By Rob Rains
PEORIA, Ill. – It had been years since Paul Schwendel pitched in a minor-league game and he seemingly had moved on to the next phase of his life, getting married and settling into a sales job for an IT company in the suburbs of Atlanta.
“I had a pretty comfortable life,” Schwendel said.
What his life didn’t include, however, was playing baseball. The grip the game held on him wouldn’t let go, and after a second operation on his right elbow, Schwendel joined a men’s league and began pitching again on weekends.
“When we first met I thought baseball was like a hobby of his,” said Schwendel’s wife, Nikki. “I had no idea it was like his job or anything.”
Schwendel had been drafted by the Texas Rangers after his senior season at Emory University, where he had walked onto the team as a freshman. He spent three years in their farm system before being released in 2014.
“There were points when I wasn’t playing when I thought maybe it was over, but then I would wake up the next day and be like, ‘What am I going to do if it’s over?’” Schwendel said. “So I would go back out there and throw and find a way to gain some velocity.
“It’s been kind of a long and winding road.”
The path has brought Schwendel from that men’s league outside Atlanta to the Peoria Chiefs, the Cardinals’ high A farm team, where days before his 32nd birthday, his career might really just be getting started.
Holding the radar gun
On one of those weekend days a few years ago, Schwendel asked Nikki to bring his radar gun with her to the park so he could get an idea of how hard he was throwing.
“He wanted to see what it looked like. I didn’t even have a tripod,” she said. “I told him I would take video too. I held it (the radar gun) in one hand and I took video on my phone with the other hand so he could see exactly what his form looked like and the speed of each pitch.”
A funny thing started to happen, captured on the radar gun readings. After throwing in the 80s as he was recovering from the surgery, the velocity began to increase, helped by workouts he developed with a friend, Ben Brewster of Tread Athletics.
“It started jumping over 90,” Nikki said. “That was pretty cool. Most of the guys on the team were like 19 or 20 and random parents were there, and they started to come over and ask, ‘How fast was that one?’ It got to be a lot more fun once he started throwing harder.”
As the velocity readings increased, it was time for a serious conversation in the Schwendel household.
“I had gotten a pretty good job out of college (also Emory) and had received a couple of promotions so I was making enough to take care of both of us,” Nikki said. “He had always talked about how cool it would be to get back into it (baseball). I just told him, ‘If we are going to do this I think you should quit your full-time job.’
“Training and playing on top of working a full-time job was just too much. He was working all the time.”
With her support and that of friends such as Brewster and other family members, Schwendel did just that.
“I always believed in myself or I wouldn’t have kept chasing it,” Schwendel said. “It was probably a lot more far-fetched than I gave it credit for at the time. It was always in the back of my head that it would happen or could happen. I don’t know it that really meshed with reality at some point.
“When I told my boss I was quitting he said, ‘Man if you’re throwing that hard go chase it. You can do a sales job anytime. You can only chase baseball for so long.’
“Everybody has just been really supportive. I only have one, or maybe two, opportunities to chase this.”
Brewster, a former minor-league pitcher himself in the White Sox organization, thought Schwendel’s decision took guts.
“He quit to focus on baseball with zero guarantees,” Brewster said. “He bet on himself. I think that’s the coolest part about Paul. He literally walked away from his job, throwing 91 to 93 at the time, and completely bet on himself.”
As Schwendel continued to train and work with Brewster, he began to understand more about how to become a better pitcher.
“He’s a guy who is very curious and very persistent,” Brewster said. “He takes a very analytical approach and a very detailed approach to his entire pitching process. I’d like to think I played a small part in instilling that, but he did all the work.
“Everything we do at Tread is understanding that velocity development is possible, within reason. I saw all the ingredients in Paul that there was significant room for improvement. I thought for sure there was still a few miles per hour left in the tank.”
The increase in velocity was important for Schwendel for a couple of reasons: it would help him become a better pitcher but perhaps in his particular situation, given the fact he was nearing his 30th birthday, it would help him get noticed – and get that second chance that he wanted.
“People think velocity is the only factor for success,” Brewster said. “It happened to be necessary to get his foot in the door to get signed, but he’s got so many more things he can refine.”
When Nikki’s radar gun showed Schwendel was throwing 96 early last year, he knew he was ready for the next step in his journey. He made phone calls. He sent out video to independent league teams, just asking for a chance.
One of the videos reached former major-leaguer Butch Hobson, the manager of the Chicago Dawgs of the American Association. Schwendel was grocery shopping when Hobson called and invited him to a pre-season camp.
Schwendel was on his way to Chicago, driving through Tennessee, when Hobson called again, this time to un-invite Schwendel to the camp. It seemed the Dawgs roster was full.
Before he could turn around and head back toward Atlanta, however, Hobson called again 10 minutes later. He said he wasn’t going to do that to Schwendel – come on, they would find room for him.
And they did. Schwendel joined the Dawgs and went through the pandemic season, learning more and working out some of the kinks that came from not throwing competitively for five years.
By this spring, those kinks had been refined. He was working at the back end of the Dawgs games, allowing just one earned run in eight innings as he recorded five saves to start the season. The team was in Sioux City in early June when Hobson had another message for Schwendel.
The Cardinals had just purchased his contract. He was headed back to affiliated baseball, the next stop on his path.
“I’m much better now than I was when I was younger,” Schwendel said. “I throw harder. My stuff is better. I have to command the ball better than I have so far, but if there’s anything I’ve proven to myself it’s that I can get better. I don’t ever feel like there’s anything in my game that I can’t improve if given the time.
“I’ve been pretty confident that if I’m healthy I can pitch at a high level. I’m never really surprised when I get people out.”
Seven years and 22 days
Schwendel made his final appearance as a part of the Rangers organization in Class A Hickory, N.C. on May 25, 2014, allowing four runs in 3 2/3 innings. Seven years and 22 days later, on June 17, he made his debut with the Chiefs, coming in to pitch the ninth inning against Beloit.
After walking the first hitter he faced on a 3-2 pitch, Schwendel got a double play and then another groundout to complete a scoreless inning.
He has gone on to pitch in 10 more games for the Chiefs, with his most impressive statistic being that he has struck out 25 hitters in just 12 2/3 innings. His last appearance came on July 21 as he has been rehabbing a minor shoulder issue, expecting to get back on the mound next week.
That will come after Schwendel turns 32 on Monday.
He knows his age is part of his story, with the reality that he usually is facing hitters as much as 10, or more, years younger than him. Still, he also knows his performance matters more than how old he is.
“There isn’t an age gun behind the plate,” Schwendel said. “I tell the younger guys that as long as your skills are getting better that’s all that matters. As a pitcher, as long as you are getting people out, the rest of it tends to take care of itself.”
Peoria manager Chris Swauger, only a couple of years older than Schwendel, has been impressed with Schwendel’s performance.
“He’s got some stuff. He throws hard and has a good slider,” Swauger said. “We’re always going to take a chance on stuff. I don’t know what his ceiling is, but I know he’s here to get work in.
“It’s an interesting story. Hopefully he’s not with us that much longer.”
That would mean that Schwendel was moving on to the next part of his journey, heading up to Double A Springfield.
His eventual goal has remained the same as it was when the Rangers took him with their 40th round pick in the draft nine years ago.
“I want to pitch in the big leagues,” Schwendel said. “I thought I would when I was in the Rangers system and ran into some stuff that maybe I wasn’t able to problem solve well enough. But the whole time I thought my stuff was good enough to pitch in the big leagues.
“I don’t think I will ever stop believing that as long as I can throw the way I do now.”
Brewster, for one, has confidence that Schwendel can make it to his goal.
“It’s cool to see how far he’s come, how he’s not settling for where he is right now,” Brewster said. “He’s got plenty that he’s working on right now. He’s striking out the world right now, but if we can get a couple more inches of vertical break on his fastball he’s really going to start missing even more bats up in the zone.
“He’s got a deceptive lower arm slot. He’s very much a student of the game and is into the data and analytics. There’s no doubt he has a big-league caliber fastball. It’s going to come down to generating results and proving he can do it. Hopefully they (the Cardinals) will give him the time and the opportunities.
“At a certain point age doesn’t matter. At the end of the day it comes down to if you’re good enough you’re good enough.”
Schwendel’s journey has forced him to be away from his wife and dogs. She works as a program manager for Delta Airlines and usually has to watch him pitch from their home outside of Atlanta.
“Honestly the best part for me is when I get to turn the game on and watch him pitch and he has an amazing performance, and then talk to him after the game,” she said, “hearing him describe how he felt out there. It really feels like an out of body experience.
“I’m so happy he’s so excited. It’s like the happiest I’ve ever seen him is after a good performance. He tells me all his spin metric and his velocity. It’s just awesome to see how happy he is when he does well.
“It’s bittersweet, right? The person that you love loves the sport so you want them to succeed. But at the same time that means they have to be gone like six months out of the year.
“It’s not much of a sacrifice. Everybody is a better spouse when they are happy and enjoy their career. He’s a good husband. He doesn’t have to physically be here to be a good husband.”
As much fun as Nikki is having watching her husband’s current success, she hopes there is a special day coming in the future – when Schwendel’s major-league dreams come true.
“That would be amazing, absolutely spectacular,” Nikki said, “probably the best day of my life. Don’t tell him I said that because that probably should be our wedding day. But I’m sure he would say the exact same thing.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Peoria Chiefs and Paul Schwendel