Typically this column is used to write about players who made a huge impact on the game. That impact just happened to be outside the walls of Major League Baseball. There are plenty of amazing players with amazing careers that I still need to get to, and I will. However, the under the dashboard purpose of this column is to highlight that players can be extremely successful at baseball without ever having stepped foot on an MLB diamond. Into the column’s spotlight steps longtime stalwart of the United States unaffiliated scene, Josh Mazzola.
There are no hard feelings if Mazzola’s name doesn’t exactly fit the bill for the players you expect this column to cover. Expand your horizons a bit and realize that Mazzola never once played an affiliated game above the High A-level yet he still played professional baseball for 12 years. I don’t know about you, but I managed to play professional baseball for a grand total of zero years.
Playing professional baseball for 12 years is a tremendous accomplishment all on its own. What makes Mazzola’s time playing pro ball even more noteworthy is that despite never advancing to the level he undoubtedly wanted he still had a great career. He wasn’t just a journeyman hanging on by a thread and bouncing from team to team while trying to keep his MLB dream alive. Nope, Mazzola was typically one of the best players on his team keeping his MLB dream alive based solely on the fact that he knew just how good he actually was.
Mazzola’s career started in the San Francisco Giants organization in 2008. After four seasons of pretty darn good results, .281/.353/.460 slash line, Mazzola found himself on the outside looking in at the affiliated baseball landscape. It’s not clear why he was cut loose from the Giants organization and in that regard, Mazzola is no different than many pro ballplayers who never make it out of the affiliated minor leagues. Some see their dreams crushed simply because they couldn’t actually produce good results. Others, like what appears to be the case with Mazzola, find themselves cut for no other reason than not being the type of player that their team wanted at that point in time. Making it up the affiliated ladder is a grind that quite often has less to do with talent and more to do with where you are and what type of player teams are looking for right then and there.
Mazzola’s story didn’t end with the Augusta GreenJackets, though it easily could have. He’d already spent a handful of years making peanuts in the minors and there really wasn’t much of a reason to keep on plugging away in the unaffiliated scene where the big paydays were few and far between. The thing with a player like Mazzola is that they believe in themselves to the point where they are willing to sacrifice plenty just to show that they can hack it. Mazzola being included in this column doesn’t prove he ever hacked it, what does is that he would play eight more highly successful seasons in professional baseball after the Giants cut him loose.
His unaffiliated journey started in the American Association with the Winnipeg Goldeyes. From the onset Mazzola fit in with the Goldeyes and with the brand of baseball being played in the AA. He wasn’t a grinder in a negative sense, but he fits the bill. He was someone who made good contact, got on base however he could, and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for his team. He would spend parts of every remaining season of his career with an AA club, the majority of that time being spent with the Goldeyes. He brought one AA title to Winnipeg, in his first year with the club, 2012.
If I were to tell you that Mazzola finished his career with a slash line of .270/.341/.467 in 4,471 plate appearances (not counting the playoffs, because, again, ugh, record keepers don’t like to keep track of playoff stats) you probably aren’t that impressed. When I add in that he also hit 168 career home runs and finished said career with 1,067 hits the needle likely doesn’t move much. It should, because what Mazzola accomplished is amazing when you think about someone spending the majority of his career in the United States unaffiliated leagues and sticking around long enough to crack 1,000+ hits.
Players simply don’t have the accomplishments of Mazzola all that often in the modern unaffiliated baseball world. The game isn’t set up for long careers in the unaffiliated leagues unless you latch on with a foreign league that pays you handsomely for your services. Even more so than affiliated baseball, the business of unaffiliated baseball is as fickle as can be. Players are one bad stretch away from finding themselves out of baseball altogether. Eventually, even Mazzola hit such a stretch, but not until he had put together a career in professional baseball that any fan would love to have experienced.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Winnipeg Goldeyes