Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
James Birge, a 1997 graduate of Decatur High School, played baseball one semester at UAH and then two years in the minor leagues.
Former minor leaguer now shows skills on softball teams
By Josh Cooper
A black sleeve on his right elbow, Decatur High alumnus and Sliders shortstop James Birge lashed a pitch into center field, sprinted around first base and dove headfirst into second during a Spirit of America softball tournament game Saturday.
It’s a far cry from when Birge was traveling the country as a professional baseball player during 2000-02.
During that time, he was a right-handed relief pitcher for the Frontier League’s River City Rascals in 2000 and the Chillicothe Paints during the 2001 and ’02 seasons.
The Frontier League is independent of Major League Baseball. Each team is full of players who used to play in the minor leagues, got close to the majors and never quite made it.
The 28-year-old Birge describes those years as the best of his life.
“I know what the dog days of summer felt like,” Birge said during a break from tournament play at Wilson Morgan Park. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
The Spirit of America softball tournament concludes Sunday with finals in all divisions.
Birge graduated from Decatur in 1997. He said that while he was in high school a number of professional scouts watched him pitch.
But Birge told them that he was going to honor his commitment to play for Bobby Pierce at Alabama-Huntsville. The Mets told Birge that they were going to draft him about the 30th round that June. But they didn’t, and Birge enrolled to become a Charger.
At UAH, Birge lasted only one semester.
“I just partied too much,” Birge said. “I got over there and didn’t take the educational part seriously. Coach Pierce told me the first day, that you are here to get an education first and play ball second.
“I went to play ball first and education second. I didn’t have the self-discipline to go to class and be eligible.”
The two summers after his semester at UAH, Birge worked with Gary Redus, then Calhoun Community College’s coach.
A former major leaguer, Redus set Birge up with a tryout for River City. Birge made the team and was suddenly on his way to St. Louis.
James Birge of Decatur, who traveled on buses in the minor leagues for two years, says he now plays for three softball teams.
In the Frontier League, Birge found himself playing against athletes with more talent than he ever had faced.
In his first appearance, he tried to a pitch on the inner part of home plate with one of his patented fastballs. But the batter drilled a shot down the right field line for a home run. Birge estimated the ball traveled 440 feet.
River City had a new stadium and played to a capacity 3,928 almost every night. While Birge was riding buses to far away destinations such as Johnstown, Pa., and London, Ontario, he didn’t care.
He was being paid $550 per month, but so what? He was living his dream.
About six weeks before the next season, Birge was traded to Chillicothe. While he enjoyed living in St. Louis, the Paints gave him the opportunity to experience baseball in a small town.
Most of the people in Chillicothe knew who the baseball players were. Even when Birge went to get his haircut, the barber would talk to him about baseball.
In spring training while he was shagging fly balls in the outfield, Birge felt a strange pain in his right elbow, like it was filling up with some kind of fluid.
An examination showed that he had torn the ulnar nerve in his right elbow. Rehabilitation and surgery were his two options, and Birge did not want to lose an entire year out of his young career. He chose rehabilitation.
After he returned, his fastball, which topped out at about 95 mph, was having trouble reaching 85.
Following the 2002 season, he called it quits.
“I couldn’t brush my teeth or comb my hair after I threw,” Birge said. “I finally had to give it up. There is no worse feeling in the world.
“You get to play baseball for a job and travel the country and you get to live that lifestyle and all of a sudden it’s gone. I don’t wish that on anybody.”
Birge is a project manager for Commercial Flooring Services in Huntsville. He lives in Decatur and plays in three softball leagues.
Every now and then, the competitor in him pops up on the field.
He’ll say some rough words after a bad at-bat or show some anger after a bad fielding play, but he said he understands he is out there just for fun.
“This is what you are supposed to do with your Saturdays — spend it with your family and friends,” Birge said. “It was a tough adjustment, but now I really enjoy it.”
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