Bakersfield, California —— Earlier this month, the Seattle Mariners released Justin Seager.
Most people didn’t notice. I didn’t. I was on the road flying back and forth to the east coast more times than I care to remember before Lookout Landing’s Kate Preusser alerted me to it a week after the fact. The takes on Justin are predictable, if unoriginal: Oh, yeah, there’s a third Seager brother. Poor middle brother. How come Kyle and Corey got all the baseball talent in the family?
That stuff is all expected, but it’s unfortunate, insofar as none of them have likely ever spent time around Justin Seager to see that he’s arguably the kindest, nicest, most approachable young man in the game of baseball. The first time I met Justin, I interviewed him after batting practice at Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield on a hot, muggy day last summer. We chatted on the record for a few minutes, and then over the next half hour discovered we’re both from the same part of North Carolina and hit it off. I liked him immediately.
In the days and months since, I’ve gotten to know him better both on and off the field for stories I’ve written, for a book I’m publishing soon (of which Seager will have a major part), and in casual, non-baseball related chats that proved to be the most valuable and affirming. I learned about how he straddles the line between focusing on his own baseball dreams and cheering for his higher-profile brothers, both of whom have long passed him by. I learned that a brutal back injury came at the very worst time—he missed out on sports his entire junior year of high school—and completely changed the trajectory of his recruitment process with colleges. I wonder if that had never happened, where would Justin be today? He’s never said as much, but I think he wonders that, too.
The last time I saw Justin was early June in Frisco, Texas, when his Arkansas Travelers came through town. We spent an hour or so chatting about important baseball information and more mundane life stuff—his life in Little Rock, the real estate market, corporate jobs, our mutual hometown of Charlotte—while the rain poured down around us and that night’s game was delayed and eventually canceled. That’s the Justin Seager I’ll remember; not many guys are content to give ten minutes, let alone an hour, during the long grind of a baseball season like that, but he spoke to me just like we were old friends from back in Bakersfield and nothing had changed.
I got the sense the game had started to wear on him in Arkansas. Uninjured, Seager had been placed on the ‘phantom’ disabled list so as not to use a roster spot, and after our talk together that day I figured this news about his release wouldn’t be long in coming. Honestly, now that it’s here, it isn’t a surprise. Seager is 25 years old and he hasn’t had sustained success even in High-A. Sure, he scored high marks as a great teammate and he made for consistent organizational depth, but that only works to a point; eventually, baseball must be a game of production.
Maybe later this year, Justin will link up with another organization and he’ll soon be back on the field. Maybe he’ll take a shot at the independent leagues. Maybe he’s gearing up to get a look at spring training come March. Maybe he’s looking at offers to coach the game; he’d make a great leader of young men.
Or maybe, more likely, it’s over. Maybe he’s back home in North Carolina right now, already aware that he’ll never play baseball again. You don’t usually get to walk away from baseball on your terms; this game tells you when it’s over. Year after year, thousands of minor leaguers you’ve never heard of are released to never play again as thousands more are drafted, signed, and thrown on to teams with quirky names that play in dingy ballparks in small towns all across America. This game thrived before Justin Seager got here, and it’ll thrive long after he’s gone. The churn of players will forever continue. Don’t feel sorry for Justin; he got a few good years playing a kid’s game for money.
Maybe this post is unnecessary, and overdone, and emotional. And maybe nobody cares about Justin Seager but me, and Kate, and probably Justin’s parents. But I know that Jordan Szolek, one of the batboys who worked for the Bakersfield Blaze last year, is going to take this news hard. Justin worked with Jordan for hours on end last year, improving Szolek’s swing and giving him the confidence to play his junior college season this spring. They’d sit and chat mid-game while Justin was waiting to hit, with Seager asking questions of Szolek and trying to help him with baseball issues. Seriously, who does that? What minor leaguer with two big league brothers is taking his free time in a shitty old ballpark to help a random, scrawny JuCo kid swing the bat?
But that says it all about Justin Seager: nobody was beneath him.
So if this is really the end of your career, Justin, you’ve left a mark on more people than you realize. Thank you for the professionalism, accessibility, and kindness. I have no doubt you’ll succeed at whatever it is you decide to do after baseball. Hopefully our paths will cross again one day.