Welcome to Dirtbags Baseball blog! I was introduced to Long Beach State baseball in 2002 when my nephew, Neil Jamison, joined the team (and university) as a freshman. I started the blog in March of 2004, and generally discuss the team, current players and those that have moved on to professional baseball - as Neil has done in the San Diego Padres organization. Living in San Diego County, and with Neil moving to the next level, I won't be attending as many Dirtbags games. But, mostly from a distance, I'll remain a Dirtbags fan. I welcome tips on stories and information concerning the Dirtbags (current, past and future). I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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After seven years of trying to break into Major League Baseball, Caleb Balbuena appreciates every chance he gets.
The 28-year-old relief pitcher from Tuolumne has yet to make it past the Class A level of the minor leagues. Moving around to farm teams like a madly spinning slider, Balbuena has played on six minor league and independent teams in four states - and his dream is still alive.
Balbuena, a 1995 Summerville High School graduate, signed a contract with the Colorado Rockies organization on Monday. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound righthander joined one of the Rockies' farm team, the Modesto Nuts of the California League, yesterday.
The Nuts lost 6-3 in Bakersfield last night in the first of a three-game series. Balbuena didn't pitch but is likely going to throw tonight in Game 2. The Nuts are atop the North Division standings with a 24-12 record.
Balbuena's first home series with the Nuts is Friday through Sunday at Modesto's John Thurman Field against the San Jose Giants. Game times are 7 p.m. for the first two games and 6 p.m. for the series finale.
"This is a very important step in my career," Balbuena said. "It was a goal of mine at the beginning of the season to be signed with an organization. I've been given a second chance and I believe I can make it to the big leagues. I wouldn't have stayed in the game this long if I didn't believe I could make it."
His Christian beliefs gave him constant encouragement and support along the way, he added.
Balbuena played baseball and basketball for Summerville and competed at Modesto Junior College before transferring to Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
He pitched Cuesta into the state tournament and was drafted in the sixth round in 1997 by the Baltimore Orioles, but didn't sign and instead played for Long Beach State and helped the 49ers reach the College World Series in 1998.
Balbuena then signed with the Seattle Mariners organization and spent two seasons with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of the Midwest League. He also pitched for the Lancaster Jethawks and the San Bernardino Stampede (now Inland Empire 66ers) of the California League. At San Bernardino in 2001, he finished the season 0-5 with a 6.86 earned-run-average and was released.
"Anytime someone gets released from a team it's frustrating," he said. "When new players come in they have to let people go. And they decided to let me go."
A month later, he joined an independent team, the Allentown Ambassadors in Pennsylvania. But his time there also was short.
He injured a tendon in his throwing arm and had to undergo ulnar collateral ligament construction, also known as Tommy John surgery, a procedure in which a tendon is removed from wrist or hamstring and implanted into the elbow.
Balbuena knew the surgery, which is popular among professional pitchers around the country, could actually be beneficial. About one out of every nine pitchers who appeared in the major leagues the last two years underwent the operation at one time or another, according to USA Today.
"I think I was a little bit excited because I knew when pitchers come off Tommy John they tend to throw harder," he said. "It was an opportunity for me to overhaul my (throwing) mechanics. When I recovered, I changed the way I was throwing so there would be less stress on my elbow."
Balbuena said he used more lower body strength, which added another five to seven mph to his fastball (94 to 98 mph). He made the independent Kansas City T-Bones of the Northern League in 2004, but only lasted four games before being released.
"That was the absolute low point of my career," Balbuena said. "I left after about a month because of tendinitis and moved back home."
Balbuena was 27 the time but still didn't see a reason to quit chasing his dream. He thought if he gave it his best shot he should be able to play with the big guys one day.
"Of course I had doubts and wanted to quit," he said. "That's a given. But my belief and my faith in God kept me going. It put me where I am now."
In the winter of 2004, he moved to Missouri and worked with a T-Bones assistant coach who runs a baseball school. Balbuena kept strengthening his arm and started working on his new, improved technique. The T-Bones gave him another chance and Balbuena used it to his full advantage.
He started out slowly but made a strong run toward the end of his stint, allowing only one run in 8 2/3 innings in his final six games. In July, he went 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA and eight strikeouts in 11 innings.
"He's a guy who has showed a lot of improvement," T-Bones pitching coach Greg Bicknell said. "He struggled early with his control. But lately he's been throwing a very good changeup and a very good fastball. We miss him here."
Balbuena's fastball also hit home with a Rockies scout who suggested him to Rockies scouting consultant Dave Snow, who was Balbuena's head coach at Long Beach State. Snow liked what he remembered from the old days and gave the Rockies a fine recommendation on Balbuena.
"They used me as a character reference," Snow said. "I haven't seen him pitch this summer, but I gave my thumbs up on Caleb. He's a good competitor. He's a guy that has desire to push himself. He's a very hard worker and highly motivated. At this age, we believe he has the potential (to make it to the big leagues). It's up to him now to take advantage of this."
When Balbuena found out about the Rockies' interest, he loaded his truck, headed to Denver and met his new bosses and his father, Phil. The two kept driving west and arrived in Modesto on Sunday. Balbuena, who is staying at his sister's house in Sonora, passed a physical on Monday just in time for the 3 1/2 hour road trip to Bakersfield yesterday morning.
"My mind was wondering about the new team," Balbuena said. "I was thinking about being back in the California League."
Balbuena feels that he's at a high point of his career and he can only go up.
"I have a pretty good fastball command," he said. "But I also want to make sure that my secondary pitches get better ... my changeup and my breaking ball. I want to continue here what I've done in Kansas City."
His parents, Phil and Cheryl Balbuena, are thrilled to have him back near home. They used to track his games online and often watched his game tapes.
"If we can be there, we might be watching him every single home game," Cheryl said. "If he's a closer it's possible he'll play every evening. This is very special."