Mark Hamburger relies on buddy system
Friend helped keep new Ranger motivated during journey from open tryout to majors
ARLINGTON, Texas -- It took some coaxing, but Mark Hamburger was able to convince his buddy, Justin Hemauer, to go with him to an open tryout for the Minnesota Twins in June 2007.
So they hopped into Hemauer's 2003 red Mustang and nearly didn't arrive on time.
"I remember getting stuck in traffic," Hemauer said. "He wants to go to this tryout and see if he can make it and we're going to be late. But we got there and I remember he was the first in line for pitchers and the first to pitch."
Hamburger threw six straight pitches at 93 mph and caught the attention of a few scouts. They told him to return the next day and throw three simulated innings. He struggled to get a few batters out in one of them and then finished with a 1-2-3 inning. His velocity was still consistently around 93 mph.
Hemauer, who tried out as an outfielder, watched as his friend signed for a $1,200 bonus and was given a plane ticket to the Gulf Coast League.
A little more than four years later, Hamburger is in the majors. He was traded to the Texas Rangers in August 2008 when the Twins obtained veteran Eddie Guardado, and worked his way up the Texas minor league system. An improved slider and a relaxed confidence helped Hamburger march through Double-A Frisco and into Triple-A. He struggled at first with the adjustment, but in his last 11 outings for Round Rock, including four starts, he had a 0.94 ERA with 22 strikeouts, five walks and a .176 opponent batting average.
"It was a life goal just to be here," Hamburger said. "Just walking in here was special. I can't believe that I'm here."
Hemauer can. Hamburger's best friend is working in the construction business in Nebraska, but plans on finding a way to watch as many Rangers games as he can this year.
"We played together on some amateur teams and I always thought he'd make it to the big leagues," Hemauer said. "I would tell him that all the time. No one deserves this more. It's crazy that he signed out of a tryout like that and is in the bigs. Do you know the chances of that?"
They aren't great. But Hamburger was well under the radar before that tryout because he didn't play the previous season in college. He said there was some confusion as to how many core class credits he had. But before that, he was 14-0 with a 0.67 ERA. Clearly, he had some ability.
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He kept playing amateur baseball in Minnesota and was on the mound one summer day in the championship game of that event and was in a groove.
"He was striking out guys and looking at me at center field thinking, 'What's going on?' " Hemauer said. "The game ends and we mob the mound. He looks around and says, 'What's the big deal? Why are you guys out here?' We had to tell him he threw a no-hitter. He didn't even know it."
Hemauer says after that day, he made a deal with Hamburger.
"I told him, 'You're going to make it,' " Hemauer said. "And I said, 'You better call me right after it happens.' So when he found out the other day, he called me right after his dad. I just told him how proud I was of him and how much he deserved it."
Hamburger started to get emotional when asked about Hemauer, who kept the newest big leaguer motivated through tough times in the minors and an unexpected trade to Texas.
"He was overwhelmed," Hamburger said. "I get emotional thinking about it. I had no clue I could even be here. I went to that tryout and now four years later that moment turned into exactly what I pictured in my dreams."
Along the way, he's dealt with all the jokes about his name. And he hasn't minded one bit. He's taken part in promotional videos for his minor league teams using his name and isn't afraid to have fun with it. Some of the barbs he's heard from opposing fans: "Can he 'ketchup' to the competition? Hope he doesn't get grilled." But when Hamburger was in Puerto Rico last year, the entire stadium chanted "Burger King." He liked that one, of course.
But the guy with the funny name has taken advantage of that rare opportunity given him in the Metrodome that day a little more than four years ago. He's come armed with solid command, a nice assortment of pitches and the right attitude.
"I'm going to work hard and have fun," Hamburger said. "That's what I've been doing all along, and I won't change that now."
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.