General : : Professional
Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A true Friend of the game

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

The small farming town of Friend, Neb., sits about 95 miles southwest of Omaha, the home of the NCAA Division I College World Series. Drive about 45 miles northeast of Friend, and you’ll run into the state capital city of Lincoln, the home of the University of Nebraska and a traditionally strong D-I baseball program.

Friend’s proximity to Omaha and Lincoln might make one assume there is a rich tradition of baseball in the community of just over 1,000 hard-working souls. That assumption would be wrong. Friend High School doesn’t even field a baseball team.

Perhaps it is that background, more than anything else, that makes this story all the more remarkable. It’s a story of how right-handed pitcher Thad Weber, a 2003 graduate of Friend High School, used opportunities presented by Perfect Game during the company’s formative years to rise through the ranks before finally making his Major League debut with the Detroit Tigers on April 22.

Weber, a full-time starter during his five seasons in the Tigers’ minor league system, made two relief appearances totaling four innings for Detroit on April 22 and April 25 and then was sent back to Toledo in the Triple-A International League. His first trip to the big leagues was a brief one – the proverbial cup of coffee, if you will – but Weber soaked in all that the experience offered.

“Everything just kind of happened in a hurry with me getting called up on (April 21) and packing my things in the middle in the afternoon … and then making my debut the next day,” Weber said in a telephone interview late last week from Toledo. “It happened really in a hurry … but for it to happen when it did was pretty surreal.”

He then paused for a moment before continuing.

“I guess maybe now that I got sent back down, it kind of allows me to look back on it just a little bit, and it was awesome, it really was. Every kid dreams about running out into a big league stadium and it was definitely everything that I hoped it would be and that I had imagined it would be.”

Thad Weber and his father, Les Weber, have made this journey together. It’s been taken on a road seldom traveled, but the two men, son and father, disagreed when asked if the journey from Friend to the Major Leagues was “improbable.”

“I won’t consider anything improbable. I would definitely say maybe ‘long-shot’ or any other adjectives along those terms would probably describe it,” Thad said. “You’re probably not going to see a lot of kids from a town of 1,000 people in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska with no high school baseball growing up to be a big-league ballplayer, but that just goes to show that dreaming big and working hard for something your entire life – really nothing is impossible.”

In his father’s way of thinking, the journey did, indeed, border on accomplishing the impossible.

“I think it’s more than improbable. Going from where he was to where he is now, that’s almost next to impossible. It just doesn’t happen,” Les said in a separate telephone interview. “But we’re faith-based people and we know that God has had a big hand in all of this. We try to be real modest and you try to remain as humble as you can, and I’ve tried to teach Thad that over the years. But it’s a dream, really.”

DESPITE GROWING UP AMONGST THE CORNFIELDS and attending a high school without a baseball team, Thad Weber found ways to nurture his passion for the game. He began attending camps at the University of Nebraska when Dave Van Horn was the Cornhuskers’ head coach. Thad and his father asked Van Horn and then-Huskers pitching coach Rob Childress – now the head coach at Texas A&M – what Thad needed to do to achieve his dream of playing Division I baseball. The two highly respected coaches pointed him toward Perfect Game.

“Doing Perfect Game (events) starting in my sophomore year in high school just really kind of set off the entire chain of events as far as getting myself seen and ending up where I did,” Thad said. “When I look back on it it’s funny how the series of events fell into place – although I really don’t want to say ‘fell into place’ because there have been a lot of ups and downs along the way – but for it to work out in the end and me getting to pitch in the big leagues, there’s really no greater end to the story than that.”

Les Weber noted that at an early age while playing American Legion ball, Thad started to display some talents that were unusual for a kid his age. Les generally had Thad playing up an age group or two but the number of opportunities was limited in and around Friend. At the urging of Van Horn and Childress, the Webers got in touch with PG President Jerry Ford and Vice President Jason Gerst, and got Thad signed up for the 2001 Perfect Game Iowa Fall League.

Future big-leaguers Ryan Sweeney, Jeff Clement and Ryan Rohlinger were also playing in the PG Iowa Fall League in 2001.

“He was kind of a skinny little kid (6-0, 155-pounds) and not as experienced; maybe even a little bit younger than some of those other kids,” Les recalled. “We went over there and experienced that Fall League – and you know it’s quite a drive for us over to Cedar Rapids – and it was a good time and he got to play against some real good baseball players back in those days.

“That kind of inspired him to say, ‘You know, I want to play baseball and if I want to play baseball in college I’ve got to find a way to get better.’ It gave him the opportunity to see what was really needed out there.”

According to Les, Thad did everything he could to make sure PG's Gerst knew he was among the most eager participants in what was at the time the fourth PG Iowa Fall League campaign.

“They would say, ‘We need somebody to play right field’ and Thad would just jump up and go,” Les recalled. “He would play any position out in the field just to get in and I think that kind of struck Jason at the time as thinking that all this kid wants is a chance. And to be real honest, without Perfect Game he wouldn’t have had that chance.”

Thad Weber went on to play in the 2001 PG Midwest Fall Classic in Cedar Rapids, the 2002 PG Iowa Spring League and the 2002 PG Midwest Top Prospect Showcase, also in Cedar Rapids. Sweeney, Clement and future Major Leaguers and first round draft selections Chad Billingsley and Cesar Carrillo joined Weber at some of those events.

“Perfect Game opened my eyes to what (skill) level I needed to play at in order to play at a higher (competitive) level,” he said.

THAD WEBER WENT TO HUTCHINSON (KAN.) COMMUNITY COLLEGE after graduating from high school and red-shirted there his first season. He played the next two full seasons at Hutchinson and earned second team NJCAA All-American honors in 2006 while splitting his time pitching and playing first base.

“I loved my time at Hutch,” he said. “Coach (Kyle) Crookes down there, he’s like a second dad to me and I have the utmost respect and admiration for that guy; what he did for my career really just went above and beyond what anybody could do.”

Weber signed with Nebraska in front of the 2007 season and enjoyed two productive seasons with the Huskers. He was in head coach Mike Anderson’s weekend rotation as a senior in 2008, earned second team All-Big 12 Conference recognition and was drafted by the Tigers in the 16th round of the 2008 MLB amateur draft. He had previously been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 35th round of the 2007 draft, but didn’t sign and returned to Nebraska for his senior season.

“It was always a dream of mine to play at Nebraska,” he said. “Coach Anderson and just everybody along the way have played such an integral role in what they did for my career. Really not enough thank-yous can be said for what they’ve all done.”

After signing with the Tigers in 2008, Weber’s ascent was actually pretty swift. He was pitching for the Toledo Mud Hens in Triple-A by the end of the 2010 season, spent the entire 2011 season there, and after two starts in 2012 was 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 14 innings before getting called up to the big club. Now 6-feet-2, 205 pounds, he has learned to persevere.

“If there is one word to describe the minor leagues it would be ‘grind,’” Weber said with a knowing laugh. “There are just so many ups-and-downs of the long season, and wanting so badly to get moved up and do well and get to the big leagues; it can just really wear on you, not only physically but mentally as well.”

THERE IS REALLY NO WAY TO KNOW WHEN WEBER MIGHT get another call from Detroit’s front office summoning him to Comerica Park or another Major League venue where the Tigers might be playing.

“I really don’t have any idea. This is my first time experiencing all this: getting called up and being sent back down,” he said. “I’ve been in the (Toledo) rotation for a little bit over a year and they just told me to come back down here and get back in the rotation and keep throwing and putting in the work. Hopefully if the situation comes up that they need an arm, I’ll be the guy that goes back up.”

It would not be accurate to say Weber is content pitching in the minor leagues; he definitely wants another big league opportunity. But Weber, who is 27, is also more grounded than a lot of other minor leaguers. He and his wife Megan – whom he married in 2006 – have two young children: a daughter named Babe and a son named Gehrig. And, no, they aren’t Yankees fans. Thad insists he and Megan simply found the names unique.

In a perfect world, Weber will be back up in the big leagues to stay sometime very soon. But even when that happens, he’ll never forget his roots in tiny Friend, Neb., nor the way he really got his first opportunities in the game.

“I still talk about my Perfect Game days with just about anybody who will listen,” he said. “I’m pretty good with names and I can just remember all the guys I played with or played against that have gone on to play Division I baseball and professional baseball. Perfect Game really provided that avenue for me to play against top-notch talent and really provided me with what I needed developmentally-wise to get myself in a position to play baseball at a higher level.”

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