Rays gave Oakland’s Mike Brosseau $1K to fill out low-level roster, got a postseason hero

Detroit News

Tony Paul
 
| The Detroit News

Brett Impemba used to live down the street from a scout for the Oakland A’s, and one day, in the throes of casual conversation, he decided to make a pitch for his then-teammate at Oakland University.

Mike Brosseau. Check him out.

“And he kind of brushed it off,” Impemba said. “Like, ‘Of course he’s gonna say that.'”

That’d be considered quite the major “oops,” if that A’s scout didn’t have so much gosh darn company.

Brosseau grew up in small-town Indiana and played four years at the relatively anonymous Division I baseball outpost that is Oakland University, hitting and hitting and hitting some more — only to see precisely 1,216 players selected in the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft without being one of them.

Now, just four years later, he’s become somewhat of a darling of MLB’s postseason, his clutch home run off New York Yankees stud reliever Aroldis Chapman in a do-or-die Game 5 earning the Rays a spot in the American League Championship Series, where they’re now playing the Houston Astros with a World Series ticket on the line.

A right-handed-hitting utility man who plays mostly first, second and third base, Brosseau was 4-for-11 this postseason entering Tuesday night’s Game 3 — with the Rays two wins away from their second World Series appearance, and six from their first championship.

“If you can hit,” said Joe Buchalski, a teammate of Brosseau’s all four years at Oakland, and still a close friend, “then they’re going to find a place for you.”

And that, right there, has been the constant for Brosseau: He’s hit, everywhere, from Merrillville, Indiana; to Rochester, Michigan; to Charlotte, North Carolina; to Bowling Green, Kentucky; to Perth, Australia; to Montgomery, Alabama; to Durham, North Carolina; to, finally, the Tampa Bay Rays.

‘Matter of when, not if’

Ask a friend to tell you about Brosseau off the baseball field, and you won’t get much. He has two dogs. He loves his family. He still stays with his parents in the offseason, in Indiana. That’s about as far as you get.

That’s because almost all of Brosseau’s focus, for as long as anyone can remember, is about getting better at his craft, and his craft is baseball.

His daily, non-game schedule at Oakland read like this: He’d have breakfast, work out at 6 a.m., then go to class, maybe grab some lunch, have a three- or four-hour practice, scrounge up some dinner, go lift weights, and then take part in a late-night hitting session with teammates, maybe starting at 10:30 p.m.

These days, it’s much the same. Buchalski visited him for a few days this past offseason in Indiana, and the routine was remarkably similar. He had breakfast, headed to a training facility near Chicago for several hours of hitting, throwing and ground ball work, then lunch, then the weight room, then hand-eye coordination and glove work. Then, at night, he would watch film.

“All day,” said Buchalski, “this is what he does.”

Said Impemba, the son of former Detroit Tigers television broadcaster Mario Impemba who, because of such a connection, grew up hanging around major-league ballplayers: “That’s a credit to his work ethic. That’s the thing that impressed me the most during his time at Oakland, was his ability to work. As a student-athlete, it’s an incredibly difficult grind, but Mike went above and beyond. My dad always said guys in the big leagues don’t get there by accident. He would outwork everyone else.”

There was one time Brosseau did call it a day sooner than usual. It was June 11, 2016, when, after 40 rounds of the MLB Draft, his name never got called. There have been 20 players drafted out of Oakland University, ranging from the seventh round to the 40th, and none of them made it to the major leagues. Brosseau wasn’t one of them, on either account.

Brosseau, now 26, also went undrafted after his junior season in 2015.

Buchalski, who always lived next door or in the same complex as Brosseau in college, wasn’t with him that draft day his senior year, but heard all about it from a friend.

“He was working out on the day of the draft, and after a certain round and his name doesn’t get call, he didn’t really say anything. He just kind of went home for the day,” Buchalski said. “Nobody pretty much heard from him the rest of the day. When he’s upset about something, he’s kind of a keep-it-to-himself guy.

“But we all knew it was a matter of when, not if.”

Amazingly, even after a 40-round draft, many MLB organizations still need to fill slots — the Tigers, for example, have seven minor-league teams, from Rookie ball to Triple A, and two more international teams.

The Rays needed an infielder for Rookie ball, and Metro Detroit scout James Bonnici, a Rochester Adams scout, recommended Brosseau.

Brosseau, who was about 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, signed as an undrafted free agent for $1,000, which would get an out-of-state resident exactly one credit hour at Oakland University. The term used for a signing like that is “organizational depth,” certainly not “hero of the ALDS.”

“We were all in the same agreement, just a good college player,” Bonnici told MLB.com this week, nearing the end of a banner year for the scout — who also was responsible was steering the San Diego Padres to a Michigan infielder named Jacob Cronenworth, who had rookie-of-the-year credentials in 2020. “It’s one of those things as a scout, it’s tough to sink your teeth into, ‘Oh, he’s 5-9, he runs average, he throws average, what are his big separating tools?’ I’ll have to admit there really weren’t any separating tools for me for Mike, but he had just a really solid game across the board and that’s what stuck out to me.”

That’s how Impemba described him, too — not your typically “toolsy” ballplayer, though Impemba makes the argument hitting certainly gets a high grade for Brosseau.

But he always had the intangibles, which aren’t taught, but inherited. Like instincts.

A play that stood out for Impemba was during their freshmen season, when Oakland was playing Maryland. It was early in the game and a speedy Maryland runner was on second base when a ball was hit to Brosseau at shortstop. Freshmen often play skittish and are scared of making any mistakes, but rather than getting the sure out, which you’re always taught to do, Brosseau instead got the runner breaking for third. It was a big play in a game that ultimately went to extra innings.

“Pure instinct,” Impemba said. “Something you can’t teach.”

Defense was his marker as a freshman, and steadily his game, including the intangibles, evolved.

Similarly, Brosseau always seemed to have the clutch gene, too, particularly his senior year, when he hit 10 home runs with a slash line of .354/.456/.571 for a 1.027 OPS.

On the flip side, he also took strikeouts exceptionally hard, and errors even harder. But they didn’t damper his confidence, which was unwavering, friends said.

“Mike,” said Impemba, “has never lost that.”

‘All he does is hit’

It showed early in his professional career. He didn’t have the big bank account or the high MLB Pipeline ranking (or any MLB Pipeline ranking, for that matter), but he had self-belief.

After signing with the Rays, he hit .319 in Rookie ball in 2016, then .318 at low-A Bowling Green, .333 for high-A Charlotte and .427 in Perth in 2017. But Brosseau really opened a whole bunch of eyes in 2018, playing for the Rays’ Double-A affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits.

“Even with a Biscuit on his head,” said Neal Ruhl, Oakland’s broadcaster, “he’s still hitting.

“All he does is hit.”

In 104 games at Montgomery, Brosseau, who plays at about 35 pounds heavier than his Oakland days, had 13 home runs, 24 doubles, 61 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. The impressive hitting continued at Triple-A Durham in 2019 (16 homers, 21 doubles, 60 RBIs), and by June, he was in the major leagues, and in September 2019 he was in Toronto, when the Rays clinched a playoff spot.

In the crowd that day (remember crowds?) were 10 or so of his old Oakland teammates, taking advantage of the quick commute across from Detroit.

After clinching, Brosseau invited his teammates to the team after-party, but they declined, telling him it was his moment, not theirs. They all hung out the next day instead, and all still keep in touch — and keep tabs.

Buchalski was in his apartment in Fenton on Friday night watching when Brosseau had the at-bat of the MLB season against Chapman, who, interestingly had buzzed Brosseau’s lid with 100-mph heat back in early September (leading to a benches-clearing skirmish). Back to Friday, on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Brosseau hit the 100-mph fastball out faster than it had come in. His Wikipedia page, as of Tuesday afternoon, said he was “also known as the father of Aroldis Chapman.”

“I live in this apartment by myself, and I’m sitting here just yelling at my TV,” Buchalski said. “People were FaceTiming me, my phone was blowing up. I can’t imagine what was happening with Mike’s phone.”

Not to mention the scouts’ — the many who shrugged him off, and the one who didn’t.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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