Hi. My name is Matt Hagen, and I am a fantasy baseball addict.
(A pause so all the other fantasy baseball addicts in the room can join in unison for a halfhearted “Hi Matt.”)
Much to my girlfriend’s chagrin, the innocent-yet-painstaking science of analyzing minor league baseball is in my blood, and The Hardball Times took notice. Thank you to Derek and everyone at the Times for giving me a chance.
Before I expose you dear readers to a taste of my twisted version of minor league baseball, I thought I would inform everyone about a magical little town in central Wisconsin.
Auburndale, Wisconsin. Population: 738.
To many central Wisconsin residents, Auburndale is best known for forcing Highway 10 motorists to slow down when traveling between Marshfield and Stevens Point. Worse reputations exist, and something tells me that the hard-working people of Auburndale love their quaint “reduced-speed” town.
It’s hard not to be a blue collar type when living in such a small town. The people are friendly, the families are caring, and the children are born with a strong backbone and a bottle of fresh Wisconsin milk in their mouths.
The Auburndale High School basketball team is a perennial powerhouse at the Division 3 level. There’s just something magical about putting five passionate, fundamentally sound Auburndale players on the floor at the same time. Neillsville, Greenwood, Spencer, Pittsville, Granton, and Stratford, among others, have a hard time competing.
At the local level, basketball is the proud sport of choice. But, on a larger stage, the basketball program doesn’t even register a blip on the radar.
That’s because Auburndale’s football and baseball bloodlines get all the attention.
Former Green Bay Packer right tackle, and current NFL free agent, Mark Tauscher grew up living and breathing sports in Auburndale. He has had an underrated career anchoring the right side of the offensive line for the green and gold for the last decade. A torn ligament in his knee may end his career, but what a career it was. Mark got to block for Brett Favre and his home-state Packers for a decade. It was grunt work, but oh so fitting for a man who grew up in Auburndale, Wisconsin. It’s just a shame that Mark never received a trip to the NFL’s annual Pro Bowl. As overrated as the Pro Bowl is, Mark deserved the recognition.
And as one Auburndale native’s sports career is drawing to a close, another is just beginning.
I grew up in Neillsville, Wisconsin, a 45-minute drive from Auburndale, and I graduated college from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I attended UWSP at the same time as a kid from Auburndale named Jordan Zimmermann. Jordan is the best pitcher the state of Wisconsin has seen in a long time.
He wasn’t anything special in high school. His mid-80s fastball was good enough to fool the overmatched kids of the Marawood League, but not good enough to earn him a college scholarship. So, Jordan stayed close to home for college, and attended UWSP. That’s where Jordan truly got serious about the game of baseball.
After a few years of hard work in the weight room and some radical refinement of his pitches, Jordan became the best pitcher that the WIAC has ever seen. After his sophomore season at UWSP, his 1.01 ERA during a stint with the Eau Claire Express of the Northwoods League secured his prospect status.
Many major league scouts didn’t know what to make of a kid who came from such a humble background. But the Washington Nationals believed in the blue collar kid from Auburndale. They took Jordan in the second round of the 2007 MLB amateur draft, and they haven’t looked back.
After a tremendous year and a half of minor league dominance, Zimmermann made his major league debut on April 20, 2009. It was anything but ordinary.
The Nationals and Braves withstood a two-hour rain delay from the outset, and by the time Zimmermann took the mound only an estimated 1,000 people were left in the stands. Seeing the strange sight of 1,000 people in a professional baseball stadium will always alleviate some pressure, and it’s safe to say that Zimmermann enjoyed the relief.
With a crowd approximately the same size as his hometown, Zimmermann dazzled the patient spectators by pitching six efficient innings and allowing only two runs, both resulting from a no-no pitch he threw to Matt Diaz in the fourth inning. Zimmermann is very young, and those mistake pitches will happen less and less. Another indication that Zimmermann is still young; he only threw 72 pitches. Washington wants to protect their prized investment.
After another rain delay in the eighth inning, and Zimmermann watching from the dugout, an estimated 70 people were left in the crowd. It was like an Auburndale High School game all over again.
The game ended with a rare sight; a win for the Washington Nationals. Zimmermann collected the first “W” of his career. Due to the comical appearance of the crowd, the pressure wasn’t as enormous as it usually is for a pitcher making his major league debut. But the pressure will be ratcheted up as Zimmermann tries to turn the Washington Nationals franchise around. He is a promising young pitcher that any organization would love to have. With continued development he could turn into a true ace. He throws a good mix of pitches highlighted by his developed low- to mid-90s fastball. He may be the team’s very best asset. Not bad for a kid from Auburndale, Wisconsin. The cheeseheads are proud.
So, is there a lesson to be learned from Zimmermann’s journey? Maybe it’s no matter where you come from, if you work hard enough, you too can live the American dream.
Or maybe there’s just something in the water in Auburndale, Wisconsin.