Stars align for Dodgers, Canadian Romak

Jamie Romak. (David Zalubowski/AP)

For a long while, Jamie Romak assumed he was on the fast track to MLB success. He starred at every level growing up in London, Ont. and was the first Canadian high schooler selected in the 2003 draft.

Baseball stopped being so easy for Romak when he went pro at age 17, but it wasn’t until years after he began his professional career that he started to clue in. If he wanted to reach the big leagues, he had to adjust to a competition level unlike anything he’d seen before.

Now, after parts of 12 years in the minor leagues, he’s a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Everyone has this idea that ‘oh I’ll just be an everyday third baseman in the big leagues.’ You don’t realize how hard it is,” Romak told Sportsnet. “These guys are monsters. They’re really, really good.”

Four years and countless ground balls ago, Romak decided he had to improve his versatility and his defence if he wanted a shot at the big leagues. Now he’s a utility player who bears little resemblance to the all-bat, no-glove first baseman the Atlanta Braves selected in the fourth round of the 2003 draft.

A whole lot had to happen for Romak to get to where he is today. De Jon Watson, who signed Romak after admiring his style of play in the minors, sums the 28-year-old’s year up succinctly.

“The stars aligned perfectly for him,” the Dodgers’ assistant general manager told Sportsnet.

Romak agrees.

“I think that’s how it works for everybody,” he said. “Usually if you’re in a grey zone, it just doesn’t happen. It’s got to be a black and white situation with opportunity and timing and performance. You need to meet those three things. If you do, you get yourself a chance, but if you’re missing one of them it’s probably not going to happen.

“So much is being made of this because it was a longer journey for me, but in reality it’s the same way for how everybody else got up here.”

He’s right. Everyone needs opportunity, it’s just that Romak’s chance was 1,069 minor league games in the making. He played five positions for five different organizations over the course of 12 minor league seasons starting at the age of 17.

At times it looked as though MLB was out of reach for Romak. He battled injuries early in his career and at one point in 2006 entertained the thought of quitting baseball.

He arrived at the Interstate 75 highway and had to decide whether to go south to a minor league assignment in Rome, Ga. or north, back home. Though he didn’t seriously contemplate giving up on the game, it was a period of intense frustration.

“I had never experienced failure and was used to being the big fish in the small pond,” he said. “With the injuries and the lack of success it just weighs on you.”

He kept playing, but results didn’t arrive immediately. He posted a .578 OPS in 2009, his seventh minor league season. At the time he was a 23-year-old who had yet to experience much success above Class A.

It took a while, but Romak turned his game around, hitting 23 home runs at double-A in 2011 and mashing 22 more at triple-A in 2013. The Dodgers had watched Romak from afar for years, admiring his work ethic, power and increasing versatility. His success with the Cardinals’ top affiliate in 2013 compelled Watson to strike a deal with Romak and agent David Sloane last November.

“We always liked his bat, always felt he had some power, was a good defensive player and liked the way he played,” Watson said. “From everything we’d heard and seen he was a blue collar guy and a great clubhouse guy.”

Good guy or not, with Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in the Dodgers’ outfield, there wasn’t exactly much opportunity in Los Angeles. So Romak posted a .932 OPS at triple-A Albuquerque, continuing to work on his versatility. Then Crawford hit the disabled list and, on May 28, nearly 11 years after being drafted, Romak got the call.

As he walked from the on-deck circle to the plate to face Cincinnati Reds right-hander Homer Bailey, Romak heard the Dodger Stadium crowd of 41,129 welcome him.

“That’s something I’ll never forget. It was so loud,” Romak said. “The whole moment was unbelievable.”

On TV, Vin Scully told viewers about Romak’s journey as he grounded out to second base (Watch it in the clip below). Brandon League replaced Romak moments later, and, just like that, his MLB debut was in the books.

Between early batting practices and late-night flights, Romak hasn’t exactly had much time to savour the experience, but he’s trying. “Every day when I wake up I can’t wait to go to the park,” he said.

Even away from the park, the big league lifestyle took some getting used to after years of bus trips and forgettable post-game spreads.

“The level of how you’re taken care of here from the clubhouse to the travel to the food to the equipment you’re given — everything. I guess it’s why they call it the show,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

That’s partly because of the fans. Romak has had the chance to interact with Dodgers supporters during batting practice, at pre-game autograph sessions and even on the road.

“It’s unbelievable how die-hard they are,” Romak said. “They know exactly who you are and where you’re from and what you’re about. It’s been crazy. I was walking around downtown Denver and some Dodger fans walked past me and they said ‘that’s Jamie Romak.’ I was like ‘this is unbelievable.’”

He doesn’t have to look far for reminders that he has made it. Tommy Lasorda shook his hand to welcome him to the Dodgers. Orel Hershiser stopped and said ‘welcome to the fraternity.’ Nomar Garciaparra offered congratulations. Jay Bruce said he admired his perseverance. Fellow Canadian Justin Morneau sent over a bat inscribed ‘Congrats on making the show.’

“They take the fraternity of major league baseball players so seriously that when you get here it’s such a big deal,” Romak said.

But it’s one thing to reach the major leagues. It’s another thing to contribute. That’s why June 8, 2014 was such a big day for Romak. He stepped in against Colorado Rockies reliever Matt Belisle and doubled to centre field, scoring two teammates.

“I think it was better than the callup itself,” he said. “Once you get here it’s go time it’s time to have some success and more than anything whether it’s the big leagues or A ball or any time you go to a new team you want to impress everybody and find your role and do something to help the team.”

Needless to say, it was a fun flight from Denver to Cincinnati after that double. So far that’s the lone hit collected by Romak, who has a .083 batting average in 10 big league games. But that he played in those games at all is a huge accomplishment considering all the years that have passed since the Braves targeted him as a power bat out of high school.

“To think about that happening ten years ago would have been ridiculous.”

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