John Brebbia became the first Elon University baseball player to make the major leagues since 2008 the hard way. He rode a lot of buses, ate a lot of fast food on the go, saw some parts of the country many never do; and endured being released — basically told his career was over — by the New York Yankees, the team that drafted him in the 30th round of 2011 June amateur draft.
But he kept plugging away during a minor league stint that took him to Staten Island New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Tampa, Florida; Charleston again; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Laredo Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Springfield, Illinois. It’s not a bad way to see the heart of America first hand. But it’s a slow trip to the pinnacle of professional baseball.
I wrote briefly about Brebbia a couple of years ago in a blog post after he was called up to pitch for the St Louis Cardinals in 2017. He was sort of like a bullpen yo-yo back then — called up to St. Louis for a week or two then sent back down to the Redbirds Triple A team in Memphis.
“I couldn’t even count the number of times I was sent up and down in 2017,” Brebbia said in a telephone conversation we had in June when the Cardinals were in Miami for a three-game series with the Florida Marlins and I was working on a story published in the summer edition of the Magazine of Elon. “So far this year I came out of camp and stayed. I’m looking to stay the whole year if I can and hopefully it works out.”
So far, so good. Brebbia has emerged as one of the Cardinals most reliable bullpen relievers. He has appeared in 45 to 50 games a season for the past three years with a career earned run average of 2.91. Eliminate a rough stretch in June of 2019 as he awaited the birth of his first child, (8.71 ERA in 11 games, allowing 10 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings) and Brebbia has turned in a stellar 2019 season. The bad luck streak ended after Brebbia’s wife Amanda gave birth to Henry Fitch Brebbia in June. In his next outing, he had perhaps his best Major League appearance, pitching two and a third scoreless innings against the Seattle Mariners with six strikeouts. He had a scoreless streak lasting from July 24 until Aug. 20 when he allowed two runs in two innings to the Milwaukee Brewers. At the moment his ERA is 3.08 in a personal best 52 appearances (61 and a third innings). His record is 3-3.
I wasn’t talking to Brebbia this summer by accident. I was asked to write a story for the Magazine of Elon about the recent baseball success of players on the Phoenix baseball team. This past June, Elon had a player taken in the first round of the amateur draft for the first time in school history — George Kirby was chosen No. 20 overall by the Seattle Mariners. For the first time, three Elon players were taken in the initial 10 rounds (Kyle Brnovich and Ty Adcock, round eight). Four were drafted overall.
This success is a trend. Over the last 10 years, 32 players from Elon have been drafted by Major League teams. Since Mike Kennedy became Elon’s head coach in 1997, 48 Elon players have been drafted.
The magazine story focuses on the recent success and where players stand in relation to making a Major League club. I contacted the St. Louis Cardinals to set up an interview and Brebbia graciously agreed. He hasn’t been back on campus in a while but still loves the school. He is in contact with his former college coach by text. Kennedy is a Cardinals fan, as it turns out. Read the story here.
Right now Brebbia is the only former Elon player on a Major League roster. And he’s the poster player for how hard it is to do. Few players relegated to the Independent League for more than a day or two make it back into professional baseball, much less a Major League team. Brebbia pitched in the Indy League for two years — 2014 and 2015 after his release by the New York Yankees.
After his release and no other team offered him a chance, Brebbia looked to the Independent League. It’s the last stop before leaving the game for whatever career he was prepared for with a political science degree from Elon. Brebbia still thought he could pitch at a high level and more importantly enjoyed the game.
While the release was like “a kick in the gut” he felt that with a few adjustments he could start the climb up the professional baseball ladder. In the Independent League he found mainly kindred spirits — guys who loved the game and wanted to continue to play. But he again found disappointment. During his first season he received no nibbles from a Major League organization.
“After my first year of independent ball I thought like ‘man, I thought I had a really good year, I was throwing harder and my off speed stuff was better. Why aren’t teams going for this?'” he said. “After one year of independent ball I thought that was the sign, I’m doing the best I can and no other teams care.”
Brebbia says his wife Amanda encouraged him to stay with it. “I made the decision to quote-unquote quit but I didn’t quit,” he said. “My wife said you still like it and you think you have a shot at something you love. You should stay with it.”
“I thought, ‘all right I’ll do it one more time,'” he said.
At the end of his second year in the Independent League he was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks then sent to the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I made the adjustments to get back into minor league ball and get to the major leagues,” Brebbia says.
That sounds far more simple than it is. Not many players make the leap from the Independent League back to the minor leagues and then vault to what was known as “The Show” in the seminal movie about minor league baseball, “Bull Durham.”
Brebbia wishes the contingent of Elon players now working their way up the minor league system the best.And if they ever need advice when things get tough — and things do get tough — they know who to call.