Former Saint Rose star Graber lands dream job with Chicago Cubs

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A baseball player doesn’t have to be quick on base paths, but it helps.

You need an eye and a sense of opportunities, depending on your surroundings and circumstances. Experience helps.

Ultimately, however, none of these qualities matter if your timing isn’t precise and your approach is passive, settling for your current station and waiting for someone else to do so. shake things up.

Kevin Graber is such a student – ​​and teacher – of base running that he’s been asked to speak on the subject at major national baseball conventions. Even the Chicago Cubs front office came calling, texting the former CBA and College of Saint Rose star in August to arrange a trip to Wrigley Field so brass and analysts could pick his brains, particularly on baserunning, but also on broader topics like player development and organizational responsibilities.

For more than 13 years, Graber, now 50, had been a highly successful coach for not only one of New England’s top high school baseball programs, but also one of the most successful prep schools. the country’s prestigious, Phillips Academy Andover 25 miles north of Boston.

There was enough to keep him there. But Graber, a baseball lifer, had never been one to back down from a chance to move, and when the Cubs offered him a job as head of their spring training complex in Mesa, Arizona , that’s exactly what he did – he ran with it. So next month, he’ll lead cross-country to become the organization’s complex coordinator, a job that also includes field manager for the Arizona League Cubs’ rookie-level team.

“It evolved a bit like an airplane gradually rolling off a runway, but now it looks a bit like a rocket blasting off into space,” Graber said by phone Tuesday.

Graber is a member of three Capital Region Halls of Fame, Schenectady Baseball Club, Amsterdam Mohawks and Saint Rose.

A promising baseball career suddenly seemed more than unlikely when he collapsed on the field at Bleecker Stadium as a college senior. A chest X-ray revealed a tumor the size of a grapefruit, and it took six months of chemotherapy and another three months of radiation therapy to bring the lymphoma under control.

He returned to baseball coaching an American Legion team in Scotia, then got his first taste of college coaching at Lassen Community College in California.

“I drove my 1986 Plymouth Sundance from Albany, New York to Susanville, California,” Graber said with a laugh. “My salary was $2,000 for the whole year.”

Managing the Electric City Giants of the Mountains Collegiate Baseball League was another step, and Graber eventually felt strong enough to regain some glory as a player, signing a professional contract in Australia. It led to a .311 batting season for the Southern Minnesota Stars of the Prairie League, but when a “little something came back in my chest X-ray” he called it and just handled it. the Stars, earning the Prairie League manager. of the year.

Graber bounced around some college jobs, then landed at Phillips Academy and experienced continuity and longevity for the first time, at a very exclusive private school established in 1778 and whose alumni include former US Presidents George HW Bush and George W. Bush, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frederick Law Olmsted, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Bill Belichick.

Named Northeast Region Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association in 2018 and 2021 and New England Region Coach of the Year by the National High School Baseball Coaches Association in 2018 and 2022 , Graber led the Big Blue to 12 straight games in Central New England. Preparing for appearances in the Final Four, winning championships in 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018 and 2022.

In his work with the Cubs, Graber will oversee young players from a wide variety of backgrounds who are unlikely to resemble those of Phillips’ children.

But he believes his school duties and the way he handled them will translate as coordinator of the Cubs’ spring training complex, where the Arizona Cubs play in the 15,000-seat Sloan Park, the largest such stadium in the majors.

“I’ll be in a setting that’s not academic, it’s baseball, baseball, baseball,” he said. “But at the same time, I think one thing that appealed to me in this position is that I have a lot of experience in addition to baseball. I’m the dean of our admissions office, and we have students from 50 states and 40 countries. I run a dorm. I’m a school counselor. I’m in these kids’ lives in more ways than on the baseball field.

“[In Mesa] you have kids who just left high school, middle schoolers who graduated, middle schoolers who left college early. You have international players who come from other countries, who may be very young and who have to overcome the language barrier. And I think that’s what I bring to the Cubs organization, is someone who can help these kids off the court as well as on the court. In some ways, that might be pretty cool.

“It’s an opportunity to understand how the whole organization works and manage at the lower level and manage the spring training site,” said Doug Kimbler, Graber’s teammate and close friend at Saint Rose. “He kind of gets everything thrown at him, it seems. It’s 365 days.

Graber is taking this step with the blessing of his family, which includes his wife Tina and their children, Katie, 24, who lives in Tampa, Fla.; Kelly, a student at Endicott College near Andover; and Kyle, who plays soccer for St. Lawrence University.

It’s not lost on Graber that just being able to make a substantial career change like this, let alone with a wife and three kids, seemed remote at best, when he received a diagnosed with cancer three decades ago.

He beat that beacon.

“I was really, really struggling,” he said. “When you identify with one thing all your life – and that’s absolutely the only way I identified, was as a baseball player – then I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and suddenly I’m not an athlete anymore, I just didn’t know who I was or what my identity was, what I wanted to do or what I could do.

“But these are small things. You ask me about my children, and I remember doing chemotherapy and radiation, and my health care team told me that the chances of me having children were probably pretty slim, because of all treatments.

“It’s kind of surreal, here we are 30 years later, and we’re talking about my family. And I had this opportunity to come back and play professional baseball. And here I live a long and productive life, whereas at that time, many things were unresolved.

“I was one of the first people to be hospitalized after falling ill,” Kimbler said. “I remember the first thing he said to me was… ‘It doesn’t change anything.’ We talked about not giving up and all that, but I still remember it like… I’m kinda choking here.

Kimbler, now a New York University baseball coach, was drafted in the 23rd round by the Detroit Tigers in 1990 and played minor league ball for several years, including with the Cubs organization.

So he knows a bit about how they work, and thinks Graber, who has a two-year contract to run the Mesa complex, will find he’s made the leap to “a really good place” once the dust settles.

Graber put himself in a position to decide it was time to go with a station-to-station balance of patience and aggression.

“I’m on the side of the hard hitting world,” Kimbler said. “I’ve been playing professionally for 10 years, coaching for 25 years now. The opportunities we get in this industry only come from hard work. Guys who are given it and don’t do their job don’t last. long time.

“Kevin’s been in baseball pretty much his whole life. I remember when we were still in college together, his dad was still throwing BP at us at the old arsenal on New Scotland Ave.

“It’s going to be like a kid in a candy store, for a baseball guy like me,” Graber said. “I’ve always wondered, ‘How does it work in professional ball? How does it work?’ Now I will know.

“My friends at 518 say, ‘KG, you’re so lucky. How do you get all these opportunities? I go where the opportunities are. I could have stayed on New Scotland Avenue all my life and done whatever. what, but I chose to get up and go when the opportunity arose, and that was one of the defining factors of the trajectory that I had.

“I wasn’t afraid to raise the stakes and go for it.”

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