The story begins with a full bottle of wine and an email, fired off from a small city in Italy. It ends with the bottle cashed and a plan hatched and family headed for a baseball adventure in a place called Padova.
If you have lost track of Mark Teahen in the years since his baseball career ended — eight since he suited up for the Royals, five since he last appeared in a major-league game — well … this is actually all pretty normal.
It is a Thursday afternoon in March, and Teahen is sitting at a high-top bar table inside Sorso Wine Room, the Italian-style wine bar he and his wife, Lauren, opened a year ago here in Scottsdale Quarter. He is telling stories about his five years as a member of the Kansas City Royals; how his baseball career more or less came to a screeching halt; how he ended up here, an entrepreneur and business owner at the age of 35.
But first, Teahen will tell a funny story. A few months ago, he says, this man sent him an email from Italy. The man was an official with the Padova Baseball and Softball club, a professional baseball outfit near Venice. The team wondered if Teahen would be interested in playing baseball during the 2017 season. Yes, baseball in Italy.
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There is more to the story than that, and Teahen will explain all this in a second. But first he will say that, no, he did not expect to say yes to this man. He and his wife have three children under the age of 4 now. They just opened the bar two years ago. No, moving the family to Italy for six months did not seem feasible.
But life is short, of course, and opportunities can vanish. The Teahens are acutely aware of this. So they talked more about Italy. They went out to dinner one night. They explored the logistics. They ordered some more drinks.
“A bottle of wine later…” Teahen says.
Teahen laughs as he finishes the story. If you remember Teahen from his time in Kansas City, it’s a familiar laugh. He wants to be clear that this is not a real comeback. He has no illusions about his current ability or place in the sport. His last professional baseball game came in 2013, though maybe you shouldn’t tell his Italian team this, he says. After signing on to play, he started a mockumentary series on his Instagram page, documenting his steps to Italian baseball stardom.
Step 2: Immerse yourself in the culture. Little known fact: Italy produces wine.
And then there’s been the reaction of his friends. Most think it’s awesome, of course. But when Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy learned of the plan, he congratulated Lauren.
“It’s cool you’re going to Italy so Mark can play baseball,” McCarthy said.
“No,” Lauren said. “Mark is playing baseball so we can go to Italy.”
Teahen laughs again. It is a funny story. But it’s also a fun story. For most of his adult life, he played baseball. And then it was over. So he moved on. He and his wife dedicated themselves to a domestic-abuse charity in Phoenix. They opened a wine bar despite having no experience in the restaurant business. And now they’re going to Italy. For baseball players, maybe this isn’t supposed to happen. But Teahen’s first career ended, and then his life got even more interesting.
“Everything started falling into place,” Teahen says. “One more adventure through baseball.”
These days, Mark Teahen cannot remember when he first realized his pro baseball career was over. These things happen fast, of course. They also happen in stages. The confidence that can propel a player to the big leagues does not dissipate overnight.
There were moments, though. There was the spring training with Washington in 2012, when Nationals manager Davey Johnson did not seem to know that Teahen had played in the big leagues. There was a long stint in independent ball the next year, days spent toiling for the York Revolution in the Atlantic League. There was also a time in Chicago in 2011 — his first season away from the Royals. He was injured, relegated to a bench role and dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays in late July.
“I was more or less a salary dump,” Teahen says. “ ‘Hey, take on Teahen’s contract, and you’ll get these other players you’ll actually want.’ ”
Teahen was always a master in the art of self deprecation. His humor endeared himself to fans and teammates in Kansas City. His deadpan is Steven Wright-esque — the comedian, not the Red Sox knuckleballer. Yet his inclination for humor can obscure his baseball career, which ranged from promising to solid before it stalled out.
Drafted by the Oakland A’s in 2002, he was traded to the Royals in 2004 in a three-team deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Houston Astros. A third baseman, he clubbed 18 homers in 109 games in 2006. He batted .285 with a .353 on-base percentage in 2007. He was a useful player. He would make more than $20 million in career earnings.
Still, he was stuck on lousy teams in Kansas City. The summers were long and hot. His humor and approachability made him a fan favorite, even as the losses piled up. But in the months after the 2009 season, the Royals flipped Teahen to the Chicago White Sox for Chris Getz and Josh Fields. By 2012, he was back in Class AAA with the Nationals. By 2014, he was released by the San Francisco Giants in the weeks before the regular season.
“At that point,” Teahen says, “you kind of reassess.”
Sensing that his career was over, Teahen began to search for other opportunities. He heard about professional leagues in Europe. His wife logged onto Facebook and looked up a team in Italy.
“It’s pretty official,” Teahen says. “My wife wrote a Facebook message.”
This was the spring of 2014. The Teahens hopped a plane to Italy and scouted out the league. He worked out for a team in Bologna, then stopped for lunch in Parma. When he arrived to the field in Padova, he found the team’s manager on the field.
“He asked me if I wanted to hit batting practice,” Teahen says. “We were a bottle of wine deep, but I was like: ‘Sure.’ ”
In the end, the timing didn’t work out, Teahen says. Most teams had already used up their visas for the season. His oldest son Mac was just 2. But touring around Italy did confirm one thing: They liked wine. Particularly one wine bar they stopped in. They wondered if the concept — wines on tap — might work in Scottsdale. Why not?
“We sat on the couch and just Googled ‘Business Plan,’ ” Teahen says.
Day by day, the plan fell into place. They found a vacant storefront in a promising development. The hired a contractor. When a broker asked about their experience in the restaurant business, Teahen answered:
“We like dining out,” Teahen said.
Sorso — Italian for “Sip” — opened in spring 2015, nearly a year after Teahen left baseball. Inside the bar, you will find few hints of his former profession. There are no baseball jerseys on the wall; no photos of his days in Kansas City or Chicago. They did name the wine cellar “Cellar 24,” an homage to his number with the Royals. They also made sure to have plenty of Boulevard beer on hand.
Years ago, Teahen explains, he and Lauren met over a couple of Boulevard Wheats at the Granfalloon on the Country Club Plaza. He was a third wheel. She was a third wheel. It all worked out.
“It wasn’t one of those late nights at the Falloon,” Teahen says, smiling. “But nonetheless, it was at the Falloon.”
In the months after Sorso opened in 2015, Teahen made other plans. The Royals were steamrolling to an American League Central title and a second straight postseason appearance. So for the second consecutive year, he secured World Series tickets.
He took his oldest son Mac to Game 1 at Kauffman Stadium. They dressed him in a Teahen jersey and watched the Royals stun the New York Mets in 14 innings. Teahen just felt like he needed to be there, he says.
“I got to play through some really bad years of Kansas City baseball,” Teahen says. “But I always thought the fans and the city supported us well for what we were doing on the field. So I was just excited for the city.”
Teahen can laugh about those years now. This year, for instance, the Royals have one or two openings available during spring training. In his era, he says, it would have been 12.
“As naive as it was,” Teahen says, “every spring training we started out, we said like: ‘Hey, this could be the year if these 30 things work out.’ ”
Those 30 things never did break right, but that’s life — a life that’s treated him quite well. And all these years later, he still feels a connection to Kansas City and its fans, he says.
And now, there’s Italy. As he prepared to leave, he was still learning about his new league. They play a couple times per week, leaving plenty of time for traveling. The competition is maybe Class A level. He’s not sure if there’s even a team mascot — he’ll report back if so. But the last time he was there, he did meet a 41-year-old right fielder who had once played in the minor leagues in the states.
“A local legend,” Teahen says, smiling again.
“It’s three years later, and it’s really nothing to lose.”