By Keith Mills
If Steve Clevenger was a basketball player, he'd be a gym rat. But he's not. His sport is baseball. So we'll just say he loves to play the game and has for about as long as he's been able to swing a bat.
"I began playing when I was 5," Clevenger said. "I just love the game, always have."
Clevenger, a graduate of Mount St. Joseph, is getting ready for his second major league training camp with the Chicago Cubs. Drafted out Southeastern Louisiana University by the Cubs four years ago, he was picked in the seventh round of the 2006 draft and signed by scout Keith Stohr. One year later he was switched from second base to catcher and is knocking on the door of manager Lou Piniella's Opening Day roster.
"I've moved quite quickly through the system," said 23-year-old Clevenger, a Glen Burnie native who still lives in Anne Arundel County in the offseason. "I played second base my first year of rookie ball (Boise, Idaho in 2006). My manager at Boise was Steve McFarland and he asked me what I thought about catching. I'm a left-handed hitter and he said it's the fastest way to the big leagues. There aren't many left-handed hitting catchers out there, so I did it."
And now he is gearing up for another trip to the Cubs' spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., where he is one of four catchers invited to camp by Piniella and general manager Jim Hendry. He works out two to three hours a day at a gym in Glen Burnie, and will report to camp Feb. 17.
"[Pinella] treats everybody the same, and he's a good guy to be around," said Clevenger. "The Cubs take care of their own. This will be my fifth year in their system and I'm still relatively young. I have a good relationship with Oneri Fleita (Cubs vice president of player personnel) and have always gotten along with my managers. There are also a lot of ex-big leaguers who've helped me out a lot in terms of catching -- Jody Davis, Casey Kopitzke. They've had a lot of influence on me."
Clevenger has a .303 career batting average in his four minor league seasons with the Cubs. He hit .286 for the Boise Hawks of the Northwest Rookie League in 2006, a combined .340 for both Boise and Daytona in '07; .298 with 25 doubles for Daytona and the Tennessee Smokies of the Class AA Southern League in '08; and .290 with 16 doubles for Tennessee and the Triple-A Iowa Cubs a year ago.
He'll likely start at Triple-A this year and play again for Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who managed Clevenger at Tennessee last year and is moving up to manage Iowa City this year.
"He's just a great guy, a real players coach," said Clevenger. "He was a great player who obviously knows how to handle everything on the field and off the field. I go into his office and talk to him about certain things and it's like opening a book. I'm always asking him questions. Anything that comes up in a game, he's seen."
Clevenger did something at Mount St. Joseph's that Mark Teixeira and Gavin Floyd could not -- help coach Dave Norton win an MIAA A Conference championship.
The year was 2004. Teixeira, a 1998 Mount St. Joe grad, was beginning his second year with the Texas Rangers and Floyd was beginning his rookie year with the Philadelphia Phillies. Clevenger, who was the starting shortstop as a freshman in 2001 when Floyd was a senior and attracting 15-20 major-league scouts a game, was coming off an outstanding junior year.
Midway through his senior year though, ace pitcher Jimmy Drury was lost for the season with an injury, which looked like it would severely hamper the Gaels chances of winning their first A Conference title since the 1986-87 season.
But Clevenger, second baseman Chris Hildreth and center fielder Jeff Poff led the Gaels on a scorching playoff run that ended with back-to-back wins over Archbishop Spalding, giving Norton and the Gaels the championship.
Clevenger was a machine at the plate, hitting .500 (50 hits in 100 at bats) with 36 runs scored, 32 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .563.
"That was a great year," said Clevenger, who led the Gaels to a 28-7 overall record in '04. "Coach Norton was a great influence on my career. He really helped me and my family a lot when I went to St. Joe and I can't thank him enough."
Clevenger's senior year at Mount St. Joe continued an amateur career that began in 1991 when his mom Donna hauled him to Carroll Park in West Baltimore for his first year of tee-ball. From there it was off to the Linthicum-Ferndale Little League program in northern Anne Arundel County and eventually a spot on Dean Albany's Maryland Orioles Under-12 team in 1998.
"Like Coach Norton, Dean was also a big influence on me," said Clevenger, who later played for Albany's Youse's Maryland Orioles college division team that won the All-American Amatuer Baseball Association tournament in Johnstown, Pa. "He ran his team just like a major league team, and he helped me get a lot of experience."
Clevenger's U-12 Maryland Orioles team included a handful of young players who would go on to have outstanding success at the high school and collegiate level -- Gavin Swanson (Calvert Hall, George Washington University), catcher Chad Durakis (St. Paul's, Maryland), pitcher Kevin Marrie (River Hill, Coastal Carolina) and Brian Bent, a teammate of Clevenger at Mount St. Joe, who also caught Floyd with the Gaels and eventually played four years in the Orioles farm system.
Unlike many young players who get the chance to play minor league baseball, Clevenger has not put a time table on making the big leagues
"You definitely want to be up there," he said, "and the closer you get the more you want it. But you have to wait your turn. Geovany Soto is a young catcher. He was the Rookie of the Year two years ago. He's young with a bright future. I have my own expectations but I never put them in front of getting my work done and concentrating on what I have to do to get there."
Clevenger will join Soto, Koyie Hill and Wellington Castillo as catchers in the Cubs camp this spring. He's well aware his 2010 season will likely begin in Iowa City and a fifth straight minor league season.
"Life in the minors is a lot different that college," said Clevenger. "When I started there were 14-hour bus rides overnight. You have a week to prepare for a road trip in college. You get ready and you take it. Here, you get done playing a game at 11, get on the bus and travel 14 hours to the next city. You get there in the afternoon and you often have to go right to the ballpark. It's hard.
"I think it does weed out a lot of guys who can't handle it. The wear and tear on you physically and mentally is tough. But if you love playing that's what you do."
Once again Clevenger will share a field in Mesa with some of the game's biggest names: Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Ryan Dempster, Aramis Ramirez. Now, Clevenger feels he belongs. He is the fifth member of Mount St. Joe's baseball program to play professionally since Teixeira and Floyd were selected fourth and fifth in the 2001 amateur draft, joining Bent and pitcher Mike O'Connor as well. O'Connor, a teammate of Teixeira’s at Mount St. Joe, went to George Washington and pitched 21 games three years ago with the Washington Nationals.
"I'm a lot more prepared this year," said Clevenger. "Last year was more like a learning experience. This year I know more of what's expected of me.
“When you go to spring training you always want to please the big guys. You go to show what you can do so maybe during the middle of the year you get your call-up. You're Lou Piniella, you might say, 'Hey, this guy did this for me in spring training, this guy did that. He pinch-hit and got me a big hit.’ They take that into consideration when they call guys up. So it's very important to go into camp prepared."
And that's never been a problem for Clevenger. Not since he was 5 years old swinging his tee-ball bat at Carroll Park.
Posted February 8, 2010