when they found out how old he was, by 1999 he was 27, they weren't interested anymore. And Vasquez was fine with that.
Brockton Rox coach Ed Nottle, second from right, at Pittsfield's Wahconah Park in 2011. In 2002, Chris Vasquez played for Nottle at Brockton and played at Pittsfield. (G21D Photo)
"I have fun playing ball, I get paid decent," Vasquez recalled thinking. "I just played because I wanted to play."

Vasquez continued playing, not playing his final game until 2004. In that time, he played with Madison, Lincoln, Berkshire, Brockton and Jackson. He returned in 2004 after another year off, for the wrong reasons, Vasquez recalled, and it showed on the field.

But independent ball was changing, too, Vasquez said. Gone were the days when managers controlled their own teams. Now, there was a front office getting involved.

At Brockton in 2002, a slow start led to Vasquez told by his manager Ed Nottle that he was being released. The front office wanted to make a change, no matter that Vasquez was a historically slow starter, Vasquez recalled.

"He knew what kind of player I was," Vasquez recalled of Nottle, "and I could tell that he was telling the truth."

So, after that last attempt with Jackson in 2004, Vasquez' 13-season pro career was over. And he actually recalled feeling kind of lost.

His home life had been poor for several years. By then, he and his first wife had moved to Cedar Rapids, her hometown, and he had settled there. He had also lost the camaraderie that playing baseball on a daily basis brings.

Vasquez actually described what happened as a tailspin.

"All of a sudden you're hanging your hat in one place and I'm not used to doing that," Vasquez recalled. "I had a really hard time."

But he also got himself out of that.

"I had to stop and really show down and take a look to see what's really going on," Vasquez said.

Chris Vasquez with his wife Angela. The two were married in October 2012 and live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (G21D Photo)
Where he's at now is he's happily remarried and working at a top Cedar Rapids company.

Vasquez married his wife Angela Oct. 11, 2012, a date, 10-11-12, that Vasquez joked he wouldn't forget. He has three children of his own, ages 20 and twin 17-year-olds. He also now has a step-daughter, age 22. She just graduated from the University of Iowa.

He's also filled that baseball camaraderie with a different kind of camaraderie that comes with motorcycles and a local motorcycle club.

As for his baseball career, Vasquez said he sometimes has had trouble talking about it, feeling bitter. As time passed, though, he's come to look at it as an honor that he got to play so long.

Looking back to his time in youth baseball, a time marked by much success on the field, Vasquez also said he realizes how lucky he was.

"All the natural ability and all that, a lot of it's luck. It is, a lot of it's luck," Vasquez said, noting all the other good players he played with on those successful youth teams. "I was the only one out of the group that ended up getting signed and doing something."

Part 1: That Ability | Part 2: Fresh Air

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