Just a few days ago, Redbirds catcher Rob Johnson stood in the clubhouse at AutoZone Park and talked about the great year teammate Brock Peterson was having. Peterson, a first baseman, had just been named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team.
Now in his 11th professional season, Peterson, 29, has spent not one minute in the major leagues. Johnson, who turns 31 this month, had played in 245 big-league games over a 10-year pro career.
“We were just talking about a guy the other day, Ed Lucas with the Marlins,” Johnson said. “He’s 31 years old and he just got his first taste of the big leagues and he’s doing really well. It’d be really rewarding and an emotional time for (Brock) and his family if he got the call.”
But baseball is not in the business of delivering personal justice. It’s a more of a right-place, right-time industry. So with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina having a balky knee, Johnson was the one to get called up to St. Louis this week.
Meantime, Peterson, who is not on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, is headed to the July 16 Triple-A All-Star Game in Reno, Nev., and will participate in the Home Run Derby; he had 20 home runs through 87 games, which led the PCL. What the rest of his season holds, what the rest of his career will bring is anyone’s guess. But Peterson doesn’t have to look back very far to see he’s in a better place.
Last August, he was registering for community college in Virginia Beach, Va., after completing his second season of independent baseball in the Atlantic League when the Cardinals signed him to a two-year deal and sent him to Memphis for the last four weeks of the 2012 season.
Really, he was the baseball equivalent of a rescue dog. A 2002 49th-round draft choice of the Minnesota Twins out of high school in Chehalis, Wash., the game was supposed to have put Peterson down years ago. But while much higher draft picks fell away, Peterson kept climbing, up to Triple-A, until his release from the Twins.
He gave the Atlantic League a shot on a whim and hit .293 with 20 home runs last season – enough to catch the Cardinals’ notice. This season, the right-handed-hitting Peterson had a .306 batting average, 63 runs batted in and an OPS of .949 (third in the PCL) to go with his league-leading 20 homers. The game is never easy, but suddenly at-bats were not as difficult as they once were.
“Just being older and knowing myself better, that takes a lot of (stress) out of the equation,” Peterson said. “I’m not focused so much on what I’m doing anymore and I can focus more on what pitchers are trying to do to me. That gives me an advantage.”
Said Memphis manager Pop Warner: “He’s got a short swing. That’s what stands out to me. He’s putting himself back on the map.”
Peterson says for the good of his game he tries not to spend too much time looking north up I-55 to St. Louis. But it’s impossible not to think about finally making the majors. He’s having the best season of his career.
“It’s definitely still the goal,” he said. “Every day I think about what it would feel like to get the call into the office and hear I’m going up. At the same time, if you think about that too much or about your numbers too much, that will consume you.”
Numbers, after all, don’t even figure into every decision. Johnson is a great handler of pitchers; he’s also a lifetime .201 hitter in the majors. But the Cardinals don’t need him to hit; they just need him to just be the pro’s pro he’s always been while Molina gets a rest.
“This game has a lot of hope when you’re in the minor leagues,” Johnson said just days before his return to the majors. “That’s what keeps you going.”
And going, and going, and going …
“If I get a chance, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world,” Peterson said. “But if I don’t, I’m still gonna be happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.