After a long successful career, Jeff Suppan announced recently that he is hanging up his cleats.
As soon as I heard the news, I knew there was a story I wanted to tell you about Suppan's 2011 season with the Omaha Storm Chasers. I'll get to that in a minute. Suppan played the entire ‘11 season in Triple-A for Omaha, hoping to get one more shot at the big leagues (he did, the following season).
While he was in Omaha, the 36-year-old had a work ethic that was amazing to watch.
On the days he pitched, he went through extended warm-ups, doing deep knee lunges, windmill motions with his arms and various other routines he picked up through the years. And on days he wasn't pitching, he set up camp in the storage room across from former manager Mike Jirschele's office to watch video, sometimes for an hour at a time.
Think about that for a minute.
The guy who ended up winning 140 games at the major league level and who pitched in ten post season games, buried himself in minor league game footage, looking for weaknesses in the minor league hitters he was about to face.
"Suppan never had lights out stuff," said Omaha broadcaster Mark Nasser in a phone interview. "He was a guy who looked for every single edge he could get. That was the way he felt like he had to go about doing his job.
"Here's a guy - what a resume - 16 years in the major leagues [he went on to play a 17th the following season], he had a World Series ring with the Cardinals, he's been a post season hero with an NLCS MVP. He beat Roger Clemens in a deciding game in 2004. And he could have just rested on his laurels and said, ‘I'm Jeff Suppan, and the heck with it,' but he was still doing everything he would have done at the major league level while he was in the minor leagues."
I spoke to Suppan at Werner Park after his July 22, 2011 start against the Round Rock Express. He gave up two earned runs on 12 hits and three walks over six innings that night, picking up the win. As you can tell from his line score, nothing seemed to be working for him, so he kept making changes on the fly.
"To me, that's what pitching is all about," Suppan said after the game. "Knowing what's working, knowing what's not - changing speeds, trying to work as fast as we can. It's one of those days where my fastball really wasn't how I like it to be - down in the zone. Getting on top of the ball, getting underneath it and the cutter a lot, so I was having to change speeds in different ways. Threw some more BP fastballs, some more change-ups and basically just tried to grind it out and keep it as close as I could."
That was the epitome of a Suppan start. But he was only able to do that by being prepared.
Omaha provided footage of all of the games shot at Werner Park in 2011 and he studied that footage. But to watch video of teams he was scheduled to pitch against that hadn't visited Werner Park that season, he purchased a subscription to MiLB.tv.
"He would actually watch archived games of the opposing hitters he would be facing," Nasser said about Suppan's use of his MiLB.tv subscription. "I can tell you flat out, there's no pitcher I know who has done that in all my years of broadcasting here.
"He got the subscription and watched the team's games to find out their weaknesses. He was doing anything he could to look for an edge and it was just remarkable to see that. It was wild to see, and he set such an example for guys he was playing with."
Nasser told me in-depth scouting reports don't exist in the minors like they do at the major league level. They do have good reports for teams who are in their division, and sometimes in their conference, but for other teams who might only visit once a year, Omaha relies on notes that hitting coach Tommy Gregg takes himself from the previous season.
Of course, such notes are dated, given that players make adjustments and many improve from one year to the next. Knowing all of this, Suppan took it upon himself to get the MiLB.tv subscription so he could be more up to date on players.
So I told you I was going to share a story about Suppan. Here it is. The storage room in Omaha's clubhouse at Werner Park has multiple uses. Obviously, it is used to store equipment. But Nasser also uses the room to record his pregame interviews because it is quiet. And players use the room to study video. Given the frequency that both Suppan and Nasser used the room that season, they often ended up in playful battles for its use.
"He would be in there so often studying video for his next start that I had to be the guy to ask him, ‘Hey, can I swipe the room for four or five minutes?' and he would give me grief about it," Nasser said. "So he wanted to mark his territory essentially by putting a ‘Suppan's Video Room' label on the sign."
[You can see the label in the picture above. Forgive the low quality. I snapped the photo one day when I still had a Blackberry.]
"I don't know if you've noticed it or not, but underneath it, it now says, ‘Nasser Interview Room.' We both kind of battled for the room, all in good fun, in 2011. And I can't believe they are both still up there."
The ‘11 inaugural season at Werner Park turned out to be a magical one - one that led to the team's first Pacific Coast League championship and first league championship since 1990 (when they were in the American Association). Heading into 2014, nobody has removed Suppan's label from the storage room at Werner Park, even though he only played there that one season, which prompts the question - why hasn't somebody taken it down?
"Honestly, I think it's probably been left alone as a memory of the 2011 season," Nasser said. "It's a good little memory. Over the years, it's just kind of stuck. And it leaves a mark as a reminder that he was there for the inaugural season."