PORTLAND – Nate Spears returned home in September 2004.
Only there was no home.
Just one month earlier while Spears was playing his first full season of professional baseball, Hurricane Charley exploded onto Florida’s southwest coast, ripping through Spears’ hometown of Port Charlotte.
“I went home and didn’t recognize it,” Spears said.
Family and friends had houses severely damaged. So Spears did what comes natural: He showed up and got to work.
“I learned how to roof. I learned how to put windows in. I painted. I tiled,” Spears said. “I spent all offseason helping rebuild three houses. I learned a couple of trades and enjoyed doing it.”
Nearly six years later, Spears does not seem to have changed much. He works. He has fun, even when the circumstances would seem to dictate otherwise.
Spears, 25, is a one of the leading players on the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A second baseman who can field several positions, Spears will play in the Eastern League All-Star game today in Harrisburg, Pa.
He will be joined by three teammates: third baseman Ray Chang, relief pitcher Jason Rice and starting pitcher Stephen Fife, who will take part in the festivities but not pitch.
Spears should not be playing in today’s game, not because he hasn’t earned it but because he appears to have earned more, namely a chance to play in Triple-A.
Spears played all last year for Triple-A Iowa in the Cubs’ organization. He thought the Cubs liked his abilities. But Spears struggled for months, batting .204 through June 26.
“I guess I shut the door on myself,” Spears said.
But even when he finished strong over the last two-plus months, batting .324, the door never re-opened.
He finished with a .253 average. After the season when his contract was up, the Cubs showed no interest.
“I finally turned it on, but it was too late in the season,” Spears said. “I needed another couple of weeks to (get the batting average up).
“I guess they were done with me. They had a lot of young guys coming up.”
Spears doesn’t sound bitter.
“It was fun, really fun,” Spears said. “I had a decent year. I learned new positions.”
Spears was drafted out of Charlotte High School in 2003 by the Baltimore Orioles in the fifth round. He was traded to the Cubs in 2006 in a deal for outfielder Corey Patterson.
“He’s a young kid,” Sea Dogs Manager Arnie Beyeler said. “He’s got some experience. He can play anywhere. Great teammate. Great worker.”
Compliments are nice. Beyeler knows Spears needs something else.
“Numbers make a difference,” he said.
With his .253 average in Triple-A last year, Spears joined the minor league free-agent market.
Signing with a weaker organization would seem to make sense. Spears might have an easier time to make it to the majors.
Instead, he signed with the Red Sox.
“They offered me a good deal and I’ve heard nothing but awesome things about them,” Spears said. “I’m very happy with my choice.
“This is one of the most relaxed years I’ve had. The coaching staff, all the front-office guys, it’s real first-class here.”
But wouldn’t Spears rather have gone someplace where he would be guaranteed a Triple-A roster spot?
Spears said playing was more important. The Red Sox told him he might begin his season in Triple-A Pawtucket, but only as a sparsely used utility player.
“I’m glad they sent me here because I’d much rather play every day,” he said.
Spears is taking advantage of the opportunity, batting .270 with a career-high 10 home runs. He is among the league leaders in walks (59), runs (61) and on-base percentage (.394).
Defensively, Spears shows great range while seamlessly turning double plays.
Spears, like Chang, another Triple-A veteran and minor league free agent, should be given a shot in Pawtucket. But the Red Sox seem to like stocking Pawtucket with a combination of homegrown prospects and journeymen who have some major league experience. The latter describe Pawtucket’s current infielders: Tug Hulett, Gil Velazquez, Niuman Romero and Argenis Reyes.
Is there room in Triple-A for a player like Spears? He said he cannot think about it. Minor league free agents are on one-year contracts. If Boston isn’t interested, another team might be.
“Whatever is going to happen will happen. If you look too much into the future, then you forget about what’s happening now” he said. “You’ve got to worry about what you’re doing day to day. When the time comes, you’ve got to be ready. And hopefully that time will come.
“I’ve got to put up some numbers and have a good second half, and hopefully I’ll get some offers.”
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]