Ron Flores knows a thing or two about earning his dues. The USC graduate has never had anything handed to him in baseball. He had to fight for playing time at USC and, after being drafted in the 29th round of the 2000 amateur draft, had to prove his worth as a professional at every level he played at. Nevertheless, Flores persevered through nearly six years of long bus rides and small paychecks, hoping for a chance to realize his dream: to play in the major leagues.
In a lot of ways, Flores isn’t your typical minor leaguer. For one, he is a college graduate, having earned a degree in economics from USC. For two, he usually spends his off-season teaching kids mathematical formulas rather than how to throw split-fingered fastballs. Yet, in some ways, his story is similar to so many players who fill the ranks of the minor leagues in that he has appeared in more than 270 minor league games, logged 346 innings and countless miles through the small towns of America in the pursuit of a singular goal.
Flores knew the odds of making the big leagues were slim (after all, he is a mathematician). However, he also had a model to follow in his older brother Randy, who toiled in the minors for six seasons before getting his first taste of the big leagues. Randy is now a regular member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen. Now Ron takes his 11 strong major league appearances and his 3.25 ERA in the minor leagues to his first big league spring training camp next month in hopes of making the leap from major league rookie to major league regular. OaklandClubhouse.com caught up with him as he prepares to battle for a spot in the A’s bullpen.
OC: What was it like for you to get the call to the big leagues for the first time?
Flores: Being called up the first time was kind of the culmination of the last 20 years, really. It felt like it was vindication for everything I had been working towards. You know, when you have a wife and you have two kids, if you stay in minor league baseball for five or six years and don’t make it, you are kind of an idiot (laughing), but when you make it, you are praised for sticking with it. It was great to be able to say that I stuck with it and that it was all worth it.
OC: Were you nervous when you arrived with the team?
Flores: It was a little nerve-racking when I got called up. Luckily, the A’s are such a young team and such an in-house team that I knew almost all the guys before I got there, so there was a level of comfort there. However, I really wanted to make a good impression, not just with pitching, but socially, as well. It’s sort of like the first day at a new school. You don’t want to put anyone off or make the wrong impression. I wanted to make sure that I was paying the proper respect to the coaches and to the veteran players, so I think I was a little more reserved the first few days I was there.
OC: Had you worked much with the Oakland coaching staff before you arrived there?
Flores: I knew Curt Young because he was the pitching coach at Sacramento in 2003 and I was called up to Sacramento that year for the last month of the season. We hit it off really well because we were similar kinds of players, both smaller lefties who don’t necessarily throw that hard. It was great to learn from him because we are similar and he had so much success at the big league level.
He was also the first coach who was really able to back me off of being so pumped up and emotional about my numbers. In my first AAA outing, I gave up seven runs in two-thirds of an inning, so all of a sudden, my ERA was 95.00. I have always been a really big numbers guy and I have always taken great pride in posting good statistics for ERA and strike outs, and things like that throughout my career. I was having such a great season in 2003 that it was really devastating to me for the numbers to be that big at the outset in AAA. Curt really calmed me down and took me aside and said that I needed to ignore the numbers and focus more on what kind of outing I was having each time out there in terms of location and stuff.
OC: What was the biggest thing you learned this season? How did you handle facing Jim Thome in your first outing?
Flores: I think I grew a lot maturity-wise this year. I talked to a lot of the guys at AAA and at the big leagues who had major league experience and they all stressed that there are only so many things that you can control as a pitcher. You really have to lock-in and focus on throwing your pitch and hitting your location and you can’t really think about all the stuff that is going on around you. Like when I was facing Thome, I had to think about how I had thrown a 2-1 slider a million times and focus on that. If I thought about the fact that I owned his rookie card, I would have never been able to make the pitch.
OC: What are you looking to improve on the most next year? Or are you satisfied with where you are at right now?
Flores: I think there is always room for improvement. I really want to show this year that I can be extremely effective against lefties. If I am in the A’s bullpen, I’m going to be a lefty specialist. I know that I’ve never been particularly dominant against left-handed hitters [as opposed to righties]. I’ve always been an even-keel guy who they put in for one or two innings and just let him go against both lefties and righties. However, the higher up you get, the more they focus on how good you are against left-handers. They are paying righties millions of dollars to get out right-handed batters, so I know my role is going to be to get out the lefties. I’m really focusing on getting the two-seamer in tight to lefties consistently, being able to throw my slider anytime and throwing a change-up to lefties, something I haven’t really done much so far in my career.
OC: Did you learn much about being a lefty-specialist from Ricardo Rincon last season?
Flores: Just watching how Rincon went about his business was very helpful. You can tell just by watching him and seeing him talk and set-up that he totally trusts himself and his ability to get the job done. He is what he is and he doesn’t try to do more than what he is capable of. You know that he isn’t going to try to throw harder then he can. He’ll come out there and paint that slider low and outside each time. He’s really consistent. I think that managers really look for that because they know what they are going to get with him each time. He’s not going to get overexcited in any situation. I really learned from him that you need to trust yourself and go to your strengths and not to try to do too much when you are out there.
OC: Did you play close attention to Rincon’s situation this off-season?
Flores: Oh, yeah, I had news alerts set up and my family was calling me all of the time with updates. It was kind of crazy how it worked out with Rincon ending up in St. Louis [his brother, Randy, is in the Cardinals’ bullpen]. I know it sounds selfish, but it was a huge thing for me when I knew that he wasn’t coming back.
OC: How much did having your brother go through several seasons in the minor leagues and then make the big leagues affect your career?
Flores: I think if I was an only child, I probably wouldn’t be in the big leagues. I probably wouldn’t have even known that college baseball was out there for someone like me without him paving the way, to be honest. It was just amazing to watch a guy from a small town without great physical gifts make it so far. It was nuts how he was able to stick it out when it seemed like he was sent back to AA every year with the Yankees despite posting really good numbers. He was one of those guys who was incredibly consistent with his approach every year regardless of whether it seemed like the big leagues were in the cards for him that year or not. I really learned a lot from watching him persevere, that regardless of the situation, you always had to approach the season with the same mindset.
OC: Was it hard for you to not get added to the 40-man roster or receive a spring training invite after making the All-Star team and having a solid year for the River Cats in 2004?
Flores: The day I got my minor league spring training invitation letter [last off-season] was probably my lowest day in baseball over the last several years, at least. I had a wife and we had just had another kid and I was starting to wonder how I was going to feed them. I had just come off of a good year and I had made the All-Star team and I really thought going into that off-season that something was going to happen, whether it was with the 40-man roster, the Rule 5 draft or a spring training invite.
When none of those things happened and it seemed like I was not in the A’s plans for 2005, I really started to wonder if this was the right thing to do. It took a few days to get over, to be honest. For a couple of days, I sort of stayed away from the world a bit, but I have a great wife and a great family and they were very supportive and encouraged me to keep going and kept reminding me that there were other guys who were in my situation of not seeming like I was in the team’s plan for the year and they made it. I kind of got re-energized for the season after that and I decided that if this was going to be my last year or last couple of years in baseball, I was going to make them count. I think it put me in a good frame of mind to have a good year.
OC: How has this off-season been different for you since you are now on the 40-man roster and you got the service time during the season?
Flores: This off-season has been a lot more relaxing and exciting. This is the first off-season where I haven’t had to substitute teach and so I have been able to be home with my kids and have been able to focus on training for the season. Past off-seasons weren’t really very relaxing because I was teaching and doing everything possible to make a little extra money to help feed my family. This year has actually been an off-season and it has allowed me to do more training and be really ready for the season.
OC: Is your family going to come to Phoenix with you for spring training?
Flores: My oldest son is in kindergarten, so I think we’ve decided that we’ll home-school him for the year so that they can come with me wherever I end up. They’ll come out to Phoenix and we’ll see from there where we go. It’s a lot easier when you have your base with you like that.
OC: You pitched with a lot of great hurlers at USC, like Mark Prior in 2000. Who were some of the best?
Flores: Prior is just a freak. I mean he has the perfect pitcher’s body, tree-trunk legs, throws 94-95 and paints the corners effortlessly. So he was incredible to watch. Then the year before, it was Zito. It was amazing to watch him just breeze into town and win ten games and throw like that. And the year before that was Seth Etherton, who had a really professional approach to the game. They would all go up there and have their complete focus on striking guys out. You knew that they would all be in the big leagues in a few years, so it was pretty amazing to watch them all pitch at that level.
OC: What was the college experience like at USC? How did you like playing Pac-10 baseball?
Flores: The whole USC/college experience was fun. It was painful to leave early because I think it was about as fun as any college experience could be. The level of competition in the Pac-10 was amazing. Every guy you played against, it seemed, had a chance to make the big leagues. I mean, you’d be playing against a guy at Arizona or something like that and think he wasn’t that great and then a few years later he’d be playing in the major leagues. I think if I had gone to a junior college or to a smaller school where I could have played more, it might have lowered my standards in terms of my own level of play. I think playing at USC helped prepare me for playing in the minor leagues because it set me up to achieve against longer odds and to compete for limited playing time.
OC: How important was it for you to get the A’s to agree to pay for the rest of your school when you signed your contract in 2000?
Flores: It was the biggest thing for me to get the A’s to pay for my last two semesters of college [before signing the contract]. Luckily, I had kept pace with my grades and with classes so that I was on-track to graduate in four years. Rick Magnante, the A’s scout who signed me, I think was taken off-guard when I made it clear that paying for my education would be a deal-breaker for me. I don’t think they have had too many guys be that insistent about paying for school, so it took them a little longer to get the contract done than it would normally. I finished school in the first two off-seasons that I had after I signed, first after short-season in Vancouver and the next year after playing in Modesto.
OC: Are you into all of the different statistical formulas that have been developing in baseball lately?
Flores: I don’t get too deep into [the different baseball statistical formulas], but I’m never too far away from my cell-phone calculator to figure out my WHIP or my BB/9. I know most of the formulas for those sorts of stats. When I get some down time in the off-season, I’ll pull out a sheet of paper and figure out all of my career statistics or my season statistics in a different category.
OC: Do you see yourself becoming a teacher full-time after baseball?
Flores: I think if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have definitely said that teaching was in my plans for sure. The payoffs you get from teaching are pretty amazing. I started out substitute teaching eighth grade pre-algebra and I have been around the substitute teaching world for so long now that I was beginning to get some longer term gigs where I got to spend more time with a class. I think watching someone learn something they couldn’t do before is pretty incredible. I think having kids of my own has made me appreciate that even more. I am coaching my son’s tee-ball team now – I’m the manager (laughing) – and it is great to see kids learn.
However, the more I play baseball, the more I realize how much I want to stay around the game in some capacity. I have learned to really love the atmosphere and the lifestyle of the game. I could see myself becoming a pitching coach or being in the front office working on deals down the road. Right now, though, I plan to play baseball until they rip the jersey off of me (laughing).