Ben Broussard’s road back to professional baseball started moving at full speed with a straightforward question and a chance meeting with a heartbroken kid.
The 36-year-old came out of a nearly four-year retirement this season and his journey has stretched from the minor leagues of Mexico, to independent ball in the U.S. to his current assignment with the Omaha Storm Chasers.
“I remember in the past hearing about people making comebacks and just laughing at them — ‘Man, you’ve got to let it go,’” Broussard said. “I know a lot of guys are saying that about me now. But it’s been one of those experiences that I’ll never forget.”
Broussard hit .263 with 87 homers in seven big league seasons with Cleveland, Seattle and Texas, and averaged 19 homers and 71 RBIs in a three-year stretch from 2004 through 2006.
But, at 32, he found himself back in Class AAA in 2009. And after the first week of the season, he’d had enough.
“I had little kids and burnout,” Broussard said. “I was just tired. I didn’t feel like I had the fire I needed to have.”
So he walked away. Helped his wife. Spent irreplaceable time with his children, now 8 and 6.
And the talented singer-songwriter put out a couple of albums, too.
He was coaching his daughter’s soccer team, living a more or less anonymous life and enjoying it.
He didn’t think much about baseball. Didn’t watch it.
But then, last summer, the “coincidences” started.
“Things just kept happening, and I felt like God was trying to get my attention about baseball,” Broussard said. “I wasn’t open to it, I guess, because I felt like I’d been away for too long.”
One day, his dad just asked him if he’d consider going back to baseball if he had the chance.
“No way,” Broussard answered.
But that night, he said, he was having trouble getting to sleep, thinking about it.
“I would do it different this time, and I’d be willing,” Broussard said, recalling a prayer he’d said that night.
“Then the first thing I thought about the next day when I woke up was baseball, for the first time in years. … And then I met Cooper that day.”
Cooper Stone is the boy whose firefighter father fell to his death at a 2011 Texas Rangers game, trying to catch a ball tossed into the stands by Josh Hamilton.
Broussard met Cooper at a funeral — Cooper is the godson of Broussard’s wife’s cousin — and played catch in the back yard after the reception.
“He was asking me why I didn’t play, and every excuse I gave him, he didn’t buy,” Broussard said. “He asked me if I loved it, and I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Then why aren’t you playing?’
“Just seeing it from a kid’s perspective like that woke something up in me.”
Broussard started training again. Called major league organizations to gauge interest.
“Lots of people were awesome about it and supportive,” Broussard said.
Ultimately, though, the response was about the same.
“They’d say, ‘The odds are really against you, but if anybody can do it, you can,’” Broussard said. “Good luck.”
So he kept looking.
Finally there was a one-day tryout in November for potential Mexican League players in Tucson, Ariz. He did well and got to stick around for a three-week tournament.
He made connections and somehow managed to hook on with a “developmental” team in Veracruz during the winter season.
“When I decided not to play before (in 2009), it was because I didn’t want to play in Triple A,” Broussard said. “And here I am playing in Mexico and it was to the point that they were almost like PONY league fields.”
From there he played with Navajoa in the Mexican Pacific League, the regular winter league. Then he hooked on with the Mexico City Red Devils for the traditional Mexican League baseball season, which starts in March. He hit .304 in 19 games, with two homers and 11 RBIs.
Then came an opportunity to come back to the U.S., to play in the independent Atlantic League with the Long Island Ducks, in a league populated with many former major leaguers or high-level minor league players.
He played 44 games, and hit .302 with eight homers and 22 RBIs. He was named an All-Star.
But the Kansas City Royals called first, with an opportunity to play in Class AAA.
“It felt like getting called up (to the big leagues) again,” Broussard said. “There are great players in the Atlantic League, and you’re all trying to get back. And it seems so far away.”
Omaha manager Mike Jirschele’s club was having trouble scoring runs. He’d lost track of Broussard, but liked the idea of putting him the middle of the Chasers’ batting order.
“He brings some presence to the plate when he steps in there,” Jirschele said. “He’s a guy who’s a proven big league hitter. Yeah, he’s a little older than he was, but he still can swing it.”
Some of the nearly four years of rust is starting to chip away. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound, left-handed hitting Texan is batting .205 (8 for 39), with three RBIs through 10 games.
“I wish I was getting a lot more hits, but I’m just working on my approach and getting in a routine and getting comfortable with everything,” Broussard said.
He’s old for a minor-leaguer but not too old to be a major league contributor if things work out.
“There’s some older guys out there still playing who give me hope — like a Raul Ibanez or a Jason Giambi,” Broussard said. “I was able to get that three or four years off, so that refueled me in a lot of ways.”
The music business — it’s not country and not alternative, but somewhere in between — can wait. He did some of that early in his retirement, but it was starting to keep him away from his family as much as baseball did.
He’s got his guitar with him, and that’s good enough for all the down time in the clubhouse, at hotels and on the occasional bus ride. He’s still writing songs. Music was never about the fame anyway.
“I never really knew it would do more than just be songs that I wrote,” Broussard said. “It’s just part of me, part of how I function.”
Broussard said his return to baseball has been healing. He’s at peace with the game and with his decisions. He probably needed to walk away before, and he needed to come back now.
And he’s able to impart what he’s learned to his teammates, young and old, to guys thinking about retiring, and guys who are still learning.
“He’s a class guy,” Jirschele said. “He brings baseball knowledge for the young kids. He’s good for those guys to be around. He’s just a 36-year-old guy who works hard every day.”
He’ll play now, he said, probably until no one asks him to play any more.
“After you play for almost 10 years of pro ball, you change a little, you get jaded or whatever,” Broussard said. “Where I started and where I ended was different.
“This time I feel more like I did when I started. I feel like I have that purity for the game, and I have more of a sense of faith and being a father. All those things change your perspective.”