"I HAD TO FIGHT FOR THIS ONE"
Kole Calhoun returned to the minors and spent time with four organizations this season to reach his goal of 10 years of MLB service
By Jerry Crasnick
Kole Calhoun received a lesson in respecting his elders upon arrival in the majors with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. During his first week with the club, reliever Scott Downs reached 10 years of service time, and his fellow Angels took him out to an establishment in Seattle to celebrate the occasion.
“I remember being there -- my career was just starting and his was getting towards the end -- and looking around and thinking, ‘Man, it would be crazy to make it that far, to 10 years. That would be insane,’’’ Calhoun said. “That was the first time I heard about it.’’
The experience resonated with Calhoun over a decade of roaming major league outfields. When he ended the 2022 season a mere 42 days short of the cherished 10, he determined he would do everything in his power to get over the hump.
Little did he know.
When no big league offers materialized, Calhoun signed a minor league deal with Seattle in February. Over the next five months, he exercised two opt outs and appeared in 58 games in Triple-A ball with the Yankees and Dodgers organizations. And then, just as he began to think retirement was beckoning, the Guardians traded for him in early August and summoned him to the majors. Calhoun pocketed his 42 days, and in September, he experienced his very own Scott Downs moment during a celebration with teammates at a restaurant in downtown Cleveland.
“The road is hard,’’ he said. “A lot of people get close and kind of go through the same path that I did and maybe never get back. It just shows the grit and determination you need to have.’’
In the waning days of the regular season, Calhoun reflected on his journey and the satisfaction of reaching his goal. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you think you might appreciate this achievement a little more than guys who sail past 10 years on their way to 15 or more?
For a handful of guys, it's going to be a pitstop along the way. Then there's a larger group of guys that have to fight and claw and scratch for it. I'm part of that group.
You’ve got to be productive to some (extent) and be a good person in the clubhouse. You’ve got to be a person that people want on their team. This is my fourth different organization this year, and it makes it a little bit more sweet. I had to fight for this one. I didn't know what would come out of this career. I wasn't drafted until I was a senior in college, so I didn't know how many opportunities I would get. Getting to the end of a 10-year career is pretty dang cool.
How would you explain the allure of playing 10 years in the majors?
Among players, it's definitely a recognition thing. It’s cool to be fully vested in the pension plan, but if you’ve played long enough, hopefully you’ve done pretty well financially. For me, it’s more of an honor to be able to play this game this long. I have a bunch of friends who got there and are starting to retire. I wanted to be part of that group.
You just kind of popped into the Guardians clubhouse in August. Did they do something to commemorate the occasion?
My parents and my wife and kids flew out from Arizona, and a bunch of guys on the team met me at a restaurant in downtown Cleveland and we had an awesome meal together and kind of celebrated. Looking at my locker right now, you’d think I'm a big alcoholic because of all the different alcohol that everybody got me. I’m pretty set on that for the next couple of years.
They got you some champagne?
Champagne, wine, tequila. I got enough to open my own bar.
Every player remembers his first major league callup? What stands out about your debut with the Angels in 2012?
It was in May. Vernon Wells slid into second base and popped his thumb and Ryan Langerhans ran into the wall and hurt his shoulder. We were in Iowa at the time playing against the Cubs’ (Triple-A team) and we saw that two guys got hurt. I didn't really think anything of it, honestly. But once we get to the hotel, I get a phone call from our manager. He says, ‘Are you sitting down?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Well, pack your stuff -- you're about to go to the big leagues.’ I couldn’t believe it. I had goosebumps. I was like, ‘Here we go. It’s really happening.’
I called my fiancee at the time -- my wife now -- and she didn't answer. I called my dad. He didn't answer. Then I called my mom and she didn’t answer, either. I’m like, ‘This is the biggest news I could ever tell any of my family and nobody is picking up the phone.’ Finally I got everybody on the line and let them know, and they all got to see me play and see my first hit and all that stuff.
Anything else stand out from your first few days in the majors?
The first game I got into, I was a defensive replacement in right field. We were winning and Ernesto Frieri came in to pitch, and I’m as wide-eyed as you can be. Everything is going 100 miles an hour. A guy hits the ball and it goes up and I’m running in as fast as I can thinking, ‘I’m gonna catch this thing.’ And I look up and the ball is caught by the catcher. The whole time I’m thinking, ‘That’s my ball.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa man, slow down.’
You've always been known as a high energy player. Was it a challenge to find the right balance?
It’s something you need to learn to control and use to your advantage. At times I can do it, but sometimes you want to rise to moments and be as high energy as you can and it might hurt you a little bit. I've played a little reckless at times, but as I've gotten older I've tried to calm down and stay on the field as much as I can.
You won a Gold Glove in 2015. What do you consider your two or three biggest achievements in the big leagues?
The Gold Glove is right up there, for sure. Defense was always important to me. I always wanted to be an asset to my team on that side of the ball, so I worked on it and took it personally. It’s sitting on the mantel downstairs in my little game room.
Going to the playoffs in 2014 with the Angels was one of the coolest moments in my baseball career. I remember celebrating with the team as we clinched the West, and we went out to the field and the whole lower bowl of Angels Stadium was still filled and we got to celebrate with the fans. I felt this unity of the city -- like we were all one -- and it was the only time I really got to experience that. I've been trying to get back to the playoffs ever since. If there's anything I haven't checked off my list that I want to do, I want to make a run in October. I can’t even imagine that feeling, having been in this game for as long as I have.
Have any teammates or fellow players been particularly influential on you during your career?
I mean 100% -- they're all over the place. Mike Trout is one of my great friends. I feel like I could call him at any point. Albert Pujols was the guy who took me and Mike and Garrett Richards and everybody else (in Anaheim) under his wing and showed us the right way to do things. Garrett is one of my best friends in the game. We live close together and play golf together. Our families are close and our kids are right around the same age. Martin Maldonado -- another great friend. Corey Seager -- great friend. As you go through this thing, your families get close. Your wives like each other, and you enjoy playing together. There are definitely a handful of relationships that will continue long after baseball is done.
You played with two sure Hall of Famers in Pujols and Trout, as well as Shohei Ohtani in Anaheim. What impression did that leave on your career?
It definitely sticks with me. My son just had his seventh birthday. I think about playing with Albert and there were times that I was in a cold tub after a game and he would come in holding my son and be like, ‘Hey, I'm gonna take him to get a fruit snack.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Albert Pujols is watching my son.’ You kind of have to pinch yourself.
As my son grows up, I hope he understands how cool it was that I got to be in a clubhouse with guys like Trout and Albert and Ohtani. He met them and now he’s like, ‘Oh hi, Mike. Hi, Albert.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t understand how insane that is -- that I got to play with guys who are pillars of the game. They’re going to be talked about in the baseball world literally until the end of time.’
One final thing: You had a lot of stability with seven years in Anaheim. Then you moved to Arizona and Texas, and this year you were with four organizations. You're married and have two children. How important was the support of your wife in allowing you to stick it out through this season?
Around the All-Star break, we decided if I didn’t get the 42 days I needed, I was going to go home and be done. My cutoff date was right around August 15. Then we get to August 4 and I get traded for the first time in my career, and I end up getting the 42 days. It was such a surreal whirlwind.
If at any point my wife would have said, ‘Hey, this is getting really tough, I could use your help,’ I would have walked away. What a trooper she’s been through all of this. The wives are the unsung heroes in all our careers. A lot of times, they’re raising the kids on their own for the first six months of the year and doing everything to keep the family going. Both my kids will be in school next year, and it’s getting harder to step away for six months and go play baseball, then try to fold back into the mix and be a dad. So hats off to her. If she ever told me, ‘It’s time,’ I was going to walk away. But she never did.