Memories of a retiring Minor Leaguer

Pitcher Kroon, 38, looks back on worldwide baseball career

By Andrew Pentis / Special to | March 8, 2012 5:00 AM

One of the oldest Minor Leaguers to take the field during the 2011 season has decided to make it his last. After playing in three decades, three countries and 10 organizations, going from flat-broke in the States to a millionaire in the Far East, 38-year-old right-hander Marc Kroon has retired.

"I went through every level, all the way from Rookie ball to Triple-A," Kroon says. "I made many stops, getting to the big leagues, my injury, losing everything. It's been a rocky career, and I am proud of myself, even though no one really knows who I am.

"I've outlasted so many people, and I did it the hard way -- struggling, fighting it out, bus trips and road trips and Days Inns and Motel 6's, before getting my lucky break in Japan. You don't hear too many stories like mine."

Kroon's story begins in July 1989, when he and his mom, Raquel Altreche, are moving from the Bronx, away from where Kroon idolizes the Mets' Dwight Gooden and away from the ninth- and 10th-grade baseball teams that don't have a spot for him. They are gambling by crossing the country, to Arizona -- a single mother without a job and a son without a team.

During his tryout at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix -- they can't afford to live in the Scottsdale school district of powerhouse Horizon High -- Kroon trots out to center field, aiming to unseat an incumbent senior. A ball is laced toward Kroon and he heaves it on a line to home plate. A man calls him over afterward.

"I'm the pitching coach," he says, "and you're going to be a pitcher."

A failed math class follows Kroon from the East Coast, leaving him ineligible for most of the season. He appears in four games, the first he's ever pitched in, and shows enough to earn a starting role the following year. But getting paid to throw a ball still doesn't seem likely, if possible, until 26 scouts show up just to see him.

"Wait a minute here," he thinks to himself. "I might have a chance."

June 3, 1991: Kroon has only a foggy idea how the First-Year Player Draft works. He isn't sure how to follow it; it isn't on TV. He waits for a congratulatory phone call, but his American Legion game begins before it comes. Kroon finds himself on the mound at a crucial juncture: The bases are loaded with one out. He induces a comebacker and, visualizing a 1-2-3 double play, fields the ball and tosses it toward his catcher, but instead, the ball hits a pole over the backstop and ricochets down the first-base line, allowing the winning runs to score. Disgusted, Kroon drives home, where his mom is waiting.

"Son, you've been drafted," she says. "The New York Mets."

He is the 72nd overall selection.

Ten days later, Kroon signs his first pro contract. In his initial days at the Mets training facility in Florida, he marvels at the M-E-T-S logo across his uniform. Kroon snaps nearly 100 photos and heads to Wal-Mart to wait for them to be developed before mailing them to mom.

Dec. 13, 1993: After toiling in the Minors for three seasons, Kroon learns he is the dreaded player to be named later in a trade with the San Diego Padres.

July 7, 1995: It's 6 a.m. when Kroon gets the call. His Double-A Memphis manager, former Major Leaguer Jerry Royster, is direct: "You need to wake up. Your flight leaves in two hours." Kroon wonders if he is headed to Triple-A Las Vegas. "Nope, you got 'The Call,'" Royster says. "You're going to the big leagues." Kroon catches the flight, checks into The Galleria in downtown Houston and heads to the Astrodome.

With San Diego clinging to a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, Kroon -- a starter in the Minors -- sits in the bullpen. The phone rings. Trevor Hoffman stands to stretch. The bullpen coach answers the phone, quickly hangs up and, without blinking, says, "Kroon, you got the ninth inning." Halting his routine, a surprised Hoffman replies, "What?"

Kroon, rail-thin but tall and powerful (he reached 102 mph more than once), is overcome by nerves. With the bullpen situated to the side of the aging ballpark, two of Kroon's warmup pitches sail over the catcher and onto the field. Kroon feels everyone's eyes on him.

With the Padres' lead down to a run, Kroon heads toward the mound. He won't remember the walk later, though he will recall telling himself, "Whatever you do, do not look up." He throws his last warmup pitch, then looks up. The fans are going nuts. Jeff Bagwell, the National League's reigning MVP, enters the batter's box.

Kroon throws his first dozen Major League pitches without recording an out. Bagwell walks on five pitches and scores the tying run, and Derek Bell singles and later scores the winning run. Manager Bruce Bochy pulls Kroon with the bases still loaded.

"What the hell just happened?" Kroon asks himself in the dugout. "I waited my whole life for this."

When he stands up to return to the clubhouse, Kroon sees Bochy kick his foot through the wall and tumble to the ground. Kroon makes a U-turn back to the bench, where he cries until Hoffman tells him, "It's not your fault. You should never have been put in that situation. I don't know why they did that to you."

The next day, Bochy inserts Kroon into a situation more befitting a 22-year-old big league newcomer. With the Padres trailing by three in the eighth, Kroon strikes out Craig Biggio and Bagwell back-to-back.

Kroon doesn't appear in another Major League game for two years.

Spring Training 1998: Kroon remains on the cusp of the bigs with the Padres. Pitching coach and former World Series MVP Dave Stewart watches Kroon work in his final side session of camp. His stuff is impressive; his control is not.

"Listen," 'Stew' tells him, "if you never make a million dollars in this game, I will consider you one of the biggest disappointments ever."

Summer 1999: Kroon, at 26, already is on his fourth Major League franchise and eighth Minor League city. Pitching for the Mariners' Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, he throws a split-finger fastball, then walks off the mound. The burning sensation in his right arm tells him something is wrong. A doctor confirms he tore a ligament in his elbow. His options: Tommy John surgery or rehab. Kroon chooses the latter.

March 27, 2000: Five days after being released by the Mariners, Kroon latches on with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He earns a spot with Triple-A Albuquerque, but four relief appearances and 3 2/3 innings later the pain is back. Kroon can't throw. Team doctors recommend Tommy John surgery. A grueling rehab in San Bernadino, Calif., a failed comeback and a second surgery follow.

March 28, 2001: Kroon is released by the Dodgers for a second time. Approaching his 28th birthday, he calls it quits, despite a voice in his head. It belongs to Padres stalwart Tony Gwynn, who had once seen untapped potential in a young, self-described knucklehead.

"Why make it easy for them to take that uniform away from you? They take it or you give it. You're going to wake up one morning and ask yourself if you gave this game all you had. If you say 'Yes,' you can move on, but if you can't, that's something you'll have to live with."

2003: Kroon has missed two seasons. Doctors have told him he will never pitch again, and his worker's compensation is gone. He's broke. He lost his house. The worst-case scenario isn't just a scenario.

So Kroon laces up his ... rollerblades. He glides through shopping-mall parking lots, slides his flier offering private pitching lessons under the windshield wiper of every car. One client leads to another until the brother of a high school buddy drops by the park where Kroon offers instruction.

"My brother-in-law is Mike Butcher," the man says, referring to the Angels' roving pitching instructor. "Why don't you have a tryout?"

Jan. 30, 2003: Kroon is a Minor Leaguer again after signing with the Angels. Between Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake, he matches a career high in appearances (46) and records his lowest ERA (3.20) since 1996.

Nov. 26, 2003: A month after becoming a free agent, Kroon -- hoping to impress the Colorado Rockies -- teams with two others on a no-hitter in the Mexican Pacific League. As a member of the Tomateros de Culiacan, Kroon rediscovers the heat of his fastball.

June 29, 2004: Kroon, 31, makes his 26th and final big league appearance but doesn't realize it. He yields a hit and three walks in two scoreless innings for the Rockies. He doesn't see the demotion to Colorado Springs coming.

Back at Triple-A, where he finishes his first 50-game season with the lowest ERA (2.72) of his Minor League career, Kroon seems on his way up. After saving a third straight game -- he saved 20 that season -- he is approached by a Japanese man in the parking lot.

"I've been watching your career for a long time," the man says. "I think you're ready to make the move to Japan. One year -- are you interested?"

Kroon, with his wife and two young sons on his mind, asks for a dollar figure.

"We are prepared to offer you $400,000," the man replies. "No negotiating, take it or leave it, guaranteed."

Kroon gives the man his agent's phone number and drives off. Years later, he says accepting the contract -- terms included five round-trip plane tickets and an apartment abroad -- was the best business decision of his career.

April 2, 2005: A decade after his first Major League appearance, Kroon makes his Nippon Professional Baseball debut.

Weeks later, Kroon, originally brought on to be a setup man, must replace ninth-inning legend Kazuhiro Sasaki, the one-time Mariner who is sidelined by a balky knee. Kroon hopes the new role will lead to snagging a $700,000-plus salary the following season.

Aug. 11, 2005: Kroon breaks the league fastest-pitch record for the third time in four months, peaking at 102 mph. By season's end, with 26 saves to his name, he is living like a rock star.

Nov. 7, 2009: Kroon throws the last pitch of Game 6 of the Japan Series. His Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants are crowned champions after he nails down his third save of the series, capping the best baseball experience of his life.

Jan. 24, 2011: Kroon, with 177 career saves and almost $20 million in career earnings in Japan, agrees to a Minor League contract with the San Francisco Giants. In 11 Spring Training appearances with the defending World Series champs, he goes 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA and a 13-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He hopes to play once more for Bochy, who has long since apologized for mishandling him in 1995. And, after closing out a spring game, Kroon tells Bochy, "It took only 16 years and I went halfway across the world, but here's your save."

April 5, 2011: Kroon is assigned to Triple-A Fresno. The news, delivered in Bochy's AT&T Park office, is shown on the all-access season opener of Showtime's The Franchise.

Four days later, Kroon pitches in the first game of his final season. He gives up an unearned run on two hits in the ninth inning of the Grizzlies' 14-4 loss to the Las Vegas 51s. (They were the Las Vegas Stars and a Padres affiliate when Kroon pitched for them in 1997.)

Kroon isn't sure how he will be received in a clubhouse full of 20-somethings. When he played Triple-A ball in his 20s, the Pacific Coast and International leagues were flush with veterans. There were far fewer top prospects, so there were fewer players like Brandon Belt. The Giants' top offensive prospect is a big, 23-year-old Texan who joins in when teammates call Kroon "Grandpa" and "Old Man." Belt gives it to Kroon so good that Kroon tapes up Belt's locker stall, saws his bat and burns his hat. Pranks notwithstanding, Kroon feels respected by every player and coach on the team. They all want to know how a 38-year-old can throw a ball 98 mph and why he still wants to.

Sept. 5, 2011: Kroon throws his last pitch as a pro. Part of him seems to realize it; the other part will catch up later.

The Grizzles are in Tacoma and Kroon's fastball is still topping out at 98. He allows a two-run homer to Michael Saunders before retiring the game's final three batters in order.

Kroon finishes the season 2-5 with a 5.11 ERA in 49 games. He wonders if his miserable June (11.05 ERA in eight games) cost him one more Major League shot.

"I didn't get the callup," he says months later. "I was wishing I would, I thought I would -- it didn't happen. So the mind-set when I was packing up my bag was, 'I'm done.'"

When he enters the clubhouse for the final time, on the final day of the season, his teammates shower him with beer.

Feb. 11, 2012: Kroon is in Scottsdale, Ariz., trying to decide whether he'll continue playing baseball. He has at least two offers. The clubs are waiting. They need an answer.

Kroon talks about his wife, his teenage sons and young daughter. He talks about missing out on their lives. His oldest is a competitive cheerleader with meets in other states, and his middle child is an up-and-coming switch-hitter at Horizon High.

A week later, Kroon announces to his nearly 6,000 Twitter followers: "After 21 years, I have decided to retire from the game of baseball. I am excited for the next adventure in my life and being a full-time parent."

"I have been blessed to be able to have a great career. I could not have done it without the support of so many people. ... I would like to thank every coach and teammate that I have ever come across in my career. The fans in Japan and America, you were amazing with your support -- I love you. Most of all to my family. My wife Tricia and kids ... who made my career possible I could not have done it without their support. I love you. ... #ontothenext"

A couple of days later, Kroon throws batting practice to his son Matt in a backyard cage. Lobbing the ball into the strike zone -- far slower than he's capable of -- is a new exercise for him. He promises he'll improve.

March 3, 2012: Kroon and his son sit in the stands of a Giants' Spring Training game. Reliever Sergio Romo, on whom Kroon made an impression, had left a pair of tickets at the box office. This is Kroon's first Spring Training as a fan. He tries to watch all nine innings, but it's not easy.

Andrew Pentis is a contributor to Jason Rigatti contributed to this report. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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