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VOL. 132 | NO. 115 | Friday, June 9, 2017

Redbirds’ Chad Huffman Grinding For a Return to Big Leagues

By Don Wade

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The Memphis Redbirds had just finished a Tuesday afternoon game at AutoZone Park. Wednesday was a cherished off day at home. It was a good time for a player to exit quickly, to get the most of the down time before coming back for the next game on Thursday night.

Chad Huffman, right, had a brief stint in the majors with the New York Yankees in 2010. In his second stint with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds this year, Huffman is still trying to get back. (Associated Press file photo)

But outfielder Chad Huffman stuck to the regimen. So into the weight room he went. Gotta stay strong. The season is long and the schedule in the spread-out Pacific Coast League is unforgiving.

Huffman is 32 now, has been playing professionally since 2006. More years have passed since he last appeared in a big-league game – in the summer of 2010 – than it took for him to reach the majors.

“It feels way back there, especially since I went over to Japan,” Huffman said as he sat in a clubhouse conference room mixing a protein shake, beads of sweat still on his forehead. “It feels like it was a long time ago.”

Huffman appeared in nine games with the New York Yankees in 2010, got 18 at-bats and three hits before being sent back to Triple-A.

In real time, he was there from June 13 to July 4. So see if this line rings a bell: “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”

That, of course, was Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis in “Bull Durham.” But look it up, as Susan Sarandon’s Baseball Annie might have said: Chad Huffman was in the show for 21 days.

“Exactly like that,” he said.

There is no Chad Huffman movie and he will not break the minor league home run record. But he can tell you about those 21 days and why, despite the years that have passed since, he is still playing, still hitting line drives.

So can others.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see him get another opportunity in the big leagues because he can hit,” said Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp.

From Lake Elsinore to San Antonio to Portland to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he has hit. From Columbus to Memphis to the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan to the Toledo Mud Hens to Memphis again, he has hit. Mark him down for a .280 batting average and some pop – many doubles and home runs and RBIs.

He is a stout 6-1 and 220 pounds. Can do the job well enough at first base or a corner outfield spot to throw his right-handed bat into the lineup. Good clubhouse guy, too.

“Very good professional,” Memphis hitting coach Mark Budaska said of Huffman’s role as a leader. “If I see something, I’ll say, `Take care of it,’ and he’ll do it his way.”

Here’s what Huffman understands better than ever after all these years: The here and now must come first. Always. He didn’t get that as a young player, but then none of them do.

You’re on the road, playing night games, and when the game ends where do you end up? Someplace eating bar food because that’s what’s available at 11:30 p.m.

“Wings and french fries and maybe have a beer,” Huffman said of the old days. “Now, I can’t do that. Otherwise, I’d feel it.”

So these days he is dedicated to his mobility exercises, to the weights, to eating better, to getting his sleep and grinding the good grind at-bat by at-bat. It’s the best advice he can give a young player as well.

“I don’t necessarily try to lecture to them, but they know if they ever have a question, whatever it might be, they can come to talk to me,” he said. “But your actions do more, running out the groundball hard, not taking your at-bats into the field.

“As a young player, if you focus on result, you’re gonna struggle. Your goal is to get up there and get a good pitch. Over the course of a season, if you have those positive mindsets, it’ll work out. It won’t happen overnight; the brain is a muscle, too.”

If he sounds content, that’s kind of right but not really. Through the end of May his batting average was .295 and he was producing whether in the starting lineup or coming off the bench. When he blasted a pinch-hit three-run homer on a 3-0 count in the eighth inning on May 28 to send the Redbirds to a 5-2 victory, it was as much fun as any home run he had ever hit.

“Like a golfer getting in one swing, hitting a hole-in-one and you just go to the clubhouse,” he said. “It’s a great day.”

The best days, naturally, came with the Yankees. June 13, 2010: He runs onto the field at the same time as Yankee captain Derek Jeter. Starts in right field. First at-bat against Houston pitcher Brian Moehler, he works the count full. Moehler spins a good curve on the outside of the plate. Huffman sticks his bat out and hits a groundball to shortstop. He beats it out for his big-league hit.

“Probably the fastest I’ve ever run in my life,” he said. “I was batting .1000 in the big leagues for a little bit.”

June 27, 2010: The Yankees are in Los Angeles. Former Yankees skipper Joe Torre is now managing the Dodgers. Sunday Night Baseball is in the house televising the action. There’s a buzz in the air.

Huffman takes over in left field early in the game, singles off Clayton Kershaw. When he comes to bat in the top of the ninth, the Yankees are trailing 6-3. He lines a single to right field off Jonathan Broxton, who was an All-Star that year, and drives in two runs.

The Yankees end up winning, 8-6, in 10 innings. Chad Daniel Huffman was a part of it.

“A good memory,” he said. “Hopefully there’s some more of those hits to come.”

If he didn’t believe it possible, he wouldn’t still be playing just for the sake of playing. He’s engaged now, and starting a family is not too far away. Real life, where you can count on carrying your own bags, is just over the horizon.

A second-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2006, he long ago put away the notions that come with that status. Nobody is looking for him to be in their big-league lineup every day. He’s good with that.

But he has proven he can hit anywhere, anytime, in any situation. He has embraced the craft of pinch-hitting, of waiting, waiting, waiting and then being summoned to deliver the big hit.

It’s not pressure so much as opportunity, an opportunity for another 21 days and then who knows?

“I believe there’s a role out there and I know it’d have to be right place, right time,” he said. “That’s truer the older you get. But I believe in my heart I can do it.”

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