EACH year, early June can be a roller coaster of emotions for college and high school baseball players from around the country. With only 40 rounds in the MLB draft (not counting compensation rounds), hundreds of prospects from across the country go undrafted each year. For college seniors, not being drafted could mean the end of a career; forcing them to hang it up and leave the game they’ve dedicated their lives to for the past decade or so. Of course, players who don’t get drafted have other options. Independent ball offers a way for guys to hold on to the dream of playing in the MLB, but chances of going from the Frontier League to the St. Louis Cardinals are slim to none.
In 2012, Tanner Leighton (OF), the #4 ranked NAIA prospect in the country from The Masters College in California, was one of many players in the independent ball system who had been in contact with scouts during his college tenure, yet had no luck come June. After a season of Independent ball, playing with both the Washington Wild Things and London Rippers, Leighton went to play winter ball in Australia. It was in Australia when playing for the Melville Braves of Perth, after speaking with a friend who asked Leighton “would you rather see small town America or the world?,” that the decision to go play overseas became an easy one.
Leighton soon found himself playing for the Solingen Alligators of the German Bundesliga (top league in Germany) in the spring of 2013 and returning this year for the spring of 2014.
During the regular season this year, Leighton hit an astounding .500, and led his team in virtually every statistical category including runs (30), RBI (33), home runs (6), walks (20) and stolen bases (8). He was also voted a Bundesliga All Star in an online vote by the fans. Not too shabby for a 5’9 kid from Idaho who, despite his collegiate accolades, scouts in the states still passed up on. Now, instead of long bus rides to rural towns across the midwest, Leighton is travelling Europe, experiencing different cultures while playing the game he loves. When asked if he would change anything about his baseball journey, Leighton said, “No way. I have loved every minute of it and would not have traded it. I love it and have made life long friendships over here as well.”
Opportunity is what you make of it, and it is evident that Tanner Leighton made the most of this opportunity he was granted.
ONLY 40 minutes down the road from Master College, Chris Mezger was finishing up his 2012 senior year at USC with the Trojans. The 6 foot 10 inch right handed pitcher had all the tools to make him a legitimate draft pick, but similar to Leighton’s story, no phones rang at the end of his college tenure. After a brief stint in Indy ball, Mezger decided to pursue his desire to travel and see the world and decided baseball was his ticket to doing just that. After reaching out to teams across Europe which resulted in numerous offers, he settled with the French champions, the Rouen Huskies.
Rouen is located just 1:45 minutes north of Paris, which was top of Mezger’s bucket list of places to travel to. Rouen was also on the top of another list, the French Elite Division for 9 of the previous 10 years at that time. With Mezger on board the Huskies dominated the French division again and captured their 10th title in 11 years and finished fourth at the European cup, the best finish for a French club in history.
Mezger finished the season at 18-1 and with an era of 0.86. After a strong showing at the European Cup, Mezger gained the exposure needed to create a name for himself in Europe which ultimately helped him to get on with UVV, the Dutch Major League club in Utrecht, Netherlands. This was an opportunity for him to play the top baseball that Europe has to offer and also see another country that is rich with culture. This was not an easy feat as the Dutch clubs are known to normally import only players with former minor league experience. His Dutch club was in the middle of the pack and therefore Mezger did not get to play at the European cup again. However, he was able to make his way to Prague Baseball Week (Czech Republic) where he played for the International Stars, a team of imports to Europe and the eventual winner of the tournament in 2013.
Upon his return to the States in the fall of 2013, Mezger didn’t waste time by signing on with the Solingen Alligators for the 2014 season. In 2013 the Alligators had fallen to the dynasty club the Regensburg Legionnaire who had won their fourth straight title after Solingen blew a 5-1 lead in the fifth and final game of the championships series. The Gators were looking to Mezger and Leighton to help revenge that devastating loss and to bring home their second championship in club history.
For those of you who do not know much about German baseball, the city of Regensburg is a baseball paradise. Regensburg features a 10,000 seat stadium, has hosted World Baseball Classic qualifiers, European championships and oh yea, had won the German Bundesliga 4 of the last 5 years coming into 2014. Basically the German version of the New York Yankees of the late 90’s early 2000’s, Regensburg has been synonymous with winning by grooming their own talent from a young age as well as importing ex-minor league players.
In 2014, Mezger, Leighton and the Alligators led the north division with an outstanding record of 21-3, positioning them as the team to beat heading into the post season. Solingen faced their nemesis from 2013 in the semi-final and were able to take them out in 4 games, advancing them to the championship series and ending the Regensburg dynasty. In the final series they squared off with the long term German powerhouse, Heidenheim Heidekopfe. The back and forth series came down to the wire in game 4 with Mezger on the mound going the distance in a 2-1 win to claim the German championship 3-1, Mezger’s second European championship in three years. Behind Mezger and Leighton’s leadership, the Alligators were able to win their second German title in club history.
“It was a perfect storm, everything just kind of came together for us. We had a deep set of imports and all of them performed the way they were supposed to” claimed Mezger of the success of the Alligators in 2014. “These have been the three best summers I have ever had, the experiences have been off the chart” said Mezger when reflecting back on the past three years playing in Europe.
– by Kyle Kennett & David Burns
UPDATE: Tanner Leighton wins the “Best Batter of the North Division”!
Related: IBC Podcast Interviews with Chris Mezger: