Toledo, Ohio — Father Time is undefeated.
That notion doesn’t stop players from trying to extend their playing days and attempt to get the most out of the last few years of their careers. There is no specific age at which players hang up their cleats and head peacefully into retirement.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia hears the subtle whispers from his 33-year-old body almost daily. The daily maintenance isn’t as easy as it once was, but he still prepares every day for the Toledo Mud Hens, just extending the fight with Father Time.
After spending 10 years in the major leagues with seven teams — including playing 92 games with the Tigers in 2016 — Saltalamacchia is in Triple A this season with a new role. He’s working with the young pitchers and starting catcher Grayson Greiner to improve their games.
Saltalamacchia is the old man in the room, but there’s still a valuable place in a minor-league clubhouse for a veteran with his experience.
“He’s been awesome. He’s played almost 10 years in the big leagues, so I can lean on him for advice any time I’m struggling with anything,” Greiner said. “He’s everything I can ask for as a teammate and mentor. I call him Dad and he calls me Son — those are our nicknames for each other.”
Saltalamacchia is only five years removed from his best season, when he won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox and posted solid numbers: career highs in batting average (.273), runs (68), hits (116), doubles (40) and RBIs (65).
The next season, he signed as a free agent with the Marlins — and that was his last as a regular starting catcher, bouncing from the Diamondbacks and then to the Tigers in 2016.
Saltalamacchia struggled last season, playing in just 10 games with the Toronto Blue Jays and hitting just .040 in 25 at-bats. That didn’t get him many opportunities with Major League teams in the spring, but when the role was presented with the Mud Hens, Saltalamacchia kept an open mind about the possibilities.
The initial plan wasn’t to play in the minors, but he recognizes that he’s reaching the twilight of his career, shifting the focus to helping the young players develop, rather than worrying about himself.
“(Helping young players) is always the plan; you want to win and get on a big-league team and help them win. That was the plan going in and I was 100 percent willing to come here and just play,” he said. “It’s been my role even in years prior. That’s the role of any vet guy who’s been around: try and spread as much knowledge as you can and help other guys, just like when I was coming up.
“It’s now more than ever, because it’s toward the end of my career. It doesn’t change my approach, but I’m going to help out as much as I can.”
The young guys
Asking Saltalamacchia about Greiner’s development brings a certain glint to his eyes, like the proud veteran beaming about his star pupil. Greiner, 25, has had a couple promising stints with the Tigers; Saltalamacchia’s job is to continue that preparation.
“He’s made strides from the beginning of the season to where he is now. He’s more advanced than most catchers his age,” Saltalamacchia said. “Catcher is the toughest position to develop; the only way to develop is to play more and get time under your belt. He’s still got a lot of growing to do, but he’s ahead of where he should be.”
Greiner has soaked up as much of that knowledge as he can. The two have plenty of one-on-one conversations, but some of what the youngster picks up just comes from simple observation and listening to stories.
And he’s constantly absorbing, whether it’s about specific strategies for specialty pitchers or simply how to manage his height behind the plate.
“We talk a lot about how to call a game. That’s one of the big hurdles when you get up (to the Majors). When we had a knuckleball (pitcher) here, he was talking about what he did with (Red Sox pitcher Tim) Wakefield,” Greiner said. “We’re both bigger guys: I’m 6-foot-6 and he’s about 6-4. A lot of the things I struggle with as far as getting my body in position are also things he had to deal with. We bounce a lot of things each other and it’s worked well so far.”
What shines through in all the conversations and observation is the Saltalamacchia’s love for the game, even as his career stretches beyond a decade, with all the stops in between.
“He loves it as much as anybody and we come from the same line of thought there. I want to play this game as long as I can, as long as my body lets me,” Greiner said. “I don’t know if he’s ever been hurt or missed a game. His body is always ready to go. That’s something I look up to. He wants to be in the clubhouse and wants to win. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had and I think everyone in the clubhouse would agree.
“For him to be able to do this with all the success he’s had, it’s humbling but I’m sure he has a fire burning to get back up there and win baseball games.”
The road ahead
Naturally, Saltalamacchia has started thinking about an exit strategy.
If he’s lucky, he’ll get to choose the time that he retires, but that’s not always a guarantee.
“I talked to some guys about when they thought it was time and there’s three different ways: Injuries can bring you out of the game; not being able to do it anymore — and very few guys get to walk out of the game how they want to,” Saltalamacchia said.
As a catcher, he gets to control so much of the game, but that could mushroom into the next stage of his career, where he could one day become a manager. Saltalamacchia already is getting some exposure, as he’s stayed close on the bench to Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz.
“Being a catcher, you’re kind of the second manager on the field. You can relay things to guys that maybe Doug can’t. I’ve always taken pride in that,” Saltalamacchia said. “I would definitely like to (manage). I haven’t thought much about what I’m going to do after baseball, but I’d like to stay in the game and continue to help guys out.
“This game has given me so much; I would definitely like to give something back.”
The managing talk is just preliminary, but for now, the focus is on Greiner and the Mud Hens pitching staff and ensuring that they’re developing.
It’s what makes Saltalamacchia an asset still, infusing that competitive nature and passing down what he’s gotten from his mentors, including Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, Rangers infielder Michael Young and Braves Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones.
“Ultimately, it takes you back to when you started; that’s how everybody started, trying to get noticed before you’re in pro ball and then in pro ball, playing well enough to get to the big leagues,” pitcher Jacob Turner said. “Somebody in Salty’s situation who has a lot of big-league time and experience, I’m sure there are aspects that are a grind, but he brings it every day and comes to play every day — and that’s all you can ask.”