By IAN WILSON
A lot of players dream of getting called up to The Show.
That call never came for pitcher Joe Sergent, but he was summoned to … a show, of sorts, in 2007.
In typical independent baseball league fashion, it started with the left-handed hurler receiving a phone call from someone who had dialed the wrong number.
Sergent, a 21st-round selection of the Florida Marlins in 1999, had already played four seasons in the minor leagues – climbing the ladder to Double-A with the Portland Sea Dogs in 2002 – and three years with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks of the independent Northern League. He was contemplating retirement when his phone rang.
“I was done. I’d played eight years and I was like, ‘I’m happy,'” recalled Sergent.
Evan Greusel, a former teammate from Florida’s minor-league system and a pitcher with the Calgary Vipers, was on the other end of the phone.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, you coming back this year?’ … I’m like, ‘What?!'” laughed Sergent.
“He actually tried dialing (catcher) Adam Shorsher’s number. I’m like, ‘Dude, this isn’t Adam, this is Joe.’ He goes, ‘Oh, hey, want to come play for Calgary?'”
GOING BACK TO CALI
Despite the consideration he gave to hanging up his cleats, it turned out that Sergent actually did want to play in southern Alberta, particularly in the Golden Baseball League (GBL) circuit that made stops in his home state of California.
“I grew up on the West Coast and my mom had never seen me play professionally. I always wanted to end my career on the West Coast. I signed the next day and that was that,” he said.
It was a phone call that was serendipitous for his playing career and his life.
Sergent’s 2008 campaign for the Vipers was pedestrian from a statistical viewpoint – he went 4-3 with a 6.05 earned run average (ERA) and 40 strikeouts over 55 innings. But he cranked things up in the playoffs, pitching brilliantly in Game 4 of the best-of-five championship series against the Orange County Flyers, who were managed by Hall-of-Fame catcher Gary Carter. Sergent surrendered just two hits over seven innings to lead Calgary to a 9-1 victory and force a deciding Game 5.
The Vipers, who lost in the Northern League finals in 2007, faced another heartbreaker in their last game of 2008. After leading 9-8 heading into the ninth inning of Game 5, the Snakes were walked off with a bases-loaded hit by the Flyers.
“It stung so bad for us. We battled all year, got back, got a chance to win the championship and lost,” Sergent told Alberta Dugout Stories.
CALL IT A COMEBACK
As much as the loss hurt, Calgary came back stronger the next year.
“We brought everybody back and said we’re going to do one more run at this. The group of guys we had – older guys, kind of at the end of their careers, mixed in with a couple of young guys – we just wanted to win,” said Sergent, who was named the 2009 opening day starter for the first time in his professional career.
“We wanted nothing else, we didn’t care about stats, we didn’t care about anything, we wanted to win at the end. We wanted a dog pile one time.”
Sergent saw his numbers improve – he compiled a 7-3 record with a 3.88 ERA over 97 innings. More importantly, the Vipers defeated the Tucson Toros 3-1 in the GBL title series to claim Calgary’s first professional baseball championship.
“That ’09 team was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in professional baseball,” said the Lamar University alumnus.
Outfielder Drew Miller, who hit 11 home runs and batted .364 for the Vipers in 2009, also remembered a team that would not be denied that year.
“That 2009 Vipers team was like playing on a triple-A team,” said Miller. “Right out of the gate we took it to the league. We didn’t want to give any doubt to anyone what our goal was … we were there to win every game and would do everything to win it.”
Sergent played one more season in the GBL, splitting time with the Vipers and the Victoria Seals, before calling it quits.
JOSE CAN YOU SEE
And then the phone rang.
This time it was Brian Rios on the other end of the line. Rios – who was a member of the Orange County team that prevented Sergent from winning a 2008 championship – was coaching with the Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbirds in Calgary and he was looking for players to suit up for the Yuma Scorpions.
The Scorpions were a part of the North American League, which was the new name of the independent circuit that the Vipers played in. Yuma was coming to town in late June of 2011 and they were in desperate need of players, as a number of Scorpions were anticipating issues crossing the border into Canada.
Rios – along with catcher Brent Cooper, and pitchers Geoff Freeborn and Jon Huizinga – were set to join Yuma for the weekend series at Foothills Stadium. Oh yeah, and Jose Canseco was also playing for the Scorpions.
“‘Do you want to come out of retirement and play one weekend?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ and they were like, ‘You can’t pass this up. It’s Jose Canseco,'” said Sergent.
“So, we all joined the team for just the weekend and played with Jose Canseco. I was impressed with how big he was. He was a massive person. I’ve never seen a pair of hands on a human being like that.”
Sergent made two appearances during the series and pitched through 5.2 innings. And while the six earned runs he gave up were forgettable, the time spent with one of the Bash Brothers was not.
After one of the games, Canseco and his newfound teammates went to Moose McGuire’s Pub to tilt some pints.
“We get done the game and we’d won that night, somehow, and we’d all showered and I remember … he put on a blazer and no undershirt,” said Sergent.
“And he had jeans and a sport coat blazer and he goes, ‘Alright, I’m ready to go.’ We went out that night and it was a great time.”
Who needs a shirt if you’ve hit 462 home runs over your major-league career?
FISH OUT OF WATER
The time spent with Canseco wasn’t Sergent’s first exposure to MLB talent. During his years in the Marlins’ system, he played alongside accomplished pitchers like Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, A.J. Burnett and Jason Grilli.
“And then there was me. You’re in the mix with these guys and you don’t really think much of it, and then after you get out of that you see them win the World Series (in 2003),” said the 626th overall draft pick.
“I never really noticed how special that group was, and how much we pushed each other, and how good I became as a pitcher just by being around those guys. It was amazing. You didn’t think about it at the time but once you got out of it and the organization is doing well, you notice.”
Sergent, who regularly cut class with his friends as a teenager to watch Barry Bonds at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, has no illusions about his place in the game. He was good, but not good enough, to make it to the big leagues.
“There were just guys better than me. That’s what it came down to,” said the 40-year-old, who still takes the mound now and then in the Foothills Major Baseball Association (FMBA), a senior men’s baseball league in Calgary.
“I just wasn’t as good as them. I’m OK with it. I became a successful pitcher. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t good enough.”
FINDING YOUR CALLING
Even after his playing days came to an end, baseball did not. Nor did Sergent’s tenure in Alberta.
With his days of indy ball behind him, Sergent took up coaching. He worked at Absolute Baseball Academy for several years.
And then the phone rang.
“Okotoks came calling for me and it’s been a match made in heaven ever since,” said Sergent of his three years with Dawgs Academy and the Okotoks Dawgs summer collegiate team.
“I love every second of it. I’m a teacher now and this place kind of showed me who I can become as a person.”
For Sergent, his time in southern Alberta turned out to be the right call.
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