On the first Friday of June, in the San Diego Padres’ visitor’s clubhouse, the Washington Nationals gathered around Tony Sipp. Coaches, players and staff offered daps and hugs. The team’s ace, Max Scherzer, made a small speech, listed the reliever’s accomplishments and cited statistics that emphasized what he had done was rare. Sipp’s teammates presented him with a team-signed bottle of Dom Pérignon Vintage 2009.
That day, teammates told Sipp he had joined the 93 other active players to hit what’s known around the league as his “10.00.” When baseball players achieve 10 years of service time — the one-year requirement is 172 days on the active roster or injured list — they become fully vested members of a pension plan that pays them on a sliding scale, an annual minimum of nearly $68,000 (if they start drawing at 45) or maximum of $220,000 (if they wait until 62).
Throughout the season, small parties such as Sipp’s play out in clubhouses across the big leagues . Last year, Scherzer had his own. This season, outfielder Gerardo Parra celebrated with the San Francisco Giants just before he joined the Nationals. For all, in a sport in which the average career spans just 2.7 years, according to the Princeton Review, 10.00 represents not only financial security but also a talisman of respect. The 35-year-old understood it was “a big deal,” and he didn’t take it for granted, but he wanted to honor the day by treating it as he had every other to get here.
“I didn’t know the exact day,” Sipp said. “I just knew I’d come here and try to bring my best bullets every day and somebody will let you know.”
At first, this offseason looked like it might jeopardized the left-hander’s chances. The free agent market proved difficult for veterans, and multiple teams, including the Nationals, discussed a minor league contract with Sipp. But his representation thought he was worthy of a major league deal, with 10.00 as an added benefit. On March 9, the Nationals released left-hander Sammy Solís and, five days later, brought Sipp’s two-month wait to an end.
The veteran hurried to ready himself in an abbreviated spring training, but his arm didn’t feel as strong as he wanted it to. His fastball rested in the high 80s, ticks below his norm. His slider didn’t have the same bite. In early May, just as he felt himself again, Sipp landed on the injured list with a strained oblique. Later that month, Sipp returned and worked back into a limited role, in which he since has managed a 3.38 ERA in 5⅓ innings.
“Sipp is finally the Sipp we thought he was going to be,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s pitching way better. His [velocity] is up in the 90s consistently now. … He didn’t have spring training, but now his arm’s in shape and he’s ready to go.”
For Sipp, 10.00 never seemed like a certainty. In 2004, the Cleveland Indians drafted him out of Clemson in the 45th round, which ceased to exist in 2012 when the draft shortened to 40 rounds. Sipp grinded through five seasons in the minors, and in 2009, he finally broke through. Two or three years later, his success and mid-3.00 career ERA gave him enough confidence to joke with outfielder Michael Brantley, his friend and former roommate at Class AAA Columbus, that he was going to play 10 seasons.
“You ain’t getting no 10 years,” Sipp remembered Brantley laughing.
The biggest scare came before the 2014 season. The year before, he had a 4.78 ERA in 56 appearances with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who designated him for assignment in early August. At the time, he was only about halfway to 10.00.
That offseason, he signed a minor league deal with the San Diego Padres and had what he called “probably the best spring [training] I ever had.” But the Padres’ young staff needed another innings-eater in the bullpen and never promoted Sipp. On May 1, Sipp requested his release and was set to sign another minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves. Then the Houston Astros swooped in.
Houston, one of the most analytically savvy clubs in baseball, liked the splitter Sipp had started throwing that spring. Sipp remembered the team saying they had a big league opportunity but “we just don’t have the money.” The reliever discussed the situation with his agent, Dustin Bledsoe, who attended Clemson as an undergrad and signed Sipp as The Bledsoe Agency’s first client.
“To Tony’s credit,” said Bledsoe, “he was of the opinion that, ‘I’m not worried about the contract, but I know if I get back to the big leagues, I know I’m going to figure this out and there’s going to be much more in the future.’ ”
That season, he pitched so well as a key component in the Astros’ bullpen that they signed him to a three-year, $18 million deal the following offseason. Afterward, Sipp messaged Brantley he was going to hit at least nine years of service time. “I only need one more!”
Now that he’s hit 10.00, Sipp said those around him have asked more frequently how he feels, hinting at the real question: How much longer can you play? He has thought about it himself.
“Accomplishing everything I have, getting to that 10-year mark, now is just time to sit back and see if you’re being productive,” Sipp said. “If I can’t be competitive, I don’t want to play baseball … [but] I feel like I have a lot in the tank. I know the second half will be a telltale of where I stand.”
For now, Sipp wants to build on his progress this season. He wants to keep showing up at the ballpark and helping his team. He wants to grind as he always has, with his head down, because “that’s kind of how you get to the 10 [years] in the first place.”
On the first Friday of June, though, Sipp allowed himself to briefly bask in the moment. After his teammates’ ceremony, he thought back to the conversation he had had years ago with an old friend. After 10 seasons in Cleveland, Brantley had signed with Houston, where he’s on his way to 10.00 . Sipp pulled out his phone, snapped a picture of the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2009 and typed.
“10 yrs today pimp. I appreciate the push.”
The answer came quick: “I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of you brotha!”
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