Brian Jeroloman was 22 years old the first time he played for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. The year was in 2008, his third as a professional, and the 2006 sixth-round pick was continuing his march upwards in the organization after spending the previous two seasons at the Short-Season and High-A levels.
He hit .270 with six homeruns in 70 games for the Fisher Cats, earning a spot in the Eastern League All-Star Game and a promotion to Triple-A Syracuse in late July, but an important building block in his career was put in place before the season even started, in spring training.
“One thing I’ll never forget is my first year of big league camp was in ’08,” Jeroloman said recently. “It was my second spring training and Sal [Fasano] was a player, and I was a player as well so we were both teammates for that little period of time. And I’ll never forget, I never caught any of the big leaguers before big league camp, and when I went to big league camp EVERY pitcher wanted to throw to Sal Fasano, and they would argue over it.
“That’s how much respect he had for pitchers, and if you have that much respect for pitchers, you have my respect, just because that’s where I wanna be. That’s when you know you’re taking steps in the right direction, when pitchers start requesting you.”
Fast-forward four years. It’s 2012. Jeroloman just turned 27, and he’s had a wild ride. He spent the entire 2009 season in New Hampshire while J.P. Arencibia, the 2007 first-rounder who had arrived in Double-A in 2008 just before Jeroloman’s promotion to Syracuse, leapfrogged him and played regularly in Triple-A. The next year brought more of the same, with the two catchers splitting levels until Jeroloman was promoted again in August.
With Arencibia advancing to the major leagues in 2011, Jeroloman finally spent the entire year in Triple-A, but there was trouble in the rearview mirror: another first-rounder, Travis d’Arnaud, acquired in the blockbuster trade for Roy Halladay after the 2009 season, was tearing it up in New Hampshire en route to winning the Eastern League Most Valuable Player award. And behind d’Arnaud, youngsters A.J. Jimenez and Carlos Perez were drawing accolades for their work in High-A and Low-A, respectively.
Meanwhile, Jeroloman struggled in Las Vegas, hitting just .240 with two homeruns and 26 RBI. Worse, his normally outstanding defense wasn’t up to par: he threw out a career-low 15% of would-be base stealers and made a career-high nine errors. Still, in late August, he was called up to the major leagues, but the season ended without him seeing any live game action.
Suddenly, after years of hard work, Jeroloman was the odd man out. No longer a prospect, he returned to New Hampshire for the fourth time to start the 2012 season. d’Arnaud is in Triple-A. And Jimenez, all of 22 years old, is the guy Jeroloman used to be: the hot young prospect at the top of the Double-A depth chart.
Some players might not deal well with such adversity. Jeroloman says he has seen guys who have fallen off the prospect lists, gone from being “the guy” to just another player, and handled the situation poorly.
“It’s easy to become a prospect and then go to a suspect pretty quick,” he said. “But it’s pretty hard to become a suspect back to a prospect.”
Jeroloman tries to avoid a similar fall from grace by doing the job he was sent to New Hampshire to do: work hard on his own game, serve as a “second voice” for the young pitchers like Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire, and help Jimenez develop as a catcher.
“They’ve got me here to help the younger pitchers and help our young catcher,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s a unique situation, but it’s a situation I can work my way out of as long as I just keep going out there and doing what I do behind the plate.”
“I’ve been in a lot of situations in the game of baseball. A lot of good ones, a lot of bad ones. On the field, I’ve had my ups and downs, so I can talk to them about how, through my experience, I’ve dealt with things. Hopefully I can clear a path easier than the one I’ve had, for them, and whatever I can do to help them out to expand their knowledge of the game, I’ll do it any way that I can.”
While Jeroloman displays a positive attitude about his return to the Granite State and his new role within the organization, it obviously isn’t easy to handle the shift from holding down a starting job to being asked to play every few days as a back-up. One thing that makes the experience easier has been the Fisher Cats manager: Fasano, his former spring training teammate.
“Sal Fasano, in two weeks, worked with me more than anyone else has in my six years in the Blue Jays organization,” said Jeroloman. “The stuff I’ve learned from him, the talks we can have, is truly amazing. We think on the same page, we think a couple hitters ahead, and not a lot of people do that. His knowledge of the game, you don’t find that often.
“It’s a truly remarkable experience just being around him, and I don’t wanna say anything without sounding like a brownnoser, but he sends out an aura. He has so much knowledge and the things he says, he knows how to talk to players. It is truly amazing.”
Fasano helped Jeroloman correct one of the flaws that hurt him in throwing out runners last season, fixing mechanical problems that had arisen after he got himself out of whack by trying to be even faster with his already quick release. The work has already paid off: while Jeroloman is struggling mightily at the plate in his new role as back-up, hitting just .103 in 39 at-bats over 13 games, he has made no errors, allowed no passed balls, and thrown out 53% of the runners who have attempted to steal on him.
Jeroloman’s respect for Fasano is evident, and when he talks about holding catchers in high regard, expecting a lot out of them, and taking pride in his own work, he sounds like a guy with one foot in the manager’s office. Someday that may be the case. For now, however, it’s all about working hard, waiting for his opportunity, and getting another shot at the big leagues.
“Baseball’s always been my life. I’m gonna play for as long as I can,” he said. “I’ll be back in the major leagues, it’s not a matter of that. It might not be with the Blue Jays, it might be with a different team, but I know I’ll be back up there. It’s just a matter of time.”
Photo: The Star