Naemark making most of second chance

Astros lefty pitches alongside top prospects after flipping burgers

Selected 1,189th overall in last year's Draft, Steve Naemark posted a 1.47 ERA across four levels. (Rich Guill/River Bandits)

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | February 11, 2016 10:00 AM

It was nearing summer on that night in 2012. Steve Naemark was on drive-thru duty at the McDonald's in Tucson, Arizona, the one off Thornydale and Linda Vista, a stone's -- or baseball's -- throw from the field where he earned a college scholarship four years earlier.

In addition to taking orders and helping prepare food, Naemark handled both windows: collecting payment through the first, passing bags of burgers and fries to waiting customers through the second. In down time, he'd help clean the bathrooms or the play area or prepare the restaurant for closing time.

Naemark listened to a voice place an order through his headset. The face it belonged to was a familiar one. An old teammate from Tucson Mountain View High School, just across Linda Vista from their conversation, pulled up to the window. He was headed to Florida soon, he said. The Pittsburgh Pirates and his Minor League career were waiting.

Four years earlier, Naemark had his own baseball plans. Central Arizona College was the destination, and a spot on the Vaqueros pitching staff had his name on it. So how did he end up here? How did he go from fast food to a call center back to fast food to another call center and back to fast food by the age of 22? Where did that dream go?

"After the interaction and after I reflected on it for just a couple minutes, I got really angry -- not at him or anything; I was really angry at myself," Naemark said. "For the first time, I kind of put the blame on myself for being in the position I was in.

"For the rest of the night, all I could think about was, 'I'm giving this one more shot.'"

Falling out

The dream could have stayed just that. Naemark is listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds now. He doesn't throw on some lights-out downhill plane. His fastball won't break any velocity records from the left side. He wasn't drafted out of high school or junior college. Naemark isn't the typical Minor Leaguer readying for his first Spring Training, but atypical is nothing new.

"He was always the kid that was given the last chance, if you know what I mean," said Len Naemark, Steve's father and self-described "biggest fan."

"He's always surprised the people whose team he's been on and he finishes with them and their attitude is, 'Give me a situation to put him in and I'll put him in it.' It hasn't been easy. It's been a lot of hard work and pitching lessons and playing scrub baseball and that type of thing. He took pitching lessons for years to develop into the kind of pitcher he is now. He doesn't throw the ball 98 miles an hour, but he can put it in your back pocket. That's where his strength comes from."

In all fairness to the Naemarks, Steve's strength comes from somewhere much deeper and more powerful, not the least of it his family.

"My father and I, our relationship has always been wonderful, and it's based in baseball," the younger Naemark said. "That's something we've had between us my whole life."

Except for that gap.

Weeks before his first day of college in the fall of 2008, Naemark got some news: A new head coach and pitching coach had arrived at Central Arizona, and Naemark wasn't in their plans.

"Out of high school, the plan was definitely to go and play. I had every intention to go and play college ball," he said. "It was literally a couple weeks before the fall semester, how quickly that fell through. I don't blame the coaches there or anything like that.

"At least they were honest with me about it."

When Naemark decided against staying at Central Arizona, he came up with a new idea -- get a job, play ball somewhere, find a new scholarship.

"That plan just really quickly fell apart," he said, "because as soon as everybody went off to school and I was left behind in Tucson, I think I went to about two men's league games and just told my dad, 'I think I'm done. I don't see this going anywhere.'"

The rut

At 18, Naemark landed his first job at the Taco Bell at La Cholla and River in Tucson, just off the snaking Rillito that gives the street its name. There, he made tacos, helped unload the twice-weekly shipment truck, cleaned bathrooms and more. He volunteered for closing shifts, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., to avoid the early-morning hours when the restaurant introduced its breakfast menu. He learned valuable things about himself and about life. He made friends. He tried enrolling in college classes. In spite of it all, something was missing.

"I quickly found out that without baseball in my life, it's hard for me to be happy really doing anything else," Naemark said. "Baseball's really my one and only love. My grades didn't go well and I ended up pretty much working full-time at Taco Bell and no longer going to school. That's where the rut started."

People don't seek out the rut, the rut finds them. It ensnares them, envelops them and, before long, the rut is life. Naemark never stayed at a job longer than a year. From Taco Bell, he drifted to a Verizon call center -- "People are pretty rude over the phone, even moreso than face-to-face, so that was as bad as it gets" -- then back to Taco Bell. A different call center more than an hour away followed. Despite better pay, the rut deepened. Time kept slipping away.

Naemark's job involved working with pharmacies and patients, pricing medications and renewing prescriptions. One day, a call came from a man whose uninsured wife had been diagnosed with cancer hours earlier. Naemark was tasked with informing him that the price for a 30-day supply of the medication she needed was more than $1,300.

"As soon as I gave him that number, the guy just broke down on the phone with me," Naemark recalled. "He didn't know what to do, and I didn't know what to say. I wasn't really equipped for that situation. There's really nothing anybody can say to make a situation like that better."

The kid in his early 20s gave the man a number for a state agency that both hoped could help. The moment hit Naemark hard.

"He was just devastated," he said. "The love of his life was dying and he couldn't afford to help her.

"That was one of my worst days."

In a bid to avoid such heartbreak, McDonald's was next.

"It was really a four-year span of no direction," Len Naemark said. "He had no education to go past an entry-level job and he was working these jobs, which were all dead-end. He couldn't advance. He's serving fast food and taking calls from angry customers. He'd come home and he wouldn't be happy. There was just no smile on his face. It was a really tough four years."

Steve wasn't the only one struggling. Len battles chronic health issues, as does Steve's brother, Mike, who has back problems.

"I've got to give the credit to my mom," Steve said of his mother, Bea. "She was taking care of a disabled husband, disabled son and, at the same time, I was at home not doing anything. It was a stressful time on my family. We just couldn't really get the dice to roll our way. It was like the whole family had hit a patch of bad luck and she was the one who pulled us through it. I admire her for that."

'His name is Steve Naemark'

Central Arizona wasn't the only school that wanted Naemark as a freshman. Cochise Junior College, a program on the Arizona-Mexico border, heavily recruited the southpaw for 2008.

"I really lost track of him," Cochise head coach Todd Inglehart said, eight years later. "That following fall, I was like, 'Oh, I wonder what happened to Steve.' I look and he's not on the roster. That was the last time I ever thought about him until I saw him that one night."

That one night.

Inglehart got a call in the summer of 2012 from a friend who worked part-time for the White Sox. There's a kid pitching in the National Baseball Collegiate League you should see, the friend said. Get to Tucson.

"You do what a junior college coach would do that really wants to win and is always looking for that next arm," Inglehart said.

The coach trekked the two hours from Douglas, Arizona. The arm he went to see wasn't bad but didn't blow him away.

After seeing his old teammate in the drive-thru, Naemark was giving baseball another chance -- or maybe it was the other way around. The lefty signed up for a summer league in Tucson, spending nearly an entire paycheck on the entry fee. That night, he wasn't supposed to be on the mound, but Naemark's team needed help after its scheduled starter came up sore.

"The next club runs out there and they run this skinny left-hander out there," Inglehart said. "He's kind of a thin, lean, 6-foot-3 left-hander. I saw him throw maybe three or four pitches and I was like, 'That is repeatable. That was smooth, effortless and repeatable.'

"The next inning, he runs out there and I was like, 'I've seen this guy somewhere before. He looks familiar.'"

Len Naemark listened from a few feet away.

"He said, 'I know this kid. Who is this kid?' I said, 'His name is Steve Naemark,'" Len remembered. "[Inglehart] said, 'I knew it. I knew it. I knew from the way he pitched it was him, but I just wasn't sure.' Then he asked the particulars, was he playing, had he played any college ball, was he eligible, that type of thing."

Steve tossed a seven-inning shutout. Inglehart approached him afterwards and offered the 22-year-old a scholarship on the spot.

"I went into McDonald's the next day and quit," Steve said.

"[My dad] used to take me out to the field to practice and everything, so that night was kind of like, 'Hey, we're back in it.' I know it was just as crazy for him to all of a sudden think, 'My son was a fast-food worker yesterday, but now he's a college baseball player.'"

Steve Naemark set a Lone Star Conference record with a 1.37 ERA in 2015 before he was drafted. (Angelo State Athletics)

 

A second chance

Enrolled at Cochise, Naemark took off. He was named Region I MVP and the Most Outstanding Pitcher at the JUCO World Series his freshman season. His team earned another World Series berth the following year.

"That's the beauty of this level," Inglehart said. "It's a wonderful second chance for a lot of guys. Sometimes life comes along too fast for some guys and they don't get the opportunity. My experience has been a lot of times when they give it up, they really never have the passion to want to get back in it. When push comes to shove, they don't come back. But Steve was different.

"Sometimes the best things occur by chance, and he's definitely one of those that goes in the 'best things' category. He leaves a mark wherever he goes."

Naemark starred for the Apaches. His grades and commitment to school improved. He came back to life.

"The feeling of being there as opposed to the feeling of being someone who's working some dead-end jobs and just trying to make ends meet was vastly different," he said. "It just had a huge impact on my self-confidence. I actually felt smart when I went to class. I felt like I was wanted there."

Naemark transferred to Angelo State in Texas for the 2015 season and put together the most dominant year in program history. He went 11-1 with 138 strikeouts over 125 innings, set a Lone Star Conference record with a 1.37 ERA and earned the league's Male Athlete of the Year award. Oh, he also led the Rams to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II baseball championship.

"All he's done is win since he's come back," Inglehart said. "And it's not an accident. Obviously, he's talented, and he had a lot to do with that in terms of being on the mound, but that's contagious. His type of personality is contagious, and he's the type of guy who goes in the category of making other people better."

"I just really appreciated the opportunity because I had it slip through my fingers so many times before," Naemark said. "I was like, 'Look, how many times am I going to screw up before I capitalize on the opportunity? I only get so many.'"

As Naemark shut down opponent after opponent for Angelo State, he began to realize that people were taking notice of the 25-year-old with pinpoint command and an affable personality. Inglehart fielded calls from big league scouts about his former ace. He recalled one in particular.

"I was getting ready to hang up," Inglehart said, "and [the scout] said, 'I've never been more excited to talk to a person than when I get ready to talk to Steve.'"

After a March 7 win at Tarleton State, Naemark received his first questionnaire for the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

"My whole body kind of went cold," he said. "I was like, 'Whoa, I got someone's attention.'"

One of those someones was Astros area scout Noel Gonzales-Luna. Alerted to Naemark's season by the organization's analytics department, Gonzales-Luna went to see the southpaw in Oklahoma. There, Naemark impressed in an April 3 win over Cameron. Despite having been passed over out of high school and junior college, Naemark's numbers and profile spoke to Gonzales-Luna.

"Finally, you just say, 'Man, you've got to give this guy a shot,'" the scout said.

Naemark's age was not an asset. Most players are reaching the big leagues or the crossroads of pro ball at 25. That didn't dissuade Gonzales-Luna or the Astros, however.

"The thing for him is being the type of player that he is," Gonzales-Luna said. "He's a left-handed pitcher, his ability of getting outs and locating the fastball. The thing that stood out the most was the command. It was definitely the best amateur command I saw that year. It's somebody that isn't a project. He isn't a developmental guy. You kind of can send him out and he already can do a lot of the things that he's going to need to do to be successful in the Minors.

"In terms of having a chance to play at the Major League level, he's already got a lot of the pieces in place."


Four-year vacation

Naemark waited at home during Draft weekend last June, aware that his age was a red flag and that he didn't throw 98 mph and wouldn't rake in millions in a signing bonus. But getting home from the night shift at 4 a.m.? That was rough. Consoling the family of a cancer patient? Agony. Waiting on the MLB Draft was transcendent.

Hundreds of names scrolled by for three days. His wasn't among them -- until the Astros' pick in the 40th round, No. 1,189 overall.

"The last thing I remember happening was I yelled, 'Dad, I just got drafted!'" Steve recalled. "He met me in the living room and started literally jumping up and down. He's a little sick, so to see him do something like that was outstanding. I haven't seen him have that much energy or be that happy in a long time."

"We both jumped up and down in each other's arms," Len said. "I wasn't concerned with what they offered him; he would've played for nothing. Just to have that opportunity, and that's all he ever wanted was the opportunity. 'Give me the chance to fail and I'll prove you wrong.'"

Steve signed instantly. He reported to Rookie-level Greeneville for two games, then it was up to Class A Short Season Tri-City. Then Class A Quad Cities. Then a playoff run with Class A Advanced Lancaster on the same roster as Alex Bregman, the second overall Draft pick. The dream never ended.

"When I got to New York [Tri-City], that's where it was like, 'Oh, OK, here's the big stadium,'" Steve said. "'Here are the people asking me for autographs before the games.' It just put a huge smile on my face. I was like, 'This is my dream come true. I'm actually getting to do it.' How many people get to do that?"

With a new lease on life, Steve roared. Len and Bea's son was nearly unhittable as a professional. Across four levels -- a nearly unheard of feat for a first-year pro -- he limited opponents to a .170 average while going 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in 21 relief appearances.

Dealing with irate customers is hard work. Cleaning fryers and grills to scratch a living is hard work. Baseball? Baseball is a game.

"To go and flip burgers at McDonald's for eight hours, I would earn the same paycheck I get in the Minor Leagues," he said. "It just goes back to the old adage that if you do something you love, you don't work a day in your life. I feel like I haven't had to work. I'm on a four-year vacation right now. My life has revolved around playing baseball, and the fact that I'm making just enough money to get by and do that is all I need."

"It's really brought out the young man in him, whereas before he was just a nobody," Len said. "Now that he's playing again, he's come around to think, 'You know, I guess I am a somebody. I guess I can do things.'"

Steve is resting and working out these days. This offseason is the longest he's been away from baseball since 2012. His itch to get back to his teammates grows daily. When your only love in life slips away for four years, every moment apart feels longer than any other. But a return to the mound is approaching.

"They're going to have to tear the jersey off my back in order to get me to stop playing," Naemark said. "I'm going to play as hard as I can every game I can until the very last day I play, and you know what? I hope my career ends when I'm 40 years old. I don't want to stop playing anytime soon."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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