SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When the Cleveland Indians selected reliever Tony Sipp in the 45th round of the 2004 MLB First-Year Player Draft, he didn’t even know it until a friend called to tell him. Sipp had stopped paying attention after his name wasn’t called in the first 15 rounds.
And even though he’d been drafted, Sipp didn’t hear from the Indians.
“On draft day, they say they usually call you,” Sipp said. “I got drafted, but I didn’t get a call.”
Apparently, Sipp says, the Indians had heard Sipp wanted too much money to sign. So Sipp went to pitch in the Cape Cod League, proving himself enough there that the Indians finally came calling to work out a deal.
As he had to then and at nearly every stop of his career, Sipp is once again out to prove his value, this time with the D-backs following an offseason trade.
“You don’t owe anyone anything, especially when they come to a new organization,” Sipp said. “They haven’t been there to actually see you, so you’re constantly proving yourself.”
Baseball started for Sipp on the streets of Moss Point, Miss. — literally. Sipp and other kids in the area played in the streets with whatever ball and bat they could get their hands on. Like many kids, Sipp came from a poor family, so equipment was often hard to come by, but competition wasn’t.
Most kids, Sipp said, would play basketball, football and baseball. When baseball season rolled around, everyone would go sign up for Dixie Youth League together. Coaches, including Sipp’s father, didn’t have a whole lot of baseball expertise, but there was no shortage of volunteers wiling to do what they could.
“I started out just winging it, kind of like I’m doing now, just going with what feels right,” Sipp said. “Just going out there, if it felt right, that’s exactly what we were going with.”
By process of elimination, based mainly on his size, Sipp landed on baseball as his primary pursuit. He continued playing through high school and figured baseball could help him pay for college, but Moss Point, a small town with little economy to speak of, wasn’t exactly crawling with scouts.
“In Mississippi, you won’t get noticed a lot,” Sipp said. “You can scream as loud as you want, but if there’s no one to hear it, it’s doing nothing. That’s how I see Mississippi. Not a lot of people like to come there and scout, because it’s not the ideal place to be stuck.”
Still, Sipp did enough that the Chicago Cubs picked him in the 28th round of the 2001 draft. He opted to go to school, landing first at Okaloosa-Walton Community College (now Northwest Florida State College), where he pitched well enough to be drafted by the Chicago White Sox after one year. Again, Sipp opted to stay in school, but he started to realize baseball might be more than a means to finance his degree.
Sipp’s next stop was Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where as an NJCAA honorable-mention honoree, he proved himself valuable enough to start getting looks from Division I schools. Chief among them was Clemson, specifically pitching coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who now manages at University of Florida.
O’Sullivan told Clemson manager Jack Leggett he had to have Sipp. He offered Sipp a scholarship that would cover 80 percent of college costs, but Sipp couldn’t afford the other 20 percent. O’Sullivan talked Leggett into 85 percent, but it still wasn’t enough. Neither was 90.
“I did the math, and I still couldn’t afford 90 percent,” Sipp said. “Finally they gave me a full scholarship.”
As he’d been doing all along, Sipp proved himself a worthwhile investment despite average numbers. Those numbers, combined with the rumors of his contract demands, dropped him to the 45th round of the 2004 draft.
With no contact from the Indians, Sipp joined the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape Cod League. He made five appearances, including two starts, notching a 1.00 ERA with two saves and was scoreless in the first four appearances.
“I went down there and made a few highlights, I guess,” Sipp said. “I pitched there for a month, and they sent someone out and we made a deal.”
It turned out Sipp wasn’t asking for too much money. The Indians said they would have signed him much earlier had they known his asking price was modest. He was eager to sign, in fact, as he’d recently become a father and was still borrowing money from his mother.
So Sipp didn’t have to prove himself to the Indians after all, but he had anyway. He did the same in their minor league ranks and broke into the majors after three years, debuting early in the 2009 season.
Sipp averaged just more than 67 appearances for the Indians the next three seasons. He had become a mainstay in Cleveland’s bullpen, so it came as a surprise when the team dealt him to Arizona in the trade that netted them top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer.
“The life of a reliever, you always have to keep a bag packed,” Sipp said. “It shocked me just a little bit because my name wasn’t in the talk about trades. When I heard about it, it was already done.”
Sipp has made three Cactus League appearances for the D-backs so far. He threw scoreless innings in his first two outings, only giving up three hits total. He scuffled in his third outing of the spring Wednesday, giving up two runs on three hits in the D-backs’ 8-1 loss to the Royals.
The D-backs and Sipp are still getting to know each other. Accordingly, manager Kirk Gibson is holding off on any predictions of Sipp’s impact or where he fits as one of two lefties in the bullpen.
“We’re just trying to learn him, see how he pitches,” Gibson said. “You can tell he’s open-minded, he pays attention, he’s trying to implement things within the game. I’m just trying to understand how he pitches, and by the time we get to the end of spring training, we’ll have a real good idea what his role will be.”
Sipp said the same thing: He’s still trying to get a feel for the D-backs and how they do things. In the process, he’s trying to show them he’s much more than a throw-in to a trade that brought the D-backs their shortstop of the future, Didi Gregorius.
“Like I said, they haven’t seen anything I’ve done,” Sipp said. “So I feel like you do have to go out and display why you deserve to be here within a team.”