Winkelsas' rocky road leads to Majors
Reliever returns to the big leagues for the first time since 1999
CINCINNATI -- Joe Winkelsas took a job as a garbage man, and it led him back to the Major Leagues. That's just another unlikely wrinkle in the amazing story of the newest Milwaukee Brewer.
Winkelsas, 32, learned late Monday night that he was headed back to the big leagues for the first time since 1999, when he pitched one-third of an inning for the Braves in the midst of personal turmoil that went well beyond the baseball diamond. A roster spot opened when the Brewers designated slumping reliever Justin Lehr for assignment.
"Sometimes a rocky road can lead to a beautiful place," said Winkelsas, who was initially mistaken by some teammates for a member of the Reds' clubhouse staff. "I've been given an opportunity, and I'm so grateful. I'm just going to go out and have fun."
It was not always that way for the Buffalo, N.Y., native. He originally signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1996, but was admittedly just as interested in getting high than in moving up the organizational ladder.
Marijuana continued to be a problem in 1999, when Winkelsas earned an early call up to Atlanta because then-Braves closer Mark Wohlers was going through his own mental struggles. Winkelsas pitched in one game -- April 10 against the Diamondbacks at Turner Field -- and surrendered two runs on four hits and a walk in just 1/3 of an inning. He recorded his lone career out on a sacrifice bunt.
And that was it, until Tuesday.
He gave up pot in 2000, when his wife of four years, Therese, gave birth to a son, Jackson. Joe Winkelsas determined it was time to get serious.
"It was a crossroads. It was time to grow up," he said. "That's something you do when you're in high school, you don't do it until you're 45 or 50 years old. I had to give it up. When you're going down a road you have to ask yourself, 'Where is this road leading?'"
He went through rehabilitation and kicked his habit.
"I was never caught," he said. "I just offered that information, and I took a chance with my career. But I wanted to bear the burdens of any other youngsters out there. ... Just because you're not doing some hardcore [drugs], it can still cloud your vision and take away your focus."
Winkelsas pitched in the Braves' system through the end of 2003, then moved to the independent leagues and then into the White Sox chain. An arm injury cut short his 2005 season, and Winkelsas went home to Buffalo for a job as a "sanitation engineer."
Translation: He was a garbage man. And believe it or not, that gig may have led him back to the big leagues.
Winkelsas firmly believes that the constant physical activity related to that job, tipping garbage cans and dragging them through the snow, helped heal the arm injury. He was serving as the pitching coach for Niagara University last fall, and was clocked in the low 90-mph range in an intrasquad game.
When Brewers assistant scouting director Tony Blengino came through town to take a look at some of that school's players, Winkelsas essentially accepted a dare to try out. He earned a ticket to a tryout camp at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, and, as Winkelsas said in front of his locker at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday, "Here I am."
He made 13 relief appearances for Double-A Huntsville this season -- his 11th year in the Minor Leagues -- and compiled four saves and a 1.72 ERA.
"He worked hard to get here," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "I hope he does well."
Winkelsas was singled out for a promotion over the past several days, as Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash and general manager Doug Melvin conferred with Minor League pitching coordinator Jim Rooney, Triple-A pitching coach Stan Kyles and Double-A pitching coach Rich Sauveur.
"They constantly update us on their guys and how they feel they could help the Major League club, and Joe's is a name that continues to come up," Ash said.
Others who were considered included Mike Adams and Jared Fernandez, who have already been called up to the Brewers and sent back down this season. The group also discussed right-hander Allan Simpson and left-hander Jason Kershner, who are not on the 40-man roster, and starter Dennis Sarfate, who is.
Winkelsas won out.
"He has been, at least in the Minor Leagues, a ground ball machine, he does have a solid average velocity -- he's a guy who can throw 91, 92, 93 [mph] -- and probably best of all, he's a fearless competitor," Ash said. "From a make-up point of view, he's a guy we wanted to give a shot to.
"When you're struggling like we are, you just have to shuffle the deck and have somebody seize the opportunity."
Winkelsas, who can't wait to reconnect with his family when the Brewers travel to Philadelphia this weekend, said he is ready.
"I've been through a lot of circumstances and situations," he said. "I'm going to go out there and treat it like it's a Double-A game, and just let it all go."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.