Tankersley tries to make long climb back

Tankersley tries to make long climb back

Tankersley tries to make long climb back
PEORIA, Ariz. -- At first, Dennis Tankersley didn't miss the game. Not for one minute. Not for as long as it took to check a score on television or to scan a box score in a newspaper or online. He pitched 10 years professionally, but once Tankersley found retirement after 2008, he fully embraced it.

"That first summer, I really didn't miss baseball," Tankersley said. "I felt like I missed a lot of time with my kids in those 10 years. I feel like I took the easy way out [by playing] and missed a lot of things. So I played a lot of softball. I went to the river and the lake.

"I looked at it as if it was my time."

The next summer played out a little differently, though.

That euphoric feeling of having nothing but time on your hands began to fade. For as much as he loved playing shortstop on a slow-pitch softball team with his buddies outside St. Louis -- yes, slow pitch, complete with a 12-foot pitching arc -- Tankersley felt as though he needed to be somewhere else.

"After the second year away, I started thinking -- and this sounds corny -- but I'm a baseball player," said Tankersley. "It's what I do. I felt like I could still play."

That brings us to Thursday, as Tankersley, picking over a bowl of strawberries and sliced bananas, sat in uniform on a back patio at the Peoria Sports Complex. He was waiting for his Minor League teammates, many 13 years his junior, awaiting the beginning of a meeting.

Tankersley, who made his Major League debut with the Padres as a 23-year-old in 2002 and had Trevor Hoffman and Ron Gant as teammates, is in Minor League camp as a 33-year-old -- attempting to buck the longest of odds and make a team despite being out of baseball since 2008.

Even Tankersley, who has two daughters (ages 13 and 9) and a son (age 6) at home, acknowledges that he is an underdog of sorts.

"I flew out here and they told me that it was going to be a pretty big hurdle to climb," Tankersley said. "Nothing was guaranteed. I flew out on a Tuesday, threw Wednesday morning and they said that they would throw me into the mix and see what happens. We'll see."

Tankersley then put his fork down and motioned to his left at pitcher Matt Lollis, who was born in 1990. That's twelve years before Tankersley reached the Major Leagues with the Padres. This makes him smile.

"There are kids in my [pitching] group who were born in the 1990s. A few of them are eight years older than my oldest daughter," Tankersley said. "I went to eat the other day and a few guys who I think were with [short-season] Eugene last year asked if I wanted to come over to eat with them.

"As soon as I did, it was question after question after question. ... I was wondering if that would happen and how I would respond to it. But I actually enjoyed it. It was good to explain some things to them and tell them some stories."

Tankersley has plenty of stories to tell. He was a 38th-round Draft pick of the Red Sox in 1998 who was traded to the Padres in 2000 in a deal that saw Ed Sprague head to Boston. He had a 10-4 record and a 1.98 ERA in three Minor League stops in 2001, striking out 173 in 136 1/3 innings.

"He was always a very engaging guy," said Padres special assistant Hoffman. "He was sort of bright eyed and bushy tailed. He always wanted to learn. He wanted to be good."

Tankersley started 2002 with Triple-A Portland, but was recalled on May 10 when pitcher Kevin Jarvis went on the disabled list. He made his debut that night against the Braves, pitching for a team that was going nowhere, on their way to losing 96 games.

Sixteen days later, at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Tankersley got his first -- and only -- Major League victory, as Hoffman nailed down the ninth inning. The game was notable for the fact that Tankersley hit his first -- and only -- Major League home run in that game.

A lot has certainly happened to him since that day in Milwaukee, but Tankersley vividly remembers even the most minute details of that game against the Brewers.

"My home run ... and my only win," Tankersley said. "I can still picture my swing. It's funny the stuff you remember and take away from the game.

"Something else from that game was our scouting report, and that we weren't to throw Richie Sexson breaking balls and that you had to pitch him inside. But I kept missing in off the plate. Then, I threw him my breaking ball and he hit two home runs."

Tankersley, three months past his 23rd birthday at the time, admitted that ego got the best of him that day.

"I knew not to do it, but I was so young," said Tankersley. "My ego was like, 'He was lucky with that first one, he won't do it again.' And then he did it again."

Tankersley went 1-4 with an 8.06 ERA in 17 games for the Padres in the summer of 2002. He gave up the 587th home run of Barry Bonds' career, a 482-foot moon shot at Qualcomm Stadium. He made one start with the team in 2003, but didn't record an out. Finally in 2004, his final season in the Major Leagues, he was 0-5 with a 5.14 ERA in nine games. He was traded to the Royals that winter.

Tankersley spent the next three seasons bouncing around professional baseball -- first with the Royals in the Minor Leagues, then the Cardinals, Tigers and then the Nationals in 2008, when he went 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA for Triple-A Columbus. He was granted free agency after that season and hasn't pitched in a professional game since.

At 33, Tankersley isn't the flamethrower he used to be. He's fine with that as, for whatever reason, he said that once he got his arm in shape, the command actually came back better than it was before. His breaking ball moves a lot more than it used to, and he's confident he can throw it for strikes.

But will he get that chance? Tankersley is hopeful, though he's already proved something to himself thus far. He got himself and his arm in shape, he passed a tryout with the team. He's given himself a chance.

And if his softball team, the "Silver Becks," need a shortstop, Tankersley knows where to go. But for now, this is where feels he should be. And he plans on staying until he's asked to leave.

"That's kind of what this was all about, showing myself that it's not too late, that I could do something like this," Tankersley said. "This is a pretty big step. I don't think there are a lot of people that thought this might happen. And in the back of my mind, I don't know if I did, either."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.