Wolfson: Mark Hamburger trying to revive career derailed by drug use
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It's a story nearly as unique as his last name.
Shoreview native Mark Hamburger, 26, earned a contract with the Minnesota Twins out of a tryout camp in 2007. Stopping the narrative there would be enough. He then made it to the Majors in 2011 with Texas, a Hollywood-esque ending.
But then, even before the prime of his career, he failed one drug test, then a second.
He's trying to rehab his image with the St. Paul Saints this summer, a team he grew up watching -- he preferred the cheaper tickets and the outdoor experience versus the Metrodome.
If he gets another chance with a Major League organization, Hamburger will have to serve a 50-game suspension. Scouts are watching though. The Twins had their regional guy, Mark Wilson, at Midway Stadium to see Hamburger throw last week.
I recently sat down with Hamburger to cover his career, his drug use, and his time in treatment at Hazelden:
You have a heck of a story to tell from multiple angles. In 2007, you made the Twins out of their tryout at the Dome?
A: My dad is the one who brought me up. My buddy Justin and me decided to go down there to get our names out. Just wanted to have some fun. We heard it was for anybody, especially guys in college. It was on a whim. The fact it turned into what it did was a crazy experience. It's probably the most memorable time I've had.
So, you go, and next thing you know, you're on a plane for rookie ball?
A: They came up to me in the dugout and asked if I was doing anything. I told them I was thinking about playing summer ball in Nebraska. They said you can quit that and come play with us. I said, "Where do I sign?" It was pretty cool.
Then fast-forwarding, you got a phone call a time later that you had been traded to Texas.
A: Traded for Eddie Guardado. I was like, 'Cool, who was I traded with?' They said nobody. I was like, that's it? I remember watching Eddie when I was a little kid. It was shocking. But it was a cool experience. It was the first time I had seen my name on the bottom of ESPN.
It worked out ok because you went to the right organization. It took a little while, but you made it to the big leagues.
A: I had a lot of fun. My first two years with the Twins I made a lot of good buddies -- like your first year of college. Then with the Rangers I established a bunch of good relationships. Everyone was awesome.
You struggled in 2009. Was that just on the mound?
A: I was battling with some coaches. I was still growing. My flexibility was different. Every year you better yourself a little bit based on what you did the year before. I was a little bigger. I hit the gym more. I wasn't as flexible. I didn't focus on my arm and mind. I just struggled. But the next offseason I had tips on what to do.
Fast-forward to the offseason after your MLB debut in 2011. Did you feel like you were invincible?
A: It did change my attitude a little bit. In ways I felt like this was my year. That I deserved it after what I did in 2011. I also had some issues where I expected too much. It was after the World Series. I basically had a problem with the World Series shares. I didn't receive what I had expected. That made me mad. I actually went against my offseason routine and went and did my own thing. Went out to Colorado and lived with my brother. Went on a party track. It affected me so much that in 2012 I came back underweight. I wasn't in good shape. It affected my whole performance in 2012. That's ultimately why I got released. I slid downhill because of expectations. I was mad after I didn't get what I wanted.
So, November/December 2011 and January 2012. Can you expound on the partying you did?
A: It was trying to get thoughts out of my head. It was taking my madness and drowning my sorrows. It didn't work. It made my performance the next year -- it affected my body. I was feeling bad for myself when nobody would feel bad for me. I was thinking of the negatives instead of the positives -- making a team out of a tryout and sitting in the dugout for a World Series. I was bitter. In everyone else's view, I had a great year. I had a great time in the majors. It was a dream come true. I had an expectation. It was beyond what people saw -- I wanted the money. But it broke me down that offseason. ... Then I realized that I want to play baseball and not worry about the money and the fame. It humbled me a lot.
What are you willing to volunteer about the two failed drug tests?
A: That was part of my anger. I was taken off the 40-man roster. I had an expectation to be a Major Leaguer in September. I wanted the money to give myself a good offseason -- get myself an apartment. When it didn't happen because I was playing poorly and not following directions, I was mad at other people instead of looking at myself. I went into the offseason -- I had always partied since high school. I smoked marijuana since I was young. It was second-nature. It was relaxing. It was social. It was something, in a way, that controlled who I was. I just wanted to go smoke because it freed my mind. I failed those two tests. That's when it hit me: I used baseball to party instead of realizing I had this great opportunity to play baseball. I knew how much I loved baseball when I didn't have it anymore.
When was the last time you got high?
A: Five or six days before I went into treatment. I went up to Hazelden March 1st.
Was that rock-bottom?
A: Yeah. I still had that demon fighting me to go smoke. Go hang out with your friends. Don't go to treatment. When I ended up going -- MLB looks proudly at a guy who wants to get better. I did want to get better. But there were still parts of me nagging me to go do it (smoke). But once I went there -- I battled for four or five days about whether I wanted to stay in treatment -- then I finally had a day where I broke down and gave it up to God. I couldn't do this by myself. I finally just let it all go. I just felt relieved. These last three months have been some of the best times I've had. Treatment was one of the best times I've had. I've gained 15 pounds. It's been crazy seeing me using to the full extent of getting messed up versus really focusing on what I should be doing.
How do you make sure you resist the smoking urge the next time you're around it?
A: There are urges. Lots of urges. But I know I'm a strong person. I did it for 11 years and that's something I look back on and I don't regret it -- the people I met are awesome, the times I had with my friends was incredible. But when I look at what I want to be -- especially for my family and to earn a living, to converse with people, to do what I want to do -- it's against the rules of baseball for me to smoke. What would I rather do? Fight those urges and play baseball? Or not fight those urges and just smoke? This is an opportunity not many have and I'm blessed to have it. The urges don't affect me anymore. I have friends who still smoke and I know I'll be around it. I have been around it. But it doesn't appeal to me like it did, because it's turned into anxiety. If I did smoke, I could feel regret instantly.
What about when baseball is gone?
A: Man, for getting out of treatment three months ago, and trying to think 10 years into the future, that's a little past me. I think daily that I'm getting stronger and that something like that will fade over time. People will say it's a life-long battle. I failed this battle completely and it took me over. That's a mistake I will not make again. Ten years down the road, who knows what'll happen. But I feel good right now.
Think you'll get another chance with a major league organization?
A: I'm pumped just to be here, to be playing again. I'm not someone who gives up lightly. I hope I will. I won't make any guarantees. I'll work as hard as I can.
Where's your stuff/command at? Close to 2011?
A: Absolutely. This is one of the best I've ever felt. I've gained my weight back. I feel like I'm almost throwing better than I ever have location-wise. Just that clarity I have makes me think and act on the ball and where I want to put it. My mind feels better than it ever has. That's a big part of pitching. I feel better than I ever have.
How grateful are you to the Saints for this chance?
A: I'm super grateful. I get to have my friends and family -- my parents have seen me a couple times, but I've been down south for years. I'm super pumped up to be here.
You still keep in contact with anyone from the Rangers?
A: (Reliever) Tanner Scheppers, who I played Triple-A with. I went to the Twins-Rangers game a couple weeks ago and yelled down to the bullpen coach and yelled to the pitching coach. Both said hi and were happy to see me. In a way, I'm partially ashamed, because I want to go back and talk to them in the Majors. I felt weird looking down into the bullpen and saying hi. I want to be there. I want to earn my way back.
That's what drives you...
A: I like to prove people wrong.
That 50-game suspension is still lingering.
A: Well, wherever that is in Arizona or Florida (at a team's facility), I'm waking up and playing baseball everyday. That's all I can think of. I don't look at what time I'm leaving the clubhouse. I get here as early as I can. This is the only place I want to be.
Living by yourself now?
A: I'm in my parents' basement.
That probably isn't a bad thing?
A: I'd prefer to be on my own. It gives me my drive even more. I feel kind of lazy. But at the same time, I love being there. They are support. I know they love having me home. My dad and I play Call of Duty together. Not many kids can say they have dad playing Playstation with them. We have fun. They cook great meals. I'd be Eggo Waffles in the morning. But I'm getting bacon, eggs, ham, and toast.
Do you have a sponsor?
A: My dad's cousin went through a lot of the stuff I did. Maybe even to a different extent. We talk on the constant. He's the coolest dude I've ever met. I don't even go to him just for urges. I call just to talk. Great guy.
How bad do you want baseball?
A: I dream about it every night. I think about it before I go to bed. I wear batter's gloves and I don't even bat. I try to have as much baseball swag as I can. There's not one part of this game that I don't love.
It has to be good to have people asking about you instead of being in rehab?
A: Prior to rehab, I believe I was an open person. But I believe there was a part of me that was hesitant because I was smoking. I feel as though I'm way more free now. ... I guess I just want to be a positive influence for my family and friends. That I can change. That I have.
Are you a party animal?
A: I was a nightly user. There was no moderation. I can have a drink, but that requires moderation. I was never like that with beer. I never liked being drunk. Other drugs wasn't my thing. But with smoking there was no moderation. It was smoke with anybody and everybody. Smoke as much as I wanted to. I guess I was an animal.
Will you go into a bar now?
A: The rule of thumb behind treatment is that you can get addicted to other things. I never liked alcohol. I never liked that drunk feeling. So to have a beer, I feel as though I can. I feel like that's to his, his own. I have gone to see friends. But I stick to Arnold Palmers. I haven't wanted a beer. That one beer, really what's it going to do?
Can you be around marijuana?
A: I don't want to be smoking.
Can the Saints test you?
A: They have the ability to test me. It's in my contract. But I assume if I wanted to smoke, I could smoke.
But the test umbrella is still hanging?
A: Yeah. The umbrella I really have is that if I pitch well enough, I can be picked up. That's an automatic test right there. I'm excited for that because I'm completely clean. I'll be like, "Give me the cup!"
Are your teammates aware of your background?
A: Not really. My coaches are. They ask me everyday how I'm doing. I don't seek support. Even when I was smoking, that's what was out of control. Everything else was fine. I had left moderation out and everything in my life spiraled out of control. But I feel as though I'm not looking for that support group. I just want to be back. I'm not going to think back on my Hazelden days. It was a good time. But I'm moving straight forward. I know what I need to avoid. I know the late night spots that I have to stay away from. But will I avoid my friends who still smoke? No. I love them to death. I love them more than the want to smoke. I feel good where I'm at.
Have you talked to any players in a comparable spot?
A: The main person I think of is Josh Hamilton (former teammate in Texas). I haven't talked to him since my rendezvous at Hazelden. I know guys who have had similar things. But really nobody I keep in contact with. I'm not looking for tips. I know what I need to avoid.
Did you have family with you at Hazelden?
A: My dad came up for Sundays. It was $850 for the retreat/family week. My dad was busy with work.
Are you a different person?
A: Yeah. I was closed off, especially my last couple months. I didn't use for enjoyment. I used to normalize. If I didn't have it, I was distant. There's no uncomfortableness now. My relationship with my parents, sister, neighbors has completely changed. I'm a different person.