Saints Mark Hamburger Finding Ever Evolving Pathway to Success
If you come across anyone who has known St. Paul Saints right-hander Mark Hamburger you will likely hear a lot of “Did you hear about when…” kinds of stories. Even those who have not met the 29-year-old will regale you with tails they heard about his unusual antics and care-free adventures. He has become a legend for the way he has lived off the field more than the things he has done on it.
Many would describe the Saints starter as a “free spirit” or an “odd duck.” The stories are humorous and do make him seem out of the norm, but one should not think of him as some goofy kid who is out seeking to do things differently just to be different. Some of Mark Hamburger’s antics may be a bit unusual, but that is because this is a very intelligent and introspective young man who is learning as he goes. More importantly, he is taking the experiences he has lived and is evolving into someone that is far more than the humorous stories. He is becoming a great example of how any man can fuse his experiences and insights and become a person that is far more brilliant than the sum of all of those experiences.
The Beginnings of a ‘Perfect’ Career
Looking back on his life Mark describes his experiences on the field as “perfect.” That trek began when he was about three and his father realized that the toddler already had an arm that could make him a star on the mound.
“My dad says he remembers me throwing the baseball when I was three-years old and he said I threw the ball to him and he caught it and he was like wow, wait, this kid totally has an arm,” Mark recalls.
For the earliest part of his life he played baseball with other kids in the neighborhood, but when he was nine he was given the opportunity to play for his brother’s team. “When I was 9-years-old I was the ringer for my brother’s baseball team. Whenever they did not have enough people they would have me play and I did really, really well.”
Mark was starring as an outfielder and pitcher in high school, but his talents at Mounds View High School went, for the most part, unnoticed by scouts. In 2007, he decided that he wanted to pursue baseball more fully so he went to a Minnesota Twins tryout to see if they would give him a look. He really wanted to try out for both outfielder and pitcher, but the team would not afford him that opportunity. In true Mark Hamburger wisdom, he opted to pitch seeing that this gave him the greatest chance to succeed.
“When I was at the Twins tryout I walked up to the booth and they had a signup that said signup for your position. I asked if I could sign up for two, and they told me no that I could only signup for one. So I thought to myself that there’s always pitchers moving up, but you see guys that are under Derek Jeter at AAA and they’re not going to go anywhere, because he isn’t leaving for a long time, but with pitching there is so much movement. I was always good at pitching and so I just went for it.”
This wasn’t just a spur of the moment decision based upon opportunity only. Mark understood that not only was he given the best chance to play in the organization if he was a pitcher, but that he had already made a name for himself for his talent at hurling the ball.
“I was in the moment and I wondered what to do. I knew that people always saw me as a pitcher. I guess it was something that was more sub-conscious. I was always a great position player but when I got seen in high school by a Twins’ scout he saw me pitch, it wasn’t because he saw me in the outfield. I think everything kind of moved toward me being a pitcher.”
While appreciating that his pitching prowess was the thing that got him noticed, there is a bit of a begrudging attitude about being labeled a “pitcher.”
“I just loved the game so much that I didn’t want to just be considered a pitcher. When I am done with the game you better believe that I am going to be on a town ball team, playing shortstop, catcher, center, pitching, whatever, because I just love the game.”
A Major League Career Is Underway
The Minnesota Twins decided to take their chances with the 6’4”, 200-pound right-hander. Hamburger was signed and sent to the Twins rookie league team in 2007 where he proved that their faith in inking him to a deal was well founded. He went 2-1 with a 1.20 ERA in eight appearances.
The next season he began with the Twins’ Rookie League Elizabethton team before moving to the Texas Rangers organization. At Elizabethton he struggled a bit, but at the Rangers Single-A Clinton club he allowed just one run in four appearances.
From there the progression was swift. In 2009, he was at Mid-A Hickory and by 2011 he had reached AAA-Round Rock. Pretty impressive for a guy who was not even drafted and had to make a split second, yet calculated, decision on which position he wanted to try out for.
In 2011, he joined the Texas Rangers for a brief stint as they were heading toward the American League pennant. Mark had been pitching extremely well at AAA, and when the Rangers needed some additional bullpen help they sent for the right-hander. He went 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA in five appearances.
Evolving into a Man to Admire
His 2012 season was a tough one. Personal issues had him unfocused, and he would split time between the AAA teams for the Rangers, Padres, and Astros. Combined he was 1-5 with a 6.20 ERA and it looked like his professional career was over. But Mark did not think so. He knew he had a lot more to offer, and so he opted to sign with the St. Paul Saints.
In St. Paul he rediscovered himself. If he was going to make it back to affiliate ball he had to make some changes in his approach as a pitcher and he had to make some in his life as well.
“When I was with the Saints before I was still an evolving pitcher. Even my maturity for my personal life evolved. It was like my personal life has changed. I was dealing with some issues where I was focused on baseball but I was also focused on finding my rhythm. I was throwing the ball but not with purpose but, this year, I am not just throwing the ball; I am throwing with intention. I wasn’t throwing with intention in 2012 because there were other things going on in my life so I was dealing with those. It turned out to be a good year in 2013, but I know I am putting forth a lot more intention this year and I love that.”
That evolution became a resurgence for Mark. His 2013 season in St. Paul saw the right-hander go 6-8 with a 4.17 ERA for the Saints. More importantly, the season gave him a whole new lease on life.
“I guess I believe that no year is better than the last because every year is special. Even though 2013 was the toughest year for me, it was also the most transformational year of my life. Being in Indy Ball and not dealing with the pressure of pro ball was so freeing, so 2013 was really special.”
His success got him another look by the Twins organization, who signed him to a contract and sent the then 27-year-old to AA-New Britain. After just eight appearances he was back at AAA, this time at AAA-Rochester. Mark would become an integral part of the Rochester bullpen for the next season and a half. He would occasionally start, but made 55 relief appearances, posting an overall record of 8-6 with 2 saves. In 2015 he posted an impressive 3.31 ERA, striking out 63 in 68 innings pitched.
Prior to the 2016 season the Twins organization offered Mark the chance to return to AAA, but gave him little chance of pitching for the big club. Instead, he opted to return to the Saints. Since his return he has been nothing but spectacular for St. Paul. In three starts he is 3-0 with a 1.90 ERA, eighth best in the league. His 23.2 innings pitched ranks first, and his opponent batting average (.176) is fifth best in the American Association. He has been everything the Saints could have asked for and more.
Finding True Wisdom in Simplification
Mark Hamburger is having great success on the mound this season, but it has bene the evolution that has turned him into the pitcher he is today. Since the struggles of 2012, the man with the best hair in Independent Baseball has remolded himself and taken a whole new approach to the game.
“Now this year is special because I have grown in the past few years in every way, so now I am looking at it as perfecting my craft; really digging deeper into what baseball is and what pitching is.”
He admits that part of that evolution has been to make the game more simplified than how he once approached it.
“You learn as you go. I am at a point of de-learning. The game has gotten so complicated with form and delivery, and all the video and video analysis. You hear so many voices that it is a lot of clutter. I know I have seen a lot of guys that mechanically have gone crazy. I guess I have tried to simplify, so I guess when it comes to batters I have tried to simplify by not giving them more effort than another.”
A key to that approach has been to not make one hitter more dangerous in his own mind than any other. He is apt to point out that during the 1998 homerun chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that the hitters who batted after the two had career years. It was that pitchers were so focused on McGwire and Sosa that they lost focus with the next hitter. This is why Mark has taken to not adjusting his focus for just one hitter.
“I don’t give anyone any more credit than another. I almost don’t even look at the batter when he comes to the plate. I am at a point where I believe that if I make my best pitch, no matter who is up to bat, no matter what his zone is he can hit in, my pitch will beat him.”
That evolution has also meant a change in how he approaches all aspects of the game, especially in how he deals with umpires.
“If I am focused on all these other things it takes away from what I am trying to do. One big thing that I have been trying to work on for years is not to be affected by an umpire’s call because you cannot change it no matter what. It’s one of those things where I don’t get mad about it anymore, because even if I throw it right down the plate and he calls it a ball, no matter how mad I get I can’t change it, so what is the purpose in getting mad. I just throw my pitch and I almost don’t even need to know the count. I am just going at it as focusing on my own job, because when you do that correctly, everything else will fall into place.”
The People that Helped in the Evolution of Mark Hamburger
Falling into place is how things have been going for Mark Hamburger for five years now. He is at peace with who is now, counting on his Higher Power to keep him balanced. “I know my Higher Power has me protected and I can count on that. No matter whether I win or lose or I fail, my life is taken care of.”
Mark knows that this divine influence has helped to make him into the man he is today. He also credits his family for the role that they have played.
“A lot of influences in my life. Of course my mom and my dad. My parents have just given me every bit of love and have allowed me to grow into the guy that I am today. I am living with my parents right now and I am 29, and it is awesome because we have that good of a connection. They have been in my corner and have really helped to make me a better person.”
He also has deep appreciation for the role his brother and sister have played in his life. “My brother and my sister who are just my really good friends. We can talk just about anything.”
One other person he would like to give credit to is the late Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. The baseball great has given Mark motivation to keep doing things when the doubters have told him otherwise.
“He pitched for five generations. I guess people these days put a limit on how long a guy can play and I don’t want a limit put on how long I can play for. People say your 29 and your old, and I say I’m just beginning to become the pitcher that I am today. I am going to be pitching until I am 48.”
The Path to Greatness Is an Ever Evolving Journey
At just 29, Mark is just starting to find out how good he can be as a pitcher. He may very well be pitching at 48 and having even more success than he is now. He has proven that he can overcome bad games on the mound and tough challenges off the field and, yet, still embrace that his life is absolutely “perfect.”
This is a lesson that we all can benefit from. To battle through struggles and challenges and, yet, embrace the joys that help to make our lives better than ever. It’s that kind of wisdom that makes it so that we should all have a little Mark Hamburger in us.
Surprisingly, that is not the legacy that the Saints star wants to leave behind. When it is all said and done, Mark wants to be remembered for something entirely different than being a pitcher or even a guy who has endured through hard times and evolved into a man that is better than ever.
“I would like people to remember that I always made the locker room smell good with all of my incense and essential oils,” he explains with a laugh. “It can smell bad in there so I want to be the guy that helped to make it smell better. Ya, that would be perfect.”
Ok, maybe he is a little odd.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA