Cut from high school team, Klimesh now works his way through Reds system
By John Carpenter
All Ben Klimesh ever wanted was to be a big-league ballplayer. So there was a twinge, even eight years later, as he looked back to the day he was cut from his high school team.
“I remember walking home and, you know, crying,” the 6-foot-4 right-hander from Wilmette said. “You’re a junior in high school. Making the varsity team is your whole life.”
He paused to eat some of his breakfast, a pile of scrambled eggs and bacon with whole wheat toast, leaving the greasy potatoes untouched on his plate. Apparently big-league pitching prospects don’t eat the greasy potatoes on game day. And Klimesh’s Louisville Bats were scheduled to take on the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s Triple-A team, that night.
That’s right. Told in 2007 that he wasn’t good enough to play for the New Trier varsity, Klimesh is now working his way through the Reds’ farm system, a powerful right-hander who can touch the high 90s with his fastball.
Still, “big-league prospect” is a job title with an expiration date. You either cash it in for a ticket to the show or you leave it with the front desk on your way out the door for the long trip home to the rest of your life.
And Klimesh, 25, and hasn’t made it yet.
But that’s not the point.
The kid still plays baseball, and he does it with guys who were the stars of their high school teams, maybe even the best kids ever to come out of their hometowns.
Kids who get cut as high school juniors usually stay cut, drifting over to beer-league softball at some point.
Klimesh wiped those tears away by the time his dad got home from work that night. They way he saw it, he wasn’t out yet. He was in a rundown.
“I asked my dad to take me to the Strike Zone that night,” he said, referring to the indoor practice facility in Glenview. “I got my throwing in. I knew I wasn’t done.”
Mike Napoleon wasn’t so sure. New Trier’s head baseball coach knew Klimesh well. Klimesh was the same age as Napoleon’s son, and the coach liked him.
“I used to drive him to school,” Napoleon remembered.
But that didn’t carry any water when it came to picking players at New Trier, a strong baseball program at a school with more than 4,200 students. Napoleon said Klimesh wasn’t cutting it as a third baseman and hadn’t yet grown into the power pitcher he would become.
And he was trying to make a very, very good team.
“That group went 30-3,” Napoleon said. “We won the state championship the next year.”
Lyle Klimesh, Ben’s father, said Napoleon called him on cut-down day.
“I was on a business trip in Omaha, and he called me,” Klimesh said. “He said: ‘I’ve got some bad news. Ben’s not going to make the varsity.’ I knew he was going to be crushed.”
What he didn’t know was that that evening would begin one of his proudest memories as a parent.
“Of all the things he’s accomplished, getting drafted, playing in college, the proudest time I had with Ben was when all his friends that he played baseball with for years were playing on the varsity, and he was going to the Strike Zone every day, working on his stuff,” the older Klimesh said. “I never thought about him giving it up. He loved it too much.”
Phil Apostle runs the Academy Elite Baseball program, a Glenview-based squad of travel teams that now play as the Homestead Ranchers but were known then as the Chicago Jacks. He quickly added Klimesh to the Jacks roster.
“When he was cut from that high school team, it was absolutely shocking,” Apostle said. “He had huge hands, huge feet and a huge heart.”
Klimesh pitched for the Jacks, and he worked out over the winter. It paid off quickly, as he pulled off the rare feat by trying out again as a senior and making the New Trier team, this time as a pitcher.
Not that it mattered.
Napoleon said Klimesh was still “emerging. I think he threw 20 innings. He struggled with consistency.”
Maybe, Klimesh said. But he didn’t get much of a chance.
“They didn’t use me,” he said. “Then one day, they told me I was starting, and the coach pulled me aside and said this was my chance. If I pitched well, I’d be one of their guys.”
He didn’t pitch well.
He also didn’t give up — again.
Once again Klimesh turned to summer travel teams for the valuable innings he needed to build his arm strength. As his fastball climbed into the high 80s at weekend tournaments, people began to notice.
“He was a monster at those tournaments,” Apostle said.
Division I scouts noticed.
“I got some calls,” Klimesh said. “Then they’d find out I was cut from the high school team, and they stopped calling. I kind of had to recruit myself.”
He recruited himself straight to Division III Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas, his mother’s alma mater. They gave him the ball. And when he pitched poorly, they gave it to him again.
When he pitched poorly again, they gave it to him again.
“They allowed me to struggle on the mound, and that’s where you learn the most as a pitcher, when you struggle,” he said. “I don’t remember what my ERA was, but it wasn’t good.”
It was 8.54, to be exact, with 30 walks in 34 innings.
But by the time he was a senior, Klimesh said “it all began to click.” He led the nation in strikeouts by a Division III pitcher with 154 in 110 innings pitched. He was a Division III All-American.
When draft day arrived in 2012, Klimesh was back in Wilmette and too nervous to sit and watch his computer. He drove around town.
“When I saw my phone light up with text messages, I knew I got picked,” he said.
He was taken by the Reds in the 15th round, and he signed immediately. A bonus was out of the question, given his draft position and the fact that he was a graduating senior with no leverage. He headed for Montana to join the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League. It was rookie ball, and it was where he got his first taste of life as a young professional baseball player.
“We played in some fun towns in that league,” he said. “You’re getting your first paycheck, and you start going out and having fun with your teammates. That starts showing up on your statistics. That was a good learning experience. I realized, this isn’t a party. It’s a job.”
He also started learning from the veteran former big-leaguers who were his pitching coaches, guys like Tony Fossas and Tom Browning. Fossas taught him to fight for his life, Browning to not give the hitters too much credit.
He learned another lesson, albeit indirectly, from his childhood baseball hero, former Cubs ace Mark Prior.
Discouraged to be stuck in extended spring training in 2013, Klimesh was surprised to see Prior there too. Prior, never fully recovered from elbow surgery in 2007, surprised everyone by making a bid for a comeback that year. Klimesh said he Googled Prior’s name and found an interview he had just given in which he said it was nothing more than love for the game that was motivating him this time.
“It gave me a sense of gratefulness,” Klimesh said. “Just play the game! No matter what level I’m at, I’m just glad I can go out there, put a uniform on and pitch. I think that saved the season for me.”
From there it was on to the Dayton Dragons, a Reds low Class A team, where he pitched well and earned a bump to Bakersfield, in high-A ball. He started there in 2014 and earned another bump to the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos, where he started this season before being called up to Triple-A Louisville.
He was there almost a month before he got sent back down to Pensacola, where he just went on the disabled list with a strained neck. It’s another in a series of setbacks that don’t seem to knock him off course.
“He’s disappointed,” Lyle Klimesh said. “But he’s OK.”
Doug Gray, editor of RedsMinorLeagues.com, said Klimesh, a full-time reliever, struggled with control in Louisville. He’ll get more work in Pensacola, Gray said.
Asked about his chances to make the big leagues, Gray said he likes them.
“He definitely has the arm, so he has a chance,” he said. “Can I see him as a seventh-inning guy in the big leagues? Absolutely.”
Gray said the clock is ticking, but “it’s not unusual for guys like him to get their shot at 26 or 27.”
As for Klimesh, he doesn’t have a backup plan.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I know I’ll be fine. I’ve got my degree, so why would I think about that? All I’m thinking about is making it to the major leagues.”
Lyle Klimesh isn’t worried either.
“He knows what he wants, and he works very hard at it,” the elder Klimesh said. “He’s very honest about what he needs to do to improve, and he can take failure and move on. We really haven’t talked about what he’d do. He’s all in.”
Napoleon is still coaching at New Trier. He’s never had a player make it to the majors, though he has two in the minor leagues right now, including Klimesh. Charlie Tilson, drafted in the second round out of high school in 2011, is in the Cardinals organization.
If Klimesh makes it, Napoleon said, “I’m going to go to that game, wherever it is.”
Klimesh, meanwhile, holds no grudge against his high school coach. He’s grateful, in fact, that he learned how to face failure at an early age.
“He was very matter-of-fact,” Klimesh said of Napoleon on that cut-down day. “He just told me why I wasn’t making it and where I needed to improve. Guys I play with now, they’ve never heard that. When they do now, they have a hard time dealing with it.”
Still, as grateful as he is for the learning experience, Klimesh won’t say Napoleon was right to cut him. Should he have made the varsity back in 2007?