Throwing a ball against a wall on his lunch break in the back of a Colorado gym is not how Joey Newby pictured his professional athletic career.
After tearing a ligament in his pitching arm, the Oakland Athletics released the 27-year-old right-hander after three seasons in their minor league system. Sans agent and trainer, the former Soldotna standout athlete was left much like he was in the rear of the gym -- alone.
Though he has yet to pitch in Major League Baseball, Newby's determination and family support have put him a step away from achieving his childhood dream.
Newby eventually signed with the Seattle Mariners in January of this year, but had six different jobs -- everything from a pizza boy to a financial adviser -- after being let go from the A's. But it was a personal training gig that put Newby back on the track to making it to the big leagues.
As a personal trainer, Newby said he had the knowledge to get himself back in shape.
"That helped me get back to baseball," he said about the job.
Newby would take four-hour lunch breaks in between working with clients to work on himself, preparing to pitch again.
"There was nobody helping," he said. "It was just me and a lot of iPod music."
Although he received many odd looks from passersby as he trained by playing catch with the wall, Newby was motivated to return to professional baseball.
Much of his determination stemmed from being cut by the A's one day after being injured. The team paid for the surgery, then sent Newby on his way.
"Every year I was with the A's, I felt like I was improving," he said. "When I was cut by the A's, it motivated me to work harder than I ever did before. I can't wait to pitch against the A's in the big leagues and beat them."
Without an agent, Newby began calling minor league teams to set up a tryout for himself. Ten months after his surgery, he caught a break.
He got in contact with Bruce Hines, who was then the pitching director for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Newby threw a bullpen session for Hines and the Angels in October 2008. The team told Newby to call back after a year had passed since his surgery.
"It was honestly all by chance," he said about getting in contact with Hines.
By that time, Hines had taken another job with the Seattle Mariners. Thinking Seattle would be a better fit, Hines told Newby to come throw for his new team. When the Friday session finished, Hines told Newby the Mariners would contact him in a few days if they liked what they saw.
As Newby was driving away from the Mariners' facility, he got a call asking if he could pitch again on Sunday. The team invited Newby to spring training and offered him a one-year contract.
Much of Newby's 2009 season was spent playing for the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, Seattle's Double-A affiliate. In his 28 appearances, Newby pitched 43 innings. He posted a 2.72 earn run average, surrendering 41 hits, 29 walks and just one home run.
But he didn't stay put in Tennessee the entire season.
Newby was moved to the Mariners' Single-A affiliate in California for two games, then to their Triple-A affiliate in Washington state, then to California again before arriving back in Tennessee.
"I was bounced around more than anybody else," Newby said. "You always feel like they're trying to test you."
In his 6 1/3 innings pitched with the Triple-A affiliate Tacoma Rainiers, Newby posted a 1.42 ERA with five walks and four strikeouts. During his 3 2/3 innings with the Single-A affiliate High Desert Mavericks, he had a 0.00 ERA with two walks and three strikeouts.
Being moved all over the country was both positive and negative for the pitcher. It was good in the sense that when taken out of his normal, daily routine, Newby said he was forced to only think about baseball.
"You kinda have to not think about anything else but your job," he said.
Also, a wider range of coaches were exposed to his pitching, Newby said.
Newby's typical day begins at 8 a.m. Then he's off to the gym for an hour and a half. After a shower and a meal, he gets to the field by 2 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. Batting practice is from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., followed by preparation for the game. After the game, Newby eats a meal, heads to bed and does it all over the next day.
And that's for home games. Road games often include a long bus ride, sometimes getting Newby home at 3 a.m.
"You gotta love it," Newby said with a smile about the grueling schedule of the minor leagues.
Newby is currently back in Soldotna working as a personal trainer at Peninsula Athletic Club before heading to Puerto Rico to play winter league ball. He has certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine to be a personal trainer and an additional certification as a performance enhancement specialist, which allows Newby to help athletes become more explosive using correct technique without risk of injury.
After graduating from SoHi in 2000, Newby played junior college ball in Phoenix for two years. He then earned a scholarship to the University of Southern Colorado. He played there for two years before signing with the A's.
The former Star participated in football, hockey and baseball during his high school years. Seeing the junior hockey route turn sour on his older brother, who Newby said was more skilled in the sport than he was, and knowing how punishing football is on the body, baseball was his choice sport. Newby said he always had a good arm, reaching speeds of 84 mph with his fastball as a teen. So the great American pastime became his dream.
"You can't beat warm weather and baseball," he said.
At 6-foot-2, the 215-pounder now consistently reaches speeds of 90 to 94 mph, occasionally hitting speeds upwards of 96 mph.
Newby said reaching "the show" is a real possibility. Besides the one or two superstars on each team, very little ability separates the rest of the players. Playing consistently is key to reaching the major leagues, he said.
In his time in the minor leagues, Newby said fellow Alaskans are few and far between. Those that do find out where he's from usually question his choice to pursue baseball and not a more conventional Alaska sport.
"Why didn't you play hockey? Why didn't you ski?" people will ask him. But Newby just smiles, knowing he made the right choice for him.
"I don't want anybody to be discouraged to chase their dreams," he said. "If you have a chance to play, go after it."
But Newby wouldn't have progressed to where he is today without the support of his family. Especially during times when he felt as far removed from the sport as possible, his family's support was still there.
"If I didn't have support from my family, there's no way I could have done it," he said.
Despite playing with some players that developed a negative attitude and blamed "the system" for their shortfalls, Newby is taking a positive approach and taking his career as his responsibility.
"My best is still ahead of me," he said. "That's what motivates me to keep going."
But Newby doesn't want to paint the picture that just because someone says they want something bad enough, they'll achieve it. It takes a strong work ethic and determination to reach your goals, he said.
"While my friends were out partying, I was running," he said.
His sacrifices have paid off.
Newby, who becomes a free agent five days after the culmination of the World Series, sealed a deal Saturday to play in Puerto Rico for the winter.
Ultimately, he hopes to resign with the Mariners and make his MLB debut.
"I feel like I had a good year with them," Newby said about Seattle.
Prior to hearing from his agent about Puerto Rico, Newby said he was in constant contact with him.
"I (sent) my agent a text message about once every two hours," Newby said. Though the response was always telling him just to be patient, Newby couldn't.
"I'm just anxious because I want to go back and play again," he said.
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Brandon Newbould, who helped Soldotna to the 1999 Class 4A state cross country title, recently won the Bay State Marathon. Newbould recorded a time of 2 hours, 27.53 seconds, on the Lowell, Mass., course on Oct. 18, coming in 22 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
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Former standout Nikiski High School volleyball player Hannah Thompson plays for North Idaho College. They are currently ranked No. 1 in the National Junior College Athletic Association. Thompson is currently 25th in the nation in digs per set with 4.63.
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Seward graduates Rubye and Denali Foldager are now running cross country at California State University Stanislaus. Both twins earned all-CAA honors on Oct. 24 when they finished in the top 15 at the 2009 California Collegiate Athletic Association Cross Country Championships, which was hosted by Humboldt State.
Denali finished 10th with a time of 23:09.1 in the women's six-kilometer run. Rubye finished 12th with a career-best time of 23:23.1.
During her high school days, Denali finished in the top five in the state each of her four years running, including winning a state title in 2005. Rubye had three top-three finishes and won the state title in 2004 and 2006.
Mike Nesper can be reached at email@example.com.
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