American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, we feature Wichita Wingnuts right-hander James Campbell, who will be returning for his second season with the team, after actually retiring from the sport, as a new found love for the game is making it a lot more enjoyable to play.
Introducing James Campbell
Baseball is supposed to be a game that is nothing but fun. This is why tens of millions of kids and adults head to the diamond each year to join a league or to simply hang out with their friends playing a little ball. It truly is a place where friends and family can gather, not only to play but to watch America’s Pastime.
While it is truly meant to be enjoyed, baseball can lose its luster in the eyes of many people. As a young man moves through high school, on through college, and then gets drafted, the sport no longer becomes a game, but is a job, a business, and the childlike mentality in which the game is supposed to be played is lost.
That rapid decline in enthusiasm can accelerate when a player battles through injuries or is finding that their success on the field is not reaching what they expected. It can lead to dismay and eventually to a person deciding that the sport may not be what they want to pursue any longer.
That was the feeling that Wichita Wingnuts right-hander James Campbell was feeling at one point, as injuries led the reliever to decide that baseball simply was not going to have the same importance in his life.
After a brief period away from the game, James has opted to return to the Wichita Wingnuts, looking to give his team another run at the American Association championship they were so wrongly denied last season. James has found that passion for the sport which had been lost and, for the second season in a row, will likely be one of the most reliable relievers in the league.
Pursuing a Dream
James Campbell grew up in Connecticut where he had played many different sports, including basketball. In fact, the big right-hander was exceptional at both baseball and basketball, but his time on the diamond was always more special to him, primarily because it helped to create an even greater bond between his father and himself.
James’ father Jim was a huge New York Yankees fan , and the two often spent many long nights during the summer watching their beloved Yankees. His father’s passion for the sport not only inspired a love for the American League team, but also a general love for baseball itself.
Heading up through high school, there became a point where James decided that the sport was what he wanted to pursue on a full-time basis. The decision proved to be a wise one, but was not the only decision that he had to make. While wanting to be a position player, it was suggested to him that he would have a much better chance of playing varsity ball if he exclusively chose to pitch. From that point on, the decision became a no-brainer.
“I kind of had a decision to make in high school my junior year. You could be on varsity as a pitcher or, if you still want to hit, then you’ll mostly be on JV. I knew that I was a little bit better as a pitcher, so I wanted to take that route. I wanted to be on varsity, I wanted to play at the highest level. It didn’t make sense to me to be a junior and be playing JV just so I could hit. I wanted to be on varsity and that’s probably most of the reason I chose to pitch. I love playing in the field, but once I became a full-time pitcher I started falling in love with it. You start learning a lot more about it. I was really raw when I went to college, so once I started learning and breaking things down, it became a whole lot more fun.”
James Campbell would make the varsity team at St. Joseph High School (Trumbull, Connecticut) in both his junior and senior seasons, and was the captain of the team his senior year. As a junior, the right-hander went 4-1, but stepped up his game in his senior season, posting a 7-2 record with a 2.04 ERA. That success brought him honors as he was named to the All-FCIAC and the All-District teams.
Because he did not have a significant amount of success until his senior season, a lot of college scouts were not actively recruiting James until into his senior year. It came down to making a decision between two schools, Stony Brook or Seton Hall, and a visit to the campus made the decision an easy one.
“I kind of blossomed late so I just looked at a lot of different schools. It really came down to Stony Brook or Seton Hall. I liked the vibe of Stony Brook. I liked the coaches. They seemed like they really wanted me to go there. It was a good environment. I had never heard of Stony Brook before I had started getting recruited by them. For whatever reason it was just kind of it that it was a no-brainer for me in my mind. I went on a visit, I met the coaches, I met a couple of the players. It’s also right on Long Island, you take the ferry from where I’m at in your right at Stony Brook. It just became a no-brainer in my head that this is the place where I wanted to play. Everything turned up pretty well there.”
Proving to Have a Lot of Bite
This was an exciting opportunity for James Campbell, because he honestly thought he would not be going to college and playing baseball. It had always intrigued him, but his statistics and arm strength did not merit an opportunity like this in his eyes, that is until his senior season.
“I hadn’t really thought about playing college before that. I always wanted to play college baseball and move on and play professional baseball one day but, as a junior, I didn’t have the velocity, so I didn’t get a lot of looks. I definitely thought about a lot of JuCos (junior colleges) up that way that I could’ve played for but, at the time, I was thinking more of just going to school. I was focusing on that, but I got a little bigger going into the fall of my senior year and that equated to a little more velocity and, once that happened, it became more of a reality that college baseball was going to happen. It was pretty cool that that unfolded that way.”
James did not have a particularly good freshman season. In 18 games, he posted a record of 1-3 with a 7.59 ERA, giving up 27 earned runs in 31.2 innings pitched. It was a rough start to his college career, but one that he wasn’t surprised by it all.
“My freshman year in college I was just happy to be there. I was ready to work, but it was a struggle for me. I didn’t have too good of a year.”
James spent the summer working out, and he produced phenomenal results the next season. In 19 appearances, the right-hander went 1-0 with three saves, and shaved nearly 5 runs off his ERA, posting and even 3.00. The biggest change was his command of the strike zone, as the Seawolves reliever allowed just six walks in 26.2 innings pitched, a decrease from 21 the season before.
Stony Brook had a huge season overall in his sophomore year, going 22-2, and that would continue into his junior season, when the Seawolves would go 21-3 and advance to the Super Regional in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. James Campbell was a huge part of that success, going 5-0 with 3-saves and a 3.47 ERA. The success earned him honors as the Most Outstanding Player on the team, and the Seawolves were the America East Conference champions.
Turning Around His Game
Amazingly, it was a very short duration of time between the point where James Campbell never thought he would even play college baseball to the point where he was realizing he was going to be drafted. In just three seasons he had greatly improved his game, not only adding speed and power to his fastball, but simply developing into a better all around pitcher.
“I was just maturing as a baseball player. I was more of a thrower when I got to college. I was around 86 to 88 in high school, but you could get away with that through high school, so you get to college and you’re just another guy that throws 86 to 88. You’re not really sticking out at that point. I was all over the place, so working on my command became my priority. I didn’t know where the ball was going, so cleaning up my mechanics, doing something a little more repeatable was important.
“I worked out with the same pitching coach for years and he’s great. I still work out with him and he’s getting me better and better every year. My velocity kept creeping up. With the workouts you do in college, they work you hard, I went to college 170, got drafted at 195. So, my velocity from my freshman year to my junior year jumped 5 or 6 mph. That always helps. You can get away with a little more, so I think just polishing my mechanics and learning what hitters are looking for in certain counts helped turned me into a pitcher.”
From Yankee Pinstripes to Dodger Blue
In just three years, James Campbell had gone from a guy who was hanging onto his spot on the team by his fingertips to the MVP of the Seawolves. That kind of turnaround is going to get your noticed, and that is what happened. The right-hander was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round of the 2012 MLB amateur draft.
In 2012, James was sent originally to Ogden in the Pioneer League, where he would make just three appearances before being moved up to Great Lakes in the Midwest League. At Great Lakes, he made nine appearances, posting a 2.40 ERA while striking out 13 in 15 innings.
The next season, he would split time between three different levels, with most of that being at High-A Rancho Cucamonga. Combined, James posted in ERA of 7.65, but he struggled through injuries most of the season, which eventually led to him spending the remaining two months of the season on the disabled list.
Destined to prove that 2013 was an anomaly, the Dodgers prospect returned to Great Lakes in 2014 where he posted a 4.91 ERA in four appearances. On April 28, James Campbell was placed on the disabled list and would not return that season.
When a Dream Becomes a Nightmare
In 2015, James began the season in rookie ball again, but would move up through Great Lakes and eventually onto Rancho Cucamonga. Combined he made 23 appearances, posting a 4.05 ERA with 4-saves. While having some success, he spent the first two months on the disabled list, and would close out the season on the DL as well. The fun in the sport was gone, and so James decided to retire at the end of the 2015 season.
“It’s not fun when you aren’t able to do what you know you can do. Being hurt and the rehabs were taking the enjoyment out of the game, and I thought that maybe it was time to just move on to the next stage of my life.”
James returned home where he played baseball in his community, but never really gave it much thought about returning. That was until a friend talked to him about giving it one more chance.
“In 2016 I was thinking about playing again. I talked to Garrett Gould. I played with Garrett in the Dodgers organization and we are really good friends, so he reached out to me when I started thinking about coming back and he asked me if I wanted to come play. I didn’t really know much about indie ball. There is actually an indie ball team in the city where I live in in the Atlantic League, but I just didn’t think I was in baseball shape yet.
“I reached out to him again because I decided I wanted to play. He was just telling me that there’s a great group of guys here, that (former Manager) Pete (Rose, Jr.) is great, that the whole organization is run well. He was like this is a great place to come out and play. I trusted his word and I’m not disappointed at all. I’ve had a great time out here.”
Ready to Go ‘Nuts
James Campbell signed with Wichita Wingnuts for the 2017 American Association season, and proved to be a huge addition for the team. In 34 appearances, the right-hander posted a 3-1 record with a 2.91 ERA. He allowed an earned run in only seven of his outings, and seven of the 11 total earned runs he allowed came in just three appearances. He provided everything the Wingnuts were looking for and more.
His performance earned him a great deal of respect from his manager, as Pete Rose, Jr. made him one of the primary setup guys. The trust his manager showed help to improve James’ own confidence and his performance.
“It’s nice to have the confidence of your manager. I think it gives your teammates confidence that this is the guy that’s going in to get us out of tough situations. It also helps you mentally to prepare. It’s easier for me to go into a game tonight knowing that if we’re up, one, two, three and it’s the eighth-inning, I’m going to be the guy that’s going into the game. I think that anybody would say that having a role makes it a lot easier on your mind, so you don’t have to be ready from the fifth inning on.”
While he enjoyed the confidence of his manager, what is making baseball more enjoyable is the new found love he has found for the game. Walking away from it allowed him to gain a new perspective and this has changed his whole attitude about the sport he grew up loving to play everyday.
“It’s different when it’s your job. You grow up playing for fun, but when you are a professional it’s not just about playing a kid’s game anymore. The injuries, the drive to make it to the Big Leagues was making it a lot less fun, especially the injuries. Being able to step away and gain a new perspective has changed the way I view the game. It’s my job I guess, but I don’t really see it like that anymore. It’s fun again. I love coming to the field, I love being around the guys. It’s baseball.”
Making Fun Contagious
The 2018 American Association season is less than two months away, and the Wichita Wingnuts will enter the campaign with very few members from last year’s club. After having the championship snatched from them as it was, an overhaul may have been necessary. The concern about how the team would have responded could have been on Player Personnel Director Josh Robertson’s mind, especially seeing how another sports team, the Atlanta Falcons, faired the following season after collapsing in the Super Bowl.
However, one member will most assuredly be in a Wichita Wingnuts uniform in 2018. It was announced last week that James Campbell would be returning and, rumor has it, that he is throwing harder than ever. That should be really good news for new Manager Brent Clevlen, but it is also a good lesson for the rest of us. We all know that when we play baseball for fun it is a lot more enjoyable. Who knew playing for fun could also make you a whole lot better?
Photos of James Campbell with Wichita Wingnuts courtesy of Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA