Once he showed flashes of his gift at age 3, Adrian Cardenas’ parents had big plans for him. They made sure he practiced on a daily basis. They provided him with the coaching that he’d need to take that talent to the professional level.
But the family of the Oakland Athletics’ infield prospect never imagined their son would become a baseball star.
The talent they encouraged? His remarkably ability as a classical pianist.
“To this day, my parents don’t know anything about baseball and the only reason I’m playing is because I worked so hard at it, not because I had some psycho father or mother bombarding me with demands to get out there and play,” recalled Cardenas, who grew up in Miami. “They were more like that with piano and that’s where I learned discipline. There were many times I wanted to quit and they made me stick with it.”
Until he was in high school, in fact, Cardenas’ life was a three-way split: school, baseball, piano.
“I’d get home from baseball practice at 6 and would have homework and then had to practice piano as much as I practiced baseball,” he said. “Sometimes it was overwhelming. But I grew up with my parents thinking I’d go to Juilliard.”
It wasn’t until his junior year came and he was getting attention from major college programs to play baseball that something had to give and his piano lessons finally fell by the wayside.
With the opportunity to finally focus solely on baseball, Cardenas earned national High School Player of the Year honors as a senior shortstop at Monsignor Pace High School and had committed to play ball at Florida before being selected as a supplemental first-round pick by Philadelphia in 2006.
That summer the left-handed hitter batted .318 in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League before moving up to make his full-season debut at a new position, second base, for Class A Lakewood in 2007 where he hit .295 with nine homers and 79 RBIs, getting a bid to play in the All-Star Futures Game in San Francisco at age 19.
Cardenas (it’s pronounced CARDenas) started the 2008 campaign at Advanced A Clearwater and was batting .307 through 68 games there when the Phillies traded him, along with pitcher Josh Outman and outfielder Matt Spencer, to Oakland in the deal that brought ace Joe Blanton to Philadelphia. Cardenas finished up by hitting .279 between Advanced A Stockton and Double-A Midland down the stretch.
He celebrated his 21st birthday as a member of the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, where he saw time at shortstop and even third base while helping the club to its fifth consecutive AFL title.
And this winter Cardenas got his first coveted invitation to big league spring training.
“I’d been invited to a couple of games here and there but this is my first actual big league spring training,” said Cardenas. “Right after the fall league I got a call from the As saying I was going to big league camp and I was so pumped up!”
So pumped up that he made the trip from his Florida home to the Phoenix area a few weeks early so he could start working out with his new teammates at the Papago complex.
“I would go over every day and get my workout in there,” he said. “Some of the big league guys were there and they’ve been absolutely great to me so far, and have made me feel really comfortable.”
GOTMILB: Of what accomplishment, on or off the field, in your life are you the proudest?
Cardenas: That’s a tough question. I think my ability to focus on one thing and not worrying about what people say. I’m good at believing I can do anything once I set my mind to it and for the most part, knock wood, I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set my mind to.
GOTMILB: What do you think you’d be doing now if you weren’t playing baseball?
Cardenas: As baseball players, we’re in the limelight naturally just because of what we do and I think sometimes we need to get out there and be more vocal about the things we feel adamant about. We’re in a position to make things better for people around us, people who aren’t as fortunate, so I think I’d be doing something along those lines.
GOTMILB: Do you have other hobbies or creative outlets aside from baseball?
Cardenas: My God, yes. Not so much the piano anymore because it’s hard to carry around, but I mess around with guitar. I’m nowhere near as good on guitar but it’s fun, it’s my escape when I’m worried or stressed.
GOTMILB: What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Cardenas: Fortunately for me, my parents said that my job was to get good grades and practice my piano. So I never ended up getting jobs other than coaching or teaching kids hitting.
GOTMILB: What is your guiltiest TV pleasure?
Cardenas: “The Office.” I could sit and watch that forever. I love that show.
GOTMILB: If you could trade places with one person for a day who would it be and why?
Cardenas: Bob Dylan.
Can you call it a dynasty when a team wins FIVE league championships in a row without having any of the same personnel? Isn’t “dynasty” supposed to imply continuity?
I’d love to find another word to give credit to the remarkable run that the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League have enjoyed, winning the championship game in the six-team league every year since 2004.
And “enjoyed” is the operative word here. Over the course of their six-plus-week stint in Arizona, several members of the team volunteered to me that they had never played on any team with such amazing chemistry. So for anyone who pooh-poohs such intangibles as “chemistry” and “makeup” in favor of strictly looking at the numbers, may I introduce to you the Phoenix Desert Dogs, 2008 champions of the Arizona Fall League.
In his excellent game story from Phoenix’s 10-4 win over the Mesa Solar Sox, my colleague Jonathan Mayo called it a “coincidental dynasty” which I think is brilliant.
Because in those five seasons, the only constant has been that at least a half-dozen members of the Dogs have worn the uniform of the Oakland Athletics, because Oakland automatically gets one of the five affiliation assignments to the team by virtue of Phoenix Municipal Stadium being their spring training home. The only Oakland player who is a holdover from 2007 was pitcher Jeff Gray.
Other than that, the league has mixed up the makeup each year. This year’s model featured the Toronto Blue Jays, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins (the only other holdover from 2007) and Arizona Diamondbacks, who normally play for the Scottsdale Scorpions but moved to Phoenix this year because the Dogs’ openings for specific positions better matched the players the Diamondbacks wanted to send to the AFL.
But that said, unlike in the Majors, it’s not like teams can try to sign players who “fit” the stadiums themselves. Not only do all the teams have prospects, but the lineups are continually shifted to allow everyone playing time and all of the pitchers are on limits. So truly, with all 30 organizations sending top prospects, you could look at the Opening Day rosters and scratch your head trying to figure out who will win it all.
In fact, if Las Vegas were to have put down odds on the AFL championship game (and for all I know they did), I would have to imagine that Mesa would have been the favorite. An outstanding team that might rival Phoenix for makeup and chemistry, they tied at 26-12 for the best record in the league with the Peoria Saguaros (who they beat in a tiebreaker by virtue of having beaten them in the next-to-last game of the regular season on a clutch pinch-hit eighth-inning grand slam by Phillies outfielder Jeremy Slayden), they led the league in average by 23 ponts with a .328 and in ERA by .8 of a run at 4.42. Plus they were sending to the mound Braves ace prospect Tommy Hanson whose 5-0 record, 0.63 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 29 innings combined for what I think anyone would attest was the best AFL pitching performance in the 17-year history of the league.
But Phoenix waited out Hanson for his five innings of work, trailing 3-1 when he reached his pitch limit, and then simply went nuts on the Solar Sox bullpen.
And it’s somehow fitting that the biggest offensive outburst did indeed come from one of Oakland’s own, even if he’s one of their newest “own.”
Catcher/first baseman Josh Donaldson went 3-for-4 on the day with a three-run homer in the seventh inning (which Mayo tells me is still going), an RBI single in the sixth and three hits.
Donaldson, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday next week, came over to Oakland in early July from the Chicago Cubs in the deal which sent pitcher Rich Harden to the Windy City. A supplemental first-round pick out of Auburn in 2007, he was hitting just .217 at Class A Peoria before the deal, but refound his stroke at Advanced A Stockton, batting .330 with nine home runs and 39 RBIs and then hitting .413 with four more homers in the Ports’ upset to capture of the California League championship (I say upset because they were the wild card entry.)
GotMiLB had the chance to sit down with Donaldson in the Phoenix dugout a few days before the end of the AFL season and get to know the Daphne, Alabama, native a little bit better.
And helping the fans to get to see Donaldson as well, I have to give huge props to two of my best friends and “partners in crime,” baseball photographer to the stars Barbara Jean Germano, who took the shots of Donaldson in his seventh-inning home trot as well as when he got “pied” during his post-game interview, and Erica Brooks, who has arranged Arizona housing for players for the last decade, who took the “post-game pile-on” picture that shows that yes, Virginia, players really DO care about winning this thing.
GotMiLB: Everyone has a “hidden talent.” What’s yours?
Donaldson: I’m not really sure that I have one. Sports is my talent. I like to goof around but I don’t know for sure.
(While he’s being modest, GotMiLB can confirm that he is a great Rock Band singer).
GotMiLB: Complete this sentence: It would surprise people to know that I …
Donaldson: I first started playing golf when I was 3 years old.
GotMiLB: Do you have other hobbies or creative outlets aside from baseball?
Donaldson: I like to play golf. When I’m playing regularly my handicap is around a 7. I’m fairly decent but if I could ever just figure out the short game and the putting I’d be a lot better.
GotMiLB: Of what accomplishment, on or off the field, in your life are you the proudest?
Donaldson: Being named the Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year (in 2004).
GotMiLB: What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
Donaldson: I played summer baseball in Alaska which was very interesting.
GotMiLB: What do you think you’d be doing now if you weren’t playing baseball?
Donaldson: I probably would have finished my degree in Exercise Science at Auburn and would be starting my internship. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to go to PT (physical therapy) school yet or go to medical school.
GotMiLB: What one item have you found you cannot live without on the road?
Donaldson: Either my laptop or my cel phone.
GotMiLB: Which aspect of life in the minors do you find to be the biggest challenge and why?
Donaldson: It’s probably the same with everybody but my first year I was in the Northwest League and there was lots of traveling, taking 15-hour bus trips. Our air-conditioning went out one time going to Canada and didn’t get fixed the whole time. So we were stuck without AC during 95-degree days and it dropped down to about 50 degrees at night but we had to keep the vents open so we’d be hot in the day and freezing at night.
GotMiLB: Which aspect of life in the minors has surprised you the most, in comparison to what you might have imagined before you turned pro?
Donaldson: I think the diversity of guys you have. I’ve played with guys from Korea, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Australia and New Zealand now (the latter two with Phoenix), you name it, there are people from everywhere.
GotMiLB: What is the biggest misperception that people outside of baseball have about life in the minors?
Donaldson: The whole aspect of moving up. You see guys get drafted in the NFL and NBA and they assume in baseball it’s the same way where you move right up to the big leagues. Whereas in baseball it’s a little bit tougher. You have all these steps to travel and it’s a difficult process to actually make it to the big leagues. All the guys that are there are really special.
GotMiLB: Who is the most unusual character you’ve met in your pro baseball career?
Donaldson: I would have to say the unusual and best is my (AFL) roommate Shane Lindsay from Australia. He’s always keeping me on my toes and making everybody laugh. I wouldn’t go as far as saying unusual is a bad thing. I think unusual is something you can get a lot out of people who are a little bit different and show you a different aspect of life.
GotMiLB: Which coach/manager have you had that you think should be in the big leagues?
Donaldson: My manager at Stockton, Darren Bush. I think he’s probably the best manager I’ve had.
GotMiLB: What is the one question you hope you never hear again?
Donaldson: I’m pretty open to questions but maybe, when you’re struggling, people asking you why. It can be tough to talk about it but it’s also part of the game and everyone knows that.
GotMiLB: If you were commissioner for a day, which one rule would you change?
Donaldson: I think the NL should add the DH. I’m a hitter. I think there should be more opportunities for hitters whereas in the NL you always have that one out you can get through unless you’re facing, say, CC Sabathia or Brett Myers who’s going to foul off everything and then get a dink in there.
GotMiLB: Where have you played in the Minors?
Donaldson: Boise, Idaho; Peoria, Ill.; Stockton, Cal.
GotMiLB: On your current or most recent club (Stockton), what was your favorite thing about playing there? And is there anything you would change?
Donaldson: I just think the organization in general, I like how laidback things are. You get your work in but if you really want to get better it’s up to you. I liked California in general, I liked the weather, the same every day so you can’t complain.
GotMiLB: What was your favorite restaurant there?
Donaldson: BJ’s. They had a little cookie ice cream that was something with a P that was awesome, probably the best dessert I’ve ever had. (GotMiLB got hungry listening to this so she looked it up and it’s called a Pizookie).
GotMiLB: If family or friends were coming in to visit, where would you take them on a day off?
Donaldson: We were kind of close to Sacramento so that would be nice.
GotMiLB: In your career, what has been your favorite road trip and why?
Donaldson: Lansing had a pretty good set up there. They had a good turn out. I also liked playing at San Jose this year. The field was a little tough but they had a great atmosphere and a lot of people came to games.
GotMiLB: What’s your favorite road restaurant?
Donaldson: It would have to be Olive Garden. That’s my favorite restaurant in general so if I could find one on the road it was always a good night.
GotMiLB: What is the best minor league promotion or visiting act you’ve seen?
Donaldson: What is the thing with the guys who are in blow-up things? The Zooperstars are always fun to watch.
GotMiLB: What has been your least favorite visiting act or promotion?
Donaldson: I don’t know if I really have a least favorite. But I heard guys talking about a team that wanted to set a record for having the least number of fans so they didn’t let anyone in before the game started and I think that would be kind of boring to play in front of.