Career comes full circle for Hens’ pitching coach SagerWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A.J. Sager has been sitting in the company of the Toledo Mud Hens in their Florida spring training facility, sometimes in wonderment, sometimes in awe, sometimes even disbelieving but always prepared to take advantage of the extraordinary destiny that has brought him back to Toledo.
“It’s kind of strange to sit down here and think you’re going to coach with the Mud Hens and wonder, ‘How did all of this take place?’ ” Sager, the new Toledo pitching coach, said. “It’s been a long, strange trip. Twenty-five years ago I was a quarterback at UT and now, 25 years later, I’m coaching for a Triple-A baseball team. Certainly a lot happened between now and then. I sort of came full circle.”
Let’s begin this remarkable journey by circling back to when Sager graduated from Watkins Memorial High School in Pataskala. He was all-state in both baseball and football, playing in both Ohio all-star games. He was a big kid from a small school located in a small town who was also a basketball star. The 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound Sager stood out in a crowd that included coaches from almost all the Mid-American Conference schools who were anxiously recruiting him. They wanted this strong-armed lad throwing spirals, not splitters.
Sager felt the same way and chose to play football at UT.
“A lot of bigger schools were interested in recruiting me for baseball. I liked baseball, but I really enjoyed football,” he said. “I picked the right level to play at and I think a lot of my coach at UT, Dan Simrell. It was the right school for me.”
And it became even more “right” when Sager saw some playing time as a freshman after senior quarterback Jim Kelso was hobbled with turf toe.
Sager became the Rockets’ starting quarterback for the next three seasons and led UT to the 1984 MAC championship. A member of the UT Hall of Fame, he ranks seventh all-time at UT in career passing attempts (753) and completions (391).
When Sager’s final football season ended, and there was no more spring conditioning and consequently nothing to occupy his athletic instincts, Sager turned back to baseball. He got permission from then-UT baseball coach Stan Sanders to join the team even though Sager didn’t expect to be an integral part of the squad.
After all, he hadn’t picked up a baseball in four years. He didn’t even have a baseball glove when he decided to give baseball one last try. He had to borrow his roommate’s softball glove, a Buddy Bell autograph glove no less. It had the customary big, wide web, but no other formidable features except for its overall shoddiness.
“I talked to Stan about being on the team because it was just something to do and he was gracious enough to let that happen,” Sager said. “I have to thank him for letting me do that. I remember him saying how important it is to throw strikes and it was going to be hard for me to do that again. But I could look at something and still hit it and that something was the catcher’s mitt. When I showed up I could still throw strikes. For whatever reason I still had that ability and had some arm strength.”
As a fifth-year senior, Sager became a force on the mound. In a game against Kent State, the Golden Flashes’ outstanding pitcher, Chris George, had attracted numerous major-league scouts to the contest and was pegged as a very high draft choice. Kent won the game 1-0 in seven innings with Sager almost matching George pitch for pitch. The scouts said they liked Sager’s arm strength.
Sanders explained that his ace had an arm that hadn’t been used for pitching for over four years. It was still young and vibrant.
Sager went 7-4 in his final year at UT in 1988 with a 2.67 ERA, which was the fourth best in the MAC that year.
Scouts added Sager’s name to their list of prospects and his phone started to ring off the hook, but he never thought, “Boy, if I would have only stuck to baseball at UT.”
“I would have never stood on the mound if I had not stood in a college huddle,” he said. “That taught me responsibility; it helped me grow up, taught me to be strong and have good confidence. For me, playing four years of football allowed me to play baseball in the majors.”
Sager was surprised when he was chosen in the 10th round of the 1988 amateur draft by the San Diego Padres. He was realistic enough to know that pro football was out of the question. Baseball was a better bet, but Sager felt the odds were too high against that possibility and had started to lay the groundwork to attend law school.
“Again, that worked out very well for me, too,” he explained. “I was old for a draft kid at 23, but I had the arm of an 18-year old because I hadn’t played for four years in college. I felt I was pushing the ball up hill because I had the age thing working against me, but I listened and learned. I paid attention to people a lot smarter than me. It took me six years to get to the bigs, where I kicked around for five years.”
When Sager first showed up at the Padres’ camp, he was immediately told, “Hey kid, lose the Buddy Bell autographed softball glove.” Ironically, Sager would play for Bell when Bell coached the Detroit Tigers, but Sager never told Bell about the glove.
Sager played a total of 12 years in professional baseball from 1988 to 1999, the last three years with the Tigers. He had 123 career major-league appearances, posting a 12-15 record with a 5.36 ERA and five saves.
He is entering his seventh season as a coach in the Detroit organization. He was the pitching coach with the Double-A Erie SeaWolves of the Eastern League last year and served in the same capacity with the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps in Grand Rapids for six years (2002-06.) He also hopes to enter his eighth year as the Rockets’ football radio color analyst on WSPD-AM 1370.
Sager, 42, even pitched for the Toledo Mud Hens for parts of the 1996 and 1998 seasons, compiling a 2-2 record with a 2.76 ERA in 32 appearances, two of which were starts.
Oddly enough Sager, who lives in Perrysburg, hometown of Tigers manager Jim Leyland and residence of longtime Tigers clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel, has never seen Fifth Third Field.
“Everything I hear is that it’s a first-class facility, 180 degrees from the old Lucas County Recreation Center which I came to know,” Sager said. “Everyone says the new stadium is a great environment. They talk about the big crowds and say it’s the best place to play in the minors.”
But there’s an even bigger upside for Sager. Coming full circle back to Toledo, he no longer has the grueling task this time of year of saying to his wife, Dana, and 5-year-old daughter Emersyn, “Good-bye. I’ll see you in six months.”