Todd Van Steensel’s Decade-Long, Two Continent Experience In Professional Baseball Continues With Padres
By: RoseAnn Sapia
Upon returning home to Australia to pitch in the Australian Baseball League in 2018, Todd Van Steensel generated big league interest after just one game.
His agent sent reports and videos from his first outing to major league clubs, and the Padres came calling.
“It actually happened really fast once my offseason began”, says Van Steensel, who announced on Twitter in late November that he’d signed with the Padres organization for the 2019 season.
One might think a pitcher garnering this type of attention after only one game abroad wouldn’t have difficulty finding a spot in professional baseball, but this was after a “whirlwind” of a season, after Van Steensel played for two different teams, in two different hemispheres.
For the last five seasons, he pitched in the Twins organization, most recently with Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. He was released in early August of last year, despite a successful tenure with the team. A three-time All-Star and two time Double-A champion while with the club, Van Steensel’s sudden release was as a shock.
“It was definitely a roller coaster”, Van Steensel recalls, “I went from pitching in a Double-A All-Star Game to being out of the job in the space of six weeks.”
During a stretch of games when he didn’t have his best stuff, the Lookouts acquired lefty pitcher David Smelzer in August, and RHP Jorge Alcala earlier that summer. Both were assigned to Chattanooga, and essentially forced him out of a roster spot. Immediately after being informed of his release, he began looking for a place to play to fini. Immediately after being informed of his release, he began looking for a place to play to finish out what was left of the season. That would prove difficult.
After an affiliated job fell though because of concerns about medical issues (Van Steensel didn’t disclose details), a few opportunities to play independent ball arose. However, the 28-year old decided it was best to return to Australia, beginning his “off” season by preparing to play back home.
Not even a month after the Twins released him, the ABL Sydney Blue Sox announced that they’d signed Van Steensel for their 2018 season that was set to begin on November 15. Because he was released and had to begin his search for a new team, he got the opportunity to pitch a full season for Sydney. “That was something I hadn’t done in years”, he reflects.
There’s something “refreshing,” he says, about playing in the ABL after years in the minor leagues. The atmosphere is a bit different than American pro baseball, despite the fun, looseness of a minor league game.
“One thing that American imports tell me about the ABL that they don’t see very often in MiLB is how much passion goes into each game”, Van Steensel shares.
There’s a sense of selflessness around the ABL; a “team first” mentality that can get lose in MiLB, when guys are fighting to the top of a very long totem pole, national rankings, and money invested into top guys. MiLB is also a learning experience, designed to teach, and develop.
But for most guys playing in the ABL, that’s their big leagues. They’re not as worried about personal stats or success, and getting to the next level. Most of the time, there is no next level.
“Guys aren’t out there for money, they’re out there because they want to win”, said Van Steensel, “They work during the week at their 9-5 job, then from Thursday to Sunday they become fan favorites when they put on a Blue Sox uniform”.
There’s an added bonus that makes the experience more meaningful.
“There’s something special about playing in your home town, with your home town team’s name across your chest, with friends and family in the crowd each week”, he said, “It really gives you that extra motivation to do well.”
The Blue Sox high attendance might’ve helped as well. The stands were full throughout the season, with the team pulling 906 paying customers per night (3rd in league), and finished the season 3rd overall in attendance, with 17, 212.
“Sometimes I would just stand in the dugout and look at a full stadium wondering how this happened”, reflects Van Steensel. This wasn’t always the way things were at Blue Sox Stadium. A few seasons ago, the team struggled to draw fans to the ballpark. There wasn’t a “home field advantage”.
The Sydney Blue Sox clinched their first playoff berth since 2015, but lost in the Semi-Finals to the Perth Heat. Van Steensel is proud of the efforts of new team owner Adam Dobb, who bought the club in 2018.
“Full credit to the new ownership, without [Dobb], and the new team it wouldn’t have been possible”, Van Steensel says about the atmosphere at the ballpark.
Van Steensel’s professional baseball career began in 2008. He had just finished pitching in the U18s National Championship Game when his parents agreed to a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies organization, and was assigned to the Single-A Gulf Coast League team for the 2009 season.
That stint was short lived, as the team decided to release him in 2010.
He headed back to Australia, in order to attend the MLB Australian Academy on the Gold Coast. While there, he caught the attention of the Minnesota Twins organization, and got his second chance; after signing with the team, he joined the Appalachian League Elizabethton Twins.
After 2011, he was again released, and again returned home to play with the Sydney Blue Sox. He would not return to America to play professionally again until 2014. The Twins organization that took interest yet again, and that was where he would stay until this past August.
The pursuit of chasing a career in professional baseball isn’t for the faint of heart. There are countless stories about minor league life, and how challenging the professional baseball pursuit is. Van Steensel remains focused.
“It really comes down to how bad you want something”, he said.“It’s definitely tough when one day you’re a professional baseball player and the next day you’re out of the job, but you just need to back yourself. I would love to be a Major League Baseball player, this is why I do this, but when it’s all said and done the most important thing I want to be able to tell myself is that I chased my dream as far as the universe would allow me.”
The grind of pursuing this dream goes far beyond the outfield fences of the ballpark. As players increasingly join social media to document their MiLB experiences, we’re getting a wider shot of what those dream chasers are enduring.
“The average fan doesn’t know what it’s like, and when they hear about a few things it really opens their eyes that Minor League Baseball life is a grind”, he said.
Before players like Van Steensel began explicitly discussing the topic, one of the biggest misconceptions about minor league life was that players got paid a big-league salary. Not true, of course, as most players in the minors often have to live from paycheck to paycheck, in cramped quarters with other teammates. Many depend on host families for a season home, as well as meals.
Van Steensel’s Twitter feed is peppered with facts about minor league life: three guys sharing a one bedroom-one bathroom apartment is commonplace, with rent expenses almost cancelling out income received on payday even with those conditions.
He hopes to bring attention to the situation, saying that it’s important for minor leaguers to be heard. Even still, almost all of his ‘MiLB Life’ tweets are accompanied with the hashtag “#AllPartOfIt”.
“We all know how lucky we are to be able to play baseball for a living, but just because we are living out our dreams doesn’t mean there aren’t certain struggles that go along with it”, asserts Van Steensel. “At the end of the day, we all remind ourselves that we get to play baseball for a living, and all the good and bad things that we endure are all part of it.”
Here's a fun fact: The guy who keeps pursuing a career in the majors (and who just won ABL Reliever of the Year honors https://twitter.com/
Van Steensel’s parents asked if he would be interested in joining the team, too, but he was against it since he wasn’t familiar with the sport. Then, something changed. “I went to my brothers first practice and saw how cool the uniform was, and then I told my parents I wanted to play so I could get the uniform”, recalls Van Steensel
“Even to this day I’m very particular on how my uniform looks,” he admits.
2019 begins with preparation to join the San Diego Padres later this month. That is, if his visa gets back to him in time. “The visa process has become a real struggle the last two years”, he said. He’s been waiting since January 10th to receive his visa confirmation.
Prior to last season, Van Steensel had been approved of four visas in nine years without any hassle. What used to be no more than a ten-day process has become an inconvenient waiting game. It caused him to miss his first flight to Spring Training last year, but he’s hoping that won’t be the case again this year.
“I have a flight to catch on February 21 to head to Spring Training, so I’m hoping it’s back in my hands soon!”
As soon as that visa is back in his hands, Van Steensel will make his journey overseas to join the Padres. “They offered me a good deal, and it looked like a great opportunity, so it was easy to say yes to them”, he said.
Van Steensel is getting his fourth shot at achieving his dream, and true to his social media form, he’s ready to work, and to connect.
“If you see me around, don’t be afraid to say hi!”
Maybe tell him how great his uniform looks?