Burning DesireSeptember 21, 2011
TJ Mittelstaedt is the host of his very own game show. A jack of all trades player for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers this past season, Mittelstaedt enjoys quizzing unsuspecting contestants on his real namesake, not just the initials.
“It’s Thomas Junior, I was given that by my Dad,” said Mittelstaedt.
Thanks for playing; we do have lovely parting gifts. But hold on. Judges, if he’s a junior, shouldn’t that be attached to the end of the moniker?
“Junior is not my middle name, Dean is my middle name,” explained Mittelstaedt. “My initials are TDM, but my Dad wanted a junior so I was TJ before I was born. It’s fun when people try to figure out my middle name and I’ll let them go forever on the J and then it’s Dean.”
What’s in a name anyway? When Mittelstaedt was a star player at Long Beach State University, TJ and his teammates didn’t play under the school mascot heading of 49ers. They were proudly dubbed the Dirtbags.
“They finally changed it on the scoreboard, the school at first wouldn’t let us put Dirtbags up there, they wanted it to be the 49ers,” said Mittelstaedt. “So our scoreboard would only put up ‘Long Beach State’ because there was no way they were going to put 49ers up there. We’ve been the Dirtbags for 22 years.”
Being a Dirtbag helped Mittelstaedt shine on the diamond. He carried on the tradition of getting down and dirty and doing what it takes to outwork an opponent.
“I went there because baseball was the school,” said Mittelstaedt. “It wasn’t UCLA or USC where they’ve got the football team plus a baseball team. It was fun walking around campus; people knew when it was baseball season. When it warmed up, we were the first ones at the school everyday going to the gym or practice, and we’d be walking around in our sweats that said ‘Dirtbags.’
“People knew who you were.”
Soon, major league scouts knew who TJ Mittelstaedt was, a Second team All-Big West selection during his senior season when he hit .332. The Brewers selected him with a pick in the 44th round of the 2010 draft, but just in case the baseball dream didn’t pan out, Mittelstaedt carved out a degree in Criminal Justice.
“I can go into investigation or even straight into the fire academy with my degree,” said Mittelstaedt, who earned his diploma in four years at Long Beach State. “I would be in line to be a chief ten years before other guys go in.”
Battling a blaze seems blasé to TJ, but uncovering the reasons behind an inferno truly intrigues his mind.
“I would like to be in investigation work more than fighting (fires),” said Mittelstaedt. “It’s more interesting because if I was a firefighter it’s kind of monotonous until there’s a fire. I talked to some friends who said they hang out all day, clean everything twice a day even if they don’t use it just because it has to be perfect. I’d rather do the investigation because I want to figure out why this fire was started and what was the thought process behind it.”
Mittelstaedt credits a pair of college professors who helped him prep for his future off the field, including a former SWAT team member from Los Angeles who is now the Irvine Chief of Police.
“His investigation class was really adapted for me to figure out things on my own,” said Mittelstaedt. “He would give us scenarios on what we thought happened, but if you don’t think the way criminals do you’re not going to see it. All of our core classes were meshed into thinking what the normal person might think. The investigation classes were my favorite because there never was one true answer, it was all about steps and learning more about what people will do.”
Regardless of the situation, be it investigating a fire or facing a flame throwing pitcher, Mittelstaedt’s brain functions the same.
“I definitely think so,” said Mittelstaedt. “They’re (pitchers) anticipating what you’re going to do, so if you think you know what they’re thinking you’re doing go ahead and do that and then the next time do the opposite.”
Similar to the TJ name game, Mittelstaedt relished the opportunity to outfox his opponent. He recalled a pre-at bat conversation he had with Timber Rattlers Manager Matt Erickson who came to an agreement the opposing defense was positioning for a bunt to sacrifice the runner to second base. Instead, TJ slapped a single past the third baseman that was creeping in. Thanks to his seasoning in the criminal justice field, Mittelstaedt’s homework paid dividends.
“I assumed they thought I was going to bunt, and the pitcher threw it right down the middle so anticipation is a big part of baseball and if you put yourself in the right situation it will work out,” said Mittelstaedt. “The first baseman said our coach told us you’d be bunting and I can’t believe you swung at the first pitch!”
Mittelstaedt also kept his own team guessing at times. A scrappy infielder who played outfield in college, Mittelstaedt kept giving the Brewers organization a reason to find a place for him to play. His Timber Rattlers campaign produced banner numbers, finishing second on the team in several key stat categories such as average (.293), walks (76), stolen bases (28), hits (111) and runs (72).
“In the preseason, our hitting coordinator didn’t know what to expect from me just because I’m versatile on both sides, offense and defense,” said Mittelstaedt. “Matty (Erickson) didn’t know where to put me in the lineup and I didn’t know where I would be comfortable in the lineup. He just mixed it around until it worked.
“You’ve just got to be versatile, and that’s how I am.”
Who better to sponge versatility information from than the Brewers Craig Counsell? Mittelstaedt sidled up to the veteran infielder during a spring training game and tapped the brain of the Whitefish Bay native.
“He’s been up there forever and plays multiple positions, so I talked to him a little bit,” recalled Mittelstaedt. “He told me he didn’t play outfield and they’ll put people out there, and I actually can play outfield, doing it for four years in college. But just knowing that he makes it seem easier than I made it seem for myself. If they see the defense they’re going to move you where other guys play one position and it’s going to be harder because they’ve got to hit.”
At the risk of spreading himself too thin, Mittelstaedt trusts his ability to move all over the diamond as an asset in advancing up the Milwaukee food chain.
“There are six third basemen in this organization all in a row trying to go up to the ‘bigs,’ where I may play seven positions potentially,” said Mittelstaedt. “There have been talks where Matty would put me in and play three or four positions in a day and even joking around with all nine in one day. I caught in spring training and then moved back to the outfield and then second base and I even pitched this year, which was surprising.”
That’s what happens when you fiddle around with a knuckleball, the Manager catches you and the day arrives where burning out the bullpen isn’t a good option. That scenario happened on May 21 in the second game of a doubleheader against Burlington, and Mittelstaedt came through with a scoreless inning of work on the hill. TJ pitched an encore unscathed frame against Peoria on June 27, but who better to put out a fire than someone trained to do so in the real world?
For TJ Mittelstaedt, his biggest battle is convincing the baseball world that someone 5-10 knows how to catch fire, not just extinguish one.
“I had that all the way up through last year,” said Mittelstaedt. “My junior year in college I hit eight home runs, but my hitting coach told me to try and hit the ball on the ground and work on my speed because he didn’t know if my power would translate with wood (bats). But I’ve got twelve home runs this year so even after I did something good they were saying it’s not going to work at the next level.
“It’s just how it is, but you don’t let it bother you and let it start a fire in you.”
So to speak…
(PHOTOS BY BRAD KRAUSE)
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