Rays reliever Steve Geltz has overcome long odds

The diminutive Rays reliever defies the odds in his climb to the majors.
Published February 28 2016
Updated February 28 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE — The little guy with the big arm had thrown thousands of pitches with hardly anyone noticing.

From the small town in New York near Niagara Falls where he grew up and played high school ball, to the University of Buffalo squad that drew few fans and fewer scouts, to the dozens of northeast-based travel ball teams he joined along the way, he tossed in relative anonymity. The latest reminder was the June 2008 draft in which 1,504 names were called and his was not.

This night was going to be different for Steve Geltz.

His college summer league squad was hosting Team USA, which rolled into a small Connecticut town with a roster of promising prospects led by Stephen Strasburg and, more important for Geltz, a passel of pro scouts he would, finally, have a chance to impress.

"It was," Geltz said, "like this big to-do."

First, though, there was a wild pitch. Unbeknownst to Geltz, a scout with the Angels had enough interest to get the general manager of his Torrington Twisters team to promise not to pitch Geltz so he could have him to himself to evaluate over the rest of the summer.

But then there was a changeup. The Twisters manager decided he owed Geltz the opportunity more than his boss the loyalty, and he put Geltz in the game, albeit in the ninth inning down 15-0.

Thirteen dazzling pitches later, Geltz had finally caught some eyes, lighting up the handheld radar guns with an unprecedented for him 96 mph. And by the next day, he made the first step into an improbable pro career that after a few more interesting curves eventually led to a key role in the Rays bullpen.

"When you think about it," said Greg Morhardt, the scout, "it's a million to one shot."

• • •

Geography wasn't the only reason Geltz faced long odds. Being a short right-handed pitcher — 5 feet 9 when he was the one doing the measuring, anyway — and typically topping out in the low 90s didn't exactly make him a hot commodity.

"A dime a dozen," Geltz said.

But Morhardt, who first noticed Geltz the previous summer in the Northeast Collegiate Baseball League All-Star Game, would soon see what the Angels' coaches and now the Rays' staff appreciate.

"The thing about Steven is that he didn't care," Morhardt said. "He was coming at the hitter. If he hit it, he hit it — and he'd walk off the mound. It's just that rare thing. You can't believe he's going to do it, and he does it anyway. He's got that courage, or whatever you want to call it, to do it right in your face."

Geltz, 28, figured he had to be that way.

For too long, he heard too many reasons from too many people why he was too this or wasn't too that to make it.

"I don't know if I could put an actual number on the times I was told you don't have what it takes," Geltz said. "All these things were stacked up against me, and I had to fight my way through these boulders and these mountainous hurdles that just seemed immovable. …

"I tried to embrace those struggles and those downs and use them as motivation. And I never stopped. I never gave in. I never let somebody else tell me I wasn't good enough."

In other words, he competed. Every day. Every pitch.

"Steve was not going to take no for an answer," said Greg Hunt, who was the Torrington manager and has stayed in touch. "He had people tell him he was never going to make it because of his size, and Steve would just smile and keep working hard. He had a great work ethic. And he was a great kid, fun to be around."

"I love Steve Geltz," said former Angels farm director Scott Servais, now the Mariners' manager. "I loved the way he competed. He is a take-the-ball-any-time-with-no-fear-at-all guy."

Geltz got plenty of help along the way, especially from his extremely middle-class parents, Roxanne, a registered nurse, and John, a retired electrician.

They would spend countless afternoons, nights and weekends driving him for lessons, at former big-leaguer Rick Lancellotti's baseball school near Buffalo, and to tournaments across the northeast and upper Midwest. One summer, Geltz said, he played on five different teams with games seven days a week.

"They spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours, they were always there for me," Geltz said, tearing up as he talked. "If they care that much, how dare I not give it my all?"

• • •

Getting signed by the Angels, for $4,500 and a plane ticket, was supposed to be the hard part.

But, as Geltz found out, it was just the start of the next level in the battle. On his first day as a pro, he found himself nervously on a tiny puddle-jumper flying to meet his new team in Casper, Wyo. On his second, he spent nearly nine hours sitting on the floor of an overcrowded bus that blew its air conditioning on the way to its base in Orem, Utah.

His role, he would find out, was to provide insurance and backup for the Angels' more highly valued — and highly paid — pitchers.

"I was an arm protector," Geltz said. "Literally. I was the guy they threw out there to protect arms. And I understood. But I had a jersey, a jersey with my name on it."

For his first three pro seasons, Geltz did pretty much whatever was asked of him and got little to show for it in return. But he kept persevering, the breakthroughs finally coming as he tweaked his delivery and refined his pitches, converting more skeptics along the way.

"He had to do something to make himself a major-league player," Morhardt said. "And that was all Steve."

He made it to Double A during the 2010 season, then broke camp with a team for the first time in 2011, and at Triple-A Salt Lake at that, rather than being stuck in extended spring purgatory waiting for a need to emerge.

The big step came in 2012. He worked his way from Double A back to Triple A, allowing just one run in his first 28 games and with 45 strikeouts.

That August, he got the call to the majors. Finally. He lasted only a week, pitching twice, coincidentally, against the Rays but, still, making it had to mean something, right?

Only until the next spring, when the Angels appeared to lose interest, trading him to the Rays for reliever Dane De La Rosa in a swap of fringe parts.

The good impression Geltz made on his new bosses with a strong 2013 season was followed by a very bad one, as the "stupid" mistake of smoking marijuana with some buddies in the offseason led to a second failed drug test and a 50-game suspension in May 2014.

The fear of seeing his hard-fought career go up in smoke got Geltz refocused, he said, and more determined as he worked feverishly at the spring facility while suspended.

A solid September callup put him into the 2015 plans, and he earned a spot in the pen he never relinquished, making an AL rookie co-leading and Rays record 70 appearances (including two starts). He went 2-6 with a 3.84 ERA and two saves and earned a reputation as a good, occasionally goofy, teammate with his carefree and comedic ways.

Plus, for a guy who didn't buy his first car until 26 and still lives in the offseason either with his parents or girlfriend Lindsay Chester's mom near Atlanta, he has some money in the bank after playing for $508,900.

"I had a pretty good year," he said. "But I want a better one. It's that constant craving, that incurable craving to dominate."

• • •

Geltz will never know if that June 2008 game in Torrington was his only shot, but it sure looked that way.

He had worked out for the Brewers at a Pennsylvania open tryout and wrangled an invite to throw at Nationals Park without any bites. He wasn't sure if he could go back and pitch his senior season at Buffalo due to a suspension stemming from a dispute over the alleged forging of the signature on an excused absence form after a road trip. And there was no guarantee that Morhardt, the Angels scout, would sign him at the end of the summer, just that he was angling to make sure that he had the inside track over any other team.

Morhardt knew the scouts following Team USA could be intrigued if they got to see Geltz pitch. Having helped arrange for Geltz to be on the Torrington team, which his dad and brother coached at the time, Morhardt reached out to good buddy Kirk Frederickson, the Twisters GM, to agree to keep Geltz off the field under the premise that that way, he'd stay with the Twisters all summer.

But Hunt, the manager, had other priorities: "I had to be fair to the kid."

Seeing Geltz running onto the field to pitch the ninth, Morhardt, sitting with Angels scouting supervisor Ric Wilson, was concerned.

"I'm like, 'What's going on?' " Morhardt said. "All of a sudden our great plan blew up in our face."

Watching Geltz blaze through a group that included future big-leaguers Tommy Medica and Josh Phegley, throwing 3-4 mph harder than he had previously, Morhardt was in full scramble mode.

"There was nobody in the world, with that inning he threw, who was not going to look at the roster and say this kid is signable, he's an undrafted player," Morhardt said.

Wilson went down after the game to talk to Geltz, and, sure enough, there were two other scouts there. Morhardt, meanwhile, was calling their boss for authorization to make a deal.

By the next morning, they offered him $1,000. Geltz, admittedly more brazen then he had a right to be, asked for $10,000. They settled at $4,500.

It turned out to be quite a deal.

"Man, if I hadn't thrown in that game, I don't know what I'd be doing," Geltz said. "I don't know if I would've ever got another chance."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.