Mud Hens pitcher Duane Below throws against Indianapolis at Fifth Third Field in April, 2013.
Manuel Lazano removes snow from a lot near Fifth Third Field.
For the third year in a row, Duane Below will begin a baseball season with the Toledo Mud Hens.
But the native of Britton, Mich., who joined many of his teammates at Fifth Third Field on Wednesday in preparation for the coming year, is a much different pitcher than he was the last two seasons.
Physically the 28-year-old lefty isn’t much different from the pitcher who posted a 9-4 record and 3.13 ERA in 18 starts for Toledo in 2011, a performance that earned him a promotion to Detroit.
What makes Below different is what happened last season, which began with a 2.10 ERA in four starts for the Mud Hens. It involved being designated for assignment — in effect, being taken off the 40-man roster — by the Tigers, being claimed off waivers by Miami, bouncing up and down between the Marlins and Triple-A New Orleans, and then finishing the season in South Korea.
“It was crazy, the back-and-forth from here to there,” Below said.
Below’s travels began when the Tigers designated him for assignment in late April, and he was claimed off waivers by Miami.
“At first I was frustrated because I wanted to be [with Detroit]," Below said. "But on my flight to [join New Orleans] I realized this is something I could benefit from.”
The benefits of the move were short-term. While the lefty pitched well for the Zephyrs, finishing the season with a 2.55 ERA in 13 starts, his chances with Miami were limited.
“I was pitching well in Triple-A, but when I got called up … I sat for five days, then pitched one inning, then sat six days and pitched an inning and two-thirds,” Below said.
He allowed six hits and three runs in those 2 2/3 innings and was returned to New Orleans. He earned another promotion to Miami, but that was even shorter.
“When I got called up the second time, they never did call down to the bullpen for me,” Below said. “Then right before the All-Star break, they sent me back down.
“I didn’t know what their plan was. I wanted to pitch, but I didn’t know what to expect.”
It was about then Below learned about another opportunity.
“Right before the All-Star break, my agency called and said a team from [South] Korea was interested in me,” he said. “Then when I got sent down, another team contacted my agency and said they were interested.
“I’m glad that I went. I learned a lot. I got a chance to travel and see the world while playing baseball.”
Below joined the Kia Tigers in the Korea Professional League, and in his time there he went 3-2 with a save and a 4.02 ERA.
“The strike zone was a little smaller,” Below said. “There were guys who might swing 2-0, but most guys would take pitches and take a walk. So you had to get ahead of hitters there, just like you do here.
“I think it will benefit me to have learned not to nibble, and to get ahead of hitters.”
Below said he also learned how to sharpen his concentration for an unlikely reason.
“The fans are awesome to see, because they are so into the game,” he said. “They cheer non-stop. …
“They bang sticks together. Each hitter has a song, and [the fans] sing each player’s song. They have cheerleaders, and they have huge speakers that play music non-stop while the game is going on.
“There’s so much going on, you have to focus.”
Below re-signed with the Tigers this off-season and will again begin the season with the Mud Hens — as a different person.
“[Last year] was first time I was going through the business side of [baseball],” he said.
“Obviously it’s not fun, but I had to go through it.
“You can’t get comfortable — you have to keep working. There are lots of jobs available, and I came back to Toledo to work and try to get back to the big leagues.”