As a young infielder at Hazleton Area High School, Russ Canzler remembers feeling admiration each time he watched Derek Jeter range for a ball or produce another game-changing hit for the New York Yankees.
Now, he spent a month taking throws from the Yankees certain Hall of Famer.
“I grew up as a shortstop watching Derek Jeter play,” Canzler said. “You grow up watching these guys as a kid. To be here is a tremendous honor.”
He was standing in the middle of the Yankees clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., not far from Jeter’s locker.
But as the retiring Jeter says goodbye to baseball this season, Canzler feels more like saying hello.
Or maybe more like welcome back.
Canzler will open the 2014 season back home again, playing in Triple-A for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders at PNC Field, not far from where he used to play high school ball.
And if the Yankees call him back at some point in the season, Canzler will be playing some 2 1/2 hours from his hometown of Hazleton in a stadium where he produced his first major-league hit and RBI.
“It happened to be a perfect storm here,” Canzler said. “I feel like I have opportunities, and one that is 30 minutes from home is pretty rare.”
That wasn’t what he was swinging for.
After three very productive seasons in Triple-A — including one that crowned him as the International League MVP — Canzler was hoping he’d break into the big leagues for good.
“He’s got a history, a track record,” said Mark Newman, the Yankees vice-president of baseball operations who runs their minor league system. “He’s a good offensive player. We think we’ll see that.”
Canzler can see himself making it in New York.
And he still might. But during the last week of spring training, Canzler was sent from Yankees camp to the RailRiders, and he’ll likely be slotted in the No. 3 spot in their batting order. He is also entrenched at first base for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, after Canzler spent most of the spring playing primarily as a backup to Yankees starting first baseman Mark Teixeira.
“Behind Mark, there’s not a lot of guys who have a lot of experience around first base,” said Canzler, who brings added versatility with his ability to also play third base, as well as the corner outfield spots. “I’m making sure I get my work in at third base and the outfield, (but) through camp it’s been all first base.”
The Yankees were Canzler’s first choice when he went looking for another organization to land with during the offseason.
He noticed from afar the slew of moves the Yankees made to cover holes on their roster over the past few years, and a lot of those transactions had players riding the rail between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and New York last season.
“You saw what happened to those guys last year, and what has happened before that,” Canzler said. “Myself and a lot of guys here are wanting that opportunity. It’s not just the 25 guys who start the season that make up a team. It takes probably 35, 40 guys throughout the course of the year to really help a team win.”
So there’s still a chance for Canzler to connect with New York this season.
First, though, he’ll have to connect a few times for the RailRiders.
“We think he’s going to give us some power in a lineup that probably needs a little power,” Newman said. “It’s great that he’s from that area. Hopefully, the fans will come out and watch him.”
Canzler has been watching the Yankees for awhile.
And their winning tradition helped convince him to take a shot with New York when he signed as a free agent in November.
“I feel like this is the club that everybody wants to be on,” said Canzler, who will turn 28 on April 11. “Obviously one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.”
Maybe just as importantly, Canzler is getting weary of his baseball story reading like a road map.
He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2005, spent his six seasons in their minor league system, then left as a minor league free agent when he couldn’t make much headway in his quest for the majors.
He’s been all over the country ever since.
After finishing second in the Southern League with 21 home runs for Chicago’s Double-A affiliate Tennessee, Canzler signed with Tampa Bay in 2011.
He was immediately sent to Durham to begin his first season playing Triple-A baseball with a bang, hitting .314 with 18 home runs and 83 RBI while scoring 78 runs for Durham. Canzler led the International League with 40 doubles, 62 extra-base hits and a .530 slugging percentage to earn the IL’s MVP award that season.
As an added bonus to 2011, Canzler played in his first major league game for Tampa Bay in Boston’s Fenway Park, recorded his first major league RBI with a sacrifice fly and got his first major league hit during a series at Yankee Stadium.
Over the past three seasons, Canzler has produced a .271 batting average in 29 major league games, with three homers, 12 RBI, three doubles and 26 hits.
But it’s been hard for him to settle in anywhere.
He was purchased by the Cleveland Indians before the 2012 season, nearly made the major league opening day roster and spent that season in Triple-A hitting .265 with 22 homers, 36 doubles, 79 RBI and scoring 68 runs for Columbus.
The Indians put Canzler on waivers after that year and the Yankees claimed him. A month after that, the Yankees waived Canzler and the Baltimore Orioles claimed him in February of last year. And in the middle of the season, Canzler was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He spent last season hitting .252 with 12 homers and 62 RBI between Triple-A teams Norfolk and Indianapolis.
Canzler signed on as a free agent with the Yankees in November.
“That was one thing, with how much I’ve been bouncing around the last couple of years, trying to move my family all over the country,” said Canzler, who brought his young son to watch him take indoor batting practice in Tampa last week. “We wanted to look at where I had the best opportunity to play a lot, but was also the best situation for my family.”
It turned a little sour during the spring.
Fighting to make an impression as a non-roster invite to Yankees spring training, Canzler may have knocked himself out of the running for a roster spot. While trying to flag down a foul pop during a March 18 game, Canzler stretched into the crowd and strained his back. The injury knocked him out of the lineup for a few games, and cost him some valuable time to impress the Yankees coaching staff.
“I don’t think it helped me in any way,” Canzler said.
He hit just .143 in 13 spring games.
“I need to be out there every day, trying to prove myself,” Canzler said. “But you can’t go out there and play hurt. I haven’t hit the way I wanted to throughout camp. But there are other things you can bring to the table — good attitude, work hard.”
He vows to bring both to the RailRiders lineup now.
“It’s easy to get caught up in what’s going on with the big league team,” Canzler said, “what moves they’re making. You can almost catch yourself getting a little bitter. I have to be ready every single day. The thing is to really stay as positive as you can.”
That shouldn’t be difficult, considering the super-close support system Canzler has from back in his high school days, one which will never be far away his year.
“Regardless of what happens,” Canzler said, “this is a good opportunity.”