My cynicism, at times, knows no bounds. When I called Wingnuts center fielder Brent Clevlen to talk to him about his up-and-down baseball career, I expected him to join in.
After all, here’s a guy who is batting .369 with 19 homers and 77 RBIs for the Wingnuts, yet he holds out little hope of another chance in affiliated professional baseball. It might happen. It probably won’t.
But not once during our conversation did Clevlen hint at bitterness. There was no “woe is me” moment. He never slipped into disillusionment with the system. He never blamed a baseball official. He just kept talking about how happy he was with his season and how happy he was to be getting a chance to play independent league baseball in Wichita.
“You have to keep a positive frame of mind,” said Clevlen, who will be 31 in October.
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That’s long past anyone’s status as a prospect. There isn’t a scout in baseball beating on a general manager’s door to tell him about Clevlen and what he’s doing in Wichita. Those days are gone.
Clevlen did reach the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 2006. He was 22 when he was promoted from Double-A Erie in the Eastern League and he batted .282 with three homers, a double and two triples in 39 at-bats with the big club.
Clevlen was 2 for 3 with a double in his first start on July 30 against the Minnesota Twins. Two days later, he made his second start and had three hits in five at-bats, including a pair of homers, in a rout of Tampa Bay. That’s called making an impression.
But no matter what he did, Clevlen wasn’t going to supplant anyone in the Tigers’ starting outfield of Craig Monroe, Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez.
Even so, he was batting .448 after a pinch-hit single against the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 24. But Clevlen was 0 for 12 the rest of the way and his playing time all but disappeared.
Clevlen was blocked in Detroit and destined to spend most of his time at Triple-A Toledo. After a couple of brief appearances with Detroit in 2007 and 2008 – which resulted in six hits in 34 at-bats – Clevlen was picked up by Atlanta in 2010.
But after three games with the Braves, Clevlen suffered a ligament injury to a big toe after colliding with a wall while trying to make a catch. He missed 2 1/2 months. He hasn’t been in the big leagues since.
“I never really had the opportunity to play every day (in the big leagues),” Clevlen said. “Which I’m fine with. It just seems like I was never in the right place at the right time to get that opportunity. Maybe it would have happened with the Braves, but I was hurt in the first game I started. It’s just one of those things that happen, obviously for a reason.”
Clevlen has made 84 plate appearances in 59 major-league games. He’s made 5,541 in 1,350 minor-league and independent league games, including 470 games in Triple-A. That he’s still playing and hitting at such a high level is a testament to his ability. That he’s nearly 31 and communicating no sour grapes is a testament to his character.
“I always say Brent is a special guy that you don’t find at this level very often,” said Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper, who played with Clevlen in the Tigers organization. “I still believe he could be a fourth or fifth outfielder in the major leagues. But with every opportunity he’s gotten, he hasn’t received the at-bats and the reps that he gets here. When he gets those at-bats and gets into a groove, man, he’s fun to watch.”
Clevlen is obviously not being challenged in the American Association. He has a 1.082 OPS – a silly on-base percentage of .440 and a Ruthian slugging mark of .643. After not being in the lineup Wednesday night at Grand Prairie, the sixth game he has missed with a tweak in a groin muscle, Clevlen will be in the lineup when the Wingnuts return to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Friday for a regular season-ending four-game series against Laredo.
“If we were in the playoffs now, he’d be in there now,” Hooper said. “We’re just taking it easy with him. He’s feeling fine now, but there’s no reason to push him.”
Clevlen said some of his peace of mind is because of his new son, 4-month old Brady, and his wife, Amanda. They’ve spent the season with him in Wichita and once it’s over they’ll return home to Austin, Texas.
“It’s been really fun to have them at games,” Clevlen said. “Even though Brady obviously doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s great just looking in the stands at him and knowing he’s there. That’s a new thing for me.”
Clevlen is open to returning to the Wingnuts in 2015. He’s having fun. If there ever was angst about a career that didn’t go the way he hoped, it’s long been gone.
“I look at all the positives,” Clevlen said. “I’m very fortunate to be in a place where I have really good friends in the organization. It’s sort of like a second family for us. My wife and I, we’ve always had our faith and always had the positive outlook that God has a plan for us. Things happen for a reason and I’m very thankful for everything that’s happened. The good and the bad.”