By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
LANSING, Michigan – It was a little over three years ago when the Blue Jays gently suggested to Chris Schaeffer that his playing days might have come to an end.
The 5-foot-10 195-pound catcher had injured his wrist during spring training, and with eight trips to the disabled list already under his belt through his first three minor-league seasons, and his non-prospect status as an undrafted senior signed out of North Carolina State University, Toronto offered him a chance to switch gears.
Officially, the position Schaeffer took on was “player-coach,” though he only made it back to play once more before transitioning into his current role as the fourth coach for the organization’s Midwest League affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts.
“I took probably a day to think about it, and I realized that I was probably done,” the 29-year-old said. “Physically, I’d had a bunch of dumb injuries, little stuff, and I had never made it through a season without an injury, and I was getting old, which isn’t hard to do in baseball.
“So I weighed my options of where I could go or what I could possibly do at 26 years old, and the only way I could see staying in the game and continuing to go anywhere with it, was to take the player-coach role, and I’ve loved it so far.”
Out of the gate in 2014, Schaeffer stayed in Dunedin, Fla., at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, working as the official “rehab catcher” at the minor-league complex. Helping players on their way back from injuries, he would play catch with pitchers throughout their throwing programs, catch their bullpens, and throw batting practice to position players on the mend.
“I was watching for anything that looked out of the ordinary, if they were favouring something, or if their mechanics were changing because of something bothering them,” he said. “That’s what I did for the last three years. In 2014, I got activated here [in Lansing] for the end of the season, so that was fun, having not played since spring training and then coming back and playing.
“In that time I learned a lot, so it was easier to play when I came back, having the opportunity to sit back and watch things objectively, purely from the side and not thinking about how I would do it while I was watching it. It helped me figure things out. That was the last time I played.”
On four occasions in the last two years, Schaeffer was activated without playing, twice with the Dunedin Blue Jays and twice with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. He learned to keep a backpack next to his door, often receiving phone calls at 10 o’clock at night letting him know that he would be flying out at dawn the next day to meet a team.
But his arrival in Lansing this season was a return to the last place he took the field competitively, and his 13 games in August three years ago – in which he hit .325/.386/.500 with one of his four career home runs, four doubles, six runs scored and four driven in – were his swan song.
“At the time it was tough,” Schaeffer said. “But I had to [stop playing]. I’d played baseball all growing up, since I was nine, and it’s really all I’d ever done. The most realistic job I’ve had since then was delivering pizzas one summer in high school.
“I knew the game, I knew how things worked, and I knew that once you’re out, it’s hard to get back in. So when they offered it to me, I knew it was a great opportunity to stay in the game. It made it easier. I can’t say I didn’t want to play for a little while once I started doing it, but the fact that I stayed a player-coach, with that option I could play, that helped.
“The first year I got activated and played, but that last month I played is really what helped me transition. I had a good month that last month. Statistically, the second-best month of my career. So I went out with a bang. Granted, I was 25 and in Low A, so I should do pretty well. If I didn’t do well, then it would be a definite, hang them up now. But because I did do well, I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Last year, Schaeffer’s role became completely about coaching. Still in Dunedin, he continued to work with players on the way back from injuries, and those in extended spring training, and then with the rookie-class Gulf Coast League Blue Jays.
“It was a way to get started into coaching, with catching and a little bit of hitting here and there,” the native of Port St. Lucie, Fla., said. “It was fun working with the rehab guys. I learned a lot from them, a lot of big leaguers, with good ideas on approach and the way they go about their work and stuff like that.
“It showed me that not everybody does the same thing, not everybody thinks the same way, and it’s helped me realize that when I’m working with guys. Not everybody does things the same way, not everybody works the same way, so how you present it has to change.”
The biggest hurdle for Schaeffer has been exactly that, learning each individual to the extent that he can understand how best to relay information to them, and helping the players to figure out how to make improvements on their own without just dictating the information.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” he said. “But once you get to know your guys, you know what they think, how they think, in some cases it makes it easier to get the information across so that they can understand it better.
“Some guys are really open; they want to know and they want to know right away. Some are too open; they want to know everything right away. Others are more reserved, so those guys take a little longer. It keeps it interesting, definitely. It keeps it fun.”
The experience Schaeffer gained as a player down on the Blue Jays farm, along with what he’s learned about himself since then, has aided him the most in his transition to the sidelines.
“My biggest strength as a player, I’d like to think it was my defence, receiving, pitch-calling,” Schaeffer said. “My weakness, statistically, was hitting. But my hitting wasn’t my weakness, it was staying out of my own way. I got in my own way all the time, mentally trying to do too much. Had I stayed out of my way, I probably would have hit better. I probably also would have caught better.
“But that’s hard to realize when you’re playing, that you’re not doing as bad as you think you are, there’s not as much pressure as you think you have, and that if you go out there and do exactly what you do on a daily basis that got you there, and improve on it slightly every day, you’re going to get better and you’re going to stay in the game for a long time.”
As a coach, Schaeffer is still trying to figure out his strengths, though if pushed, he will admit to his incredibly strong work ethic – which, he notes, might also be his biggest weakness. The former backstop is still learning patience, but couldn’t be happier in his current role, with everything it brings each day.
“There are little things that happen that make it fun,” he said. “When you see guys get it, that’s awesome. When a guy starts to understand, starts to realize what he’s doing, that’s fun. That’s more gratifying than anything else.
“It’s a blast, and the energy these guys have is awesome. All of them. They all like to work, they enjoy coming to the field every day, and even when we’re down they’re still messing with each other, trying to push each other a little harder. It’s awesome. It’s a great group of guys and a great organization.”