What It's Like When a Player Loses His Job

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Former Yankee reliever David Aardsma, who was cut by the team just before the start of this season.

During the two weeks David Aardsma spent in baseball limbo, it was the phone that really drove him crazy.

Whenever his cell lit up, displaying an unfamiliar number, his heart raced. That call could be his salvation, his entree back into the major leagues.

"I think, 'This is it. This is going to be them,'" said Aardsma, a former Yankees reliever whom the team cut just before the season. "It's a Minnesota number. Is it going to be the Twins?

'And then no: It's a sales call."

So Aardsma would go back to what he was doing at his Arizona home—killing time, playing with his children, working out—as the hours since his release dragged into days.

To see what so many major leaguers experience each spring, The Wall Street Journal followed Aardsma through the process of being cut and trying to catch on with a new team.

The two-week odyssey of boredom, worry, negotiations and frustration is one many players quietly go through each year when they are released. Like a submarine, they disappear quietly and suddenly, then resurface weeks later, hundreds or thousands of miles away, in a new uniform.

Most don't have Aardsma's pedigree. A right-handed former first-round pick, Aardsma, 31, starred as the closer for the Seattle Mariners in 2009 and 2010 before hip and elbow injuries robbed him of all of 2011 and most of 2012. Incidentally, Aardsma also is No. 1 alphabetically among every player in Major League Baseball history.

He seemed a lock to make the Yankee bullpen as a middle reliever, until the Yankees suffered one injury after another, and needed pitchers able to throw more than a single inning. That made Aardsma expendable. He was cut three days before the regular season began.

"It's very frustrating," Aardsma said. "You're sitting there, no control, knowledge, anything about your own future."

Dead man walking

On March 29, when Aardsma was cut, the Yankees were in Washington playing an exhibition game against the Nationals. Aardsma was dressing at his locker after the game, when one of the coaches tapped him on the shoulder and gave him the news.

Even though he didn't know what was coming, he, like most players, was ducking the coaches in those final days of the season, hoping they didn't call for him.

"When you're in the clubhouse and you know it's the final days, even when you feel you're going to make a team, you're trying to hide from the coaches," Aardsma said.

His blood turned to ice, even though he thought the news would be good.

It wasn't.

General Manager Brian Cashman told Aardsma he had pitched well, but they needed his spot for someone else. He would be moving on—designated for assignment, in baseball parlance—and cast into the thorny woods of the trade-waiver process. He was crushed.

"I wanted to be on the Yankees," Aardsma said. "It's the last thing you want to hear, that even though you pitched well enough to be a Yankee, you're not one."

He sloughed back into the clubhouse, his head low in a quiet room where some players had made the team and others had not.

"It's a shock," he said. "You're embarrassed. You're embarrassed to call your wife and your agent and tell them, 'I wasn't good enough.'"

Soon, Aardsma, his wife Andrea and his agent Jamie Murphy were on a three-way call to discuss the process and the possibilities. The Yankees would try to trade him to a team that needed bullpen help, and Murphy laid out who would be in the market for relievers. The Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels seemed like early possibilities, Aardsma said.

"Right from the get-go, we start talking about such-and-such teams, this team has had an issue in the bullpen, this team could have a need," Murphy said.

The player has no control at this stage, and can only hang on what the team tells him. So Aardsma gathered his bags and joined his now ex-teammates for the train ride back to New York to end spring training, a dead man walking.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Andrea Aardsma had no time to mourn. She had spent the last few months building a life for her family in New York. Now she had a few hours to take it apart before businesses closed for the weekend.

David was supposed to move into the Manhattan apartment they had rented that weekend; instead, she had to talk the apartment complex into letting them out of their lease. The furniture that was due to arrive the next day had to be canceled. The car they had shipped out to New York would simply sit for the next few weeks.

"I called and said put the brakes on, please, please," Andrea said. "You've got to undo everything you set up, and then start all over."

They managed to cancel everything without losing more than the apartment broker's fees amounting to a few hundred dollars, she told David, whose train was arriving at New York's Penn Station. He said his goodbyes to his former teammates, checked into a hotel and watched a few games of the NCAA tournament.

'That GM game'

The next day, Aardsma went to Yankee Stadium to clean out his locker and pick up his spring-training equipment before flying home to Arizona, where he began the waiting game.

Three thousand miles away, the Yankees and the Red Sox stood along the foul lines at Yankee Stadium and watched a giant flag unfurl in the outfield to mark opening day. Aardsma had expected to be there, wearing pinstripes.

He turned on the game, for a while.

"It's so hard to sit back and watch, knowing that's what you should be doing, and you're at home watching it," he said. He watched a couple of innings and then went to work out. He listened to the final innings of the loss via satellite radio, smiling when his teammate with both the Mariners and the Yankees, Shawn Kelley, pitched a scoreless inning in his Yankee debut.

Like many of the friends Aardsma has made in his decade in pro baseball, Kelley checked in every few days, sending over a text to see how his ex-teammate was faring. Kelley, in an unspoken irony, received Aardsma's projected spot in the bullpen, thanks to his ability to throw multiple innings. That didn't change anything between the two.

Baseball players are, as a whole, very conscious of the fleeting nature of their fame and fortune. So when one of their lot suffers, they all know it could have been them.

"You have that alienated feeling because you can't really go anywhere and work out, because of the rules," said Kelley, who has been cut before. "You can't do anything but play catch at a local high school with a buddy. It's such a feeling of being in limbo, a complete waiting game."

Aardsma needed to stay sharp, in case the phone rang and a team needed him to pitch immediately. So he went to work out with other castoffs—players who were also released at the last minute, like utility man Bill Hall (who had been cut by the Angels) and reliever Will Ohman (Nationals).

Aardsma stayed up on player movement around baseball, noting which other teams cut players, or needed bullpen help. He would talk himself into thinking that this trade could happen, or that one.

"As a player, you start thinking that way, and then you starting thinking that's a deal they're going to do—you start playing that GM game," he said.

"And it never works out. Never. And then someone else picks up the guy you were thinking about, and you get pissed."

A lifeline

Days passed, and not one of those unknown phone numbers lighting up his phone turned out to be a team offering a lifeline.

Then a call came, from a familiar number, bringing bad news. His agent, Murphy, called to say that no team had traded for him, and Aardsma had been given his unconditional release from the Yankees. He would now pass through another set of waivers. If a team claimed him, he would go to the majors right away. If they didn't, he would become a full free agent.

Now the pitcher had to lower his expectations. His wife tried to keep him occupied elsewhere, dragging him to work out, scheduling a massage for them, taking the kids to the park.

"We were just doing anything and everything to stay active and keep his mind off it," Andrea said.

A few more days passed. Still nothing. Aardsma had cleared waivers, without a team picking him up. He was a free agent.

This is a double-edged sword. He could now negotiate with any team, but the fact that he went unclaimed meant he was likely headed to the minors.

Still, there was interest. Teams had checked in with Murphy over the past few days to let the agent know they had interest. And Murphy made calls to many who didn't, to gauge whether there might be a spot.

After a few days of back and forth, Aardsma had narrowed the possibilities down to four teams. Three were strong American League teams with a good chance to make the playoffs. (He declined to specify them.) But they had packed bullpens; Aardsma would have a tough time claiming a spot with them. He would likely be stashed in the minors in case of injury to a major-league arm.

The fourth was a National League team, one with more opportunity available in the bullpen but a weaker roster.

Aardsma was having a hard time deciding.

"I said let's sit down and put a pros and cons sheet together," Andrea said.

"Really? Are we in fifth grade?" David responded.

But it helped. They went over everything from the climate to the finances to whether the team's Triple-A stadium was a hitter's or pitcher's park. The exercise was useful: It helped Aardsma understand what he wanted, and ultimately, that was the quickest path back to the major leagues, and to a premium bullpen role.

Aardsma chose the Miami Marlins.

"The Marlins made a strong financial offer, and more important, they had a plan for me," he said. "They made that clear to me, that if I pitch well, I have an opportunity to claim a role."

He passed his physical Saturday and reported to Miami's Triple-A affiliate, the New Orleans Zephyrs. If he pitches well, he could be back in the majors in less than a month.

It has been a humbling journey. In two weeks, Aardsma went from assuming he had a spot in the Yankee bullpen to resurfacing on a Triple-A club in New Orleans, hoping he can fight his way into relief for the Marlins.

"I am"—he said with a pause—"OK with it. I thought I'd get a big-league job, because I thought I'd pitched well enough this spring to earn one. But a lot of things are timing, getting cut out there when everyone's rosters were set. And then it became that I had too much time off, where I haven't faced a hitter in two weeks, and they're not going to trust me to go right into a major league game."

Aardsma has been down before, and it taught him to take the long view, he said. "Unless your name is Chipper Jones or Derek Jeter, you're going to go through it," he said.

But he can't help but feel jarred by the turns his career has taken, and by how much can change in two short, boring, maddening weeks. It is something he has seen so many times before. And now, as with so many others, it has happened to him.

"I remember being a young guy, seeing those veteran guys come down [to the minors] and pitch there on their way back up. And I'd be like man, what is that guy doing here," Aardsma said. "And now I'm in that situation."

Write to Daniel Barbarisi at Daniel.Barbarisi@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared April 16, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What It's Like When a Player Loses His Job.

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