Wearing a red Philadelphia Phillies jersey and cap, Tagg Bozied trots out to first base to take his position for the start of a spring training game during one of the last days of winter. As the starting pitcher warms up by firing fastballs into the catcher's mitt, Bozied tosses ground balls to the infielders, each one flicking the ball back to him with a laze to match the hot Florida sun. Once the game starts, those lazy throws turn professional, as the infielders field balls off the bats of hitters in Detroit Tigers uniforms and zip the ball toward Bozied.
A week earlier, Bozied was with the major leaguers. But now he is playing with the minor leaguers at the Phillies' spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla., trying to prove he deserves a spot on the Phillies roster. It's a scenario he is all too familiar with.
In the 12 years since he led all of college baseball in home runs and appeared on the cover of Baseball America, Bozied has had brushes with glory. In 1999, he beat out a big, left-handed batter from Missouri State University named Ryan Howard as the starting first baseman for the collegiate national team that summer. Seven years ago he was a top prospect in the San Diego Padres minor league system, and he appeared to be on the verge of being called up to the major leagues when he hit a game-winning grand slam in a minor league game. But while Howard is now the starting first baseman for the Phillies, making $25 million a year, Bozied is a decade into his professional career, and still playing on the backfields in front of a smattering of mothers and girlfriends of his 20-something-year-old teammates.
Along the way there was a knee injury that set him back more than a year. Then the Padres traded for Adrian Gonzalez, a younger and more talented first baseman who made Bozied and his suspect knee expendable. So the Padres released him. That was followed by five years of drifting between six minor league teams, two stints playing in the Dominican Republic and a stop in Taiwan before signing a minor league contract with the Phillies in 2010. All the while, he has never played in a major league game.
"Making the major leagues is like entering the Earth's atmosphere," Bozied says. "If you don't hit it at the exact right angle, you're going to bounce off and go back out to space."
Bozied hit at the wrong angle, but hasn't floated back out to space. At least not yet.
The story of Bozied's purgatory is telling. In the real world, Bozied would appear to be a young man with his whole life ahead of him. But baseball operates on a more condensed time scale, where playing at 40 is akin to living to 100. At 31, Bozied is nearing the seventh inning stretch of his career. But he continues playing, doing what he loves doing most, even if it is in the minor leagues -- and with no guarantee that he will ever reach that next level. "If I played another sport, I couldn't do it," Bozied says. "If I was going through the same emotion or the same situation in another sport, I couldn't do it. Baseball just keeps coming at you."
I first encountered Bozied soon after the 2000 draft, when I was walking by the University of San Francisco baseball field with a high school friend, Jeff Pritchard, who had played with Bozied in college. Bozied was riding his bike when he stopped to chat with Jeff. Not knowing who he was, I gathered from the conversation that Bozied had recently been drafted but wasn't sure whether he was going to sign or return to school for his senior year. After Bozied pedaled away, Pritchard, now a baseball coach at San Jose State, turned and said Bozied had an offer on the table that would just about make him a millionaire. Because projections had him being drafted in the first round, rather than the second round, where he ended up being taken, Bozied declined the offer from the Minnesota Twins. "I screwed that situation up," he would later say.
The Twins, who emphasize developing their own players rather than filling the major league roster with veteran free agents, were talking about starting Bozied in Double-A, several levels above where most draftees start their professional careers. "They promote their guys from within," Bozied says. "It's very evident to me in hindsight they wanted me to be one of their guys.”
But Bozied entered the draft expecting to be a first-rounder, which would have brought first-round money. When the Twins offered $750,000, Bozied and his agent, Scott Boras, scoffed. Negotiations bumped the price to $999,000, at which point Bozied opted for one more year of college.
"I regret not understanding the opportunity that was in front of me," he says. "Going into the draft you get told a lot of things -- good things, and you get a real distorted view of what the professional game is."
The minor leagues are a complex matrix of 174 teams in 19 leagues split into six levels, from Triple-A at the top, to the rookie leagues at the bottom. Each major league organization has a team at each level (but not in each league), except in the rookie leagues, where they have up to four teams made up of mostly teenagers. Triple-A is the last stop for young prospects ascending toward the major leagues and a holding tank for older players waiting to be summoned to the big club. It's where Bozied has spent most of his career.
The minor league life isn't dreadful for Bozied. Because of his service time, he makes about $70,000, for five months of work -- though, minimum salary for a full season in the major leagues is $414,500 -- and he is making a living doing what so many dream of doing while growing up. But he can't be satisfied having spent most of his adult life on a side stage to the major leagues, not when many of his best friends have made it, not when lesser players are there ahead of him, and certainly not when he plays with wide-eyed kids who will pass him on their way to the big show. He still believes he should be a major leaguer, but he has no clear path to Philadelphia, or any other major league team for that matter, and really, appears just as far away from his goal as when he had that first contract offer.
Meeting up with Bozied 11 years later, I see no sign of the pensive 20-year-old fretting about his baseball future. He seems much more relaxed and sure of himself, despite his career not panning out as expected. At 6-foot-3 and a lean 225 pounds, Bozied has a body baseball scouts salivate over. He shaves his head as closely as his face, which funnels focus to his intense, hazel eyes. They are slightly shaded by a strong brow inherited from his Lebanese grandfather, who immigrated to Gulfport, Miss., before settling in South Dakota to be a dairy farmer. Bozied grew up in Sioux Falls -- not far from where his grandfather yanked cow udders --then spent his high school days in the Denver area.
Now he makes his home in San Francisco. He and his wife, Laura, a commercial realtor and former professional volleyball player, live in a condominium on the outskirts of downtown, just north of where the Bay Bridge leads from Oakland into San Francisco. On the other side of the bridge is AT&T Park, home of last year's World Series-winning Giants. "This works for us for now," Laura Bozied says. "When it doesn't work, we'll reevaluate. But (playing major league baseball) is his dream, and that's what he's striving for."
After the game against the Tigers minor leaguers, Tagg and I agree to meet for dinner. But first, he has to ride his bike back to his apartment. I pick him up from there in my rental car, and we head to Smokey Bones, a popular bar and grill in Clearwater, just down the street from the original Hooters restaurant. As we park, we see a young guy, about 20, pull up in a brand new Range Rover with arm candy in the passenger seat. "Baseball player," Bozied says. Later we pass by an even fancier SUV. "Domonic's around," he says. Domonic Brown is the Phillies' top prospect, a 23-year-old who is often compared to former New York Mets great Darryl Strawberry.
As Bozied stabs at the lettuce in his chicken Caesar salad, he offers up some reasons he thinks he hasn't reached the major leagues. As he talks, his facial expressions reveal the frustration of a man who believes he can hit major league pitching better than most. His jaw pushes out, his lips pucker, and his eyes, already intimidating, widen. Bozied believes he just needs a shot. Problem is, he has no major league experience, the Phillies didn't draft him, and they didn't trade for him or throw a lot of money his way. "Nobody is invested me," he says. "Nobody's job depends on me.”
That wasn't always the case. After declining the Twins' offer, Bozied returned to school for his senior season in hopes of improving his draft position the following year. The Padres ended up drafting Bozied in the third round in 2001 and giving him a $440,000 signing bonus. That was disappointing, but within two years he was rated the organization's fourth-best minor league prospect. Two months into the 2004 season, his stock within the organization was rising. Bozied was on a hitting tear in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He had 16 home runs and 58 RBI, along with a .315 batting average, through 57 games, and his team was on roll, having won 21 of 23 games. But then he hit that game-winning grand slam, which began as the most exhilarating moment in his career, and ended as the most nightmarish.
As Bozied rounded the bases, his teammates gathered at home plate and began jumping up and down in unison, as is customary in baseball when someone hits a game-ending home run. When Bozied was one long stride away from scoring the final run, he leapt up to land on the plate with force, but as he left the ground, the patellar tendon in his left knee ruptured. With his kneecap halfway up his thigh, Bozied landed horizontally, and the celebration went silent. "It felt like somebody stuck a shotgun to my knee and blew my kneecap off," he says.
Josh Barfield, who was drafted by the Padres the same year as Bozied, was playing for the organization's Double-A team in Mobile, Ala., when the injury happened. While he didn't witness it, he said he remembered news of the injury spreading fast throughout the organization. "It was a big deal because at the time he was so close to getting called up," Barfield said. Barfield and Bozied are now teammates on the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies Triple-A team.
The knee injury was seven years ago. The Padres kept Bozied through the 14 months of rehabilitation, after which Bozied returned to the field for the last few weeks of the 2005 season. But the organization released its once-prized prospect the following spring training, and Bozied has been floating around the minor leagues ever since. Laura says it was a painful experience for her husband to be released by the Padres. But the more he went through that process with other teams in the coming years, the less it affected him. "You get calloused," she says. "Then you just come to terms with that that's just the way things works."
Soon after the Padres let him go, Bozied signed with the New York Mets to play for their Triple-A team in Norfolk, Va. In 2007, he played in Memphis for the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple-A team. The year after, he was in Albuquerque, N.M., playing Triple-A for the Florida Marlins. The next year, he played briefly in the Oakland A's organization before the Pittsburgh Pirates brought him in to play for their Triple-A team in Indianapolis. Every year, he was with a different organization, but always in the same position -- one step from the major leagues. When Dean Treanor managed Bozied in 2008, he lobbied the Marlins to give Bozied a look at the major league level. But "he was a non-roster guy," Treanor said. "There are other things that get involved.”
Those other things include contractual commitments to certain players and a labor contract that dictates how an organization can employ those players' services. At any given time, a major league team has 25 players who are chosen from a pool of 40 players. Essentially, the team has its 25 main players, and if any of them suffer long-term injuries or underperform, the team has 15 eligible replacements -- all playing in the minor leagues -- on stand-by. Bozied is not on the Phillies' 40-man roster. To be considered for a major league call-up, space would have to be made for him on the 40-man roster. That would require the Phillies to leave one of the 40 players contractually unprotected, meaning other teams would then be able to acquire that player. Some of the extra 15 players are veterans, and some are younger players with little experience -- prospects the team has invested in.
This is where the business side of the game leaves a player such as Bozied on the outside. "It's just like business anywhere else, man -- it's leverage," says Bozied, a business major in college. "Once money came into the game, and you started paying prospects, paying drafted guys, and the money in the game went up and you started paying front office officials ridiculous amounts of money -- it comes down to leverage. I have no leverage."
It could also come down to timing and opportunity. John Hughes, a longtime baseball scout, said the odds are probably against Bozied reaching the major leagues, though it is not out of the question. "If he were to put up numbers -- he's got power, and somebody gets hurt, it's not out of the question," Hughes says. "So much of it is luck of the draw that you're with the right organization at the right time."
It's Bozied's luck that he is playing for a National League organization, so there is no designated hitter. And the Phillies are a powerhouse, having reached the playoffs the past four years, including a World Series win in 2008. So Bozied is trying to crack a roster deep in accomplished major leaguers.
Bozied's case is not unique. Most Triple-A teams have players on the wrong side of 30 who have some or no major league experience. And every few years a player emerges well past the expected arrival age for a major league baseball player. Disney made a movie, "The Rookie," about a pitcher named Jim Morris who made his major league debut at 35, a decade after injuries appeared to have ended his career. Last year, John Lindsey finally reached the major leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers at 33 -- 15 years after being drafted out of high school. Stories like these can be inspirational to children dreaming of big league careers, or to a casual moviegoer who gets goose bumps whenever the soundtrack tugs on his heartstrings.
Bozied, on the other hand, is indifferent. "People say it all the time, 'Look, that guy with the Dodgers. You see, this is the year for you.' I'm like, 'whatever.'" Those stories involved other players on other teams in different situations. "I know that sounds cynical, but I literally look at it from the business perspective of, 'that's the Dodgers.'”
The fact that Bozied still finds work as a player means he still offers value to major league franchises, even if it's not as a major league player. "He has a history of swinging the bat," says Chuck LaMar, director of the Phillies' minor league system. "As long we feel he can help us and as long he feels like he can continue to play, we're going to give him that opportunity." But his value isn't limited to his ability to hit. As capable as he is on the field, his personality and work ethic may have more to do with his longevity in the game. "The thing that does keep him around: The experience factor, his presence," Treanor says. "You want younger players to interact with him, to be around him. He's a real professional. He works his ass off." And, "he's one of the funniest guys I've been around.”
Soon after the Phillies signed Bozied, they assigned him to play in Double-A, his first time playing below Triple-A since first returning from the knee injury. This wasn't so much an indictment of Bozied's ability as it was a testament to it -- and his character. Domonic Brown, the Phillies top prospect, was playing for the Double-A team in Reading, Penn., so the organization wanted Bozied to mentor Brown and be his "protection"in the batting lineup. With a potent batter such as Bozied batting right after Brown, opposing teams would be more compelled to give Brown pitches to hit. Without Bozied in the lineup, teams would incur less risk if they walked Brown, since the hitter after Brown would pose less of a threat to get a hit that would allow Brown to score.
The strategy worked. Bozied led the Double-A Eastern League in batting average and slugging percentage, and Brown shined, having his best statistical season in his short minor league career before being promoted to Triple-A in June and then to the major league team in July. Bozied remained in Reading.
In addition to the players on their 40-man rosters, major league teams invite several other players, "non-roster invitees," to spring training. Bozied received such an invitation going into this year. But his stint with the big club was short-lived. While the major league players typically receive anywhere from 40 to 80 at-bats during the month of spring training, Bozied had just five at-bats before being reassigned to the minor league camp on March 11.
When the Phillies signed veteran infielder Ronnie Belliard at the beginning of the regular season and assigned him to Triple-A, Bozied was placed on the disabled list with a phantom injury. About a month into the season, Bozied was activated from the disabled list when Lehigh Valley infielder Kevin Frandsen tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended 50 games. In his season debut on May 11, Bozied doubled and drove in two runs. The following day, while batting third, he homered.
Most of the time, Bozied says, he blocks out thoughts of reaching the major leagues, or questions of why he hasn't made it. "If I was obsessed with that, I would have burned out a while ago," he says. "I'm realistic about where I'm at in my career. I know I could just as easily make the team out of spring training and play three or four years consecutively in the big leagues, and I also know that I can never, ever get there."