By George, it has been some journey
16 July 2015
Around forty Australians are currently under contract to professional baseball clubs in United States, while hundreds have gone before them and several others have recently joined the list of those released by their particular organisation.
Given that so many of our emerging players sign contracts as teenagers, there are of course never any guarantees of success in professional baseball – much less getting a shot at Major League level, which for many requires a progression through seven levels of cut-throat competition.
While it can be an unsettling experience for any young Australian player to be released from his professional contract and face the challenge of charting a direction in life, some players cope far better and some – including Victorian Darryl George – take it on with the resolve and the determination that brought them to attention in the first place.
My first meeting with Darryl George was brief. Purely coincidental yet strangely memorable.
Darryl would have been fourteen or fifteen, playing a senior game for Werribee in the Geelong Baseball Association competition. I knew that he was already considered as a prospect and I took an interest in his performance in this particular game on a typically icy Ballarat winter day.
Even then not camera-shy, Darryl must have spotted me taking some action photographs and making some notes. He obviously twigged that I was the league’s media person.
Leaving the field after the game, Darryl approached me and politely asked if I was the person who wrote reports and baseball stories for the media. When I owned up that indeed I was, he complimented me on my work and left – as always, with a broad smile and an unbridled and respectful enthusiasm both for the sport and for its people.
His emerging skills, his projectable potential, his attitude and work ethic were clearly recognised by professional scouts. Darryl George signed with Tampa Bay in 2010 and subsequently spent over four years with the organisation as a utility who played in every position except behind the dish. For Rookie and Single A overall he hit a respectable .265 and along the way earned Hudson Valley All-Star honours in 2013.
Despite the disappointment of his release late in 2014, Darryl regards his tenure with Tampa Bay as pivotal to his personal and baseball development.
“I think my time as Tampa Bay Ray has shaped me as a person and given me the foundations for who I will become in the future,” he told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “How I went about my business there and the principles they preached will be my greatest attributes in future endeavours.”
“Things such as honesty, work ethic and above all always being a positive person were things the coaching staff never failed to praise players for. Naturally you want to keep being praised, so I would always work hard, wear my heart on my sleeve and keep a smile on my face.”
“My first season was an incredible culture shock,” he said. “I was by myself without any other Australians and without anybody I actually knew. It was like the first day of a new school, exciting yet terrifying at the same time. No matter how much people had told me, experiencing Pro Ball first hand was completely different. I don’t think words can truly sum up the feeling of consistently being out of your comfort zone, overcoming homesickness, tiredness and loneliness on a daily basis.”
“And of course this is compounded when you’re still just a teenager.”
“But the beauty of it was that when you figure out how to, you realise you can push yourself to do things no matter how you feel. And because of going through that, I look at the directions life can take me with optimism; because I have the mentality that I can do anything I choose.”
To compound the challenges of being away from friends and family trying to make a go of professional sport in another country, there is of course a physical dimension created by the day-to-day rigours of training and playing baseball. Darryl George, like many – probably most - endured setbacks though injury.
“First season I had my first taste of injury - a sprained TFCC in my left wrist which sidelined me for a month,” he said. “I didn’t fully address that until I had a cortisone shot two years later to completely heal it.”
“The most significant injury for me was the ligament tear of my right TFCC in my wrist. I had played through five months of significant pain, sometimes keeping me to just one swing during early work. Stubbornness and competiveness probably accounted for not getting the injury addressed in its early days. After cortisone failed to work late in the season, surgery became the only apparent option.”
“In August 2014 I underwent a debridement of the TFCC, which left me in Florida for seven weeks to rehab the injury,” he said. “After fighting through the injury for so long to keep playing, I had no idea that it would be the one to end my career with the Rays.”
“But I’m glad I pushed myself through the pain, because I know my limits now. I know when it’s okay to swallow some pride and say “Hey, I’m hurting.”
Although he takes a more philosophical approach these days, there is no doubt that Darryl George was affected significantly by his release from the Rays – especially after a fairly lengthy relationship. For the club, though, it is a business, and decisions will be made regardless of the effects that may be wrought upon athletes who may unexpectedly feel discarded.
“The club called me and to my surprise released me last December, a couple of months following surgery,” George said. “The reasoning being that they didn’t see me making a ball club next spring training and they wanted to give me the opportunity to sign with another team before camp started.”
“I didn’t ask if it had anything to do with surgery so I can’t be sure about that, but it would be fair to say that teams take injuries into consideration when making those decisions.”
“Although I understand professional baseball is a business, I couldn’t help but take it personally after investing so much into the journey. To them I was just a number on the board, to me it was life. Obviously I was really disappointed,” he said, “and I remained that way for several weeks.”
“All of a sudden I found myself at a cross roads, deciding whether I would continue investing time and effort into something that had seemingly given me nothing in return. I didn’t want to beat my head against a brick wall but at the same time I couldn’t just walk away, I was certain that I could make something of myself and after five years, why not give it a couple more?”
“So if anything despite the occasional down moments, it has become an empowering experience and has changed my perspective on the game,” George said. “I don’t play because it’s my job anymore, I play because I genuinely want to. That is something that has been the biggest positive out of it and it will definitely be a strength in my future pro aspirations.”
Blessed with a wonderful family and circle of friends, Darryl George remains a popular member of the baseball community who thankfully opted – during his darker days of late 2014 – to get back on the proverbial horse, in this instance with the Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League.
“My family have been and always will be my biggest supporters,” George said. “They see the whole journey in all its beauty and ugliness. Most people think that it’s always fun and games, but my family was there for me when things weren’t going so good.”
“I was really surprised by the positive energy I got from everybody. Friends, fans and coaches were what kept me in motion when I felt like I couldn’t go on as a player.”
“Getting back on that field was immensely important, not so much for getting re-signed but for just re-igniting the love for the game,” he explained. “The US season can sometimes drain you and the constant pressures of performance no longer hung over my head, so I was just out on the field having fun with my mates on the team.”
“The highlight of the 2014/15 Aces season was probably seeing Huber’s last few games of baseball and seeing how much every second on that field meant to him. It was refreshing and it highlighted to me that baseball was a game that some of us are lucky to play while we can.”
“The personal highlight would’ve been pitching. Standing on the mound and looking at the other position players with a cheeky grin was something I won’t forget. But later in the season being on the pitching roster was the first time I felt that competitive fire since being released. I wanted to be the best and wanted to prove it.”
After the end of the Melbourne Aces season, Darryl George took on a part-time role with the Melbourne Aces in order to stay directly involved while strengthening his skills and garnering experience around some baseball lifers.
“I’ve been helping out in the front office with the Aces,” he said. “It is actually pretty cool seeing how things are done on that side of the organisation. Their people have definitely been a huge support team for me too - throughout this year - and I can’t say enough about how guys like Damian Shanahan and Justin Huber have gone out of their way to help me through this new stage of my career. They’ve been the two people that have helped me navigate it the most.”
“That being said, though, I don’t think I’ll be hanging up the cleat like Hubes did for a full time front office role. Not just yet!”
With his primary focus in the sport still very much on playing, Darryl has been enjoying winter baseball with North Balwyn Stingers – a Melbourne Winter Baseball League club under the tutelage of Australian Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Dale, who continues to show faith in the young man’s prospects of a return to professional baseball.
“Playing with North Balwyn this winter has been an absolute blast. It’s been years since I’ve been able to sit on a bench next to guys I’d grown up with on junior state teams,” George said. “The other positive has been that I’m consistently getting to work on pitching.”
“It’s been a slow process building arm strength back up since surgery, but I’m starting see the patience paying off. When I’m not playing short stop or second base I’m usually closing games for the Stingers,” he said. “Phil and Neil Burke have been great down there with keeping things loose and still maintaining a professionalism about how to go about things.”
Both Darryl and his army of supporters are looking towards the future and the opportunities that may be on offer. He had intended to return to United States this year but was held up with visa issues, while there are possible opportunities in Asia should negotiations come to fruition in the very near future.
EDITOR'S NOTE (23 July 2015): Darryl George this week signed with Niigata Albirex of the Baseball Challenge League (Japan), where he is expected to join New South Welshman David Kandilas with the semi-professional organisation.
“Establishing a serious professional career in United States has always been achievable in my eyes but the path just doesn’t seem to have led me to it just yet,” Darryl George said. “I think I am entering a defining time – whether I make it or not in my baseball career, I want to be the guy that persevered and overcame some adversity to make it happen.”
“I think work ethic, enthusiasm and calm holistic focus will be what gets me over this brick wall. But regardless of the outcome I’m going to enjoy it. It has been some journey already.”
In elucidating his aspirations going forward, Darryl George is now in a space where he can reflect upon what has brought him to this point in his life. There is a message in all of this for any young person, in whatever their field of endeavour.
“Baseball is my chosen sport,” he said. “For any younger kids keen on playing professional baseball, I would say that if that is what they really want to do then strive to make it happen.”
“The major thing I have taken away from my experiences is that I haven’t been afraid to pursue my sporting dreams. I feel proud of that. I chose not to listen to the negatives and I focused on the positives to keep me going when times were tough.”
“That is an approach that can be applied in every aspect of life – whoever you are or whatever your goals or your interests might be.”
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Darryl George for his assistance in preparing this feature. We wish him all the very best in his future endeavours in baseball and in life.