(Photo courtesy of Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres)

When I got to the minor leagues, I kind of assumed I would have to work my way up, because that's the way it had been my whole life.


I didn't reach the varsity level in high school until my senior year, despite hitting over .500 at the plate as a junior. Once I made to varsity I was named the No. 4 starter...on a two-man rotation. I did get into games as a relief pitcher, and by the time conference play had rolled around I was off to a 4-0 record. That didn't mean I got to crack the rotation, however, and even though I pitched more innings than anybody else on the team that year, I never started a single game. I got my innings by pitching long relief in back-to-back-to-back games throughout the season.


That performance was good enough to earn a college scholarship, but not at the Division 1 level. I attended junior college, but only because my dad – an ex-marine who dropped out of high school – took me to lunch and convinced me to get my education. I was going to be the first person in the Bell family to get a degree.


I headed off Santiago Canyon College, where I became a freshman All-American. That earned me the right to be drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.


In the 69th round.


If that sounds bizarre for someone to be picked that late in a draft, that's because MLB changed the draft format after that year. At the time though, in 1997, teams were pretty much drafting people with almost no intention of actually signing them. It was called a “draft and follow” and they signed me just so they could hold onto my rights for the next year. Teams would hold onto those picks until a week or two before the next year's draft and decide at that time whether or not they wanted to hold onto my rights.


They didn't.


The next year, with the draft down to just 50 rounds, I thought it would be funny if I was the last player chosen in the entire draft. That wasn't to be the case, and I went all 50 rounds without hearing my name called. Still, I had played well enough as a sophomore for the New York Mets to take a chance on me, and they signed me for the hefty price of $500.


That decision began an eight-year journey to reach the majors, but it nearly ended as soon as it started. The Mets only had 14 guys for spring training going into rookie ball that year, and teams need 25, so they signed 11 guys to fill the squad, including me.


During that time, it was apparent what kind of odds all of us were facing. One at a time, the Mets started cutting guys from the roster – guys that were tearing it up on the field. They cut one player who was hitting over .500 in spring training, just because they didn't see a future in him. And if they don't see a future in you, you're just there to fill in the gap. And with my fastball clocking between 86-88, and other teammates throwing between 91-92, my baseball career looked to be on life support.


As I would find out later on, the Mets did want to get rid of me, but it was a man named Tim Foli that saved my career. He was my manager in rookie ball, and as I later learned he stuck out his neck out for me. He told the Mets that I had something special, which was probably because he noticed I was the first one to show up each day and the last one to leave.


As it turned out, of the 11 players the Mets signed to fill their rookie ball roster, I was the only one to reach the minor league system. Now all I would have to do is grind another 8 seasons to reach the majors.


I didn't know it at the time, but that's because God had plenty of lessons to teach me before I could get there.


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Thomas Hager