ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Caleb Joseph now can concede that there were several times during those late-night bus rides through the Eastern League when he considered calling it quits on his lifelong dream of making it to the major leagues.
Joseph felt stuck in Double-A, a minor league proving ground for some and a glass ceiling for others, watching younger teammates as he grew older.
That is what made Joseph's promotion to the major leagues May 7 from Triple-A Norfolk so satisfying. When the Orioles needed a catcher after Matt Wieters began experiencing discomfort in his throwing elbow, Joseph received his long-awaited call to the big leagues.
"It was very emotional," said Joseph, who turned 28 on Wednesday. "I don't have any problem telling you that I couldn't finish my BP round [when he received the news]. I was in tears. It was so emotional because I felt like I knew I could play here. … You think about all those moments when I almost gave this up. It's so much sweeter knowing that I really did persevere through a lot of stuff personally, mentally, physically and spiritually. I'm a rookie and I'm 28, but it's better late than never, I guess."
When the Orioles acquired veteran catcher Nick Hundley in a trade with the San Diego Padres on May 24, the club kept Joseph over Opening Day backup Steve Clevenger. And now, with Wieters out for the season following Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, Joseph has become the club's primary starter behind the plate.
It's a long way from where Joseph was in the offseason. After winning the Eastern League Player of the Year award last season with Double-A Bowie, he was left off the organization's 40-man roster and passed over by every other team in the Rule 5 draft in December.
Joseph expected to open the season at Bowie for the fifth straight year. And he considered quitting before his newlywed wife, Brooke, nudged him to keep playing at least until he became a free agent at the end of this season. He started the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
"When you play 400-something games at one level, you're getting into Crash Davis territory," Joseph said, referring to the career minor league catcher played by Kevin Costner in the movie Bull Durham. "And being a catcher, some of the guys called me Crash. It was funny for a little bit, but after a while, you're like this is not how I envisioned my career and getting older and older. I felt like I was playing well, and then nothing happens. And you really have to think, 'Is this really what I want to do, need to do, should be doing, what I'm being called to do?'
"I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that, just about once a week, I thought about hanging it up a couple years ago. I went from somebody to nobody so many times, back and forth, back and forth."
Joseph was rejuvenated when he received an invitation to major league camp this spring. It was his third major league camp in four seasons, but it was an opportunity to show the club the strides he had made over the past year.
Still, some in the organization had doubts whether Joseph could be a major league catcher.
In his time at Bowie, Joseph also played first base and left field. He could call a good game, play defense well and frame pitches, but he sometimes struggled to block balls and had trouble getting his time on throws to second base under 2 seconds.
'That changed my game'
What doubters might have underestimated was Joseph's resilience and dedication to the game.
Growing up in Nashville, Joseph's grandfather had season tickets for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. Joseph went to games often and always wanted to stay until the final pitch. The best babysitter was the family television, in front of which Joseph's parents could sit him, give him a box of Cheerios and let him stay there for hours to watch Chicago Cubs games on WGN and Atlanta Braves games on TBS.
As a teenager, he was a clubhouse attendant for the Sounds. Joseph worked with Nashville when current teammate Adam Jones played against the Sounds as a member of the Seattle Mariners' Triple-A Tacoma team.
In his first full professional season playing for High-A Frederick, Joseph actually spent about 30 nights inside the Keys clubhouse.
"My apartment didn't have a TV or cable or Internet," Joseph said. "The clubhouse had Internet and cable. I'd watch baseball all night and clean cleats and organize my locker and go through my stuff. I'd blink and I'd be there five hours after the game. I didn't want [the day to] end, so I found myself being there until midnight, 1 in the morning and I'd just crash on the couch."
On the field, Joseph worked to refine his catching skills over the years.
Current Orioles assistant hitting coach Einar Diaz played a large role in helping him with blocking when Diaz was a coach in Bowie. And Orioles minor league catching coordinator Don Werner was perhaps his biggest advocate along a path with many doubters.
"So many times in baseball today, people want to put a label on a guy and then that's it," Werner said. "They'll put a label on him saying he's Double-A tops, maybe Triple-A catcher. But what they forget about is people like Caleb, they have a passion for the game and continue to work on the game. Just a very likable guy, willing to work, willing to go to winter ball to improve his skills. … You do wonder, 'Am I ever going to make it?' And when I was a player, I had coaches tell me, 'We think you have it. You can play up there.' It meant so much to me that I wanted Caleb to know that, too. I really did think he could catch in the big leagues, and so many people wanted to put a label on him."
Joseph made a major breakthrough last summer with Werner. They adjusted his footwork to be more like that of Wieters, who turns his body in anticipation of the pitch in order to have a quick release to throw out base runners.
"That changed my game," Joseph said. "Started to learn how to cheat when there were fast guys on who were probably going to go to give myself time and put my body more in a position to throw before the ball got there. … You shave off just a little bit of time, and I don't think I have a great arm. I think I have an average arm, but this little move here? Oh man. I saw it right away. … It changed my game throwing guys out because I think they knew I could receive the ball well, block the ball well, had a pretty good mind for the game and calling pitches. But this was the one thing that was lagging the whole time. I got that kind of shored up and bam."
Said Werner: "When that turned around, I think it really gave him a boost of confidence because he'd always come back to the bench and ask, 'What was that time?' and it was never below 2.0, and you knew it was a big concern for him. Now that's he's made that change, it's made all the difference in the world. Now he's under 2.0 all the time."
'Pitchers really like throwing to him'
Joseph impressed the club this year in spring training and began earning the majority of starts in Norfolk to open the season.
Orioles player development director Brian Graham said Joseph could build off his strong 2013 season in Bowie, where he hit .299 with 22 homers and 97 RBIs. Graham gave Orioles vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson credit for pushing the organization to keep Joseph in Bowie for the entire season last year.
"The fact that he stayed at Double-A all year last year, caught so many games, got so many at-bats, had that much success and really built his confidence, and it gave him a foundation to learn from and fall back on," Graham said. "That's development. When a player has success, they develop a confidence, and they develop an ability to draw from what they've learned."
"Caleb is grounded. He's very down to earth. He's not going to tell you he has the best arm in the big leagues, and he's not going to tell you he's the fastest runner. But nobody is going to try harder and nobody is going to put more effort into their job."
With the Orioles, Joseph has thrown out 44 percent of base runners (8-for-18), which is well above the league average of 27 percent. And the club's pitchers have a 2.98 ERA in games that he has started.
"The one common thing you heard all through his minor league career is that pitchers really like throwing to him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That's always been in his favor, that he's a good caller of the game. I think his throwing is what really put him over the hump. Brady was a guy who was really a big advocate of him. He kept telling me, 'This guy is really starting to figure it out. I think we might be missing the boat on him.' "
A career .268 hitter 61/2 seasons in the minors, Joseph is hitting just .141 through 24 games with the Orioles. But the club still believes he will hit at the major league level.
"He has a good swing," Graham said. "He understands hitting. There's enough physical skill — bat speed and strength and hand-eye coordination — there's enough there that will allow Caleb to hit in the big leagues. To what degree and what level, nobody knows right now, but I think his bat is going to be better than it is right now."
Showalter is encouraged by Joseph's attention to detail. This spring, Joseph did imitations of several coaches at the team's talent show, including one of Showalter that the manager admitted was spot on.
"Someone asked him why he didn't do [executive vice president] Dan [Duquette]," Showalter said. "He said, 'Buck can send me down. Dan can release me.'
"But he's someone who takes in the little things. You watch his impressions. He's a very visual person. It tells you he pays attention. He watches everything. He's asking, 'How do you do that? What are you seeing there?' Now he's just got to take the visualization and make it physical."