Nate Hoelscher: Coming full circleFormer minor leaguer now assisting with Osakis baseball
By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria’s Nate Hoelscher has seen his life in baseball come full circle over the last 20 years.
During that time, he has experienced almost every side of the game – from the innocence of playing with friends on Alexandria’s first youth traveling team, to the business side of things as a minor leaguer.
Hoelscher molded his game playing VFW and Legion ball while becoming a standout at Jefferson High School. He went on to play four years at St. Cloud State University and became a captain for the Huskies his senior year.
Hoelscher turned enough heads that season to get an invitation to a tryout with the Kansas City Royals after the amateur draft in June. The lefty impressed at the audition and signed on with the Royals in July of 2002. That was the start of a seven-year career in professional baseball that finished one step away from making a major-league roster.
Now at age 31, Hoelscher is back home, still involved in the game as an assistant coach with his brother, Matt, under longtime friend Shad Schmidt with the Osakis baseball program.
Hoelscher knew the uphill climb he was in for when he made the next step in his baseball career as a member of the Royals’ system.
As an undrafted free agent, he was more concerned with proving to himself that he belonged at that level. Actually making a major league roster was still a long ways off at that point.
“You don’t really say, ‘Yeah, I want to make it to the majors,’ ” he said. “It’s more about, ‘I’m going to the next level, lets see if I can continue the success that I’ve had’…keep your numbers where they’re supposed to be. Keep working hard and basically see how good you are, see if you’re as good as you think you are.”
Hoelscher found out quickly that he did belong. He amassed a 1.60 ERA and struck out 27 in 33 1/3 innings that first summer in the Gulf Coast League.
He continued to make steady progress throughout the farm system from there. By 2004, Hoelscher was playing at the high-A level. He had one of his best seasons that year with 70 strikeouts and a 2.15 ERA in 83 2/3 innings as a reliever.
His climb continued at double-A over the next two years. At that point, the thought of reaching the majors was on the radar.
“I remember my one year in double-A, we had 22 guys go right from double-A straight to the big leagues,” he said. “I just wish I would have pitched a little better that year instead of the next year.”
The jump from A-ball to double-A didn’t come easy. Hoelscher posted an ERA of 5.63 during his first season in Wichita, Kansas. He lowered that the following year and threw well enough to earn himself a promotion to triple-A to start the 2007 season.
The business side of baseball
It was at that point that Hoelscher started to see that baseball was more than just a game. Friends that he came up with through the minors were getting mentioned in trade rumors at the deadline. The moves made by the organization at the big league level had a greater impact than they did when he was playing at low-A.
“It’s just kind of funny how it turns into a business,” Hoelscher said. “It’s not so much a game anymore to certain people. To me, it was always just going out and having a good time playing ball.”
That doesn’t mean it was never a grind. There are not many luxuries in the minor leagues. Eight- to 10-hour-long bus rides are the norm throughout the summer.
Money was getting harder and harder to come by after living off credit cards for six years. Hoelscher also had two kids that he was away from for long periods of time.
“When you’re not doing so well, that made it a little bit tougher,” he said. “Sometimes you were ready for the year to be done, but you are always ready to get back at it come January.”
An abrupt ending
Hoelscher felt good about his status with the Royals after pitching well in the Arizona Fall League during the 2007 off-season. He went to spring training the next year hoping to build off that.
But Kansas City had other plans. The Royals went into that season looking to stockpile their triple-A club with players who had big-league experience. Hoelscher didn’t have any. On the last day of spring training, he became the final cut that the organization made.
“I knew it could happen, surprised when it did,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it. But I always thought I would hook on right away [with another team], but that just never happened.”
Hoelscher went on to pitch in independent ball with the Lancaster Barnstormers and the Gary SouthShore RailCats in 2008. He made the all-star team in the Northern League for his play with the RailCats. Two weeks later, he decided to quit.
“I was kind of ready to be done with independent ball,” he said. “I wanted to go back and work through the off-season. I was hoping to get one more shot at spring training.”
Hoelscher called some of his old coaches who were still affiliated with major league teams but was told they weren’t bringing guys in. Hoelscher’s professional career was over after that.
Coming back home
Hoelscher lived in Phoenix for almost a year before coming back home in March of 2009 to try to find work and be closer to his kids.
That was welcome news for Schmidt. The Osakis head baseball coach grew up playing with Hoelscher from the time they were about 10-years-old on the traveling team that was formed in Alexandria by Hoelscher’s dad, Gerry. The two graduated from Jefferson High School together in 1998. That comfort level prompted Schmidt to call Hoelscher to gauge his interest in helping out with the Silverstreaks’ program.
“I know when his brother Matt told me he was coming back, the first thing I did was contact him and say, ‘Hey, would you be interested in helping out coaching?’ for obvious reasons.” Schmidt said. “But not only that, he’s a friend…it’s really nice to have someone you’re comfortable with, to have somebody you know and like as an assistant.”
Hoelscher started out as a junior high coach that spring. Now in his second season as a varsity assistant, Schmidt doesn’t have a lot of worries when it comes to his pitching staff.
“I feel totally confident in his ability to coach,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, he knows the game probably better than I do. So there’s no issue there, and that’s a great thing because I can focus on other [areas], and I know he’s going to do the right things.”
From player to coach
Hoelscher said he learned from his time in the minors that pitching is as much mental as it is physical. He isn’t trying to change the pitching style of every player he works with. It’s more about instilling confidence and teaching the kids to set a batter up to enhance their chances of being successful.
“We’re trying to throw strikes,” he said. “Get ahead. Then when you are ahead, what are you trying to do? Just stay calm. Stay confident out there and relax.”
It’s a welcome approach for the pitchers on this team. Freshman Jordan Fredrick is part of what Hoelscher said is a solid nucleus of talented young arms in the Osakis program.
Fredrick pitched in a lot of big situations as an 8th grader last year when the Silverstreaks went 18-4-1. He already has the physical tools to be successful. Hoelscher’s goal is to get him to think about what he is trying to do with every batter in order to take that next step.
“I think it helps a lot,” Fredrick said. “You get any little tips that he picked up when he was working his way up…he’s been there. He knows what you need to do to get to that level, so anything he says will help.”
Happy with where he’s at
Hoelscher said he is excited about the opportunity he has at Osakis. He would have loved to take one more step to the major leagues. It just didn’t work that way, and he’s fine with that.
“Overall, yeah,” he said. “I’m pleased with how things went with the Royals. Some of my good buddies were drafted high, got a lot of money. I didn’t. I made it to the triple-A level without being drafted. So that part I’m happy with.”
Now coaching and playing in the Resorters’ League with the Carlos Cougars allows him to stay involved in a game he has always been around. He is happy with where baseball has taken him and excited about where it still might lead.
“I would love to coach in some aspect,” Hoelscher said. “Whether it’s high school, college maybe. Right now my kids are in the youth stuff, and I coach them in the summer. I even enjoy that…it’s nice that I can come back and work with kids now. I hope to do that for a while.”