02/20/12 6:05 PM EST
Passion for baseball keeps Suppan going
By Corey Brock / MLB.com
Why at age 37 and after 16 seasons of pitching in the Major Leagues -- with a World Series ring, to boot -- would Jeff Suppan be in Peoria, jogging alongside players 15 years his junior, trying to make the Padres as a non-roster pitcher?
The question momentarily steals the smile from Suppan's face, which ranks as a monumental upset for a player who is about as good-natured as you'll find in any big league clubhouse. Suppan doesn't bristle at the question, though it's evident he's grown tired of hearing it.
Why are you still playing?
"I get asked that question quite a bit. But why? Why is the analysis always on that?" Suppan said early Monday morning before the Padres' first workout for pitchers and catchers.
"For me, I just really enjoy playing and I don't know how many more years I'm going to be able to play."
A few might have thought that Suppan stopped playing after the 2010 season because that was the last time he appeared in a Major League game. Without a Major League offer last season, Suppan did what he's always done, even if it meant doing so for the Royals' Triple-A affiliate (Omaha), subjecting himself to a, well, lifestyle he hadn't visited in nearly two decades.
Cue the "Bull Durham" cliches. Suppan lived it last season.
"I've never been on a 12-hour bus ride before," he said.
Suppan, who has won 138 Major League games and has made 10 postseason appearances, pitched in 28 games for Omaha, finishing 11-8 with a 4.78 ERA in the Pacific Coast League, where the balls are made of helium, the infields are as forgiving as concrete and the ballparks are all sorts of cozy.
Suppan, who according to Baseball-Reference.com has made over $58 million in his career, never really thought much of a year away from the big leagues because it wasn't a year away from pitching, nor did he really mind the bus ride from Omaha to Memphis, the early wakeup call for the 4 a.m. bus or any of the other cliches that are part of the Minor League experience.
He just wanted to pitch.
"It was certainly different than the first time and it affected me a lot more at 36 than it did at 20," he said. "But I didn't mind it. I enjoyed baseball, enjoyed pitching and enjoyed my teammates. As for all of that other stuff ... I just grinded it out."
That "grinding it out" mantra has served Suppan well since the Red Sox selected him in the second round of the 1993 Draft. He has, after all, topped the 200-inning plateau six times in his career and surpassed the 170-inning mark four other times while successfully skirting major injuries and earning a reputation as a superior teammate.
"Three words that probably describe him the best are competitor, classy and professional," said Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch, who caught Suppan for two seasons (2001-02) while both played for the Royals.
"He's a unique guy ... a hard worker, he loves to compete. I think this [being in camp] speaks a lot to his character that he's here after all he's done in his career, having spent all of last year in Triple-A. We felt like he deserved a chance to get a look."
So here he is in camp, a veritable long shot to make a team deep on pitching. He could very well end up with Triple-A Tucson, where he can continue to pitch every fifth day, serving as an example for some of the younger pitchers in camp who are on the cusp of making it to the Major Leagues like he once was.
And after all these years, Suppan still gets butterflies, as he admitted before pulling the jersey over his head, which is speckled with tinges of gray.
"Absolutely. If you don't have that, then you shouldn't be playing," he said. "If I came in here grumpy or not having that intensity or that nervous energy ... then why keep doing it?"
And, if nothing else, pitching has given him a respite from his three-month winter gig as day manager at Soup's Sports Grill. The day manager thing, of course, is sort of a running joke, as Soup's is actually the restaurant he and his wife, Dana, own in Woodland Hills, Calif.
This restaurant/bar serves several specialty dishes that are an ode to his family's Philadelphia roots, like the cheesesteak and chicken parmesan. Suppan's father, Larry, still makes four of the five dessert dishes on the menu, including a dreamy Boston cream pie.
"He has made a pizza for me and my daughters ... and my kids love his pizza," said Jo Anna Wiseman, a mother of five who frequents Soup's. "He's such a nice guy. He will come and sit down and talk with us."
That's right. Suppan hasn't lent just his name and financial backing to the restaurant. He takes an active role in the place, no matter the job. Thinking pitching in the postseason is stressful? Suppan says try stepping in front of the grill while staring straight in the face of a bevy of orders.
"The kitchen is a tough place. I don't think a lot of people realize that," Suppan said. "It's stressful when you're working back there. When you're making food for someone else, it's much different when you're cooking for yourself. They know how they like their food."
Why doesn't Suppan let these jobs, from cooking to cleaning to everything in between, be handled by someone else? It's probably the same reason he keeps pitching.
"Picking up trash, cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the floors ... I haven't changed any light bulbs yet," he said, smiling. "But really, I don't see any job beneath me."