They say that Father Time is undefeated. At some point all persons get older. They slow down; they lose a step; they don’t see as well; they simply lose their ability to play at a high level anymore.
His record has proven to be most impressive. In two seasons, Peyton Manning went from the top quarterback in the NFL to a guy who was just “good enough” to help his team win a Super Bowl. Both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were shells of their former selves in their final years, and all-time NHL great Wayne Gretzky had just nine-goals in his final season.
The truth is that all players slow down. At some point they don’t hit as well, they don’t run as well, and they don’t have the same skill level that they had when they were younger. Maybe injuries contributed to the regression, or maybe they simply got too old to excel, but it happens to everyone.
One player is trying to defy the odds. There is one player who is attempting to prove that even at 32-years-old, he is still one of the best players on the baseball diamond and that the younger generation better standup and take notice, because if they think he has lost a step they have another thing coming, and that guy is Wichita Wingnuts outfielder Brent Clevlen
Class Is in Session
Let’s not get the wrong impression here. Brent Clevlen is not the guy sitting in a lawn chair shaking his fist at the young whipper snappers who have been trampling on his lawn. No, this is not a man railing against old age and searching for the fountain of youth like Ponce de Leon. Instead, Brent Clevlen is doing what he has always done; grow and mature, and use his intellect to enable him to be one of the top players in any league he has appeared in.
This is the greatness of the Clevlen. At the Minor League Sports Report, the Wichita Wingnuts were dubbed Wingnuts University two seasons ago because of the manner in which they play the game. Each and every night was a clinic performed by the team, as lessons on how to truly be great in the sport were on display each time the team took the field.
Leading the way was Brent Clevlen, the Dean of Wingnuts U. Brent put on an absolute hitting show in 2014 on his way to being named American Association Most Valuable Player by this publication. He led the league in several categories but, more importantly, he demonstrated the proper way to play the game. He was not only the very epitome of a Wichita Wingnuts baseball player, but was the very best demonstration of what a professional baseball player should look and act like. It is something that came from years of development.
The Little Kid Who Loved the Game
Brent Clevlen always knew he wanted to play baseball. From an early age his father introduced him to the sport and gave him every opportunity to learn to grow in the sport.
“As a kid my dad would always sit in the recliner down the hall and throw the ball back and forth with me. We would do that for hours. He would keep going as long as I wanted to because he knew that I loved to play. It just took off from there. I just enjoyed playing it and liked playing it every year and it just went from there.”
While playing other sports, baseball was always his first passion. When he got to high school he played the sport as well as football, but playing summer ball helped him to decide that the diamond was where he belonged.
In his junior year in high school, Brent was chosen to participate in a kind of all-star game in the Austin, TX area. It was at this point that he realized that he had what it took to play professional baseball.
“My junior year I got invited to what is called the “Area Code” game and I went out there and played really well. So that really brought on the upcoming draft for the following year and I realized that I really may have a career in playing baseball.”
In his senior season at Westwood High School (Austin, TX) he led his school to the state tournament. While he was playing in a game he found out that he had just been drafted in the second round of the 2002 MLB amateur draft. Brent Clevlen was about to become a Detroit Tiger.
A Dream Beginning to Be Fulfilled
It was a dream come true for Clevlen. He had always envisioned himself playing Major League Baseball one day, and now his big chance was coming to fruition.
“It was one of my dreams to play baseball. I loved watching the Rangers as a kid and I always wanted to do it. Being drafted and having the opportunity to make it to the Big Leagues was a dream and fortunately I was able to make it to the highest level.”
Fresh off of his senior campaign in high school, Brent headed for the Tigers rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League. He spent 28-games there in 2002, hitting .330 with 3-homeruns and 21-RBI.
That season became a benchmark of sorts, as Brent moved up rather quickly through the Detroit system. In 2003, he was sent to Mid-A West Michigan where he was an everyday outfielder. In 138-games he hit .260 with 12-homers and 63-RBI. He also walked 72 times, giving him an impressive .359 on-base percentage.
His next two seasons he would spend in High-A Lakeland, where he struggled in his first season, but rebounded quite nicely in the second. In 2005, he hit just .224 in 117-games, adding just 6-HR. However, the next season he hit .302 with 18-homers and 102-RBI in 130-games. It was an impressive adjustment that showed the Tigers management that he had what it took to be a top prospect for the organization.
In 2006, he began the season at AA-Erie, but before the season ended he would be on the big club, helping his team reach the World Series. At Erie, he hit .230 in 109-games, but in Detroit he showed he had the touch, hitting .282 in 31-games with 3-HR. Brent was already in the Big Leagues in just five short seasons, and even more amazing was the fact that he was just 22-years-old. The future looked brighter than ever.
Injuries got his 2007 season off to a rough start as he rehabbed back in the Gulf Coast before going to AAA-Toledo. He hit .220 there and, in a brief call up with the Tigers, he had a hit in 10 at-bats.
Sadly, the one thing that will stand in the way of a promising sports career began to come into play – injuries. In 2008 he spent much of the year at Toledo, where he hit .279 with a career high 22-homeruns and 82-RBI. He was called up to Detroit during the season, where he appeared in 11-games, but he was not getting much opportunity to play. This led him back to Toledo to close out the year.
In 2009 he spent the entire season in Toledo, appearing in just 128-games, hitting .265 with 16-homers and 64-runs driven in. Brent was showing that he had great skill and ability, but nagging injuries were hurting his chances to stick with the big club and from keeping him from getting a real shot.
Starting His Career Anew
At the end of the 2009 season, Brent Clevlen was granted his free agency by the Tigers. It was a bitter-sweet moment to be let go by the only club he had ever known as a professional, but it also gave him a chance at a fresh start. He took it with the Atlanta Braves.
Less than one month after being let go, he signed with Atlanta and began the season at AAA-Gwinett. He would hit .257 there in 53-games, as injuries reared their ugly head once again. He did play for the Atlanta Braves that season, appearing in four games, but at the end of the year he was granted free agency once again.
Clevlen was just 27-years-old, and knew he had what it took to continue get back to the Majors. In May of 2011, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds organization and spent 26-games at AAA-Louisville. There he hit .247 with 3-homers and 10-RBI and was granted his release in early June.
Brent was a little discouraged for the first time in his life. He was not with a team and none of the other affiliates seem to be interested. That is when two old friends opened the door for him to continue his career. The Wichita Wingnuts were led by two of Brent’s old teammates, then Manager Kevin Hooper and Owner Nate Robertson. They encouraged him to come to Wichita and join the Wingnuts, and he found the opportunity too good to pass up.
“I played with Hoop and Nate in Detroit. When I was released, Hoop reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we got a spot for you here if you want to come.’ I just came here and really enjoyed it, saw how great things were run, and realized this was a great place to bring the family. I have a wife and son now, and one more on the way. It is like a second home to me.”
While many may view the opportunity that the two gave to Brent to be just two guys looking out for their friend, the truth is that both knew that he had the skill and talent to be a star in Wichita. He did not disappoint. In 46-games, Clevlen hit .310 with 10-homers and 32-RBI. He also walked 25-times to help him attain a .387 OBP.
The numbers were impressive and caught the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies organization, who purchased his contract. Brent spent 32-games at AA-Reading where he hit .336 with 26-runs scored, 6-homeruns and 20-RBI. He also walked 21 times, giving him an unbelievable .440 OBP. Clearly, he had shown that he was at the top of his game, but the Phillies inexplicably released him at the end of the season, and Brent was back on the market.
Coming off such solid numbers for the Phillies, the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Brent and he would remain with their club for all of 2012 and a portion of 2013. In 2012 he split time between AA-Mobile and AAA-Reno. His numbers were solid in AA, but in Reno he caught fire, hitting .377 in 31-games.
The next season he struggled at both of those levels and was let go once again. Not ready to hang up the cleats, Brent returned to the city that embraced him before to continue his Wingnuts career. In 70-games he hit .322, and blasted 14-homers to go along with 51-RBI. He also showed he had some wheels at 29, stealing 14-bases, tying his personal high for a season. The Wingnuts went all the way to the championship series where they lost, but it put a fire in Clevlen.
He returned in 2014, ready to take his team to the promised land. He was nothing short of phenomenal, leading Wichita with a .372 average and clubbing 20-homeruns and 80-RBI. He led the American Association in batting average and RBI, and also stole 14-bases again. His .447 on-base percentage led the league, and he was not only named an All-Star, but was chosen by the league and this site as the American Association MVP. The team also went all the way to win their first championship and Clevlen helped lead the team, scoring 5-runs and driving in 9 in 7-games.
Father Time was losing his battle with the Wingnuts center fielder, as Brent seemed to be getting better as he matured. The Mexican League was noticing his victory as well. In 2015, Brent signed with Puebla and played 108-games there. Clevlen starred, hitting .301, homering 19 times and driving in 73. The season ended early enough that he was able to return to the Wingnuts for their playoff run. In the final 11-games of the season he hit .444 with 7-runs scored and 9-RBI.
An All-Star Season in the Making
With numerous options to return to Mexico in 2016, Brent opted to stay with the Wingnuts. Not only was this a place he wanted to play baseball, but with his wife about to have a baby he did not want to be too far away from home. The decision has been a godsend for the Wingnuts.
The team, as a whole, started out slowly this year, and Brent was caught up in that slump as well. Injuries were making it look like Father Time was finally going to catch up to him. Nearly two weeks into the season he was hitting just .228 and was hobbled to the point of not being able to play in the field very often.
However, as the calendar changed to June the bat began to warm up. He has raised his average to .320 and is once again among the league leaders in homeruns (15) and RBI (54). His .320 average is 11th in the league and he is fourth in doubles (21).
The turnaround is another example of how Brent is far from losing his skills as a baseball player. It is also an example of how he has grown in the game and learned to apply the many lessons he has learned along the way.
“I tell myself to take that approach into the game and just do it. It’s easier said than done but when you know what you’re doing then it’s not hard to make that adjustment. I’ve learned to do that a lot quicker than when I first started out. I think one thing I really got good at is basically understanding my swing and understanding what I need to do to get back to where I wanted to be to be successful.”
Enjoying Every Moment of the Game
While continuing to have success at the plate is important to Brent Clevlen, it has been the relationships he has built over the years that have meant the most to him. He has always been a guy that has been open to kidding around, even if it is at his own expense, and that has been demonstrated this season by the fact that his teammates have been jokingly referring to him as “Dad.” The Dean of Wingnuts U has applied a lesson he learned himself.
“Of all the guys that I’ve ever played with I remember the good teammates. The guy who will pick everybody else up. That person is just a joy to be around. That’s the way I want to be remembered, easy-going, not really a higher rank or lower ranked kind of player, but a guy who was available to everybody. A guy who would help everyone out. I like to help everybody. I like to be an encouragement to everybody.”
The hair may have some gray around the edges. There may even be a wrinkle or two, however, Brent Clevlen is as formidable of a force at the plate as he has ever been. His skills are still outstanding and he has added a whole lot of experience and maturity to that skill set. At 32-years-old, the Wichita Wingnuts outfielder is having another All-Star season. Looks like Father Time isn’t going to win this battle anytime soon.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA