Some players break into baseball with press conferences, big league contracts and multi-million dollar signing bonuses to begin their professional careers. Mark Hamburger got $2500 and an airplane ticket to Florida. And he couldn't have been happier with the whole thing.
The 24-year old Minnesota right-hander had to be proactive to procure even that opportunity. Hamburger went undrafted, despite posting an unblemished 11-0 record and microscopic 0.65 earned run average in his first season of collegiate competition. But then Mesabi Range Community and Technical College isn't exactly prominent on the scouting itinerary of many Major League organizations.
Brad Scott was Hamburger's coach at Mesabi Range and he remains one of his biggest boosters. On the advice of a scouting friend who had taken notice of Hamburger while checking out other players Scott recruited him out of high school in the Shoreview suburb north of St. Paul, Minnesota. Scott was obviously impressed with Hamburger's spectacular success but it was the drive and dedication of the young pitcher that he remembered the most. "Mark just really wanted to play baseball and nothing was going to stand in his way," Scott recalls. "He was as devoted to the game as any player I've ever seen."
Hamburger was encouraged to attend a Twins tryout camp at the Metrodome, the last resort of undrafted players. He wasn't too sure about participating but his hope of a professional baseball career had pretty much run out of options by that time. "I drove there with a buddy and we weren't really expecting much," he remembers. "But since I had never even talked to a scout before it seemed like something worth taking a shot at."
Hamburger was one of 110 aspiring young players taking the field and he was sure he'd get lost in the shuffle. But he made enough of an initial impression on the Twins player evaluators to be invited back for the second day of tryouts. He admits he was a little nervous and as a result had mixed results after pitching three innings under the close scrutiny of the people who had the power to actualize his ardent ambition.
But the trained eyes overlooked his lapses, seeing only his excellent mechanics and a fastball that had picked up even more velocity than it had in his starring collegiate career. When all was said and done he was offered a contract and he wasted no time arguing about money, signing it that afternoon at home. In rapid order he was soon in Fort Myers, Florida, pitching for the Twins team in the rookie Gulf Coast League.
Playing for his hometown Twins had been Hamburger's baseball fantasy ever since his dad built him a pitcher's mound in the backyard and it seemed to be proceeding on course. But that dream was derailed in August of 2008 when the organization traded him to the Texas Rangers. In an ironic twist he was traded for someone he had grown up rooting for, "Steady" Eddie Guardado, a 37-year old reliever who had spent 13 years in the Twins system.
Hamburger's first full year in Rangers organization came in 2009 as he appeared in 41 games for the Single-A Hickory Crawdads. He began last season in Bakersfield before being promoted to the Texas League and the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders. Averaging more than a strikeout per inning he amassed 21 saves for the season as the Rangers experimented with him in the role of a closer. And on May 11 this year he was promoted to Round Rock and the Triple-A level, just one step away from realization of his baseball goal.
Express pitching coach Terry Clark saw Hamburger for the first time at the Rangers complex in spring training . What he saw when the young pitcher arrived in Round Rock, however, was an obvious upgrade over the preseason version. "His velocity has increased without any sacrifice of his command and that's always a big positive," Clark explains. "We've worked on him getting on top of his slider to give it a little more tilt but at this point all he really needs is a little more experience."
Clark, a 23rd round draft pick who nevertheless fashioned a 21-year professional playing career for himself before joining the coaching ranks, recognizes determination when he sees it. And he's certain that's the most conspicuous component of the young pitcher's character. "He's probably a little hungrier than most of the guys," Clark observes. "That will take you a long way in this game and when you have the talent he does it should be enough to get you into the big leagues sooner or later."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.