By: Steve Miller – Sports Editor
Music sounded from a central speaker in the San Diego Padres’ visiting clubhouse. Players milled about, buzzing before an average Friday night ballgame against the Washington Nationals. For relief pitcher Craig Stammen, though, there was some added attention.
Reporters, broadcasters, and team officials stood near his locker, waiting to catch up with an old friend.
Stammen, a 2005 draft pick from Dayton, was returning to Washington, D.C. for the first time since 2015 after spending parts of seven seasons pitching for the Nationals. He was on two NL East Championship teams, in 2012 and 2014, and was one of the more durable relievers with the team during those peak years.
He stood with a constant smile as those old acquaintances just wanted a few words, or a handshake, turning the nondescript relief pitcher into the clubhouse’s most coveted celebrity.
“It’s fun recognizing everything in the city and knowing where to go,” Stammen said of his return to the D.C. “It brings back a lot of memories from when I played here for all those years. So, [I’m] excited to be back. Fun to be out there competing against the guys I used to play with.”
Stammen, who grew up in North Star, Ohio, had really hit his stride with the Nationals at the close of 2014, having posted three consecutive seasons in the big leagues with a sub-4.00 earned run average. But in April 2015, he underwent surgery to repair torn flexor tendons and never pitched for the Nationals again.
He battled his way through rehab and signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians in 2016, but bounced around with three different minor league teams without making it back to the bigs.
“It was one of those situations there where they were willing to let me come back from my injury, and I felt like their medical staff was a good place for me to be at that time,” Stammen said of his season in Cleveland’s organization. “And I didn’t quite get healthy enough to where I could help that big league team out, and they were really good at the time.”
The Indians ended up winning the American League in 2016 before losing to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, and Stammen again found himself a free agent.
In December, he signed a deal with the Padres. And after a healthy spring training, he found himself back on a major league team.
“It was tough at times, also exciting in another way. It was a test of my perseverance,” Stammen said optimistically of his rehabilitation. “And it made me a stronger man, a stronger brain, you know, a little bit more wisdom along the way. So [I’m] kind of excited to see what the end of my career will have in store with those lessons learned over the last couple of years, but definitely wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Pitching out of the bullpen, Stammen got off to a rocky start this season. Over three consecutive appearances in April, he allowed 10 runs as his ERA ballooned to 10.24. But since then he has settled down, allowing just one or fewer runs in seven of his last eight appearances.
And on Saturday at Nationals Park, Stammen recorded his best outing of the season. He threw two scoreless, no-hit innings against the Nationals in his first appearance as a visiting pitcher in Washington. As of that game, his ERA sits at 5.02.
“I think I was a fish out of water there for a little bit, I couldn’t remember how to get guys out,” he said of his season’s start. “But lately I’ve started to pitch a little bit better and I feel a little bit more comfortable. I feel a lot more like my old self.”
Hopefully for the 33-year-old, 2017 will be his career’s renaissance as the year opened a new chapter in his personal life as well.
In January, Stammen married his wife Audrey, who was an assistant volleyball coach for UD, at Holy Angels Church. The two then honeymooned to Hawaii, where with one golf swing, Audrey got more athletic notoriety for the name “Stammen” than Craig had in his seven MLB seasons.
At a course on the island of Lanai, Audrey hit a hole-in-one on a par-three, and Craig just so happened to be taking video. The swing, along with the couple’s jubilant reaction, made its way around the internet before being featured on Time.com.
Going viral was an unexpected, but fun twist to the couple’s honeymoon.
“It was a new experience. I kind of knew what would happen if that video got out to people, and I don’t think she knew,” Stammen said.
He added: “I think after about two weeks she was like ‘I’m tired of everybody watching this video.’ But it was real exciting. It was a cool way to end our honeymoon, and a cool way to kick off our marriage and get ready for the baseball season. So a lot of smiles, a lot of laughter, a lot of good memories, you know, something we still talk about today.”
But be it winning a division title in D.C., striking viral gold in Hawaii, or pitching in sunny San Diego, Stammen’s heart will always be back home in Ohio.
“We’re actually building a house back where I grew up. Making [Audrey] an Ohioan and a Dayton Flyer for life I guess,” Stammen said. “Luckily, she was coaching there when I was looking for a wife, and things have worked out and happily ever after.”
Photos courtesy of Steve Miller/Sports Editor