DENVER, 24 April - Long before the navy blue cap with the “M,” and the fighter plane, long before the Showgrounds, long before the ABLCS, there were the questions. Jason Hirsh, the towering right-hander with the Futures Game appearance, the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year award, a member of a team that made an unprecedented World Series run, found himself with many questions in 2011. A devastating shoulder injury, one many pitchers never come back from, and subsequent surgery had put the native Californian on the shelf.
Now, the questions aren’t Hirsh’s to ask but his to answer. The former Melbourne Aces starter is healthy once more, and his days in the ABL stand tall in his road back from one of baseball’s darkest places.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” the now-31-year-old Hirsh says of his 2011/12 season with the Aces. “Having the opportunity to go down there, and especially coming off a shoulder surgery, just having somebody give me an opportunity to play on a team and be part of a team again, it’s definitely rewarding.”
Hirsch, a native Californian who broke into the major leagues in 2006 with the Houston Astros before parts of two seasons with the Colorado Rockies, came upon the ABL in a mode of necessity. Searching for a league to test his surgically rebuilt shoulder, he reached out to old mates.
“I called my agent, said ‘Hey, are there any jobs open?’ He said, ‘You’re gonna have to go to one of the lesser-known leagues because all the big winter ball leagues are full.’ He mentioned Australia was the place that I should look into, and I knew a couple of former teammates of mine who were Australian.”
Shortly thereafter, Hirsh got in touch with Shane Lindsay, a former teammate in the Rockies’ organisation and Justin Huber, with whom Hirsh had never played on the same team but had competed against for years in the minors. Both Melbourne products, an invitation to the Aces was in the offing. Quickly.
“That was on, like, a Wednesday, and by the following Wednesday, I had a plane ticket, and I was on my way to Melbourne.”
In August of 2010, while coming to the close of a strong season with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees of the International League, Hirsh suffered a full-thickness tear of both the labrum and the rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder. After a September surgery, the then-28-year-old faced a lengthy rehab process.
By January, he had begun a throwing program. March saw him climb once more onto a mound. And by the North American fall, he was on his way to Melbourne.
On 13 November 2011, Hirsh saw his first game action in 442 days when he strode to the hill for the Aces and pitched three innings against Perth. After an extensive surgery, 15 months away from taking part in competition, countless hours of rehab, Hirsh was back.
“It was a big weight off my shoulders to get out there for the first time,” Hirsh said, looking back on his first outing Down Under. “I went two innings, I threw 30-40 pitches, something like that. My first outing, I probably wasn’t throwing very hard at all, but I was successful. I got some ground balls, got a double play, might have punched a guy out. But it felt great to get out there and do that”
In fact, he shorts himself a bit. According to that day’s box score, Hirsh went three frames and popped the glove for strikes on 37 of his 60 pitches. From there, the workload grew. Hirsh pitched four innings his next time out, five in his third start, and pitched into the sixth by December. The ABL’s schedule fit in perfectly with Hirsh’s reacclimation process to baseball, giving him ample recovery time between starts to get ready to go again.
“[Aces manager Phil Dale]was really accommodating in terms of he knew I was coming off shoulder surgery, and so he made sure that my workload wasn’t too much,” Hirsh said. “We set out for 30 or 40 pitches that first time, and I think eventually we built up to 100-pitch count, but we did it slowly. He was very aware of what I was going through, and if I needed extra time, I could get extra time.”
Hirsh cracked the 100-pitch barrier on New Year’s Eve versus Sydney, his sixth of an eventual eight total starts for the Aces that season. The right-hander from California, who had played games in Australia while on a traveling baseball trip with his collegiate team, was a full-fledged member of Victoria’s team.
“They were very welcoming,” Hirsh said of his new teammates. “Within the first couple of days, I knew everybody, and we were essentially family. They all grew up playing with each other. We had a very experienced team. We had a lot of older guys and a lot of younger guys....We had a really good dynamic of the old and the young and the mingling of the two cultures and being able to go back and forth. Everybody got along really well.”
It wasn’t just the core group of Aces who made Hirsh feel at home so far away from the baseball fields of his past. Melbourne’s fans made an impression that sticks with the hurler to this day.
“We had the Hangar Boys, and they were fantastic. These guys would show up every game. They would sit on the first base side. They would heckle every opposing player who would get up there, and then on our side, when our guys would come up, they had songs. They were adapting old songs and mixing in the players’ names. They had chants and stuff.
“The fanbase there was awesome. They were very passionate. The fans love sitting in the stands, getting autographs, just interacting with the players, very much like you would see in a minor league stadium or even a big league stadium here. The passion of the fans in the big leagues here is not quite as good as the Hangar Boys, but I don’t know if anybody will ever compare to the Hangar Boys.”
APPLYING LESSONS LEARNED
The ABL ride for Hirsh and the 2011/12 Melbourne Aces came to a close with a heartbreaking extra-innings loss to Perth in the decisive Game Three of the 2012 ConocoPhillips ABL Championship Series. Despite a difficult defeat to swallow, though, Hirsh returned with a new lease on baseball life. His shoulder held up, and these days, the right arm “feels as good as it’s ever felt.” Recently, Hirsh threw for a handful of major league teams and has signed a deal to pitch independently to start the 2013 season.
In the interim, the longtime successful student of the game has become a teacher, helping to coach nine- and ten-year-old baseballers in the Denver area. Hirsh’s instruction, from team practices to individual lessons on the side, has turned up tangible results, something the budding coach has been drawn to.
“The last two years that I haven’t really been pitching, I’ve had a lot of time to think about, ‘what am I going to do if baseball’s over?’ Nothing’s ever hit me as hard as doing this has the last eight weeks. It’s been very rewarding, and I hope to continue doing it once baseball’s over.”
A man who has travelled a road of stratospheric heights and valley lows understands what it takes to succeed at the game’s highest levels. To the kids who turned out to watch him pitch in Melbourne and cities throughout the ABL, Hirsh’s advice rings as true as what he tells his youth team in the States.
“It’s cliché, but it’s always work hard. Put in the time on and off the field. Show up early, go home late. Listen to your coaches. They’ve got a lot of good coaches down there. A lot of them have major league experience. If you want to go to the next level, if you want to be the next Daniel McGrath or you want to be the next Shane Lindsay or Justin Huber, whoever it might be, if you look back at their careers and how they got to where they were, they had to overcome tremendous odds. They did it through hard work. They did it through practice.
“Ask questions. That’s a big one. Don’t be afraid to ask any questions. If you think it’s the stupidest question on the face of the earth, if you’re asking an experienced guy like myself, I’ve heard it before, or I’ve asked it to somebody else. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can. Have a passion for it.”