On June 3, when Mike Cervenak signed with the Toledo Mud Hens, the writers who stick freshness labels on minor league ballplayers snapped into action. Cervenak “should not be considered a prospect,” one blogger said. A newspaper referred to him as “organizational depth.” “Officially on Rotoworld,” Cervenak told me a few days later, “it’s, ‘He’ll be organizational depth.’” Mike Cervenak is 36 years old. For the past 15 seasons, he has been in a slow orbit through the minors: between teams like the Chillicothe Paints, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Fresno Grizzlies, the New Orleans Zephyrs, and, now, the Mud Hens.
Cervenak’s exact role in baseball is hard to pinpoint. I asked former Yankees manager Stump Merrill, who coached Cervenak a decade ago with the Norwich Navigators, what he remembered about him.
“He was a right-handed first baseman,” Merrill said. “He was a great kid.” “Great kid” is about as vague as “He is not a prospect.”
I told Merrill that Cervenak had signed with Toledo.
“You’re kidding,” Merrill said. “He’s in Triple-A? God, how old is he? He’s gotta be 35.”
“I was close! Unbelievable. Good for him.”
Merrill added, “Aw, shit, he was a great kid.”
Mike Cervenak is probably not going to be The Rookie, a man whose post-30 renaissance becomes the stuff of a Disney movie. In Cervenak’s first week with the Mud Hens, the Detroit third baseman he was understudying, Miguel Cabrera, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But neither is Cervenak an accursed career minor leaguer. He got 13 at-bats with the Phillies in 2008, a taste of the bigs for which he is grateful.
No, Cervenak’s condition is more interesting. Like a lot of us in our mid-30s, he has found his career has landed somewhere between optimal happiness and utter futility. These days, Cervenak is more valuable for his reliability than his potential. He would be a tough guy to lose but not a particularly hard guy to replace. He is organizational depth. He is not a prospect.
I met Cervenak one stormy morning at the Ramada Inn in Syracuse. The Mud Hens were in town to play the Chiefs, the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A team. It had been raining since dawn. “These are the kind of nights you go 0-5,” Cervenak said as he glanced out the window. “You think the game’s canceled and then at 7:20 they’re rolling back the tarp.”
We moved into the bar of the Ramada. It was lit only by a red exit sign, making it briefly look like a place you might actually want to spend time. Cervenak was wearing jeans and slip-on shoes and his hair was neatly combed. He sat down and I began to lap up the details of his career as if I were writing his memoir.
Cervenak was raised in New Boston, Michigan, a town outside Detroit where he acquired the expression “jeez-oh-petes!” His boyhood home had seven acres of land, and it transformed through the seasons: It was a baseball diamond in spring, a football field in the fall, and a hockey rink when it flooded during the winter. Cervenak was a good enough high school shortstop to get a scholarship from Michigan. He earned his degree in five years, and one day he hopes he can fall back on it.
“He’s a great kid,” said Geoff Zahn, his manager with the Wolverines. “Was a great kid. He’s not a kid anymore.”
Cervenak turned into a crack collegiate hitter. He could drive to all fields and still has more hits (293) than any Wolverine before or since. But at 5-foot-11, Cervenak lacked the pure power of a first baseman, and he didn’t have the major league arm or glove to play third. When scouts came by, he was unprojectable. “He wasn’t a guy that knocked your eyes out when you looked at him,” Zahn said. “He wasn’t going to get taller. He wasn’t going to turn into a guy who hits 40 home runs. But when I look at Mike, I see a guy who’s gotten everything out of his body.”
After his junior year, Cervenak was drafted in the 43rd round by Oakland. He thought — naively, he realizes now — he would have plenty of chances to play pro ball. The next season, Cervenak wasn’t drafted at all.
Cervenak got work with the only team that would take him: the independent Chillicothe Paints. It was like an Ohio club dreamed up by Sherwood Anderson. There was a woman in the stands who would toss Cervenak a caramel every time he got a hit and a plate umpire with one eye. In 2000, Cervenak’s OPS had climbed to 1.035 when his manager, Roger Hanners, told him he was leaving. He’d been signed by the Yankees.
“I’ll always remember going to the airport that morning,” Cervenak said. “They said on the radio, ‘Kind of a bittersweet day for Chillicothe. They win the game, but Mike Cervenak ends up getting signed, getting an opportunity with the Yankees.’ I’m on the radio in Southern Ohio. I’m excited. I’ve made it!” In lieu of a signing bonus, the Yankees sent a plane ticket.
By 2001, Cervenak was rolling. He was 24 years old, which wasn’t an awful age for Double-A Norwich. He hit pretty well that year — he had 37 doubles in 128 games. But he couldn’t get out of Norwich. The Connecticut town had colonial homes and a river that boaters could ride to Long Island Sound for lunch. A nice older couple called the Hinsches rented Cervenak a room. It was the kind of place a minor leaguer can’t wait to get out of.
Cervenak didn’t get called to Triple-A in ’01. In spring training the next year, he figured he’d get a promotion. But some Yankees major leaguers accepted assignment in Columbus, and Cervenak was sent back to Norwich. In 2002, he nearly doubled his home run total and added almost 50 points to his slugging percentage. Columbus didn’t call. The Hinsches fussed over Cervenak; the local paper began to write articles about him. He was still in Norwich.
At the end of 2002, the Yankees announced they were moving their Double-A team to Trenton, New Jersey. Cervenak, who was depreciating as a prospect, was happy to toil somewhere else. “I said to someone at the gym, ‘I tell you what: That’s the last time this town will see my shadow!’
“In December,” he said, “I wind up getting a call. ‘You got Rule 5′d to the Giants.’ I’m like, ‘Where’s their Double-A affiliate?’” In fact, San Francisco had just moved its Double-A team. To Norwich.
The stadium of the Syracuse Chiefs has an overhang that covers the last few rows of the bottom deck. Around 6:30 p.m., the dozens of us who braved the rains huddled under it. But even there, big droplets wormed through the roof, acquired an evil intelligence, and landed in the middle of our foreheads. Fifteen minutes before the first pitch, the Chiefs grounds crew removed the infield tarp and dragged it into left field. Then the crew seemed to think better of it and put the tarp back on the infield.
Toledo had talent on its buses. Austin Jackson, the Tigers’ starting center fielder, was in the last game of a rehab assignment for his hamstring. The Mud Hens had Bruce Rondon, who was trying to locate his fastball, and the reliever Al Alburquerque. Twenty-one-year-old Nick Castellanos was in the same pickle as Cervenak — he’d moved from corner infield to the outfield so he could play on the same team with Cabrera and Prince Fielder. The difference was that Castellanos had gotten a $3.45 million signing bonus, which was more than Cervenak had made in his career.
Cervenak had been greeted in Toledo like a traveling salesman everyone had encountered at least once on the road. “He keeps chasing me,” said Pat Misch, a Mud Hens starting pitcher. “In ’04, we were in Double-A with San Francisco together. In ’05, we were in Triple-A Fresno, and ’06, too. Then we took a little sabbatical from each other. We met in 2010 with the Mets. Then this year. I had no idea he’d signed. He walked into the clubhouse and our eyes locked and I was like, What?! Last I heard, he was in Taiwan.”
“I can’t wait for a week from now when he gets comfortable with these guys and really starts letting go,” said Brad Davis, who was Cervenak’s roommate when they were both with the New Orleans Zephyrs.
At 7:20 p.m., the Chiefs decided that the fans who showed up ought to be made to suffer. They pulled back the tarp and started the game. I picked a wet seat in a lonely expanse on the third-base line. A foul ball would land in the next section, and you could count to 10 while a toddler waddled over and picked it up.
I tried to watch Cervenak like a scout. He was almost exactly how he’d been described. He didn’t make many spectacular plays at third, but he made all the routine ones. As Zahn put it, “Mike has something inside him that says, ‘Somebody’s going to have to prove to me that I can’t hit.’” Cervenak came up in the top of the second, took a strike, and then slapped a double down the left-field line. He rounded first like an offensive lineman. He finished 1-for-4, with a walk and a run scored.
This is what organizational depth is. “It’s a player that 30 clubs say can’t play in the big leagues,” says Merrill. “That’s essentially what they’re saying. Yet they’re paying him money to be a backup to a backup.”
“Every night,” said Phil Nevin, the Mud Hens manager, “he goes about his business in a professional way. You see why a guy like him keeps getting jobs.”
In 2002, Cervenak started playing winter ball in Venezuela. (His résumé would later include stints on four different Venezuelan teams.) One day, Cervenak was taking grounders off the bat in BP when a ball took a weird hop and broke his nose. “The manager, he’s like, ‘Hey, we can’t really do anything for you tonight, but we’re going to Caracas tomorrow and we’ll get it fixed. Think you can DH tonight?’” In his second at-bat, he got hit by a pitch. In the ninth inning, he was on second base when a teammate hit a single to shallow left. The third-base coach waved Cervenak home, and he trucked the catcher. Cervenak remembers seeing a TV replay in which he was lying near the plate and moaning.
Were you safe? I asked.
“I was out by a mile!” he said.
The next day, the team took him to the hospital. “I just remember them rolling me into the operating room and it’s all under black light,” Cervenak said. “I feel like I’m walking into a fraternity party back in college. The doctor walks in and he has a boom box in the corner. He ends up putting merengue or salsa music on right before I go under. I remember asking, ‘Is this a fiesta?’” As the anesthesia began to take hold, the last thing Cervenak heard was the Venezuelan doctors laughing.
He had a good spring in 2003, but the Giants sent him back to Norwich. “They don’t tell you,” Cervenak said. “They just post lists. It’s like, ‘You’re going to back to Double-A.’ I’m like, jeez-oh-petes!” It took two more seasons in Norwich — by which time people were calling Cervenak “The Mayor” — before the Giants promoted him to Fresno. Cervenak had never played in Triple-A before. He was 27 years old. He was not a prospect. And he had a new problem: He was stuck behind J.T. Snow, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Pedro Feliz.
He decided to go to South Korea. The KIA Tigers bought Cervenak’s contract from the Giants and gave him $500,000 for the year, his best salary yet. The trip started poorly. A Tigers coach’s first reaction to Cervenak was, “I thought you were bigger.” As Korean TV cameras rolled, Cervenak’s manager offered him some advice on hitting. Cervenak, who had just been in camp with Barry Bonds, listened and then offered a few tips of his own. He was later told the manager had been humiliated.
During the exhibition season, Cervenak felt tightness in his back. His translator — a man named Smiley — and the Tigers trainer took him to a hospital in Gwangju to get “medicine.” As Cervenak was directed into a room, he noticed that Smiley and the trainer had vanished. “I walked into this room and there’s an operating table with this ginormous X-ray machine above and it and below,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Somebody explain to me what’s going on!’ I ended up getting a spinal.” He said the doctor took three tries to insert the needle correctly.
Cervenak was then loaded onto a gurney and returned to the lobby. “They roll me down to the lobby and where Smiley and the trainer are waiting. The trainer’s like, ‘Let’s go. The van’s outside.’”
“I’m like, ‘Smiley, tell ‘em I can’t feel my legs.’”
Smiley conferred with the trainer. The trainer repeated the instruction: “‘Let’s go.’”
Cervenak shrugged, got off the gurney, and fell flat on his face. He was released a few months later.
In 2008 — after a return to Fresno and a one-year stint with the Norfolk Tides — Cervenak went to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies’ Triple-A team. He was 31 years old. His expectations had diminished. “I wasn’t under any false grandeur that I was going to come in and be the starter out of spring training,” he said. “If they need somebody, if they’re in a pinch, I want to be the best option there.” Around the All-Star break, the Phillies decided to send down J.A. Happ. They picked Cervenak to fill his spot. Happ told a newspaper, “Really, it’s Cervy?”
When the news broke, Cervenak was asleep in a Syracuse hotel room. The phone kept ringing, but Cervenak and his roommate figured it was the maid. A few minutes later, his manager, Dave Huppert, knocked at the door. “He’s like, ‘Hey, they need you in Philly today,” Cervenak remembered. “He said that. Everything else he said was like the teacher in Charlie Brown: mwah, mwah, mwah …”
A day later, Cervenak got his first major league at-bat, in extra innings with the score tied. He fouled off the first pitch. The second pitch he hit to deep left, all the way to the track. His mom, Eva, was in the stands, and she got so excited that she spit her gum onto Ryan Howard’s mom.
The Phillies sent Cervenak up and down two more times that year. He wasn’t on the World Series roster but he got to sit in the dugout in full uniform for every game — organizational depth right there on the bench. When the Phillies beat Tampa in Game 5, Cervenak joined the dog pile. “I remember jumping up and seeing Cole Hamels underneath me,” he said. “I’m like, Oh my gosh, please don’t hurt Cole.” The Phillies gave Cervenak a World Series ring and he got to ride in the parade.
“I remember having the conversation with somebody,” Cervenak said, “being like, ‘If I could just get up there one time, it would be so much easier to walk away from this game.’ But I think human nature doesn’t allow you to do that. Whatever you achieve, you always want more.”
The Phillies never called him up again. By 2010, Cervenak was with the Buffalo Bisons, the Mets’ Triple-A team. He had his worst year, and the Mets didn’t re-sign him. “I was like, this is … this is probably the end,” he said.
Would you have felt complete if you’d left then? I asked.
“If you’re asking me if I felt I was done, I still felt like I had the ability,” Cervenak said. “But at the same time, I understood the game of baseball. I’d hit .249 with eight home runs. That doesn’t cut it. I understood if I didn’t get a job.”
The Marlins called. Cervenak played brilliantly for their Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans, batting .340 in 2012. Miami was deaccessioning every sentient being on its big league roster that season, but somehow Cervenak didn’t get a call-up. Now he was 35 years old. He played for the Czech Republic team in the World Baseball Classic (his mother is Czech), then spent time in Taiwan, where he and Chang Tai-shan and Chen Yung-chi were briefly known as the “big three bashing brothers.” Then Cervenak came home. It was the first summer he’d had off in 15 years.
He was sitting around when he scored a job interview with a medical-technology company. It seemed like a perfect gig: He’d studied physical therapy during his offseasons. Cervenak did well in his first interview and scheduled a second. It happened that the Tigers called between the two interviews and offered him a job. Had the medical-technology company offered a job first, Cervenak thinks he might have taken it.
“That was a tough call to make,” he said. “It honestly was. What happens if the offer comes in that week, before I have the workout? Is it the same situation?
“I realize, playing here in Toledo, this is probably the last time I’m going to play baseball.”
You’ve said that before, I pointed out.
“I’ve said that before. And having said that, I know I’m going to sign to go play winter ball somewhere this year.”
Mike Cervenak is not a prospect.
“It is what it is,” said Phil Nevin. “He has a job, and he’s doing a helluva job doing it. You never know what will happen in this game if he keeps putting on a Triple-A uniform and playing his ass off every night.”
Toledo had beaten Syracuse 9-7, and Austin Jackson was studying flight schedules to rejoin the Tigers. Each of the Mud Hens approached Jackson at his locker, gave him a hug, and said, “Thanks, man.” I felt like I was witnessing an ancient ritual, a time-honored minor league farewell. Later, I learned the players were thanking Jackson because he’d bought them dinner from Outback.
Cervenak was sitting at his locker eating a sweet potato. It’s cold and awful outside, I said.
“That’s the International League,” Cervenak said.
Have you ever played in front of fewer fans than this?
How are you adjusting to life with Toledo, as a piece of organizational depth?
“The big thing you don’t want to do is come in and cause any waves,” Cervenak said. “You just stand off to the side.”