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Las Vegas’ Sean Kazmar savors improbable return to the majors

The Atlanta Braves had just lost to the Chicago Cubs on Saturday, but what happened in the fifth inning made the result more of a footnote.

Sean Kazmar Jr., a former Las Vegas High and Community College of Southern Nevada (now CSN) baseball star, had pinch hit and — like the 13-4 score itself — his double-play ground out was secondary to the larger story line.

His at-bat was his first major league appearance since 2008, a span of 12 years and 206 days, the ninth-longest between appearances since 1900.

“That was one of the greatest moments I’ve had as a manager at all the levels,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters after the game. “It’s amazing. It’s a book or movie waiting to happen.”

Kazmar hopes what Snitker called his “second debut” is more of a second beginning. But Kazmar has learned not to get too far ahead of himself and try to take advantage of any opportunity that comes his way.

He since appeared in Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees, but did not have an at-bat.

He’s a 36-year-old rookie, a combination of the lead characters in baseball movies “The Natural,” “Bull Durham” and “The Rookie.” All focused on players in their 30s finding their place in a young man’s game. Only the “The Rookie” was a true story, a former high school chemistry teacher who made his major league debut at 35.

Kazmar has been compared to Crash Davis, the veteran minor league catcher in “Bull Durham” who mentors the hotshot pitching prospect. “I’ve got that reference a few times minus all the homers,” Kazmar said earlier this week in a phone interview.

Road less traveled

This, of course, wasn’t the path Kazmar expected to take when he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2004 out of CSN.

Up until that point, Kazmar had succeeded at every level, beginning at Las Vegas High in 1999. Coach Sam Thomas opted to start him as a freshman over a senior at shortstop and Kazmar “never gave it back.”

“He was and still is by far the best shortstop I’ve seen play in high school in Las Vegas,” Thomas said. “There have been a few that have been drafted since. They’ve been bigger, they’ve been stronger and still to this day I’ve yet to see a shortstop compare to him in this town.”

Kazmar was made the team captain his junior and senior years, choosing to play at CSN rather than head to the minor leagues after the St. Louis Cardinals took him in the 32nd round of the 2002 draft.

CSN overcame a first-game loss in the 2003 Junior College World Series by rolling the rest of the way to the national title. Kazmar, who helped turn a number of double plays, made the all-tournament team.

“I felt like Kazmar could cover everything from the five-hole (to) all the way behind second,” said Steve Jacobucci, the longtime Coyotes trainer.

Though the Coyotes didn’t repeat in 2004, Kazmar batted .330 with 21 stolen bases, improving his professional status in the process. The Oakland Athletics had taken him in the 37th round the year before, so when the Padres drafted him in the fifth, Kazmar knew he couldn’t turn it down even after signing with Georgia.

“I’ve been coaching 15 years and Kazmar is hands-down the best player I’ve ever coached,” then CSN-coach Tim Chambers said after the draft. “If I had to take the top 20 plays I’ve ever seen my players make, he’s made 19 of them.”

Chambers would later coach a youngster named Bryce Harper, but Kazmar’s impact was such that in 2009 his was the first of four numbers retired by the Coyotes. Harper’s number was retired in 2011.

Promising beginning

Kazmar reached the majors in 2008, playing 19 games for the Padres and going 8-for-39 at the plate. His last appearance came on Sept. 23 of that season.

Little did Kazmar know that it would be more than 12 years before he got another shot.

He held out hope, though, playing Triple-A ball from 2009 to 2019, except for a 57-game stint in Double A in 2012. Just one step from the big leagues, Kazmar was close enough to believe he was one injury at the top level or hot stretch in the minors from being called up.

Yet the call didn’t come.

“My love for the game never wavered,” Kazmar said. “Obviously, I would’ve loved to have been here the last 12 years. But at the end of the day, I was still able to play baseball and do the thing I love most and be out on the field.

“Just the sheer fact I’ve been able to stick around this long and have longevity in this game is certainly satisfying. So if this call-up never would’ve happened, I could’ve looked at myself in the mirror and know that I gave everything that I had. But to have this opportunity again really made it so much more special.”

Never gave up

Kazmar’s routine never changed. He continued to go to spring training each year hoping he would finally get another chance. That was his approach in 2020 as well when spring training began before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc.

“I think most people’s thoughts were it might be a few weeks, maybe a month max,” Kazmar said of the COVID-induced shutdown that wound up canceling the minor league season. “So it was easy to stay ready.”

He bought a baseball net and hit off a tee in his garage in Goodyear, Arizona, ready to play if needed.

Kazmar was finally needed at the highest level this year. That it was with Atlanta made it even sweeter. Kazmar was born in Valdosta, Georgia, and grew up a Braves fan even after moving to Las Vegas as a 5-year-old.

Maybe he will coach in that organization one day as well. For now, Kazmar said the Braves have encouraged him to play as long as he can.

“I’m trying to enjoy this as much as I can,” he said.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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