Adaptability Makes Aaron Gretz the Archetype for St. Paul Saints
Coming off the best season in franchise history, the St. Paul Saints were looking to still try to find a way to take their game to an even more heavenly level for the 2016 season. The team had easily won the North Division in the American Association, but they fell to the Sioux City Explorers in the first round of the playoffs, three games to one.
Saints Manager George Tsamis wanted to make sure that this year’s team had that difference maker that manager’s know they need to take their team to the next level, and so he spent the off-season building a club ready to win him his fourth title as a manager. For much of the winter and spring he worked on his pitching staff and infield. It was just a couple of weeks before Spring Training was to get underway that he signed Tony Caldwell to be his everyday catcher and Aaron Gretz to be the backup.
Caldwell had starred with the New Jersey Jackals last season, and was the perfect fit to the team. Gretz had made a brief appearance with St. Paul last season, and had remained with the team as the club’s bullpen catcher, so he clearly understood what the team needed from him and how he could contribute in his limited role with the team.
Now, “limited” seems like such an ugly word to use. An early season injury shelved Caldwell for about 10 days and made it so that Aaron had to become the everyday catcher. Not only has he been everything that his manager had expected from him, the rookie has quickly established himself as one of the stars of the team, and has instantly earned the respect of players, managers, and front office people from around the league.
Adapting from an Early Age
Aaron Gretz was born and raised in Apple Valley, MN, a state known more for hockey than baseball, a sport he would star in as well. His two brothers, Nick and Andy, were 13 and 15-years older than Aaron and so they quickly became his role models. This was especially true in leading him to play baseball.
“My brothers both played and they are quite a bit older than me so they were and still are my role models. I grew up around the park and just wanted to be like them, so it was only fitting for me to play.”
Early on, his dad, Brian, made the determination that if Aaron was going to be successful in baseball then he would have to do it from behind the plate. It was a very calculated decision that proved to be very wise.
“Being a catcher was kind of the hand I was dealt. My brothers kind of developed by the time I was little, so by the time I got to start playing my dad had already seen that my brothers were not very tall and they were not very fast and so he said, ‘He’s gonna be a catcher because if you’re not very fast you got to hit a lot of homeruns and play first, but he is not tall enough to play first, so his best shot is going to be behind the plate,’ so he moved me behind the plate. He changed me to a left-hand hitter. I was originally a right-hand hitter. He made me a left-hand hitting catcher and it worked out, and I am really thankful to him for it, because I don’t hit enough homeruns and I am not tall enough to play first base and I am not fast enough to play anywhere else, so it worked out perfectly.”
Adaptability was clearly a trait that Aaron had to learn early on and it helped him to strive for success from the very beginning. He starred on the diamond and on the rink all the way through high school, being named a four-year letter-winner at Apple Valley High School in both sports. He was a two-time captain in baseball, and hit .322 with 19 RBI in his senior season. Gretz also won two national championships in summer ball with the Ohio Warhawks.
Heading to THE Ohio State University
He clearly had the right tools and skills to be a ball player and several colleges were looking at Aaron to come and play both baseball and hockey for them. He decided that Ohio State was the right place to attend, but going to a Big Ten rival was not very popular with many of his friends who wished he would have gone to the University of Minnesota. They frequently expressed their displeasure with him.
“They were a bit upset because, in the past, it has always been Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota that have been the three that won it (the Big 10 baseball title) every year, so they are kind of rivals. So when I told everyone where I was going to Ohio they were like, ‘You’re going to Ohio State??!! Really!!!’ I didn’t really look at it as a rival school. I just looked at it as the right fit for me. They had a new coaching staff and great facilities, so it just kind of fit right in.”
At OSU he starred on the diamond. In his freshman season he began as the backup, but it was not long before he was seeing a lot more playing time. Aaron hit .253 in 33 games that season including a .429 average in the Big Ten Tournament.
He continued to progress in his skills behind the plate and at it. In his junior season he raised his average to .284 while playing in 38-games. His success included a streak of nine straight games at end the season where he got on base.
In his senior season, Gretz hit .279 in 46-games with 16-runs scored and 18-RBI. He also posted an impressive .370 OBP, which included 23 walks. Behind the plate he made just three errors, and threw out an impressive 31.6 percent of those attempting to steal a base. It was a run that made him the perfect fit in St. Paul.
The Legacy Continues for the St. Paul Saints
Aaron’s brother Nick played professional baseball for seven seasons, starting in the Colorado Rockies system in 2001. He played four seasons in A-ball before being released. Looking to stay in pro ball, Nick came to St. Paul to join the Saints where he played for three seasons. The elder Gretz hit better than .300 all three years in St. Paul and combined to drive in 151 runs in 212 games while starring for the team.
Because of the legacy of this brother and the skills that Aaron had shown at Ohio State it seemed like the perfect fit for both the Saints and him that he would come to St. Paul to play. Last season he appeared in just one game for St. Paul before moving back to his role as bullpen catcher, but the experience was invaluable for Aaron. Not only did he get his first taste of professional baseball, but he also got to learn from last season’s American Association MVP, Vinny DiFazio, who starred as the club’s catcher.
“I learned a lot from Vinny about communication because he never stops talking. So that was a great example for me. He is always talking before the game, during the batting practice, he is always talking to the pitchers. I learned from him that I need to always be communicating with these guys.”
What DiFazio also taught Aaron is that he had to adjust a part of his personality as well. Vinny was famous for saying that only 30 percent of his role was catching and 70 percent of it was counseling. This is a role that this year’s Saints catcher is having to embrace more.
“Being a rookie I am still trying to learn from the older guys. Still learning how to throw to pro hitters, because the pro hitters are a lot different than the college hitters. I found that out right away. Pro hitters do a lot more with mistakes than college hitters do and you have to be careful. Guys in this league have played professional baseball for years and they are smart and if you pitch them the same way over and over again they are going to make an adjustment. So, I am not necessarily a counselor, because I am still learning as well. I am trying to learn as much as I can so that when I have played longer I can be more of a counselor.”
What is quickly establishing Aaron as one of the better catchers in the American Association is that he understands that he is not going to be able to “counsel” his pitchers if there is not a trusting rapport between him and them. That has to be established before even one pitch is thrown and so the rookie is making sure that he has earned the trust of his staff, and that they know that he trust them as well.
“I am making sure that I am getting to know the guys off the field, like in the locker room, and just talking between every inning about hitters and what we see. Things like that. Just being on the same page, and hanging out together outside of the field. It is important to just be friends with them. If you are friends with them, you trust them and everything is going to go good. Communicating is important so we are on the same page every inning and that comes from building a good relationship off the field.”
Adapting to an Ever Changing Role
Aaron Gretz entered this season as the backup catcher, a guy who would play maybe one or two days a week. Due to injuries he got the opportunity to become the Saints’ everyday catcher and his own play has made it hard to keep him out of the lineup.
Entering Sunday night’s contest, Gretz is hitting .338 with a homerun and 13-RBI. He has been the catalyst in several key victories and has played outstanding defense as well, only making one error in 20 games behind the plate.
Aaron has had to step in and fill some big shoes this season, not only those of Caldwell but of DiFazio’s as well. The job he has done has not gone unnoticed as he has been earning the accolades of many throughout the league. In fact, several managers and players have commented that the Saints would not be nearly as good if it were not for the play of the rookie catcher, a sentiment that humbles Aaron.
“You want to earn the respect of your peers, and to hear that they see me this way feels good. It’s kind of surprising because there are so many good players on this team. As long as we are winning and I can help our team win then that is what it is all about.”
While excited to be playing a more integral part with the team, Aaron is quick to point out that his manager makes it known that the best nine will be playing. This is why he is not one to sit on his laurels.
“You never have a set thing. It is trying to be consistent every day. I am seeing more playing time than people thought, even more than I thought. I just knew coming into the season that I needed to make the most of my opportunities. George told me that I am going to have my opportunities, so I am just trying to control what I can control. When I am in there I am going to do the best I can, and when I am not in there I am going to try to be the best teammate I can be. That is just the mindset I have.
He continues. “Once you get comfortable in your role, that is when you will start to struggle or get complacent. I just want to get better and better and, if I play more, that will be great, but I am not going to look at myself as “the guy,” because I don’t want to be complacent.”
Programmed to Work Hard
If there is one word that can be used to describe Aaron Gretz it is clearly not complacent. This is a young man always striving to improve his game and to make sure that he is not taking anything for granted. He is a very hard worker and credits two people for that trait instilled in him.
“My parents (Brian and Suzanne) are both really hard working people, blue collar people. One of the things that has gotten me to where I am is my work ethic and that comes straight from them. I learned that from my parents and cannot say enough about all that they have done for me.”
The hard working ethic of his parents has clearly rubbed off on Aaron. That dedication and commitment to being a better player everyday has made him an archetype to be a St. Paul Saints player. Because of the smaller roster, George Tsamis expects his players to understand that when their opportunity arises they need to do all they can so he simply cannot sit them. Being comfortable with their role is not in his expectations and Aaron fits that mold perfectly.
The St. Paul Saints have the best record in the American Association and are heading toward another North Division title. The question on many people’s minds is if this team has that extra something that will enable them to go all the way this year. Playoff baseball is whole different thing from the regular season and requires a team to modify their style somewhat to make a title run. Good thing that they have Aaron Gretz with them. If anyone understands adjusting for success it is the Saints catcher, and with him behind the plate a title run is looking a lot brighter.
Featured image May 2015 photo of Aaron Gretz playing for the St. Paul Saints. (Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA