Sean Kazmar had dreamed of this game since he was a child, imagining everything from taking infield practice to getting a hit and the roar of the crowd. But dreaming on this night was different — the following day, the fantasy would become a reality with Kazmar making his big-league debut for the San Diego Padres.
The infielder recalled a pointer from Tim Chambers, his former coach at the College of Southern Nevada, who told him earlier in the night to expect a first-pitch fastball from Milwaukee starter C.C. Sabathia.
“I specifically remember trying to go to sleep that night and thinking, first pitch fastball; be ready to swing,” Kazmar said. “So I get up (to bat) and there’s one out in the third inning. Sure enough, he threw a fastball on the first pitch. I put a good swing on it and got a hit.”
Kazmar was in the big leagues for nearly 50 days to close the 2008 season. He played in 19 games and had eight hits. It was supposed to be the start of a long career.
But the following season he was back in the minor leagues fighting for another at-bat in the show. Nine years later, the 32-year-old Kazmar is still in the minor leagues and still chasing the dream.
He’s in his fifth season with the Gwinnett Braves, the top minor league affiliate of Atlanta, and this season set its record for games played. He’s also closing in on a handful of other club records, leading to an obvious question: Are Triple-A records really an accomplishment when the ultimate goal is to reach the show?
Kazmar provides a refreshing answer. While he’s not in the major leagues, he’s still playing. More important, he’s still having fun.
“It’s pretty neat in a sense,” he said. “I have been able to play this long and with such a great organization such as Atlanta. To set any record is an accomplishment to be proud of. Obviously, I would like set records in the big leagues and leave a mark up there. Who wouldn’t? The ultimate goal is to get up there and help a team win.”
Kazmar, who has played in more than 1,400 minor league games, including 450-plus contests with Gwinnett, has always been known for his slick fielding. He was drafted as a shortstop in the fourth round in 2004 out of CSN, which he helped win the Junior College World Series, but he has learned to play all positions on the infield.
“I’m playing first base at 5-foot-9. You don’t see that too often,” he said with a chuckle.
That versatility has become the journeyman’s calling card, something he credits his support system in Las Vegas — Chambers, high school coach Sam Thomas and others — for creating at a young age. The ultimate goal isn’t to have the best numbers for the back of the baseball card: his .280 average with seven home runs and 20 RBIs this season are respectable but don’t necessarily scream big-league promotion.
Rather, his primary focus is doing the little things to win games and being a good teammate.
“I just go out every day and play hard,” he said. “I leave everything I have on the field. I play every game as if it were my last.”
Some have compared Kazmar to Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis in the baseball movie "Bull Durham." Crash called his 21 days in the big leagues “the greatest 21 days of my life” when talking to younger players he was mentoring. While Kazmar is usually one of the oldest players on the field and doesn’t hesitate looking out for up-and-coming prospects, he’s so focused on getting back to the big leagues, the fact that he was once there doesn’t usually dominate conversations.
“It’s funny. Those guys have to remind me, 'Hey man, you were in the big leagues. You were a major-leaguer,’” Kazmar said. “I don’t boast about it. I do share my experience when someone asks, but that was 10 years ago. It has evolved a lot over the years. It’s different than 2008.”
He, too, has also changed. He recently became a dad to Sean III, who stays in Arizona with his wife, a school principal, during the season. It’s certainly tough to be away from family during the season, but one of the sacrifices worth taking for one more at-bat in the show.
Kazmar has no plans to slow in his quest to return to the big leagues. You have to admire his attitude.
“For me to still be playing at 32 years old and to have played professional baseball for close to 15 years now, it has been an amazing experience,” he said. “I don’t take anything for granted. At the end of the day, I would have liked to be in the big leagues for 10 years, but who wouldn’t? I would love to get back.
“But if it didn’t happen, I was still able to live that dream. I play professional baseball every night. Whether it’s the Triple-A level or the big leagues, it’s still the game I love.”