Here are some places you wouldn’t expect to find a future Major League Baseball starting pitcher: the Georgetown School of Nursing & Health Studies. The roster of the Lincoln Saltdogs, an independent-league team in Nebraska. The cheese counter of a small-town independent grocery store.
I mean, if you’re trying to get a real job in sports, you do not want to work behind a cheese counter.
Ignore for a moment the grocery angle. Sure, Reds starting pitcher Tim Adleman still picks up the occasional $13-an-hour shift at the Village Market in Wilton, Conn. (“It gets really busy around the holidays, and they were like ‘You know, we could always use some help from time to time,’ ” he recently explained.) But Adleman’s journey to the big leagues would be remarkable even if he never worked a single shift cutting and wrapping Manchego, Jarlsberg and Gruyere.
That journey started at Georgetown, for one thing. Before his ascent, the Hoyas had produced a grand total of one major league ballplayer: reliever Sean Maloney, who pitched in 14 games over two seasons in the late ’90s. When Adleman was on the Hilltop, the team dressed for offseason practices in McDonough Gymnasium bathrooms (it used to share its locker room) and traveled to an indoor facility in Sterling during inclement weather. Not exactly SEC amenities.
“In that era, it was pretty bare-bones,” said Georgetown Coach Pete Wilk, whose program has since grown considerably.
Adleman wasn’t drafted after his junior season, and so he finished his degree in health care management. (Wilk has been at Georgetown for nearly 20 years and can’t remember another baseball player who studied in the school of nursing). He was taken by the Orioles in the 24th round of the 2010 draft, a lanky 6-foot-5 senior right-hander with modest velocity, an unremarkable breaking ball and no signing bonus. He made the all-star team while with short-season Class A Aberdeen, but before his second season, Baltimore’s organization wanted him to speed up his delivery to prevent stolen bases.
“And for whatever reason, it was just an adjustment that I couldn’t make on the fly,” Adleman said. His pitches stayed up too high in the zone, his numbers ballooned, he couldn’t bring them down, and by spring training of 2012 he had been released. He tried to catch on with the independent Florence (Ky.) Freedom, but struggled with atypical control issues during a simulated game. There went another chance.
“I’ve seen what happens if you’re a pitcher in this league and you walk too many people,” the Freedom’s manager told Adleman. “We don’t have a spot for you.”
So Adleman moved on, to the Saltdogs (thanks to a recommendation from Florence’s manager), and then, after a trade, to the independent El Paso Diablos. This was as glamorous as a rest-stop hot dog: a 24-year old with a Georgetown degree who had once pitched for the Hoyas at the opening game in Citi Field, now staying in motels outside Sioux Falls and playing baseball for less than his partial scholarship at Georgetown was worth. He was missing the weddings of close friends, missing family vacations. His pals from school, meanwhile, were getting investment banking jobs with Barclays and Merrill Lynch.
“The way I thought of it at the time was, I’m essentially rotting away in El Paso, Texas, there’s all this cool stuff happening outside, and I don’t even know if I’m gonna have a chance to play next year,” Adleman said. “I know there were people out there that were probably thinking, you’ve got a degree, you got an opportunity at a good school, and you’re playing indie ball, making a grand a month before taxes. And it was like, What are you doing?”
He still thought he was throwing the ball well, though, and he wasn’t ready to give up. After that 2012 season, Adleman worked a trade to the New Jersey Jackals so he could be closer to home, and then spent the winter in a weighted ball throwing program that boosted his velocity until he was consistently throwing 91-94 miles an hour. “I’m gonna give this one more go,” he thought, and he put together a strong season pitching out of the bullpen for the Jackals.
He kept trying to catch on, staying in Georgetown’s team hotel during a spring trip to Florida so he could throw for scouts. Finally, in the fall of 2013, he was signed by the Reds — thanks to Cincinnati scout Shawn Pender, who had recruited Adleman when he was the head coach at Saint Joseph’s.
Then came two strong seasons mostly spent in AA ball, a big league camp in 2016, and eventually a call-up for his Major League debut last May. He allowed three hits and two runs in six innings, earning a chance to stick with the Reds. He was a 28-year-old rookie signed out of independent ball, but he threw strikes, kept hitters off-balance with hesitation in his delivery, and learned to locate his breaking ball. Despite dealing with an oblique injury, he wound up starting 13 games for the Reds, finishing 4-4 with a 4.00 ERA.
Adleman called the experience “surreal … just to think abut the percentages of somebody like me making it to the big leagues.” His college coach called it “an unbelievable story of perseverance and mental toughness.” His new boss, meanwhile, saw a guy who could command the strike zone and get outs, a guy who was “a treat” to manage.
“You know, I think there’s not the fear and the trepidation of the what-if factor,” Reds Manager Bryan Price said. “He’s already gone through the what-ifs, right? … All those guys that kind of feel like they didn’t get a fair shot or didn’t want to give it up just yet, I tell ’em all, go to independent ball and kind of find yourself. Give yourself that last opportunity. And Tim really has.”
After a poor showing in spring training this year, Adleman was back in the minors to start this season. But he was quickly called up and again performed; he now ranks second in innings pitched, second in wins, and first in WHIP among Cincinnati’s starters. He already has played more major league games than any Hoyas product, and he has become a selling point for Wilk: You can go from Georgetown to the big leagues.
“I’m so damn proud of that kid,” Wilk said. “There were a number of times where I expected him to say you know what, I’m sick, I’m tired, I’m done with this. But he didn’t. And God bless him, look where he is now.”
Now let’s go back to the cheese counter. After that 2012 season in El Paso, Adleman moved in with his grandparents in the Connecticut home where his mom grew up. His grandmother had been shopping at the Village Market for years and was friendly with management, because she’s friendly with everyone. “I think if you go down there, they’ve got a spot for you,” she told her grandson. What did he have to lose from taking a brief food sabbatical?
“It was just like what any other minor leaguer would do who needed to make some cash on the side, because we don’t make anything during the season,” Adleman said. “And so, four to five days a week, from 8 to 2, I was back there, wrapping international cheeses and packaging chicken pot pies and doing kind of whatever they needed.”
You’re not supposed to go from the cheese counter to the big leagues. But you also aren’t supposed to go from the Motel 8 in Sioux Falls to the Mayflower on Connecticut Avenue. It all takes some combination of faith and luck, persistence and happenstance, plus a willingness to play for the Lincoln Saltdogs even when the Florence Freedom have told you no.
“You know, maybe it was a little bit stupid at the time, I don’t really know,” Adleman said. “But I just felt like I’d have wasted a lot of time going for this just to quit because it got a little tough. It just didn’t make sense to me. … Obviously I worked really hard and took a difficult path, but I had some breaks along the way and I was able to take advantage of them. So I’m just trying to soak up every minute of it.”