It's a couple of days before Christmas and Justin Fitzgerald is working at Macy's in Scottsdale, Ariz. Fitzgerald, a Cardinal Newman grad, is a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants' farm system. Just pitched the 2011 season at Double A Richmond and pitched well.
But still, it's minor league money Fitzgerald made, so he's working a side job at Macy's to make a little extra cash during the holidays. Fitzgerald is working what is called "recovery", making sure clothing is neatly stacked and in the right spot for the next day.
It's night. His cell phone rings. It's Bobby Evans, the Giants' vice president of baseball operations. Just a sec, Fitzgerald said. Lemme step outside. Whatever this is, Fitzgerald wants privacy because Evans is a man high up on the Giants' food chain and Fitzgerald is pretty sure Evans isn't calling to see if he's done all his Christmas shopping.
Congratulations, Justin, you have just been invited as a non-roster player to Giants' Spring Training.
Fitzgerald, 25, hasn't stopped thinking about the reporting date, Feb. 18, since. When he walks into Scottsdale Stadium, Fitzgerald will be carrying more than his glove, ambition and hopes and dreams. He grew up in Cloverdale and was a Giants fan for as long as he can remember. He and his dad, Pat, would go to games at Candlestick and Pac Bell Park. He was a big fan of Barry Bonds, J.T. Snow, Robb Nen especially. The day the Giants drafted him in 2008, Fitzgerald was wearing a Giants' jersey.
Yes, Fitzgerald knows Major League Baseball is a business but it's also personal to him. He's been in the stands at Scottsdale Stadium but never been in the dugout. And on Feb. 18, when he reports with the other pitchers and catchers, Fitzgerald will take a moment to sit in the clubhouse, to sit in the dugout, to be a sponge, to soak it all in.
"It's going to be surreal," he said. Surreal, in that this is his team. Surreal, in that this is his dream.
"I like where I am at," said Fitzgerald about his career path. At 25, he's not young but he's not too old either to make it to the big leagues. He's at The Moment, actually, the tipping point when all things baseball will be decided.
It helps that he has Ross Grimsley on his side. Grimsley is the former free-spirited lefty who pitched 11 years in the big leagues, won 20 for Montreal in 1978, and is now the pitching coach at AA Richmond.
"You have what it takes to make it to the big leagues," Grimsley told Fitzgerald at the end of the 2011 season. "You have big league stuff. Now it's all about what you do with it."
What you do with it, now there's a baseball mantra. Among the most valuable. When a minor leaguer advances from A ball to AA, he has gone from a question mark to a certified prospect with proven skills.
How a player manages that talent will do more to decide his future than any words of wisdom. For a pitcher, it's first remembering he has the ball and the game in his hands and the hitter is at a disadvantage, not him.
"I remember what Justin Verlander said last year at the All-Star Game," Fitzgerald said.