By Rob Rains
Every player who makes the major leagues has a story to tell about the journey which led him to that destination.
The Cardinals’ John Brebbia is no different, but his story is – there are not many players in the major leagues who followed the path Brebbia did to get there.
Yes, many players have been released from an organization before making it somewhere else. Others have spent what seemed like forever in the minor leagues before finally getting a chance. Some have had to rise from an independent league all the way to the majors.
That’s what Brebbia had to do too – but unlike players who made only a brief pit stop in those low-rung leagues before finding themselves back in affiliated baseball, Brebbia’s stay in the American Association lasted two long years.
“It wasn’t like he got released and came with us for three outings and got signed again,” said Mike Meyer, who spent those two years with Brebbia as his pitching coach, first at Sioux Falls, S.D. in 2014 and then in Laredo, Texas in 2015. “He had to grind it out for a couple of years and show teams he could do this, that he could pitch.
“When you go to Indy ball it’s the last chance. You’re not making any money; you are going on long bus rides. Going from Laredo to St. Paul, Minn., on a bus can beat you down pretty quick if you don’t have the passion and aren’t willing to put in the effort and sacrifices you’re not going to survive in independent baseball. It brings out the best in the guys who take advantage of the opportunity.”
When Brebbia, then 24, reported to Sioux Falls in 2014, that’s what he saw – an opportunity, a chance, and he was not ready to give up on his dream of one day pitching in the major leagues.
“The game was still enjoyable, that’s why I played,” Brebbia said. “I had fun doing it. I don’t want to say it was hard to go out and play but it didn’t have that same sense of accomplishment.
“I was on a team with a lot of people like you, who loved baseball. Everybody wants to make it to the major leagues but at its core it was just a large group of people who loved the game and it was nice to be around that.”
At that time, that was Brebbia’s world. Those major-league dreams had not died, but weren’t very vivid either.
“I told my wife in 2012 that I will stop playing minor league baseball when I feel like I’m not getting any better and don’t have a chance,” Brebbia said. “There were definitely points where there was a lot of interesting interspection if it was a time in my career where it was time to move on or if I still had a chance.
“I landed on give it another go.”
The journey begins
When Brebbia was selected by the Yankees in the 30th round out of Elon University in North Carolina in the 2011 draft, he had no idea how his journey would play out.
His career began in a traditional way, in the short-season New York-Penn League, followed by a promotion to a full-season team in low Class A in 2012 and up to the high Class A Florida State League the following year.
That was when things began to go a little astray, Brebbia said, noting that he was sent down twice that year, including a stint in the rookie Gulf Coast League.
Even though in retrospect he said he probably should have seen it coming, Brebbia’s release from the Yankees came as a bit of a surprise. Within a day his agent found him a job in Sioux Falls. When Brebbia got there, he met Meyer.
Meyer was a former minor-league pitcher in the Cardinals’ system before moving on to independent ball himself. When he stopped pitching, he became a coach.
“His biggest strength was his approach to baseball and the way he communicated,” Brebbia said of Meyer. “As soon as I met him I said, ‘This is a good person to learn from.’ I was doing my best to follow his advice. He was a very patient person.”
A mechanical change Meyer suggested was to shorten Brebbia’s stride in his delivery.
“He was a little too extended, too far out on his front foot,” Meyer said. “He wasn’t staying in contact with the rubber long enough. We shortened his stride by about four inches so he had both legs underneath him. With that the velocity started to slowly climb up. By the end of the season he was hitting 96 (miles per hour).”
Meyer moved from Sioux Falls to Laredo the following season and took Brebbia with him, making him the team’s closer.
“One of the biggest attributes that John has is he is not going to take anything for granted,” Meyer said. “He works his tail off. He had a great year in 2014 and then spent that entire winter preparing mentally and physically. He’s going to work tirelessly to make sure he’s improving every day.
“He makes everybody around him better as well. At this level there are some tough days when you are coming off 20-hour bus rides, it’s 115 degrees and you’re not making any money, you are away from your family. It doesn’t seem like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not like you can move up or down, you’ve got to find a team (in affiliated ball) to sign you. He was constantly grinding, and it made everybody around him want to get better.”
Brebbia was better in 2015, going 7-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 19 saves. He allowed only 34 hits in 64 innings to go along with 15 walks and 79 strikeouts.
“We had maybe a month to go in the season and his dad came to see him,” Meyer said. “I told his dad, ‘I really think John is going to pitch in the big leagues.’ He kind of chuckled because it’s hard to get to the big leagues when you are in independent baseball. I told him he’s going to get signed after the season and if he gets a fair look he’s going to pitch in the big leagues.
“I really believed if he got the opportunity, if the timing was right, he had a really good chance.”
Meyer’s first prediction came true when Brebbia signed with the Diamondbacks after the season. The Cardinals had noticed what he had accomplished in Laredo as well, however, and selected him in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft in December 2015.
Brebbia had taken the next step of his journey, back into affiliated baseball, but still was an unknown commodity in his new organization. He spent the first two months of the 2016 season at Double A Springfield before he was promoted to Triple A Memphis.
Pitching mostly in middle relief, he still had not crossed the line from suspect to prospect. He did not receive an invitation to the major-league spring camp in 2017, spending March on the back fields of the Roger Dean stadium complex in Jupiter.
Brebbia began the year at Memphis and put up scoreless outing after scoreless outing, making his presence known to the top levels of the organization. After a game in Sacramento on May 26, he got the news that he was headed to the major leagues.
“I was trying to have fun each day and was not thinking about the next step,” Brebbia said. “I was caught off guard.”
He joined the Cardinals in Denver, and because it was raining, made his first purchase as a major-leaguer; spending “about $50” to buy an umbrella from the gift shop at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, two blocks away from Coors Field.
It turned out that purchase took on almost legendary status for Brebbia, who kept the umbrella with him the rest of the season and it became an almost daily topic of conversation.
“It’s a very nice umbrella,” Brebbia said. “It has come in handy quite a bit. At the time I never thought of it as anything other than that it was something I needed at the moment. It was a practical, smart purchase.”
Brebbia spent the rest of the season with the Cardinals, pitching in 50 games, averaging a strikeout an inning and finishing with a 2.44 ERA.
As he spent the winter at his home in Atlanta, preparing for this year, Brebbia’s mind occasionally drifted back to different stops on his journey
“It’s different than it was two years ago or even last year,” Brebbia said while sitting at a table outside the major-league clubhouse in Jupiter. “More often than I probably expected this winter I was sitting at home and stopped and thought, ‘Man, that was so much fun. I really want to do that again.’”
Brebbia thought he would be in New York with the Cardinals for Thursday’s opening day but found out on Tuesday that he was heading back to Memphis. For someone who has gone through his journey, he views this as nothing more than one more detour and that he will be back in the majors soon.
Wanting to follow Brebbia’s path
On one of the back fields at the Roger Dean complex, John Nogowski is more than happy to talk about how he has watched Brebbia’s success. Even though he was not there as long, Nogowski, a first baseman, has been where Brebbia has been.
Nogowski was released by Oakland out of spring training last season after three years in their minor-league system. Needing a place to play, he also went to the American Association, signing with the team in Sioux City, Iowa.
He was there for only 34 games before he was signed by the Cardinals and sent to Springfield.
“I think Indy ball is kind of looked at as guys who are old or not quite good enough for pro ball,” Nogowski said. “In some cases that’s true. In other cases it’s guys who were overshadowed in other systems and needed an opportunity to go play. There are great arms and great players in that league.
“It was the best thing that could have happened to me. It resets your mind as far as your career goes … The guys in independent ball have the same dreams as guys in affiliated ball. We all want to make it to the big leagues.
“Not every path is as easy as just moving up the different levels of an organization. Sometimes you’ve got to take some alternate routes to get there.”
Sometimes, as in Brebbai’s case, that path from independent baseball can indeed lead to the major leagues.
Meyer is now beginning his second season as the manager in Sioux Falls and admits he and his pitching coach, Bud Moore, talk about Brebbia’s career as a way to motivate and inspire their current players.
“Last year we had a couple of bus trips and we were able to catch the Cardinals game and John came in to pitch,” Meyer said. “It was pretty exciting for those guys. It gives them hope that if they work hard enough they can have a chance themselves.
“Bud and John were teammates in 2014. We use John as an example of what it takes; these are the sacrifices you have to make if this is something you really want to pursue, if this is a dream you have. It’s not going to come easy.
“It’s nice to see the results because then our guys can see that all the work is worth it, that ‘I have to put every ounce of energy I have’ into this. When you are in Indy ball it’s almost like you are left for dead. Your baseball career is just about over. For him (Brebbia) to grind it out for two years in Indy ball, busting his tail, not knowing if it’s going to be his last season, then gets picked up, then gets called up, then makes it to an opening-day roster, that’s got to feel awfully special for him and his family.”
As Brebbia sits in the Florida sunshine, those days in Sioux Falls and Laredo, those days of all-day bus rides and cheap motels, seem like both part of a different life and also very real and not that long ago.
“When I was in Indy ball I would look at different guys and think to myself, ‘This isn’t the end of the line, this is just a different beginning,’” Brebbia said. “If people want to look at where I’ve been and use that to inspire themselves that’s perfectly fine.
“I just think, ‘This was my path. This was what happened.’ … I don’t know what my level of appreciation would have been had I experienced something else but I definitely feel like it’s given me a different perspective. It’s definitely a lot more fun now.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains