Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 61: Catching Up With Jason Stanford
Steve Eby | On 03, Feb 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 61 days
When thinking about “what might have been” among former Indians players, former left-handed pitcher Jason Stanford should always come to mind.
Stanford, who donned an Indians #61 jersey for all 23 games of his Major League career, overcame obstacles as a young player to make the Cleveland Indians starting rotation out of Spring Training in 2004, then had it ripped away along with the tendons in his elbow.
“It was the most frustrating thing that I’ve ever had to deal with in sports,” Stanford said of the injury that ultimately cut short his Major League career. “It was extremely tough.”
Prior to that disappointing day against the Minnesota Twins, the southpaw had to fight for everything that he earned.
“I was a junior college transfer into UNC Charlotte and I played two years there,” Stanford remembered. “I thought I was going to get drafted after my junior year. Then, I thought I was going to get drafted after my senior year and nothing took place.”
His name was never announced at either MLB Draft and Stanford was eventually signed by the Tribe as a non-drafted free agent—a fate that Stanford knew was trouble from the get-go.
“You know that when you were a non-drafted free agent, you have that target on your back that at any point you could be released,” Stanford said. “So you have to constantly just do your thing, worry about yourself. Ultimately, the road was paved for me and the gold was there.”
In just his second year of professional baseball, Stanford earned the organization’s Bob Feller Award as their Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the 2000 season. He continued to roll through AA and AAA hitters for the following two seasons and eventually was called up to Cleveland at age 26 in 2003. He made 13 appearances for the Tribe that summer, including eight starts, and was impressive enough to put himself on the radar for the young, rebuilding Indians.
“In ‘03, I had a really good season at AAA and I did quite well up in the Big Leagues that September,” Stanford remembered. He wound up his rookie season with just a 1-3 record, but he posted an impressive 3.60 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP, as well. The breakout season did not go unrewarded, as Stanford surprised everyone by earning the fifth rotation spot in 2004 when the Indians broke camp in late March.
“I wasn’t surprised because I knew how much work I put into it,” Stanford remembered with a smile. “I knew I had a chance. For me, the only thing that I could control was every fifth day that I went out there in Spring Training. I could prepare myself and get myself ready to face big leagues hitters. Ultimately, (Manager) Eric Wedge and (Pitching Coach) Carl Willis called me in and said, ‘hey, you are the fifth guy’. It was just gravy right there.”
Stanford made his season debut in Kansas City on April 9, and despite giving up seven hits and four walks in five innings, no Royals touched home plate in the five innings that Stanford was on the mound. Six days later, Stanny was back on the hill to face the Minnesota Twins in Cleveland, where he allowed just one run over six innings of work. Taking a tough-luck loss in front of the Jacobs Field crowd was only the second worst news of the day, however.
“As bad as it was not to get drafted—this was worse,” Stanford said of the injury that eventually led to Tommy John surgery. “To start off extremely well, then actually feel it happen in the game against Minnesota, and to know exactly what happened…then the next day not being able to throw…you try to rehab it as best as you can. Then, to get back on the mound and still have that feeling and then ultimately have the surgery…it was extremely tough that year.”
The young, promising Stanford was sidelined for the rest of the 2004 season after just two starts and a 0.82 ERA. The hard part was just beginning, however, as Stanford was determined to get back onto a pitcher’s mound one day despite tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. His rehab process was a long and painful one, and it was one that kept him out of the game for a long time.
“The process was mental. It was a mental grind,” Stanford remembered. “You have that surgery, you know that it should take at least a year if you do everything the correct way. The rehab was seven days a week. It was nonstop for 18 months. Once I got back on the mound, I was about 14 months post-surgery. Then, it was probably another 22 months until I felt good again–that was in 2006.”
Stanford made a few starts in several minor league levels in 2005 and then struggled at AAA Buffalo in the ’06 season. Once fully healed, Stanny bounced back to post a 5-1 record for Buffalo in 2007 and was called up to Cleveland to replace a struggling Jeremy Sowers in the contending Tribe’s starting rotation. On June 14, Stanford was called on to face the Florida Marlins in interleague play, 1,156 days after he previously stood on a Major League mound.
“To have the 2007 season happen, to pitch so well down in AAA and then get that phone call to go back up and pitch in Miami,” Stanford said, “and to have the results that I had down there, it was awesome.”
“Jason was outstanding,” Wedge said that evening in Miami. “You never really know what to expect. It’s been a while since Jason’s been up here, but he went out there, he was poised, he was under control, he threw strikes, he worked ahead, used his pitches…you can’t say enough about what he did.”
The results were impressive for a guy that hadn’t pitched a Big League game in 38 months. Stanford dominated the Marlins that night, allowing one run on six hits in earning the second—and final—victory of his career. Stanford hung around the club for the following month, eventually being pushed to the bullpen when regular starter Jake Westbrook returned from injury. Stanford finished the season with a 1-1 record and a 4.78 ERA when he was sent back down to AAA after a July 26 game against the Red Sox, but he is still proud to have been a part of the last Indians team to wear the American League Central Division crown.
“We were loose,” Stanford said of his final Major League roster. “I mean, Eric Wedge let us be who we were. He was a great player’s manager back then. A lot like [the 2013] team under Terry Francona—we got along, we hung out together, we carried each other’s backs when we needed to. There wasn’t a single guy out there that didn’t expect the other guys to do it. Yes, we had a lot of good players that year and yes, we had two guys that won 19 games, but it was also a group effort. I think that showed all the way through the postseason.”
The 2007 Indians worked their way to within one game of the World Series before being eliminated by the eventual champion Red Sox. Upon the completion of the team’s playoff run, Stanford was granted free agency by the Indians and signed on with the Washington Nationals for the start of the 2008 season. He was assigned to the Nats’ AAA team and was then released in mid-April, when he started to bounce around baseball that included another month-long stint with the Indians organization. After finishing the season with the Chicago Cubs organization and spending seven games in the Mexican League, Stanford retired from playing baseball for good. The completion of his playing days has not kept him away from the game he loves, however.
“Since I stopped playing, I was a head coach at Warren Howland (High School in Warren, Ohio) and I was there for two years,” Stanford said in 2014. “After that, I was the pitching coach [in 2012-2013] for Youngstown State. Then, Fox Sports bought SportsTime Ohio out, and now I’m working for Fox Sports full-time. I’m the pregame analyst and the post-game analyst. I’m in the clubhouse every day.”
Stanford was host of both Indians Live and The Tribe Report on the television network, previewing and reviewing both the game that day, as well as the week ahead for the team.
Stanford has remained involved with the game of baseball—giving back to community by running his own baseball academy for Northeastern Ohio’s youth.
“The Stanford Baseball Academy is a small, little indoor facility that we run out of The Niles Wellness Center,” Stanford said in 2014. “I’ve had it for about five years now. We do instructional baseball and softball for ages five all the way up to professional kids. I’ve got a couple of professionals that train as well with the younger kids. It’s all about teaching kids the right way to play the game of baseball and softball. We do it every day. It’s our livelihood, our passion, and we love to spend time with the youth.”
Photo: Tucson Citizen