There was a time this winter when Jake Hager thought his goal of being a Major League Baseball player had ended.
The former first-round pick out of Sierra Vista High School had just finished his seventh professional season, all in the minor leagues. He waited by the phone this winter ready to join whatever organization would give him an opportunity, but it wasn’t ringing and he had to sign with an independent league team as a fail-safe. The calendar turned to February and he was still checking to make sure his phone was working.
“Once it hit end of December, beginning of January where I didn’t have a job, that’s when I started to really think oh man, what am I going to do,” Hager said. “It creeps into your head like, ‘Oh, is my career over?’”
The Milwaukee Brewers called a week after he signed with the independent St. Paul Saints and he was off to Arizona for Spring Training. He was assigned to the Triple-A San Antonio Missions, and this weekend is in town to visit the Aviators, playing professionally in his hometown for the first time in his career.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” he said. “Once I saw we were coming here on the schedule, I couldn’t wait.”
Hager got the chance to grab breakfast and dinner with his parents before and after Friday’s game, and caught up with some old friends for breakfast Saturday before heading out after the game.
Missions manager Rick Sweet told Hager last week he would be playing all four games in Las Vegas and saw his face light up.
“I know that feeling. I got to go home and play games at home and it makes a huge difference,” Sweet said. “There’s definitely more focus, more excitement, it’s fun. There’s nothing better than getting to play at home.”
Hager was selected 32nd overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 and forwent going to Arizona State to sign. He rolled through the first two leagues he played in, but struggled once he hit the Class-A advanced league, hitting just .258 in 2013 with no home runs in 453 at-bats. He first made it to Triple-A in 2016, but has yet to find his footing in the doorstep to the majors.
But he hasn’t given up. He’s 26 now, holding a .261 average in over 700 games in the minor leagues with the luster of a top prospect label long gone. He knows that a call-up could still be in the future, and as he plays in his hometown this weekend, he’s glad he never gave up when the phone wasn’t ringing last winter.
The Brewers gave him another chance, even if 29 other clubs thought his best days were behind him.
“There were days when I asked myself, man what am I doing?” Hager said. “Baseball’s my passion and my dream is to make the big leagues. I knew I wasn’t done.”