ALCS bullpen backstops share major career parallels

Cody Clark of the Kansas City Royals

Cody Clark of the Kansas City Royals

By: Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Cody Clark and Greg Densem have never met one another, but the parallels in their careers have allowed their lives to intersect in the American League Championship Series.

Clark is the bullpen catcher for the Kansas City Royals, and Densem holds the same position for the Toronto Blue Jays, along with Alex Andreopoulos, who attended Seton Hall, being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, playing eight years  and spending four seasons at triple-A.

Bullpen catchers are not hard to find, usually the first ones on the field and the last to leave, but they are also easy to miss, hiding in the shadows of the giants who got their clubs to this second round of the post-season.

They watch those players take the field every day from the best seats in the house, constantly in awe of what is going around them, attempting to take nothing for granted and enjoying every single moment. They’re both living a dream they never knew they had, and trying hard not to wake up.

“Obviously growing up you want to be on the other side of things,” Densem said after a workout in Toronto. “My dream was to play here and being in the playoffs is the dream growing up, but then toward the end of your career you get a little more realistic.

“One of my roommates [and I] would always joke about how this would be a really sweet gig. You get to hang around the clubhouse, you catch, you throw batting practice, what they ask you to do and help out in any way you can. So we had talked about it but it was a joke. Then this year when the opportunity came up, it had never even crossed my mind until the day I got the phone call. It’s not something that was ever a dream to do but now that I’m here, it’s my dream job.” 

Densem got that call from Kevin Malloy, Toronto’s clubhouse manager, just seven months ago as spring training was ending, asking if he would be interested in the joining the club to fill in for a month, and later being extended for the remainder of the year. Malloy’s son Cody had played with Densem at the University of British Columbia, and the 25-year-old catcher had ties to the Blue Jays after working as the video coordinator for the short-season Vancouver Canadians last season.

He was hired, temporarily leaving his job coaching with the Toronto Mets organization, and in his first season with the organization he grew up watching – also previously a closet fan of the rival New York Yankees, the team his dad had grown up rooting for – the Blue Jays have been on an unbelievable ride to the post-season for the first time in more than two decades.

Clark got his start in the bullpen last year during spring training, after 11 seasons of playing in the minor leagues – six of them in the Royals organization – and one September stint in the majors with the Houston Astros, where he made his debut against the Blue Jays. Kansas City was looking for a bullpen catcher and he was at the top of their list.

The man who previously held the position had moved into video replay, and the then-32-year-old jumped at the chance before he could figure out whether or not his playing career was over. Like Densem, Clark joined a team he had become a fan of – previously a supporter of the squad’s in-state rival St. Louis Cardinals, because his dad played for them in the minors – and his first season saw the club end a 28-year playoff drought of its own.

“I get to come to the ballpark every day and watch these guys,” Clark said. “It is so surreal that last year we made the playoffs for the first time in a long time, and it was my first year so it was like normal. To watch them come from behind in what was probably the best baseball game I’ve ever seen in that wild card game it’s like wow, these guys are amazing.

“Then sweep through the first two rounds of the playoffs lose in Game 7 of the World Series and then we come out this year and the guys are pretty much leading the division from start to finish. The same thing happens with our backs to the wall, these guys in the eighth inning [of Game 4 of the ALDS] just come out and win again, so it’s just so much fun watching it.”

At first, Clark believes he might have taken the experience a little bit for granted, but with some lighthearted reminders and joke-centric nudges from the other guys around the clubhouse, he is sure he will never do that again. He’s also made a pretty strong argument for his presence.

“I played for 11 years and when I stopped playing I didn’t really know my time was over,” he said. “They said, ‘Do you want this job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, okay,’ and I just went right into it. It took me a few months to realize how blessed I am and how lucky I am just to be here, just to get an opportunity to watch something so special.

“Everyone in there always tells me how lucky I am to come at the right time, but I just say, ‘Hey, before I got here the team was losing, and now the team’s winning, so maybe there’s a correlation there.’”

With the Royals and Blue Jays heading into Game 6 of the ALCS, one team is guaranteed to stop their winning ways this weekend. No matter the result, everything about the entire experience has been unbelievable for both backstops.

“There are so many highlights this season,” said Densem, who will resume coaching when his time with the Blue Jays comes to an end. “There have been some special moments. One of the highlights for me, and kind of a turning point where we were thinking we’re going to do this was that first time we went into New York and took three games and swept that series against the Yankees.

“I thought this is going to be something special, we can really do this. That’s what went through my mind when we went in there and swept those three games that first time. From then on out, actually from the All-Star Break, it was nothing but winning, so it was just exciting.”

Clark has duelling favourite moments, one from this season and one from last. Each had him on the edge of his seat, feeling the nerves that he never got as a player, living and dying with each moment from his perch in the bullpen.

“The wild card game last year,” the native of Fayetteville, Ark., said. “I was so, so excited. That was the highlight of last year. And then this year was Game 4 of the ALDS the other night, that was just incredible. I was kind of nervous before both games, and then we won, and those are the two highlights of my time here.”

Clark is still unsure of what his long-term goals might be, gaining an entirely different understanding of the game from his new job and thinking about perhaps someday working his way into more of a coaching role somewhere. Whatever he does and whenever he does it, his time with the Royals have been a huge helping hand.

“Seeing the game from a different spot, not playing, you pick up a lot more,” Clark said. “It’s changed my perspective a lot, especially not getting a lot of big league time as a player and then being in the big leagues the past two years. It’s made me really appreciate the guys’ work ethic a lot, and how hard they work every day, and how much of a grind it is to play every day in front of so many people and doing all the interviews and stuff like that. I have a newfound respect for them.”

Densem is also seeing the game from a new angle, though he can’t help but feel a little bit of the same way he has in the past.

“I’m still a fan,” he said. “I’ve got the best seat in the house and I get to watch some of the best players in the game play every day. If the phone rings, I’ve got to get up and move around a bit and help more, but if not I still get to be a fan of these guys and take in every game and watch them do their magic out there. It’s hard not to be a fan, even when I’m on this side of it.”

Just one more thing on the list of traits that Clark and Densem share is the viewpoint that they are living large on top of the world.

“I have the easiest job in the world,” Clark said. “I have no stress in my life, no pressure, nothing hard. Even catching these guys, they make it so easy on me there’s nothing really hard or that I don’t enjoy.”

Added Densem: “Sometimes I’ve still got to pinch myself to really think about where I am and what I’m doing…It’s just an unbelievable experience. It’s been amazing. I can’t even put it into words sometimes. To believe that I’m here and the team’s come this far, it’s an incredible journey. It’s something I’m never going to forget for the rest of my life.”