You don’t know where life will take you.
“I never thought I would be working in insurance/risk management.” - Josh Kroeger quote on scic.com
When you are just a kid you dream of becoming a professional sports player or perhaps an actor or singer. If not, a police man, fire man or any other heroic profession we might think of, is fine too. Once reality sets in a bit more and we realise we are not going to conquer the world, we end up in a job like an insurance agent (and maybe write for a baseball blog).
But at least Josh Kroeger, who was born in Iowa and brought up in California, is able to say that he made his dream reality and, for a brief period, touched the heaven of playing Major League Baseball.
The sky was the limit at that moment in 2004, at just 22 years of age, and debuting for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But, looking back, Kroeger really didn’t recall his time in the major leagues as fun at all.
“I guess the experience was not so good. I was not very successful, a lot of strikeouts, and I was very young [...] coming out of high school I really only played 4 years before I was in the Major leagues, so I think that when I started to struggle I didn’t really know how to respond to that ... I had some problems there [in Arizona, DBE] ... there was no team chemistry.” - Josh Kroeger in a 2021 interview on YouTube
Josh Kroeger was a September call-up for the terrible 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, a team of ageing (but still productive) veterans and a lot of youngsters. And a whole bunch of nothings. In 54 ABs he would hit for just a .167 while striking out almost 40% of the times. After that, he would never return to the Major Leagues.
“United States was not too exciting for me playing baseball.” - Josh Kroeger in a 2021 interview on YouTube
“Inexperience is a quality, allowing to do the impossible.”
If you Google for quotes about “young” and “inexperience” a lot of inspirational quotes show up as a result. One of the favourite lines I found was: “inexperience is a quality, allowing to do the impossible”. Well, that sure is one way to look at it. The quote is from Herbert Prochnow, a banker. Maybe that says it all.
With Josh Kroeger the Diamondbacks surely tried to do the impossible: get a kid as soon as possible in the major leagues without a track record that justifies it.
The Diamondbacks in 2000 are still a young franchise. Mike Rizzo has just taken over as scouting director and the club probably still has to shake off its inexperience in scouting and drafting. As Jim McLennan would recall in 2005, the Diamondbacks were not very good at picking talent in their early years.
If the club was learning how to detect and acquire the best talent, is it that strange to imagine that developing and guiding players was another possible problem?
Because Josh Kroeger wasn’t the type of baseball prodigy you might expect, although the kid that grew up a San Diego Padres fan was good at it, no doubt about that! At just 17 years of age the outfielder is selected by the Diamondbacks in the 4th round of the 2000 amateur draft. He is one of just two high-school picks for the D-Backs. Maybe the team wasn’t eager to pick players they had to develop for a longer period of time.
Not in a lifetime would a kid like Josh Kroeger nowadays be promoted throughout the D-Backs’ minor league system like the club did with him in the early 2000s. After getting drafted out of Scripps HS the outfielder debuts for the AZL Diamondbacks in 2000 with a .778 OPS.
In 2001 he plays for the South Bend Silver Hawks in Class A and hits .687...and the following year is promoted to A+. For the Lancaster JetHawks he hits .620...the next year Kroeger achieves a mid-season promotion to AA.
In 2004 at just 21 years of age he starts in AA for the El Paso Diablos (thanks, Justin!), gets promoted to the Tucson Sidewinders in AAA and even makes his debut for the Diamondbacks in the MLB. Wow! But after that disastrous 2004 debut, Kroeger is quickly optioned back to Triple A. The prospect watchers still regard him pretty well in 2005, as a top 10 Diamondbacks prospect on Baseball America and even a top 5 at Minor ball. But in 2005 he spends the entire season in Tucson. His prospect status is fading away and at the beginning of 2006 he is claimed off waivers by the Phillies.
“La Pesadilla” in Venezuela.
In 2006 Josh Kroeger travels to Venezuela for the first time to play in the Winter Leagues for the Águilas de Zulia. That team is led by John Russell, who is Kroeger’s Triple A coach at the Phillies. He convinces Kroeger to work on his hitting and strikeout ratio during the off-season in a competitive environment.
That starts to work. His strikeout ratio drops to below 20% while he succeeds in getting more free passes. In 2007 Kroeger hits a combined .330/.401/.550 in AA and AAA for the Chicago Cubs and continues that upward trend in 2008 as well.
“That was the time I was ready as a player, mentally”. - Josh Kroeger in a 2021 interview on YouTube
But despite the good numbers he does not get a call-up to the majors:
“That can be frustrating but you have to understand that sometimes you can have the best year and you don’t have a spot.” - Josh Kroeger in a 2021 interview on YouTube
While playing in the Cubs’ minor league system, he befriends Jose Ascanio, a Venezuelan pitcher. Ascanio, who’d appear in 5 major league seasons, gets him into contact with the Leones de Caracas. It would be the start of an enjoyable “career” in the Venezuelan Winter League.
There are many videos and articles (in Spanish) about Josh Kroeger and his time in the LVBP. The American is still a very popular player, especially in Caracas: Kroeger has a feeling for delivering clutch hits and more than once against the Leones’ rival Navegantes del Magallanes.
He gets the nickname “La Pesadilla”, the nightmare, because of his last name, which is actually pronounced Kroger but in Venezuela was often pronounced as Kruger, like the character from the horror movie franchise. Add to that his great batting stats, haunting the pitchers in the Venezuelan league, and a legendary nickname is born.
Kroeger wins MVPs, titles and, having played for 5 years in the Venezuelan baseball leagues, is rumoured to be a candidate to make the Hall of Fame. Quite the achievement of an American player in what is nowadays an environment not really “America”-friendly.
“[Venezuela] means everything for me in my career. Playing for Caracas in that atmosphere with those fans, there is nothing like it in baseball. To me that is the most exciting you can ever [have] in baseball. Venezuela saved my career in baseball. It gave me another life. - Josh Kroeger in a 2021 interview on YouTube
During his baseball career Kroeger never stops trying to reach the major leagues again. In 2011 he is close to that goal, while with the Florida Marlins. He has a good season in AAA but gets infamously injured while celebrating a walk-off. He needs a knee surgery from which he, apparently, never fully recovers.
“That was probably the worst part of my career. [...] In a lot of ways it ended my career too. [...] I thought I was going to go back to the major leagues again and then finally that happened...it was all over from there. Just unfortunate, stupid...I don’t know how else to explain that. [...] That was a hard year for me.” - Josh Kroeger in a 2021 interview on YouTube
After a season in Triple A for Boston and Atlanta in 2012 and just a month of independent baseball in 2013, Kroeger pretty much says goodbye to baseball although he returns to his beloved Venezuelan Winter League for a final round with the Bravos de Margaritas in 2014-15. He admits he needed to play at the stadium of the Leones de Caracas again, in front of his fans, and then officially retires in 2015.
He moves to Tennessee with his family, returns to school and graduates in Risk Management and Insurance and starts a job at an insurance agency. He is also a hitting coach for a baseball school in his hometown Murfreesboro.
But he is also “La Pesadilla”: a legend in Venezuela.