Steve Geltz: Ransomville's Righty Bucks Long Odds to MLB
- Name: Steve Geltz
- Age: 26
- Organization: Los Angeles Angels, Durham Bulls
Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.
According to Forbes Magazine (Jan. 25, 2012, Jon Bruner), there are 4,114 stoplights in Los Angeles. According to Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A pitcher Steve Geltz, there is exactly one in Ransomville, NY.
How does an undersized pitcher, who was suspended in college ever reach the major leagues? How does a player emerge from a school better known for Wolf Blitzer than baseball? How does an athlete whose first experience with a baseball netted a black eye have the pedigree to reach The Show?
Steve Geltz’s story has a labyrinth of near dead-ends and snookers that has led to a cadre of fans rooting for the near impossible. Geltz reaching the major leagues is a convoluted, yet remarkable tale of an athlete bucking the longest odds to accomplish the every boy’s childhood dream.
You can practically feel the mist from Niagara Falls in Geltz’s sleepy hometown of Ransomville, NY. There are barely 1,400 people there and Geltz’s lifelong next-door neighbors were his grandparents. Ransomville is a town closer to Canada (23 mi.) than it is to Buffalo (33 mi.). For a kid who grew up in the shadows of the NHL or NFL, the only sport he wanted to play, stressing the term “only”, was baseball. Even with a lighted ice rink within a stone’s throw of home, baseball was it.
Geltz’s first encounter with a baseball was at the ripe age of two. Wandering outside into the yard as his dad was playing catch with a neighbor, Steve toddled into the path of a thrown ball. The shiner on his right eye was his momento. From that point on, Geltz was hooked.
A son of a registered nurse and electrician, Geltz, 25, had to earn everything he received. His parents saw his passion and talent for baseball evolve over the years. By the time Geltz was in his teens, he was good enough to make travel summer teams. With practices and lessons taking place over an hour away in Depew multiple times a week, Geltz would pile into the family truck after school with his parents dutifully driving him back and forth. All for the love of the game. Lessons began with former major leaguer Rick Lancellotti. Money for gas, miles on the family car, hours on the road – it was all worthwhile for the Geltz family as they began to see how good Geltz was becoming.
Talent aside, Geltz still had one major hurdle to overcome. A hurdle Geltz had absolutely no control over. He was 5’9”. It’s a fine height, basically the American average. However, if one wants to become a major league pitcher at 5’9”, your odds are likely better at becoming a major league clubhouse attendant than pitcher. Those odds were just fine for Geltz. He’s been a longshot all his life.
“I was basically a nobody, 5-foot 9-inch guy from Ransomville,” said Geltz as he recalled an open tryout for the Milwaukee Brewers during his senior year of high school. Geltz took the mound, struck out all three hitters. But it’s natural in the pro game for the body visuals to trump the physical talents. “They immediately look at the size of you and write you off.” Happy with the tryout, but not holding any expectations, Geltz’s life continued back in Ransomville.
Slowly though, Geltz did start to get noticed. A phone call here. A letter there. Community colleges showed interest. Division II schools were intrigued, and ultimately Geltz settled on the University of Buffalo, just a couple of dozen miles from home. Geltz could live at home, pitch for a benign Division I program in a relatively mediocre conference and see how he fares. As his freshman season began, Geltz had no idea what role he would fill. He was just enjoying the new challenge and buckling in for the ride. When Geltz’s first collegiate game headed to the 9th inning against Appalachian State, Geltz was summoned on to save the game. No problem. Game over, Bulls win.
As Geltz’s career continued at Buffalo, his fastball became livelier, command more exact and thoughts of a pro career were becoming more crystalized until a serious setback during his junior year nearly derailed it all.
Buffalo headed out west for a tournament in Reno, NV in February right in the heart of mid-term exams. Players were given excused absences for the dates of travel, as any school would grant. The weather can be a bit sketchy that time of year in mountains of Nevada, and this year was no exception. In order to save the mid-major conference school some additional travel costs, the team flew into San Francisco, then bused over to Reno. The weather was not an ally to the Bulls. A four-hour trip turned into 10 ½ due to snow. Games were canceled and rescheduled. On the final scheduled day in Reno, there was more snow, and one last cancellation. The team boarded the bus heading back over the mountains toward San Francisco and a flight home. However, after eight hours on the bus, they had only managed to go only 60 miles. Donner Pass in the northern Sierra Nevada was closed. The bus turned back around and slowly headed back into Reno. After the team inched its way back to its hotel, Reno was nearly shut down due to weather. The Bulls were stranded in Reno for nearly a week. Midterms were faxed to the Circus Circus casino and administered in conference rooms. Finally, the trek ended almost a week later when the team made a flight back to Buffalo. Professors had granted excused absences for the scheduled trip, but when Geltz returned, one of his instructors asked for a note from the baseball staff to confirm the extra time missed in class. Geltz had an hour to bring the note or else grades were going to be published with Geltz’s time marked as unexcused. Geltz hustled around campus to find his coach, but he wasn’t at his office. He then scrambled to find someone – anyone – who had the authority to author a note for him. Geltz came across the team’s athletic trainer, who, according to Geltz, typed up a letter on school letterhead depicting the extra missed time on the trip, signed the letter and handed it to Geltz. Then using all of the speed his 5’9” frame could muster, Geltz sprinted across the sprawling campus to deliver the note to the professor, just in time. Crisis averted. Only it wasn’t.
The following Monday, Geltz is preparing for practice, when the phone rings. It’s Geltz’s head coach. He asks if Geltz forged the name of his trainer on the letter he turned in to his professor. Taken aback, Geltz denies it. Strangely, according to Geltz, the trainer said that he didn’t sign the note. High level meetings were held with the administration, coaches and Geltz’s parents, and Steve was suspended indefinitely pending the outcome of the investigation. The suspension would eat up the remainder of Geltz’s junior year, which meant the distinct unlikelihood of Geltz hearing his name during the June draft.
Just like that, the dreams of Geltz pitching in professional baseball took a serious hit. Prior to the suspension, Geltz had already agreed to pitch for the Torrington (Ct.) Twisters of the NECBL, a college wooden-bat summer league. Geltz was trying to build himself back up, purging his college time at Buffalo from his timeline. Geltz would take the mound for the same team Stephen Strasburg pitched the previous year, and in another odd twist, Geltz was also invited to a Washington Nationals tryout at Nationals Park. With the GM, Scouting Director and other key personnel watching, Geltz lit up the radar guns with fastballs between 93-96mph, striking out three of the four hitters he faced. When it was all over, a Nationals rep approached him to ask about playing pro ball. Trying to mute his excitement, Geltz said it would be a dream come true. You may hear from us before the draft. Stay tuned. Several weeks later, the draft came and went and Geltz name was never called. He was never entered. Geltz would later find out that his name was never submitted to major league baseball to be considered to be drafted at all, a responsibility of the Buffalo coaching staff according to Geltz. Geltz was certainly disappointed, but not blaming the university. Geltz had been told dozens of times that he wasn’t good enough. But he’d try to overcome. Again. Like all those other times. He knew the drill.
It was back to Torrington for one last opportunity. As fate would have it, Torrington had a game scheduled against Team USA. Strasburg was having his jersey retired. A parade was held in the downtown streets of this historic Connecticut town. The crowds would be robust, but more importantly, the major league scouts would be out in full force for the game. With the Twisters getting crushed in the last inning, Geltz came in to pitch, just as his coach told him he would. His coach saw this as Geltz’s moment. Geltz seized it. The scouts raised their radar guns as Geltz warmed up. They took notes as Geltz struck out the first batter. Then the second batter. Then the third. 10 pitches. Three strikeouts. Against Team USA. As the game ended, Geltz began walking through the stands to access the clubhouse, and was stopped by three scouts. The last of which, was Greg Morhardt of the Los Angeles Angels, the same Angels area scout who signed Angels star Mike Trout. Morhardt’s first question to the unknown Geltz was, “Who are you?
As the two talked, and Geltz’s career at Buffalo was unveiled, the pieces fell into place as to why Geltz was supremely invisible to major league scouts. Morhardt told Geltz that he hadn’t seen that lively of a fastball in years, leaving him with this final, somewhat rhetorical question. “How would you like to be an Angel?”
Finally, someone lived up to their word when the phone rang the next day. Morhardt called back and offered Geltz the chance of a lifetime. To play professional baseball. The initial offer was for a $1,000 bonus and a plane ticket to Casper, WY to meet his Orem teammates. Geltz, the savvy negotiator, countered for $10,000. The deal was settled for $4,500. In the era of multi-million signing bonuses, Geltz agreed to an amount that could buy a 1999 Mazda Miata. But the heartbeat of the dream suddenly beat louder.
Embarking into professional baseball, the road was still agonizingly slow for Geltz, with plenty of moments where the impossible dream felt like it. But Geltz had been in worse positions during his athletic career. At least this time, there was a paycheck tied to playing baseball. Beyond that, Geltz firmly believed in himself.
Geltz had served basically every role in the Angels organization, but never viewed as a prospect in the least. He was a “arm protector” for our high draftees. He started his career in Rookie-ball, started the next year in extended spring training, which is where players remain after the full-season teams break camp. Meaning, Geltz was ticketed for short-season rookie ball once again. He was hardly fast-tracking to the major leagues. That spring, Geltz waited patiently, going through his daily practice routines on desolate fields, playing intrasquad games with no fans. One morning, though, things began to change. There was an injury and a need for a pitcher in High-A Rancho Cucumonga. Geltz got the call, packed up and headed to California. It was scheduled to be a brief fill-in role. However, Geltz dominated from his first outing and beyond – going 7-1 with a 3.76 ERA and extended spring training never saw him again that summer.
The next spring (2010), Geltz was feeling great about his chances to break camp with a full-season team for the first time. After all, he had gone straight to Rancho Cucamonga and overpowered hitters for months last season. Surely he was beginning to carve a name for himself. Late in spring training, Geltz was brought into the Farm Director’s office and was told that they’d give him his release if he wanted, otherwise he was going to have to wait back in extended spring. Again. There was no spot for Geltz. Strong thoughts of quitting crossed Geltz’s mind. After all that he had done, this was the end result? Extended spring training? Geltz then realized that he wasn’t going to quit. So he stayed back for three weeks, then a spot opened in Rancho again. He fanned 51 hitters in 34 innings and finally earned his first promotion to Double-A Arkansas piling up 36 more strikeouts in 18 innings, a mind-boggling ratio. Toward the end of the season, on a bus ride back home, Geltz was summoned to the back of the bus where the coaches were sitting. He was – again – expecting the worst. Instead, he was told that he was going to the Arizona Fall League, which is reserved for the best of the best prospects in the game.
The following spring, four years into his pro baseball career, he finally broke camp with a full-season team. He started at Triple-A Salt Lake, bumped back to Double-A after a week and spent the rest of the year with Arkansas, putting up a 3.09 ERA and 67 more strikeouts in 46 innings and pitching in the Texas League championship.
Then the 2012 season, the year it all came full circle for the small, overlooked, never-say-die kid from Ransomville. Geltz started once again in AA, and giving up 1 run in 25 innings will get you promoted, so Geltz was about to take his 0.36 ERA back to Triple-A.
Geltz’s grandfather and next-door neighbor - William Jeffrey - for his entire life had been battling leukemia for years, and was not well. Geltz had seen him right before spring training, but knew his health was failing. Just before batting practice during one of Geltz’s final days at Double-A, his grandfather died. Geltz was torn. He wanted to be back with his family, to comfort his grandmother. In talking with his mom on the phone, they agreed that he would’ve wanted him to stay and keep playing. The grandfather who hit him popups, groundballs and played catch with an infinite number of times, was now only in his heart, mind and soul.
So with thoughts of his grandfather and family heavy on his heart, Geltz stayed with the team. Unbeknownst to Geltz, his agent had bought a round-trip ticket home for Geltz for $1,000. He knew Geltz had to go. Being with family was the only place to be. The flight was scheduled to leave the next day, and Geltz’s manager continued to ask him if he was ok to pitch that night. Of course, Geltz said he was. He’s been ready to pitch his whole life. And pitch he did. Geltz was brought into the game, and in the start of a personal tribute, climbed the mound and inscribed his grandfather’s initials “WJ” into the dirt of the mound. He proceeded to strike out the side in overpowering fashion. Little did Geltz realize, but the new Farm Director of the Angels, Scott Servais, was in attendance for just that game, and specifically to watch Geltz pitch. After the game was over, Servais told Geltz to go home for as long as he needed to be, and when you come back, keep pitching like this and you’ll be in the big leagues soon.
Soon after returning from the funeral, Geltz was promoted to Triple-A, and a month later, it all changed. The Bees were playing in Nashville, and Geltz was fulfilling his standard late-game role. Salt Lake was up 1-0 in the 7th inning, and Geltz hadn’t thrown in a few days. He figured he’d get into this game. Bullpen phone rings, but Geltz wasn’t asked to get up. In the 8th inning, phone rings again, and Geltz is certain that it’s his time. Nope. Different reliever gets up. Geltz, a chronic worrier, starts wondering what he’s done wrong. Did I miss a lift? Did I do all my running? Why am I not coming into the game? The game ends, Geltz did not pitch and confusion muddied Geltz’s head.
In the quiet clubhouse after the blown game by the Bees, Geltz was asked into the manager’s office. There are usually three outcomes to a meeting like this. You’re either going to the major leagues, getting released or getting sent down. Geltz knew that the major league possibility was wholly out of the equation. He’s a no-name kid from Wilson Central HS in NY. Signed for $4,500. Never had been a prospect. Spent three years in extended spring before he got a chance. So Geltz feared the worst entering the room, and if he was being demoted, he was fully prepared to ask for his release. He was done with this.
Geltz’s manager Keith Johnson did the talking. He told Geltz he had to tighten some things up in his life and with his game. Geltz, still fearing the outcome, agreed. Then he was asked if he had a sport coat with him, the travel attire of major leaguers. Geltz replied, “I don’t need a sport coat for Double-A. It’s 100 degrees!” Johnson finally let Geltz off the hook by saying, “You have to make a good impression on (Mike) Scioscia when you get there. You’re going to the big leagues!”
The amazing dream had become reality for Geltz. The whirlwind began. Geltz called his mom at the hospital, and his news put her into tears. He then called his father at the house on his “Manhattan Night”, where his dad gathers with old friends to reminisce over Manhattans. On speaker phone, Geltz announced the news to cheers of joy, and toasts of drinks and puffs of cigars.
The next Geltz knew, he was on a first-class ticket to Anaheim. Upon landing, a driver was sent by the Angels to pick him up at the airport, tote his bags and ride in a blacked-out Lincoln Towncar to Geltz’s temporary home, the Doubletree. After a few hours of settling in, Geltz headed to Angels Stadium. After getting lost in the tunnels of the stadium, the doors finally swung open to the palatial Angels clubhouse. He ultimately walked to his locker – nameplate on the top with “Geltz” inscribed – a #65 jersey with “Geltz” on the back. When the handshakes of welcome ended with his new teammates, Geltz had no problem accepting the pink backpack, which is passed along to all fresh major league newbies to carry with them everywhere. It’s a ritual Geltz had no problem extending.
After getting hot in his first day in an Angels uniform, Geltz was not brought in to pitch. Three more days later, though, Geltz got his moment with the Angels down 7-0. Warming up in the pen to face the Tampa Bay Rays, Geltz’s bullpen coach was calmly stating the status of the inning. “One out,” the bullpen coach would say as Geltz worked. “Two outs Geltzy.” The nerves beginning to increase. “Three outs. Ok Geltzy. Go get ‘em,” the coach said. Geltz took a deep breath, walked down the bullpen stairs and the outfield gate opened. Geltz walked across the warning track while looking around, swallowing in the experience. Once on the grass, the jog to the mound began. His catcher Chris Iannetta was waiting for him on the mound. Iannetta told him, “Take all the time you need. You’ll never have this moment again.” Geltz did. Then a roar began to rumble from the 38,000 person crowd. Erick Aybar, his second baseman, got Geltz’s attention and had him turn around and look at the video board. It read “Making Major League Debut, From Ransomville, NY, Steve Geltz”. One scoreless inning and 16 pitches later, manager Mike Scioscia met Geltz on the top step to congratulate him on the outing.
Geltz would make one more appearance before he was sent back to Triple-A to end the season. Then in late March, 2013, Geltz would be traded by the Angels to the Rays.
Nine days in the major leagues grossed Geltz $29,000, over six times his bonus in 2008 when he signed with virtually no chance to reach the major leagues.
From one stoplight to 4,114, Geltz had completed an improbable journey. But Geltz’s journey is still far from over.
There are nearly 300 stop lights in St. Petersburg, home of Tropicana Field.
(Photo courtesy: Angels Baseball.)Tweet