05/01/2007 – Daily News Record
Written By Dustin Dopirak HARRISONBURG — Ian Ostlund admits that every offseason, the same doubts and questions pop back into his head. The former Turner Ashby High School pitcher has been toiling in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system for almost six years since being selected in the 34th round of the 2001 draft out of Virginia Tech — and that includes exactly zero time spent in the big leagues. The 28-year-old left-handed reliever has a son, Troy, who will turn 2 on Aug. 1, and Kari, Ostlund’s wife of five years, is expecting a second child this year. Kari and Troy live in Dayton, his hometown, and he estimates that he’s lucky if he sees them three or four times from the start of spring training in March to the end of the season in September. So each winter, he wonders if the pursuit of his dream is still worth what he has to give up. "I think every offseason, I go through a tough period where I have to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to go through this again?’" Ostlund said by phone Monday from Toledo, where he now plays for the Class AAA Mud Hens. "It’s a grind, and it takes an awful lot of sacrifices to do what I do." But every offseason so far, even the one between 2004 and 2005 that he spent in rehabilitation after Tommy John elbow surgery, he’s decided that, yes, he really does want to do this again. Last Sunday, he was reminded why. After Ostlund was assigned to the Double-A Erie Seawolves at the end of spring training, a chain of events — started by an injury to Tigers veteran reliever Jose Mesa — ended with Ostlund’s promotion to the Mud Hens, Detroit’s top farm club, on April 22. He joined the team that day for its game against the Durham Bulls in North Carolina, pitching the last the last two innings of Toledo’s 16-inning win and getting the victory. Suddenly, he was closer than ever to joining Alan Knicely as the only TA players to reach the majors. Ostlund is one of only four TA graduates to play in AAA, joining Knicely, Tom Bocock and Jimmy Hamilton. "When you’re drafted, you think about where you are and where you want to be and it seems insurmountable," he said. "But then you turn around, and I’ve been in pro ball [six] years now. That’s a long time for a professional baseball player, but I realize I’m sitting in Triple-A, one phone call away from the big leagues." Ostlund said he knows his current position is a tenuous one. Once Mesa’s groin injury heals and he comes off the disabled list, someone from the Tigers will have to be sent down — likely to the Mud Hens — which means Toledo will also have to demote someone. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Ostlund’s plan is to make sure it isn’t him, but that might not be easy. Since his debut at Durham, when he struck out three batters and allowed just one hit in two scoreless innings, he’s faced only one batter, getting him out in the Mud Hens’ game against Rochester on Sunday. "I have a left-hander in front of me who has played parts of six years in the big leagues," he said. "And there’s a lot of other guys like that, so I’m up against some odds, because they’re not going to sit those guys down." But Ostlund has made a favorable impression on his coaching staff and the organization. Going into this season, he had more-than-adequate career statistics: a 3.31 ERA, a 23-20 record and 314 strikeouts compared to just 82 walks in 337 innings pitched. Before being called up from Erie a week-and-a-half ago, he hadn’t allowed a run in 7 2/3 innings, striking out 12 batters while allowing just five hits and three walks. "The bottom line is he’s not afraid to throw strikes," said Toledo pitching coach Britt Burns, who also coached Ostlund when he was at Lakeland. "He is kid who competes, he’s not afraid of contact and he’s resolute in pounding the strike zone and trusting his stuff. He can touch 90 miles an hour or 91 once in a while, and he usually pitches about 88. His curveball is a little bit crisper and he’s maintaining his mindset and maintaining himself." Mindset, Burns said, is the most important thing. It’s the resolve to go right at hitters, and also the determination to stick with the game, to continue answering ‘yes’ every offseason when the doubts arise. For that reason, Burns said, Ostlund could get his chance. "Guys like Ian often grind it out and they end up making their way to the big leagues over time," he said. "There’s a lot of guys like that that do it, and he fits the profile for me. He’s a complete grind-it-out guy, year in and year out. Then somewhere along the line, he gets his break and there it goes." Said Ostlund’s agent, Phil Tannenbaum: "They like his tenacity. He could’ve thrown in the towel a long time ago, but there is no quit in Ian Ostlund." For now, Ostlund said, he’s enjoying the perks of Triple-A. At every other level of minor-league baseball, he said, teams take buses to every one of their games, often 12-hour trips. At Triple-A, they fly almost as much as major league teams. The move has also allowed him to room with one of his best friends in the organization, Mud Hens starting pitcher Ron Chiavacci. The "kindred spirits," as Ostlund calls them, share an apartment that doesn’t have cable or a computer. When they’re not at the ballpark, he said, they’re watching DVD’s on bowhunting and fly fishing, and they often stay up until all hours talking about the outdoor sports. And when the offseason comes again, there won’t be as many doubts, because the dream is so close. "I strive to be excellent in everything I do," Ostlund said. "And I’ll think of it as a failure if I don’t get to the absolute highest level in this game."