Former ‘Tope Not Ready to Hang Up Cleats

The former big league catcher wakes up in his house in small-town Garner, N.C., far removed from the ballpark lights of Colorado. It’s been nearly eight years since his first major-league hit with the Rockies, off four-time MLB all-star and Olympic gold medalist, Ben Sheets, none the less.

He rolls over and sees his nightstand lined with championship rings. Yep, still there.

All five of them.

But this life seems a thing of the past to the ex-MLB backstop. He now has a family, a wife, two kids, who, if he’s not out of bed soon, might not make it to school on time. Sighing and swinging his legs onto the floor, he puts on his regular clothes, no baseball uniform today. This morning, there’s no time to play catcher, it’s time to play dad.

“Class Act,” is how one of his former coaches describes him. “He cares, works hard, listens and tries to get better.”

But just because he’s out of the game, doesn’t mean he can’t stay in touch. Typing from his Twitter account he sends a message to current Dodgers’ prospect, Justin Sellers, who’ll be headed to spring training in just a few weeks.

“Things r good just enjoying the time with the family,” he tweets to Sellers. “Glad they (the team) r doing well tell them I say hello as well. Good luck this year.”

Those were the days.

The days when he was named “Mr. Baseball” in Indiana. The days when he was drafted in the fifth round directly out of high school. The days when he was on the fast-track to the Majors, set to be an everyday starter in 2005 by Baseball America.

Those were the days.

Before then, scouts weren’t drooling over his power at the plate. He wasn’t winning state championships in high school yet, much less showing up on anybody’s radar as a potential MLB star.

He was, however, known by his original name, Jeffrey Darrin.

Jeffrey Darrin Closser, or as of 1999, J.D. Closser, was tagged for baseball success. He led the minor leagues in various hitting categories his first three seasons as a professional and even hit over .300 in 36 games during his first MLB call-up — all by the age of 24. Closser collected Player of the Months and All-Star appearances like it was his job.

And until July 16 of last season, it was.

After 14 years as a professional baseball player, several stints in the Majors and various appearances in Triple-A ball, Closser got the news every big league athlete dreads; you’ve been cut.

The transaction came as a shock to both Closser and fans of Triple-A Albuquerque, as the catcher had been a critical part of the 2009 ‘Topes PCL Division Championship while continuing to hit .297 during the 2011 campaign. Closser’s release wasn’t necessarily on performance either, just a needed move to create roster space for A.J. Ellis.

Even Isotopes Manager, Lorenzo Bundy, admitted it was a hard decision to make.

“It was tough, it was really tough,” Bundy told the Albuquerque Examiner. “Obviously the best stretch of the year we had, he was a big part of it. He carried us for a couple weeks. He took it (being cut)  like an ultimate pro, disappointed at first.”

Didn’t someone say “class act?”

Faced with a decision to hang up the cleats or leave his family behind in a few months for winter baseball in the Dominican Republic, Closser had to weigh out his options. The catcher was 31 years old, still had a love for baseball, but hadn’t stepped foot on a Major League diamond in five years. Should he forget the elusive dream of becoming a big league star?

This time, it wasn’t a tweet that kept Closser in touch with baseball.

A text from the North American Baseball League’s (NABL) Edmonton Capitals offered one last chance for the backstop. The team’s Manager, Orv Franchuk, reached out to add Closser to a team in the heat of a championship race. This championship, however, was for a team in Canada that belonged to a developing league in its first ever season as the NABL.

“Orv texted me the day I got released,” Closser told the Edmonton Sun. “I wasn’t quite sure if this is where I wanted to come right away. But Orv kept coming after me and nothing was coming up, so I decided to come to Edmonton, stay in shape and see how things go.”

Canada Independent League baseball is a long way from the lights of The Show, but staying in baseball ultimately overruled the downgrade from an MLB stage. Closser stayed true to form to humbly approach this new chance in a non-affiliated league.

“I’m here to do pretty much whatever’s needed,” Closser said after joining the Capitals with only 30 games remaining in the regular season. “I just want to be out here, I just want to be in the lineup as much as I can.”

The Capitals had no problem penciling Closser into the lineup on a nightly basis. He became an overnight sensation, batting .333 during the regular season and an unmatched .421 during the playoffs.  Closser’s consistent swing propelled Edmonton to the Championship series against the Rio Grande Valley Wings.

Only two months removed from unemployment, and he’s stepping back into the box for a championship ring.

Edmonton, on the back of former MLB catcher Closser, took the inaugural NABL championship in five games, scoring seven or more runs in each of their victories. Closser sparked the offensive success by slapping a .522 average for the series, including a four-for-five performance in the series-clinching game.

Chance to gloat after dominating Rio Grande’s pitching?

“It’s really cold!” Closser said after being showered with Champagne in the post-game interview.

Unfortunately, the celebrations didn’t last long for Edmonton and the NABL. On Feb. 21, 2012, the Capitals officially announced the team would suspend operations for the 2012 season, citing a drop in registered teams in the North American League. The club has released a number of its players, including J.D. Closser.

“We would love to have him back,” Capitals Manager Orv Franchuk said. “I think he could be a backup catcher for at least 15 big league clubs — he’s that good.”

As for Closser, Edmonton was just another stop on his roller coaster ride back to the big leagues. The MLB, MilB and NALB veteran isn’t ready to call it quits just yet, and continues to look for the right opportunity.

Responding to a question from his Twitter account about “hanging up the cleats” Closser said, “No don’t want to, just don’t have a job offer as of now —

Waiting for the call.”

A text or tweet will also suffice.

J.D. Closser was instrumental in the 'Topes 2009 PCL Division Championship

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