Nate Tenbrink believes if it wasn’t for injuries, he would’ve made it to the major leagues.
In 2014, as a third baseman in the Seattle Mariners organization, he was fielding ground balls with the Mariners’ star second baseman Robinson Cano. While getting in position to field a grounder, he felt a pull in his back. It was just another injury to add to his long list of ailments.
So after dealing with head, elbow and back issues in his six-year minor-league career, Tenbrink came to a realization.
“I knew it was over,” said Tenbrink, who is now 29. “My big-league chances were over, but it was a tough pill to swallow.”
But Tenbrink, who is from Olathe, couldn’t give up baseball or his dream to get to the big leagues. He joined the Kansas City T-Bones, a team in the independent American Association baseball league, looking for another opportunity.
Tenbrink isn’t alone.
Within the T-Bones clubhouse, there are players with varying levels of experience. Some have never been drafted. Some have made it to the big leagues but didn’t stick around. Some are like Tenbrink, who came close to making it, but were derailed by injuries or didn’t get their shot.
They keep playing, even though the major leagues may seem far out of grasp.
“They’re all trying to keep that dream alive and get to that next level,” said Chris Browne, the T-Bones’ general manager and vice president. “They’re all trying to get to that next level — every one of them. Every ballplayer wants to become a Kansas City Royal or a big-league ball player. They’re just trying to find their next path.”
Starting pitcher Jordan Cooper, a Topeka native, was playing with Class AAA Columbus in the Cleveland Indians organization just over a month ago. Cooper said he talked with people in the Indians front office and realized he wasn’t going to pitch much, if at all. With his wife expecting a child, he moved to Kansas City and latched on with the T-Bones.
Although he says there are no immediate plans to play in affiliated baseball, he also couldn’t give up on his dream that easily. Kansas City could just be another location along his path.
“If someone called tomorrow and wanted me to pitch (in affiliated baseball), would I take it? Yeah,” Cooper said. “I mean, I’ve always wanted to be a major-league pitcher. But I’ve got a kid coming. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’ll just be here and help out with the kid. I’m OK with where I’m at.”
That call may never come for some players, but, like Cooper, that doesn’t mean they aren’t content where they’re at.
T-Bones first baseman Jake Blackwood was a Class AA Texas League All-Star in 2013 in the San Diego Padres organization. After the Padres decided not to re-sign him after the 2013 season, he found his way to the T-Bones in 2015, where he has been one of the best hitters in the American Association.
Blackwood hasn’t heard from any Major League Baseball organizations offering him a contract, but he isn’t holding out for that chance.
“I love being home,” said Blackwood, who went to high school in Platte City. “I’m not upset about what happened. I think I would like to see more guys get a shot who do perform. I think it should be more performance based, but I don’t run it. It is what it is. I love playing.”
The T-Bones have a $115,000 salary cap for a roster of up to 23 players, which equates to about a $5,000 annual salary for each player over a four-month season or $1,250 every month. The minimum monthly salary in the American Association is $800.
Blackwood, who is 30, says it would take a significant amount of money to lure him away from Kansas City, but he tends to not think about playing with an affiliated team.
There are some players who get that second chance, even in their late 20s.
Browne says about one or two T-Bones players are offered a contract every season and there can be up to five to seven MLB scouts in the stands during a week-long home stretch.
Former Kansas City reliever Kris Johnson, who now plays in Japan, was one of the players who got his second chance.
Johnson played a half season with the T-Bones in 2011. After posting the fourth-best ERA in the American Association as a 26 year old, he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in December of that year and made it to the big leagues in 2013.
Kansas City’s slick-fielding shortstop Vladimir Frias never got his shot at the big leagues. Frias, a native of the Dominican Republic, bounced around with three MLB organizations over five years before signing with the T-Bones in 2014 as a 27 year old.
“As a player, you want to play at the highest level,” Frias said. “I never got a shot. If I could get a shot, I would like to play minor-league ball. I’m going to play until God stops me. This is what I know how to do best.”
The same sentiment goes for Tenbrink, and he almost got his second shot.
Although he has settled in Kansas City, starting a youth baseball academy while raising a child, a few within the T-Bones clubhouse thought he was a favorite to get a contract with an MLB organization during the offseason.
While having one the most healthy years of his career, Tenbrink posted a .335 batting average with seven home runs and 52 RBIs with the T-Bones last season.
But the call never came. He’s now dealing with an injury to his ribs.
“That’s a tough level to make it in,” T-Bones manager John Massarelli said. “(Tenbrink) is guy that can play in the big leagues, I think. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to get that opportunity again. That’s the sad story of this game.”