Classy Mr. Albers readies for Japan leaving Grade 8 class behind

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By Kevin Glew

Canadian Baseball Network

You might think that after a player’s best major league season that they would celebrate with a long vacation to a tropical island, but Andrew Albers has done the complete opposite.

The 32-year-old lefty returned to his hometown of North Battleford, Sask., to not only face the bitterly cold Canadian winter, but also teach a class of Grade 8 students at his old high school.

“This year I actually took over for someone on leave so I had my own class and my own subjects. So it was a challenge and a lot of work, but I enjoyed it,” shared Albers at the press conference prior to the Baseball Canada National Teams Awards Banquet and Fundraiser on Saturday.

Albers, who has served as a substitute instructor in previous off-seasons, taught four subjects, including French and French Language Arts. He’s had to leave his classroom, however, to prepare to head to Japan for spring training with Nippon Professional Baseball’s (NPB) Orix Blue Wave on February 1. He signed a one-year contract with the club on December 18.

But his lessons won’t stop when he departs for Japan. His long and arduous road to the top of the professional baseball ranks can teach his students about the importance of determination and perseverance.

Originally selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 12th round of the 2004 MLB draft out of high school, Albers did not sign. Four years later, he was chosen by the San Diego Padres in the 10th round out of the University of Kentucky and he inked a deal with the Padres. He has pushed through nine professional campaigns – including parts of four in the majors with the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners – to finally land a lucrative deal (reportedly worth just over seven figures) with the Japanese club.

“You hope you have some knowledge that you can pass on to the kids whether it’s from a sports perspective or just from a life perspective,” said Albers.

His students were more likely to listen to him after his strong 2017 performance. In nine games (including six starts) with the Mariners in August and September, Albers went 5-1 with a 3.51 ERA and fanned 37 batters in 41 innings. He also recorded his first big league save on September 25 when he tossed three scoreless innings against the Oakland A’s. The Canadian southpaw could’ve re-signed with the Mariners and likely earned a spot on their major league staff in 2018, but he opted to head to Japan.

“Seattle still retained my rights. They hadn’t taken me off the 40-man, so it was tough to walk away from that,” said Albers. “I think I made a good impression [with the Mariners] last year. I felt like I was in a good situation. I enjoyed the staff. I enjoyed the team. I really liked the guys in the locker room over there. I had a lot of fun there. Unfortunately, you get to the business side of things and you have some contracts where some guys are out of options and you’re not and those are the guys you’re going to be competing for a spot with, and you can go to spring training and really have a good spring, but [with options] you could start the year in triple-A and never get that opportunity [to pitch in the big leagues], so that was kind of the driving force behind the decision for me. Again, it was a tough one for me to make but at the same time, sometimes you’ve got to take your heart out of it and make a smart decision. And I feel like passing up this opportunity in Japan was something that I would’ve regretted in the future.”

Last season was a breakout campaign for Albers. He was acquired by the Mariners from the Atlanta Braves in August after he had posted a 12-3 record and a 2.61 ERA in 26 appearances - including 17 starts - with triple-A Gwinnett.

“I think the first thing was that I felt good all year and that makes a big difference,” said Albers. “You usually go through a season and there are times when you go out there and you don’t feel very good and I didn’t have very many of those last year . . . I certainly caught some breaks along the way, but I felt like I had found my command again and was able to work both sides of the plate a little bit more effectively than maybe a couple of years in the past.”

Prior to his stretch with the Mariners, the 6-foot-1 lefty had pitched in parts of three major league seasons with the Twins in 2013 and 2016 and the Blue Jays in 2015. This will not be Albers’ first experience pitching in a foreign league. He made 28 starts for the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization in 2014. Albers is excited about pitching in Japan, but he also planned to speak with fellow Canuck and World Baseball Classic teammate Scott Mathieson (Vancouver, B.C.), who has toed the rubber for six seasons in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants.

“That’s a guy that I plan on talking to quite a bit throughout the season,” said Albers. “I’m hoping that if I have any troubles that he’ll have the answers for me. Scott and I have played together on a couple of WBC teams.”

Aside from those WBC teams, Albers was also on the Canadian national teams that captured gold at the 2011 and 2015 Pan Am Games. The veteran lefty started the gold medal contest in 2011 and appeared in relief in the final game in 2015. He says being on the mound in those games helped him learn how to handle pitching in a pressure-packed, playoff-like atmosphere. Albers also savors the friendships he has formed with his fellow Canadians on those teams.

“Like Greg [Hamilton] says, it’s a family and the relationships I’ve developed with the guys I’ve played with [on the national team] over the years are as meaningful to me as any relationships that I have in baseball,” said Albers. “It’s just been such a tremendous group that I’ve gotten the opportunity to play with. I’m so thankful to be a part of that.”

And Baseball Canada is thankful for his gritty contributions over the years, so much so that he was named their 2017 Stubby Clapp Award winner. Clapp is a Windsor, Ont., native who was selected in the 36th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996 and against long odds rose through the club’s ranks to make his major league debut in 2001. Clapp also suited up for the national team countless times and coached Albers on the gold medal-winning Pan Am Games squads.

“To be able to win an award named after him is a tremendous honour,” said Albers. “He was the ultimate grinder. He was a guy that was successful for a long time and he made the most of his ability and he really set a good example for the rest of us.” 

Similarly, Albers is setting a good example for his students and for his family, friends and fans in his hometown.

“I’m very appreciative of the support I get from home – that feeling of support is part of the reason I go back,” said Albers. “It’s nice to be part of a community when you know that a lot of people are watching you and supporting you and to know you have that support going forward. So you try to represent them the right way and you really try to hope to make them feel that they are a part of what you’re doing because they are.”