Hardships haven’t deterred Twins longshot Hamburger

Twins non-roster invitee Mark Hamburger stretches on the field during a recent workout in Florida. Hamburger didn't take the usual path to the majors. Drugs derailed him earlier, but now he is back with the Twins with a better appreciation for the game and his life.

Tony Gutierrez/AP

FORT MYERS, Fla. — There have been plenty of bumps in the road that Mark Hamburger could dwell on. He instead chooses to focus on the times of smooth sailing.

His first contract with the Twins after performing well at an open tryout. His major-league debut with Texas in 2011. Hamburger even cherishes the memories of playing independent baseball for the St. Paul Saints.

To get to those fond memories, though, Hamburger had to wade his way through many hardships. But the tough times have helped him appreciate the good ones.

"A lot of people will bring up even the struggles that I’ve been through, but I take those struggles and I’m like, I’m so happy they happened," said Hamburger, a right-handed pitcher in the Twins’ big-league camp. "When I’m thinking of my past, I’m thinking of the funnest things that happened. Even if it was a struggle, I’m not thinking of the struggle. I’m thinking of what I took from it."

Hamburger’s grades weren’t great as a student at Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, Minn., so he went on to play baseball at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in northern Minnesota. Had he done better in the classroom, Hamburger is convinced he could have eventually been drafted. But he wasn’t. So he had to work his way into a team’s plans by thriving at an open tryout the Twins held in 2007.

Hamburger’s debut with the Rangers came four years after the Twins signed him to a minor-league contract, but not until Minnesota — his hometown team — traded Hamburger to Texas for Eddie Guardado. Five games in the majors was all Hamburger has on his resume after what was a whirlwind stop in the big leagues.

From there is when Hamburger’s career took a nosedive. He was claimed off waivers by the Padres in June of 2012. Less than a month later, the Astros took their turn at claiming the right-hander off the waiver wire. Hamburger spent the rest of the 2012 season on Houston’s Triple-A team in Oklahoma City before the Astros released him.

A drug problem nearly ended his career shortly after Houston let him go. Hamburger tested positive for a "drug of abuse" and was given a 50-game suspension. That scared major-league teams away, and Hamburger had to resort to playing independent ball to resurrect his career.

There’s plenty Hamburger could regret in his life. He instead looks on the bright side.

Twins Spring Training 2015

Getting a chance

Hamburger’s professional baseball career started on a whim. As a lanky high school pitcher, the 6-foot-4 Hamburger caught the attention of Twins scout Mark Wilson, who saw the right-hander hit 86-87 mph with his fastball. But he wasn’t drafted out of high school and he didn’t have the option of playing major college baseball. Not exactly the ideal path of a major-league hopeful.

In 2007, a few years into college, Hamburger’s father encouraged his son to attend the Twins’ annual tryout at the Metrodome. It’s an event the team has held for years, although it rarely yields any major-league talent. Players from all walks of life and all ability levels show up for their near-impossible shot at big-league fame, hoping to do something to turn a few heads.

Hamburger turned more than just a few heads, thanks in large part to his fastball. During the first day of the tryouts, he hit 93 mph six straight times on the radar gun as Wilson looked on. The Twins invited Hamburger back for the second day of tryouts. By the end of day two, Minnesota offered Hamburger a minor-league contract.

"They called me into the dugout and said, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ I said, ‘I don’t know,’" Hamburger recalls. "They said, ‘What do you want to do next year?’ I was like, ‘I was going to play college at Wayne State, Nebraska.’ They were like, ‘How would you like to not do that and play with us?’ . . . It was a random, crazy experience, but amazing that I’m still here eight years later and it all came from that."

Hamburger pitched well in eight games in the Gulf Coast League following his tryout, and began the 2008 season with the Twins’ rookie ball team in Elizabethton. After 25 games of relief with moderate success, Hamburger’s time with Minnesota was done. He was dealt to Texas for reliever Eddie Guardado, who famously asked, "I got traded for a hamburger?"

A cup of coffee

After the trade to Texas, Hamburger worked his way up the ladder in the Rangers’ system. He started at Low-A and eventually finished the 2010 season at Double-A Frisco. By 2011, Hamburger — a kid who was in pro ball in the first place because of an open tryout — was a Triple-A pitcher.

Aug. 31, 2011 is a day that Hamburger hasn’t forgotten, even if it seemed like a blur. It was his major-league debut, and he pitched the ninth inning in a 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay. No strikeouts, no hits, no walks. Just three routine outs and Hamburger was officially a big leaguer.

He spent the rest of September with the Rangers, but rarely saw the field in the final month of the season. When all was said and done, Hamburger pitched a total of eight innings in five games. The last of those outings yielded his first — and only – major-league win.

"It was very quick and it was almost too surreal, because it was so quick," Hamburger said of his time in the majors. "I guess I didn’t have the mind yet to enjoy it. I was more just like, I was enjoying it but I was just living it. I wasn’t really taking my time through it. So much was coming at once, but I didn’t know how to receive it all. I was just kind of running around like a chicken with his head cut off."

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Hamburger hasn’t pitched in the majors since.

A career detoured

Drugs were a part of Hamburger’s life before he was a pro baseball player, but they surfaced again at an inopportune time.

He returned to the minor leagues in 2012 after his short brush with the big-league lifestyle in 2011. After being claimed by a few different teams in a short period, Hamburger tested positive for a "drug of abuse" and was hit with a 50-game suspension. Any team that took a chance on the troubled right-hander would have to be willing to let his suspension play out.

It was at that point when Hamburger entered treatment for his drug problem. Hoping to get his career back on track, Hamburger knew he’d have to give up marijuana. That experience gave him a whole new outlook on life.

"Once I got out of treatment, I had kind of surrendered," he said. "I had kind of surrendered my expectations or wants to be back in the major leagues or in pro ball. I just said, I’m really going to live in the moment and enjoy where I’m at."

Where Hamburger wound up was St. Paul, not far from where he grew up in Arden Hills. Because the Saints play independent baseball, he didn’t have to serve his 50-game suspension yet. He was converted to a starter by the Saints and was 6-8 with a 3.26 ERA in 21 games. Still, impressive numbers in independent ball aren’t always enough for teams to land contracts with big-league organizations.

In Hamburger’s case, it was. The Twins scouted him with the Saints, and minor-league director Brad Steil gave Hamburger another chance. Minnesota signed him, but Hamburger wanted to wait until the Saints’ season was over.

He was having too much fun.

"We had a month to go and the Twins asked if I wanted to sign and start to get my 50-game suspension underway," Hamburger said. "I was having such a great time with the Saints that I just wanted to spend the rest of the season with them. I didn’t go early with the Twins. I just wanted to be playing baseball, because that’s what I loved to do.

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"That was a great year. I had no thoughts of getting signed back. It was more just getting my life signed back."

A third chance

Hamburger started the 2014 season with Double-A New Britain and was eventually promoted to Triple-A Rochester. He was once again one step away from being a big leaguer.

Now in the major-league camp with the Twins this spring, Hamburger is battling for a spot in Minnesota’s bullpen. His fastball can touch the mid-90s, and he throws a hard slider. He worked two clean innings in Wednesday’s exhibition game against the University of Minnesota, striking out two batters along the way.

"He’s getting a second chance, and maybe even a third," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. "He paid his penalty, which is OK. He’s going to get another opportunity. He came in here ready to go, I can tell you that."

There are several instances where Hamburger’s baseball career could have been derailed or, worse yet, ended. Through all those trials and tribulations, Hamburger achieved his goal of being a major-league pitcher.

Though his time in the majors was brief, it not only taught him how to better enjoy the game of baseball, but it also it taught him how to enjoy life.

"I guess it makes me want to really slow my life down so that when I do make it up there — or if I do make it up there — again, I will be able to really just slow my life down, keep it at the same pace it always was, not let myself get ahead of myself," he said. "It’s not going to change me. It’s not going to make my life speed up. I’m going to stay who I am. It kind of makes me look at it in a different way than just wanting to be back, like, ‘Yes, I want the money.’ It’s more like I’m excited to be back to really benefit my life."

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