Growing up in North Vancouver, Simon Pond was a teenage sensation on the baseball field. At 17, he was drafted by the Montreal Expos and later signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. In the spring of 2004, after a decade of obscurity in the minors, he wrote a Canadian success story in Florida.
It turned out to be a short story, but in 26 Grapefruit League games, Pond batted .338 with four homers and a team-leading 23 hits. As spring training wound down, general manager J.P. Ricciardi traded a young outfielder named Jayson Werth to the Dodgers, securing a spot for Pond on the Blue Jays' opening-day roster.
READ MORE: Bereft Bats, Bautista Bobbleheads and Brett's Net Ride the Blue Jays' Truck to Florida
Werth's big-league career blossomed. At 38, he will make $21 million with the Washington Nationals this year. Pond's big-league career lasted 16 games. At 39, he runs a highly successful tile and stone installation company back home in North Vancouver.
"For J.P. to get rid of Jayson Werth and take me, I feel like I should apologize to him for that," Pond says with a chuckle.
During a half-hour telephone interview, his tone is by turns matter-of-fact and wistful as he reflects thoughtfully on a 13-year pro career. He was a good minor-league player who had one glorious spring training, then hit .163 in 49 at-bats over six weeks with the Jays. He never returned to The Show.
Long ago, he moved on from baseball. But occasionally, an old ache resurfaces.
"I believed in myself as a guy who could put the bat on the ball and hit it hard and drive it," Pond says. "Man, I got into rhythms, and people saw it, and it was ridiculous. I showed flashes of being real, real good. That's why I got to play every day for as long as I did. But when it came down to it, I didn't get it done."
It is an old story. It is also a cautionary tale for those fans who, understandably, renew their romantic notions about baseball every year around this time and sometimes forget that the boys of spring often do not bloom into the boys of summer. Many Blue Jays fans remember Gabe Gross and Buck Coats, Brad Emaus and Randy Wells, Dana Eveland and Randy Ruiz, spring teases all.
But a false spring is not the measure of a man. It takes a special player even to get that far and write that spring story. In the case of Pond, this is also a story about a man who knew when to turn the page, when to stop letting the game he loved define him, and when to focus on life after baseball, even when he knew he could have kept on playing.
Pond was the Expos' eighth-round draft pick in 1994. Ten years later, on April 7, 2004, he made his major-league debut in Toronto at age 27, starting in right field against the Detroit Tigers.
Yes, it was a singular night, for obvious reasons, but he was neither starry-eyed nor nervous. The anticipation was more exciting than the arrival, he says. Asked to explain, his answer begins with that evening in the SkyDome, then takes a detour back in time to another night in a southwest Georgia town.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, but that first game in Toronto felt remarkably plain," he says. "It's special in the same way that playing catch is special, or being down by the water is special, or whatever it is for you. It was an amazing experience, but it was amazing, actually being there, how it was actually kind of plain. I remember being in Toronto and running out and crossing the lines for the first time on my way to right field and just thinking, 'Nothing's changed.'
"And contrast that to my first time playing in Albany, Georgia, when I was an 18-year-old. I had signed as a 17-year-old and played in the short-season Gulf Coast League—no fans, no nothing. Then next season I had a good spring and made the Albany Polecats long-season Class A team as an 18-year-old, with Vladimir Guerrero, Brad Fullmer, Javier Lopez, a bunch of good players. On opening night, there were 3,000 people in the stands and it was a night game. And I don't play under the lights and I don't play in front of people, and I was so out of control of myself. I remember a line drive was hit right to me [at third base] and I just whiffed on it, and I remember the crowd going, 'Ooooh!'
"That was 1995, and that was my introduction to the mind games of baseball. I'm a capable athlete and I just virtually shut down physically. I just didn't show up. So playing in the big leagues was different, but it wasn't like a shock. I wasn't paralyzed like I was when I was 18."
He wasn't paralyzed, but soon it started to feel that way; years of daily duty in the minors gave way to riding the bench in the bigs. After playing only two games in early April, he was sent to Triple-A Syracuse to get regular at-bats. When Carlos Delgado got hurt in May, the Jays brought Pond back and played him regularly for three weeks, but he struggled at the plate, save for a game in Fenway Park when he hit a homer—his only one—and a double off Bronson Arroyo.
Except for Arroyo, he was finding big-league pitchers a tad tougher than those in Triple-A. The starters he faced included Pedro Martinez (twice), Rich Harden, Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Tim Wakefield and Brad Radke. In his last game on June 5, he went hitless against a dominant Tim Hudson in Oakland. The A's won 4-0. Three days later, Pond was back to Syracuse.
Looking back, he says he never felt quite comfortable in the big-league environment, and not only because he wasn't hitting. He finds it difficult to explain that vague sense of unease. He got along well with his teammates, he says, listing Reed Johnson, Chris Gomez, Josh Phelps and Kevin Cash among his Blue Jay pals. But the swanky hotels, the big crowds and the media attention left him feeling unsettled. "It was a little weird," he says.
Oh, and one more thing, and nothing against Delgado, who was pulling down $19.7 million that year. "It's just different," Pond says, "when the guy you're next to makes $20 million a year."
During his six weeks with the Jays, Pond's salary was pro-rated on $300,000, the big-league minimum. After the season, he had saved enough to buy a $150,000 apartment in North Vancouver. Within a year, it was worth $200,000. Meanwhile, in 2005 he was making $12,500 a month playing in Double-A with the Orioles.
"I remember my jaw dropped," he says. "I worked my ass off playing baseball and until 2004 I basically had nothing to show for it. I had friends who were swinging a hammer and making way more money than I was. I just thought, this is bullshit. I love baseball, but financially, in the minor leagues, it just sucks. To own a piece of property that earned the same amount of money as I did working hard playing baseball all year, that did something to me."
Following the 2006 season, Pond quit baseball, got married, took a friend's advice and got into the tile and stone trade, about which he knew nothing.
"After 2006, I thought, 'The idea was for me to be a big-league star in my 20s,'" he says. "Now I was 29, and I'd worked my ass off, and now I want to go out and really light it up in a regular job. I want to kick ass in the real world, where it might financially reward me, as opposed to the baseball world, which I found incredibly frustrating, not being able to control outcomes."
He is 39 now and president of his own company. The business is doing well. "I think we have a good reputation," he says. "People keep calling us back." He and his wife have two kids and another on the way. They're comfortable.
But Pond is growing restless. He speaks vaguely of wanting something more, of looking to turn the page again, of finding something that brings him more personal fulfillment. Something that makes him feel… well, like he did on his best days in his 20s, like he did in that spring of 2004, when he came to camp with no hope of making the team, then doing just that.
"When I played baseball, I wanted to be a great hitter, a great player," he says. "When I was playing baseball, I couldn't get enough. I wanted more. I was insatiable."
Pond says he wants to feel that way again. In the real world this time.
As for those 13 years in professional baseball, the spring of 2004 was his watershed. Even though he didn't get it done, it gave him the opportunity.
"I'm just so fortunate to have gotten a shot," he says. "I couldn't imagine not even getting a shot. I don't know what that would have done."
Five other boys of spring
Gabe Gross, 2005: Big things were expected from Gross, the former Auburn quarterback who was the Jays' No. 1 pick in 2001. And big things happened in the spring of 2005, when he led the team with a .385 average, eight homers, 19 RBI and a .904 slugging mark in exhibition play. Gross was the starting right fielder on Opening Day, but landed back in Triple-A after going hitless in four games. He bounced back and forth between the Jays and Syracuse that season, finishing with a .250 average in 40 games for Toronto. In December, the Jays sent him to Milwaukee in the Lyle Overbay trade. After playing parts of seven big-league seasons, Gross retired in 2010 at age 30, having slashed .239/.330/.385 while making nearly $3.5 million.
Buck Coats, 2008: Acquired in a minor-league trade after the 2007 season, the speedy outfielder batted .343 in 20 spring contests, made the Jays' opening-day roster, went 1-for-5 in eight April games and was sent to the minors, never to play in the big leagues again. Coats, who was 26 at the time, finished his 12-season minor-league career at 33 with a .286 average, .346 OBP and 184 stolen bases. In 46 MLB games, he batted .193.
Brad Emaus, 2009: Emaus was 22 when he slashed .302/.380/.463 in high Class A in 2008, earning an invitation to spring training. He turned heads in exhibition play, amassing a 1.064 OPS with four homers. But Emaus never played a game for the Jays. In 2011, he made the Mets' opening-day roster, batted .162 in 14 games and was sent down for good. A year later, at 26, his six-year pro career was over.
Dana Eveland, 2010: The Jays were desperate for a fifth starter, and the job would go to the winner of a spring sweepstakes. Eveland, then 26, had fashioned a 5.54 ERA in parts of five seasons, but in Grapefruit League play with Toronto, he logged a 1.80 ERA over a team-leading 25 innings. In his first start in April, the mirage continued: seven shutout innings against Baltimore. By June 1, when he was traded to Pittsburgh for a minor leaguer, Eveland's ERA was 6.45. The lefty continues to hang on; he signed with the Rays in the offseason.
Randy Ruiz, 2010: Ruiz started his tease in August 2009, earning an unlikely call-up at 31 and, even more unlikely, responding with 10 homers and a .313 average over two months. The following spring, he batted .352 and made the opening-day roster. But he rarely played and was batting .150 in May when the Jays granted his release so he could play in Japan. Ruiz has since played in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Last year, at 37, he hit .349 for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. It was his 17th pro season.