Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interview Part 1: Jim Blueberg, So Thankful

Recreation Park in Visalia in 2012. Jim Blueberg played at Recreation Park in 1988 and 1989 with San Bernardino. (Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: High School to College | Part 2: College to the Pros
Part 3: In the Pros | Part 4: Pros to Scouting

Jim Blueberg hardly played baseball at all in high school. He tried out for his school's team as a freshman, got cut and didn't try again.

After making his way to Yuba College in California, though, he figured he'd try again.

This time, Blueberg made it. He was a baseball player.

"I was a player genuinely that was just happy to be there," Blueberg recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently, "so thankful just to get the opportunity. I was living out a childhood dream that I thought I would never happen."

Within two years, that kid who got cut from his high school baseball team as a freshman was a professional prospect, one who would be taken in the second round of the January 1986 draft.

"When I got cut (in high school) it was like somebody telling you you're not good enough and I believed it," Blueberg said. "And to this day, I preach to my kids, 'don't ever let anybody - anybody - tell you you're not good enough. Because what they're not Gospel."
Citi Field in 2009. Jim Blueberg serves as a scout for the Mets, going to Citi each year for the draft. (Greatest 21 Days)
Blueberg was good enough. He was good enough to play professionally for six seasons and get two steps away from the majors.

He's since been good enough for a long career in the steel industry and, more recently, as a scout for the New York Mets.

Blueberg spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his Nevada home and before heading out on a scouting trip to Hawaii.

The father of three tracked his career from that high school tryout where he didn't make it to his college tryout where he wasn't sure he could make it. And when he did make it, he made it to the pros, where it was seemingly only injury that stopped him from making the majors.

Blueberg was born in California, his family moving to Reno when he was young. He played Little League growing up. He also played in a summer league when he got older. But he didn't play in high school, cut in freshman tryouts.

Thinking he wasn't that good, Blueberg turned to wrestling and boxing. His father, Jim Sr., was raised in Chicago and taught his son how to box. His training paid off later with a college tournament win over an older junior Olympian in a televised match.

He also saw the one-on-one confrontation inherent in wrestling and boxing being paralleled on the pitching mound with both the mental and physical parts of the game. It's something he said he's been able to carry throughout his life.

"So much of it has to do with confidence, grit and the ability to face adversity," Blueberg said. "All these things came into play."
Reno, Nevada, in 2007. Jim Blueberg grew up in Reno and lives in the area. (Greatest 21 Days)
Blueberg focused on those during the school year, setting baseball aside. He always felt like he could throw harder than the other guys in high school, but nobody really gave him a chance, he recalled.

He did return to the game in the summer, catching on with a local summer league team in the Reno area and he pitched well. His team won the state tournament and he even recalled throwing a couple no-hitters.

He described himself as a "strong arm, fastball, slurvy slider guy." By the time he was 18, a summer league coach tried to keep him in the game. The coach suggested Blueberg eventually might be good enough to turn pro, he recalled.

Blueberg was also a late-bloomer. He recalled wrestling his senior year at the 165-pound weight class. By the time he was a pro, he was up to 225. He also grew two inches.

But the pros, and even college, had to wait. Blueberg graduated and got a job as a steel worker. His father had owned a steel business since he was 12 and Blueberg just went to work.

Soon, though, a friend of his, a football player who was a year lower than Blueberg, graduated and headed off to college to play quarterback. Blueberg offered to come along to be his roommate.

Though he'd had some success in that summer league, Blueberg described his tryout for this college team as a whim.

"I thought I'd tryout for the team in college just for the heck of it," Blueberg said. "I didn't really expect to make it, but I wanted to try because I always wanted to play."

He also turned to his faith.
San Bernardino's Fiscalini Field in 2012. Jim Blueberg played at Fiscalini in two seasons, 1988 and 1989. (Greatest 21 Days)
"I just went into it with the attitude that I've got nothing to lose," Blueberg said. "I have tremendous faith and I just prayed and asked God to bless it and here I am, 30 years later, still playing in this game, all from a simple prayer asking and believing and giving it a shot."

So, Blueberg went in to sign up. He recalled one of the first tasks from Yuba coach Gary Engelken being to fill out a paper with all his accolades from high school. He recalled looking around and seeing all the other pitchers busily filling up their pages.

Blueberg recalled simply signing his name on the top, handing it in to the coach blank and walking out.

"I was actually embarrassed," Blueberg recalled. "I was like, 'what am I doing? Who am I kidding?'"

But Blueberg got some on-field time and, by the time the final cuts were made, Blueberg was on the team.

He played his first season as a reliever and did well, with an ERA in the 3s, he recalled. It was his sophomore year where everything came together.

Blueberg started throwing harder. He also started to get the attention of scouts.

Soon, Blueberg's coach Engelken called him into the office. A scout, Engelken relayed, had shown some interest in Blueberg. The scout just needed to see if Blueberg could hit 90 on the radar gun.

"That was when I first had an inclination that something really good could come out of all this," Blueberg recalled.
Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield in 2012. Jim Blueberg played at Sam Lynn in 1988 and 1989 with San Bernardino. (Greatest 21 Days)
He was ready to try for it in his next start. He recalled it being at American River College and striking out the first three guys he faced. Except there was nobody in the stands, or, at least, no scouts.

He recalled thinking maybe Engelken had been messing around with him. But then three or four guys came walking toward the stands in trench coats with their radar gun briefcases. 

Blueberg continued doing what he had been doing. In between innings, he had a friend go check with them to see how fast he was throwing. On the first check, Blueberg had hit 89. The next inning, he hit 90.

Then, after a few innings, the scouts got up and left.

"I thought I did something wrong," Blueberg recalled. "But they saw what they needed to see."

He was basically listed as a "follow," meaning they were going to keep tabs on him.

More and more scouts started showing up. One game, against a team with another prospect, Blueberg recalled there having to be 40 scouts up and down the fences watching. It was a circus, he recalled.

"It was a fantastic rags-to-riches type feeling for me," Blueberg said, "because I went from being really a nobody to a somebody at that point in my life, where I had something to be proud of."

Within a few months, Blueberg had something else to be proud of: Getting taken in the second round of the January draft by the Seattle Mariners. (Part 2)

Part 1: High School to College | Part 2: College to the Pros
Part 3: In the Pros | Part 4: Pros to Scouting

Go to Part 2: Jim Blueberg, His Mentality

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