Sunday, March 17, 2002

Q&A with Reds catcher Jesse Levis

Around the block and back again

By John Fay,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — One day early in the spring, Ken Griffey Jr. was going on about being the oldest guy in the group during a set of hitting drills, when Jesse Levis corrected him.

        “I've got you by a couple of years, Junior,” Levis said.

        Levis is actually 1 1/2 years older than Griffey. The two, however, are light years apart on the baseball spectrum.

        If you have taken the time to open a sports section, you know all about Griffey. If you know all about Levis, you are probably in one too many fantasy leagues or you're a Cleveland Indians or Milwaukee Brewers fan. Levis, who turns 34 on April 14, was one of the many minor-league free agents the Reds signed in the offseason.

        Levis, a catcher, is the most traveled of the 70 players the Reds brought to camp.

        He was drafted in 1986 in the 36th round by the Philadelphia Phillies, his hometown team. He didn't sign and instead went to the University of North Carolina. Three years later, the Cleveland Indians took him in the fourth round. He spent seven years in the Cleveland organization. He played 72 games with the Indians over four seasons. He has a 1995 American League championship ring (he was on the club but not on the playoff roster).

        The Reds are his sixth different organization. He played for 12 major- and minor-league teams before signing with the Reds.

        Levis has stood out at camp for several reasons: At 5 feet 9, 215 pounds and balding, he looks more like a prospect's father than a legitimate threat to make the team; he's an exceptionally nice guy; and he can hit.

        Levis started the spring with five hits in his first seven at-bats, including a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth against the Minnesota Twins on March 4. That's not all that surprising. Levis has a career .297 average in the minors, where he has spent most of his 14 professional season.

        Levis (pronounced LEV-is) does have 4.1 years of major-league service. He spent all of the 1996, '97 and '98 seasons with the Brewers. His best year was '97, when he hit .285 and made only two errors in 98 games.

        As well as Levis has played, he has almost no shot of making the Opening Day roster. Jason LaRue is entrenched as the starter, and backup Kelly Stinnett is guaranteed more than $1 million in salary this year.

        So Levis will go to Triple-A and wait for a call from the Reds or someone else. Last year, the Brewers called, and Levis ended up playing 12 games for them late in the year.

        The Enquirer talked to Levis about life in the minors and chasing the dream:

        Q: Where's the best place to visit for a minor-league player?

        A: I kind of liked playing as a visitor in Las Vegas. When I was in the Pacific Coast League with Colorado Springs, we went through Vegas. That was a lot of fun, playing baseball in a nice ballpark. Then in the city there's so much entertainment. A lot of fun there.

        Q: Where's the worst place?

        A: A couple of towns in the Appalachian League. The Orioles in that league are in Bluefield, W.Va. Tough town. The Cardinals in that league were in a tough town, too. (Johnson City, Tenn.) After growing up in Philly and going to small towns like that, it's different. I played in Burlington, N.C., which is 30, 35 minutes from where I went to college. But it's a lot different than UNC-Chapel Hill. It's real rural, real small. I wasn't used to that.

        Q: Where was the best place you ever played?

        A: Durham was pretty fun because I went to school in Chapel Hill. It was only 15, 20 minutes from where I went to college. Buffalo was a nice city. It is a major-league city just waiting for a team. I don't think they'll ever get it with the weather. It's a little rough up there, but a nice city.

        Q: Is there a big difference in the minors in how teams treat you?

        A: When I was in Charlotte, the owner of the Charlotte Knights is also the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. So when the basketball season was over, we got to use their charter. We had charter flights in Triple-A. It made life a lot easier. Those flights in Triple-A are really rough sometimes, 4 a.m. wake-up calls. In Charlotte, we'd fly out after games. In Richmond last year, we wouldn't think twice about busing seven, eight hours. Each organization is different. Each organization puts different amounts of money into it.

        Q: You were drafted out of high school, but you went to college. Would you recommend that route or going straight to the minor leagues?

        A: Nowadays, the money they're giving to some of the guys out of high school is incredible. It's hard to turn down several million dollars. It wasn't like that for me. The offered me maybe $15,000 out of high school. I weighed that vs. a college education and getting better in college at a top-flight Division I college. Everybody's different. You have to look at your circumstances and evaluate from there.

        Q: You were drafted by the Phillies. Did that make it tough not to sign?

        A: Definitely. The hometown team. If I had known I was going right to the Vet, I'd have signed. But I was going to Oshkosh, Wis., or somewhere. It's a long haul, making it out of high school, especially. The hometown side came into effect with me. That was my team growing up, watching Bob Boone and Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose. I've tried to get back there the last few years. Seems like when you turn them down, they don't make another offer.

        Q: Do you have a timetable on how much longer you'll play?

        A: Not really. I'm going to play as long as I can. I feel great. I had arm surgery when I was 30 years old. I feel like I had the 30,000-mile checkup on my shoulder. I felt I could play another seven, eight years after I was 30 once I got back and into a rhythm and strong again.

        Q: Is it that you can make a good enough living in Triple-A, or is it that chance of getting back to the big leagues?

        A: It's a combination of both. I'm able to survive as far as finances go, playing Triple-A. I make a salary that my brother would make working at his business. But it's definitely keeping the dream alive and getting another year of major-league service and feeling like I can contribute to a major-league club.

        Q: Have you played with a lot of big prospects?

        A: Big-time. Manny Ramirez. Jim Thome. Brian Giles. It goes on and on. Cleveland had a tremendous farm system when I was coming up. I was never one of the top prospects. But I kind of found my way through the chain and to the big leagues. It was nice.

        Q: Was there a guy you caught in Single-A or Double-A who was really good and never really made it?

        A: Most of the guys I caught with Cleveland made it. One kid who was with Cleveland — Ty Kovach, a big, tall right-hander — he dominated the A league in (Kinston) Carolina. Then he went to Double-A and kind of fell apart. He had tremendous ability and never got above Double-A.

        Q: Why the Reds? Did you talk to a lot of teams?

        A: Maybe five or six clubs. Cincinnati said, “Here's our offer to you: a chance to get back (to the majors).” It was the most intriguing offer.


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