ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Herget and his dreams had come to a mutual parting of ways.
Ten years after his first bus ride through a minor league town, Herget was ready to give up on the thought of ever reaching baseball’s big time. He was starting his second spring in a row in a low-rent independent league and had already decided this would be his final season as a player.
So when the Durham Bulls called with a job offer in May, Herget was determined to depart on his own terms. That meant, on this go-around, there would be no pressure. That meant, at age 31, enjoying every moment.
Basically, that meant he would no longer allow his hope of reaching the big leagues to overwhelm the very joy that brought him to this game and this life.
And then, three months later, the phone rang late in the evening in his Norfolk, Virginia, hotel room.
His dream was on the other line.
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Chances are, he won’t make it through the weekend.
The Rays are notorious for juggling their bullpen and using expendable arms from Triple-A. Relievers come and go at Tropicana Field, and everyone agrees it’s nothing personal.
Kevin Herget understands this, even if he’s avoided dwelling on it.
He’s here for the moment, and heaven knows that’s enough.
For this is a righthander who went undrafted out of high school and is on the slight side of 5-foot-10. A grinder who ended up at Division III Kean University and was the 1,175th pick in the 2013 draft. A survivor who has been on eight minor league rosters, two independent league teams and three winter league teams in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
This is the guy who — after getting the phone call in Norfolk from Durham manager Brady Williams to tell him the Rays were calling him up — bought a pair of plane tickets for his parents in New Jersey to make sure they arrived in Tampa Bay in time on Friday to see him wearing a Major League uniform for the first time.
Was it all worth it? Sacrificing his entire 20s and putting his mathematics degree in storage to play ball? Traipsing around the country with his high school sweetheart — and now fiancé — while working odd jobs between seasons and counting nickels and dimes?
“Oh yeah,” Herget said Friday night after embracing his parents in a hallway outside the Rays clubhouse. “It doesn’t matter how long it lasts. It really doesn’t matter. It’s crazy, the mindset I have now compared to four years ago. But, yes, it’s definitely worth it.”
This is what the ticket buyers don’t always understand. Yes, every player is ultimately chasing a big contract. And, yes, fame is important for some. But there is an entire world of minor leaguers who put adulthood on hold, who aren’t guaranteed a thing, who just want to fulfill the journey of a lifetime.
And the odds are against every single one of them. Even a game with a slavish devotion to numbers can sometimes play favorites. If you aren’t a high draft pick or a bonus baby, you don’t get the same chances. If you aren’t tall, muscular and can light up a radar gun, you’re often overlooked. If the world sees you as minor league fodder, then that’s likely all you’ll ever be.
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Herget went 30-9 with a 2.89 ERA as he climbed from a short-season rookie league team to Triple-A in his first five years in the Cardinals farm system.
His first full season in Triple-A he was on a Memphis team so chocked with talent — Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, Jack Flaherty, Adolis Garcia, Marco Gonzalez, Randal Grichuk, Dakota Hudson, Tyler O’Neill, Jhonny Peralta, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty and Luke Voit — it was impossible to stand out.
He ended up having his first elbow surgery the next season and, when it didn’t take hold, had Tommy John surgery on top of that.
By 2020, he had taken a job as a 29-year-old intern in the Cardinals front office and was on his way to pitching for three different organizations in three successive seasons.
“Luckily, when I first got drafted, I was so naïve to how things worked,” Herget said. “I had a jersey on, so I thought I had a real shot of making it here. You don’t really see until you’re in it just how tough it is to keep moving up and holding on. The mental grind every day of convincing yourself you’re good enough, and you still have a shot.”
When he got the word late Thursday night, Herget immediately called his parents, who had turned the ringers off their phones. So he called his older brother, Lucas, with the news, and then decided to buy his parents’ plane tickets because time was running short.
Audrey and Charlie Herget were greeted early Friday morning with a text message from Lucas saying “WAKE UP!!!” before seeing Kevin’s message about the plane tickets.
They made it to Tropicana Field by the second inning Friday night.
“I always knew he would keep going, because he had worked too hard and this was too much of who he is,” Audrey said. “His journey has always been crooked. You look at his history — Division III, he’s 5-10, he’s a righty, 39th round — he never had it easy.
“But I figured as long as he was throwing a pitch somewhere, his options were still open.”
He’s been working mornings for the past few months as a video scout for Sports Info Solutions and figured he might parlay his math degree and baseball knowledge into a front office job soon.
But the retirement talk is on hold for now. Playing again for the sheer joy of the game has been good for Herget. With an 8-1 record and a 2.79 ERA working mostly as a starter in Durham, who knows where Herget goes from here?
“If you think about when you were a kid, you played baseball because you loved the game. It wasn’t a business, and you weren’t chasing something,” Herget said. “That’s what was so refreshing about indy ball. I decided I was going to have fun again. I learned to love baseball again.”
This weekend, baseball has finally loved him back.
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