ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Caleb Joseph now can concede that there were several times during those late-night bus rides through the Eastern League when he considered calling it quits on his lifelong dream of making it to the major leagues.
Joseph felt stuck in Double-A, a minor league proving ground for some and a glass ceiling for others, watching younger teammates as he grew older.
That is what made Joseph's promotion to the major leagues May 7 from Triple-A Norfolk so satisfying. When the Orioles needed a catcher after Matt Wieters began experiencing discomfort in his throwing elbow, Joseph received his long-awaited call to the big leagues.
"It was very emotional," said Joseph, who turned 28 on Wednesday. "I don't have any problem telling you that I couldn't finish my BP round [when he received the news]. I was in tears. It was so emotional because I felt like I knew I could play here. … You think about all those moments when I almost gave this up. It's so much sweeter knowing that I really did persevere through a lot of stuff personally, mentally, physically and spiritually. I'm a rookie and I'm 28, but it's better late than never, I guess."
When the Orioles acquired veteran catcher Nick Hundley in a trade with the San Diego Padres on May 24, the club kept Joseph over Opening Day backup Steve Clevenger. And now, with Wieters out for the season following Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, Joseph has become the club's primary starter behind the plate.
It's a long way from where Joseph was in the offseason. After winning the Eastern League Player of the Year award last season with Double-A Bowie, he was left off the organization's 40-man roster and passed over by every other team in the Rule 5 draft in December.
Joseph expected to open the season at Bowie for the fifth straight year. And he considered quitting before his newlywed wife, Brooke, nudged him to keep playing at least until he became a free agent at the end of this season. He started the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
"When you play 400-something games at one level, you're getting into Crash Davis territory," Joseph said, referring to the career minor league catcher played by Kevin Costner in the movie Bull Durham. "And being a catcher, some of the guys called me Crash. It was funny for a little bit, but after a while, you're like this is not how I envisioned my career and getting older and older. I felt like I was playing well, and then nothing happens. And you really have to think, 'Is this really what I want to do, need to do, should be doing, what I'm being called to do?'
"I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that, just about once a week, I thought about hanging it up a couple years ago. I went from somebody to nobody so many times, back and forth, back and forth."
Joseph was rejuvenated when he received an invitation to major league camp this spring. It was his third major league camp in four seasons, but it was an opportunity to show the club the strides he had made over the past year.
Still, some in the organization had doubts whether Joseph could be a major league catcher.
In his time at Bowie, Joseph also played first base and left field. He could call a good game, play defense well and frame pitches, but he sometimes struggled to block balls and had trouble getting his time on throws to second base under 2 seconds.
'That changed my game'
What doubters might have underestimated was Joseph's resilience and dedication to the game.
Growing up in Nashville, Joseph's grandfather had season tickets for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. Joseph went to games often and always wanted to stay until the final pitch. The best babysitter was the family television, in front of which Joseph's parents could sit him, give him a box of Cheerios and let him stay there for hours to watch Chicago Cubs games on WGN and Atlanta Braves games on TBS.
As a teenager, he was a clubhouse attendant for the Sounds. Joseph worked with Nashville when current teammate Adam Jones played against the Sounds as a member of the Seattle Mariners' Triple-A Tacoma team.
In his first full professional season playing for High-A Frederick, Joseph actually spent about 30 nights inside the Keys clubhouse.
"My apartment didn't have a TV or cable or Internet," Joseph said. "The clubhouse had Internet and cable. I'd watch baseball all night and clean cleats and organize my locker and go through my stuff. I'd blink and I'd be there five hours after the game. I didn't want [the day to] end, so I found myself being there until midnight, 1 in the morning and I'd just crash on the couch."
On the field, Joseph worked to refine his catching skills over the years.
Current Orioles assistant hitting coach Einar Diaz played a large role in helping him with blocking when Diaz was a coach in Bowie. And Orioles minor league catching coordinator Don Werner was perhaps his biggest advocate along a path with many doubters.