PN Interview: Veteran Jake Fox talks Korea, mentoring and more

J Fox

Jake Fox, image- Jay Floyd

Prior to minor league camp breaking this weekend, I had a lengthy chat with veteran Jake Fox.  The 33-year-old has played around the globe, has spent time in the majors with multiple teams and will be enjoying his third stint with the Phillies.

Fox has built a reputation for being an extra coach on the diamond, as he is a cerebral slugger that is able to lead his teammates by example.

This week, Jake talked about landing back with the Phillies over a round of golf, spending time last year playing in Korea, the differences between American ball and the game over there, what his next career will be and much more.  Read ahead for the full interview.

-How was the connection made for a return to the Phillies organization? Had you stayed in touch, or did the team reach out again?

Well, it’s a very funny story. Obviously, I finished last year in Korea. And, you know, it’s was amazing, one of the things that I’m amazed about is when you go over seas like that, people forget you’re still playing. And, so, I came back and I’d see people who would say, “Oh, you’re still playing?”- Yeah, I just spent four months in Korea after playing with the Blue Jays. And even though it’s baseball, people forget you’re still playing.

The way the story goes is I help out with the high school where I live, it’s called Mesquite High School, and the coach was kind enough to open up the field and throw me batting practice and hit me ground balls and all that sort of thing, so any time he does any kind of fund raiser, I always participate. So, they were doing a golf outing and I go to this golf outing and I happen to get paired with his brother, who is a Phillies scout. His name is Brad Holland. So he asked, “What are your plans for next year?” And (I told him), “Well, I’m tossing around some free agent options and I’m really kind of open to anything right now, because I’m trying to figure out what’s next.” I’m at the point in my career where, you know, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep playing or how much more time I have. At this point, I just want to know where my career is going. And he goes, “Would you be interested in re-signing with the Phillies?” And I go, “Yeah, absolutely I would, if the situation were right. And if I felt like there was room for me to move forward, because, at this point in my career, if I’m not moving forward, then I’m probably going to be done, because I’ve got two kids at home that need me to be home.” And so, he goes, “You know what, you were so awesome with a lot of those guys the last time you were there and we have new management and  (a new) G.M., who knows what the situation is going to be like, but let me just see if they’re even interested. I said, “Yeah, no problem.  I have some other options out there. But I’m always interested, because I like the Phillies and I enjoy the organization. They know me there, I know them. It’s a very good fit, so we’ll see where it goes.” Well, before we even ended the round of golf, he got a message back saying, “Yeah, we’re interested. Have him give me a call and we’ll talk about it.” And, so the next day, I gave a call and by the end of the week we had a deal drafted.

It was very easy, it was very cool. It was the first time, really, in my career that a team was really excited at the possibility of signing me because before it was, “Well, we can use him if…”, or, “If this happens, at least we still have him.” So, I’ve always been sort of an insurance policy (instead of) a team being really excited to sign me. So, I have a really good feeling and I’m really excited to be here and it’s going to be awesome.

– I talked with you early in the season last year when New Hampshire stopped through Trenton and you said what drew you to the Toronto organization, as opposed to returning to the Phillies last year, was that they sort of pledged that you’d have a higher ceiling and an opportunity to move up. Was there anything like that discussed with the Phillies this time around?

Well, I don’t know and the hard part is that, with the new front office and with the changes, I don’t think anybody really knows. But, at the same time, I did play for Andy MacPhail when I was in Baltimore and when I was with Chicago, so I know he was responsible for two of my call ups before and I have to believe that Andy MacPhail is the type of guy that will move guys through the system and having played for him before, that was one of the drawing factors. I felt like he was a guy that was in my corner. I don’t know that for sure, but I felt like he was a guy that was always in my corner. So, when this possibility came up- for me, it’s always about being in a place where I’m going to play, so more than a ceiling, it was about, “Am I going to play?” Because if I’m not playing- I believe in this game if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse and if you’re not playing, you’re regressing. And at this point in my career, I don’t have time for my skills to be regressing. I know that they promised me, “Look, you’re going to play.” It’s just a matter of when and where. For me that was more of the determining factor.

I even called (Reading manager) Dusty Wathan, I said, “Hey, Dusty. Is this going to be a good situation (for me)?” He said, “If you don’t play at Triple-A, you’re going to come play for me.” And that’s all I needed to hear. Because I really don’t care where I play, as long as I’m playing. With Double-A and Triple-A, you’re really splitting hairs there. They were willing to make that commitment to me that I was going to play and I think you’ve seen over the years that when I play, I put up the numbers that I need to (in order) to move up to the next level. It’s just a matter of making sure I get those consistent at bats.

– About your time in Korea, I know that you wanted to play in Asia for a while. How did it rank based on what you envisioned during the time you wanted to get over there?

I had kind of a rough time there. The guys I played with on the team were great. The culture was awesome. I really enjoyed getting to know the new culture, the food, it was awesome. The hard part was- it was a transition. The team I played for, well I should say the manager I played for, he was not used to having American players. So, the baseball culture itself was just extremely different. I ended up getting hurt and you can look at my track record, I’ve maybe been hurt, this is my 14th year, I’ve maybe been hurt two or three times, maybe, but that’s not even for a period longer than two weeks. Then I get over there and the schedule, which is so grueling- I tell people this, the first day I was over there, I took 156 swings in 30 minutes and I don’t recall the last time I took 156 swings in a full day, let alone 30 minutes. And, so the schedule is so grueling. Once I got used to the schedule, used to the baseball culture and they way they did things, I started doing really well. But it was a little bit of an adjustment because it was unlike anything I’ve ever done. It took- and I believe, if you’re a good player, you can make an adjustment to where ever you go, and unfortunately, I went so late in the season and with an injury I didn’t have time to make that adjustment before the end of the season. I was playing well at the end and having some respectable numbers, but it took me a while to make that adjustment, but by the time I felt comfortable playing there, basically, the season came to an end.

– What else can you share about the grueling nature of it all? Was it a lot of batting practice, was it double headers…?

The day I got hurt, I got a call at my hotel room at 8 or 8:30 in the morning and they’re like, “Hey, you’ve got extra hitting this morning.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So, I get ready, we’re on the road. I go down and have breakfast and we go to a local college and we start taking batting practice from 10 till noon and there were about eight to 10 guys there and we had to do conditioning while we were there. We had about an hour and a half break. It took a half hour to get to the stadium, then we have an hour to have lunch and change into our batting practice uniforms and then go about our normal day. So that day in my third at bat I hit a ground ball and I’m running down to first base and I pulled my quad muscle.

It was such long day and- part of it was my fault because when I went to Toronto last year, they said I was going to be a first baseman and DH and I’m going to hit in the middle of the order, so I took that opportunity to really get in the weight room and get stronger, get bigger, because I knew I didn’t have to be as mobile, playing outfield and DH. Now as soon as I went over to Korea they said I was going to play left field. So, I was not in the shape I needed to be in to play left field and they needed help right away, so they didn’t give me the opportunity to get in shape to play left field either. But it was a great learning experience for me. I’ve lost 15 to 20 pounds coming into spring training because I know I have to be prepared for just about anything. I don’t know where the Phillies are going to put me because they’ve got two young first basemen. They’ve got a slew of outfielders and third basemen. I don’t know where they’re going to want me to play, so I have to be ready for just about anything.

– I recall you mentioning to me before in a podcast interview that when you played in one of the Caribbean leagues that the fans grew attached to you and they had a nickname for you (El Sangre, meaning The Blood). Did you have any bond like that with the fans in Korea?

(Laughs) Yes, I did. Those fans over there are awesome. They are so into baseball. That was one of the most fun atmospheres I’ve ever played in, in any country. The fans over there, they have cheers. They call them cheer songs. So, I posted this on my (Facebook) fan page, and mine was basically the Korean version of “What Does the Fox Say?” The fans would sing it and had a dance that goes with it when I would come to the plate. They wouldn’t have any music playing over the loud speakers when a player would come to the plate. The fans would all sing it.

I was in a city in the middle of (South) Korea, a town called Daejeon, and there are very few foreigners in Daejeon. If there are, they’re either military teachers or baseball players, so everywhere I went everyone knew exactly who I was, because I was twice the size of anyone there and I don’t consider myself to be a big guy. But I’d walk down the street and people would start singing my song and then ask for a picture. I was like, “Oh my gosh!” It was nuts. I mean it was fun and it put a smile on my face, but after a while it got really nuts. The experience was great.

– You mentioned earlier the differences in baseball culture. Aside from the workload, is there anything you could share about the differences between the game there and the game at home in the States?

Yes. The best way I can describe it is it’s more of a finesse game over there. Here in the U.S. and in Venezuela and in the Dominican Republic, we play a power game. It’s power on power. Guys are raring back, throwing it as hard as he can. Guys trying to hit the ball as far as they can. When you play in Mexico and you play in Korea…it’s a finesse game. It’s more of a crafty game. It’s just a- and the biggest adjustment I had to make was…here’s the funny part to me. I thought I could hit any fastball that was thrown to me, but that was the biggest adjustment because the way they throw, their elbow drops and they get so much backspin on the ball that it almost had the illusion of rising. And they don’t throw hard at all. They throw 85 to 90 but I had to readjust myself to the fastball because I was swinging at stuff up at my neck. My first four or five home runs I hit over there were on breaking balls, so I got a reputation quickly in the league that I could hit breaking balls, but that was the only pitch that I recognized.

That and they play a lot of small ball. The day I realized I was in a different place was my second game playing there. We lead off the game with a base hit and a walk and we had the three hole hitter come to the plate in the first inning with first and second, no outs, and he bunts. I mean, how many times do you see that in the United States? The manager there was always playing the statistics. He was always playing for that first run. In our game (here in a America), we play one day at a time. In their game, they play one inning at a time. There’s a lot of pressure because it’s a lot like winter ball where every game counts, but they play one inning at a time, so that manager would make decisions only for that inning. And so, example- one game we went through five catchers. Five catchers! Because he’d change them in the middle of an inning, or pinch hit for him, or pinch run for him, whatever. So, we’d go through five catchers because he was playing one inning at a time, not thinking about who was going in to catch next. I actually got to do some catching because one game we ran out of catchers and he said, “Can you still catch?” And I said, “Yeah, let’s go!” And I had a blast, don’t get me wrong. We ended up coming back to win that game and I ended up catching four out of five games because he thought he found something and started putting me back there and we started winning some games. It was just funny.

What I loved about it was, me being me, I would ask a lot of questions. I want to know as much as I can about this game because I’m hoping to stay in this game when I’m done playing in some capacity. And I’d ask “What’s he doing that for?”, or, “What’s the advantage of doing this?” And the players would tell me exactly what was going on. Our three hole hitter bunting in the first inning…”What are we doing? He’s our hottest hitter!” And they’re like, “Oh, well we gotta play for that first run because-” then they’d throw out a statistic like 80% of the time the team that scores first wins the game, or something like that. But that’s the way that they play the game.

– Jake, we’ve talked a bunch over the past few seasons and we’ve spoken before about your leadership abilities in the clubhouse and on the field. What sticks in my mind is the hot month that Zach Collier had a couple seasons ago with Reading. He credited you a lot with his success and his dad ended up showing appreciation by getting you a gift. Was there a Jake Fox to you, when you were coming up?

Yes. I would say there have been many. Part of me looking back, I wish I had been more receptive to the guys that were trying to help me. At the end of the day, if a guy is talking about what has made him more successful, you don’t have to do what he says, it just gives you more information. Looking back, I was probably more stubborn because I wanted to do things my way and I wasn’t listening to what was out there, because maybe it would change what I do. One thing I can say about some of these kids is that they’re very receptive.

I was talking to Brad Hollands, the Phillies scout that signed me, I said, “That’s one of the reasons I have to play is because if you want me to be a leader in that clubhouse, I have to be on the field and I have to be doing it because no one’s going to listen to me if I’m just sitting on the bench and they don’t see it working. In 2014 with Reading, that was the reason I feel that I reached some of those kids because and I’m just a short, fat white guy and these guys were five-star athletes and they see me playing really well, then they figure if this guy can do it, I should be able to get it done too and I want to know how he’s doing it.

It took me till I got to the big leagues and some guy basically said, “Foxy, you’ve gotta start doing this better and start doing that better.” And, finally, I grew up enough to say, “Well, how do I do that because I don’t know how to do that?” And two guys that were really awesome for me to talk to were Daryle Ward… because my first stint in the big leagues I was a pinch hitter for the Chicago Cubs and that was his job (too). He was the left-handed guy, I was the right-handed guy. And we’d sit down in the dugout and I asked, “I haven’t figured out this pinch hitting gig yet. What do you do to go up to bat and be ready to hit?” We’re different and his style of hitting was more conducive to being a pinch hitter and I go up there and I’m trying to wreck the ball every time I go up there and he really helped me with my approach coming off the bench and having a quality at bat. And the other guy I really look up to and really helped me along the way was Derek Lee. I played with him in Chicago and in Baltimore and he helped me with just the everyday approach to the game. The one thing I loved about him was, no matter how he was doing, no matter how the team was playing, he showed up and he was the same guy every day. And I learned a lot from that because I believe you can tell more about a person by the way he handles failure than how he handles success and that guy was a rock. He would show up everyday and no matter how he played, no matter how the team played, the next day he was the same Derek Lee. And probably he was the gut I’ve had the most respect for and learned the most from throughout the time in my career.

That and (Somerset Patriots manager) Brett Jodie.  I feel like I learned a lot from Brett Jodie because one of the things that he taught me was how to be professional, but still enjoy the game.   This is my message to a lot of the minor league guys is a lot of people treat this like a job and treat this as a business.  But. if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, there are a lot more things you could do and make more money and be at home with your family.  I always tell them, a guy I played for in independent ball was awesome at getting down to business and getting your work done but also keeping it loose and enjoying the game.  That’s one of the reasons I went back to Somerset (in 2014) because we can get caught up in affiliated ball, you can get so wrapped up in “I gotta get to the majors” and so much more than just playing the game.  And I feel like that was another guy that helped me get back on track with my career because he reminded me why I still play.  It’s because I love to play baseball and I love to be out there everyday, going through a schedule.  And even though today could be real bad, tomorrow it’s a whole new game and it’s going to go a whole new way, it’s going to be a new pitcher, new situation.  To me, that’s what I learned most and it’s helped me have a career this long.

I haven’t had a lot of time in the big leagues.  I’ve got about two to two-and-a-half  years in the big leagues, but I’m still playing just because I love to play the game.  And it’s taken me to places like the Mexico, Korea, Dominican Republic, to I’ve been to Venezuela to play, I’ve had a few offers to play in Taiwan.  The only place I haven’t played yet is in Japan and I’m hoping that at some point in my career I’ll get to go over there and play just because I want to be able to walk away from this game and say I’ve played everywhere this game has to offer.  And I feel that would be cool to walk away and say I did it.  I’ve played everywhere.  I’ve seen it all.  And I feel like that will help me in my next career, helping me to identify with any player that I may have to work with or be around.

– You teased it there, speaking of your next career.  Are you firm in knowing that when the playing days are done, you still want to suit up and coach on the ball field?

I don’t know where I’m going to be.  I just know that I feel a responsibility because of what the game has done for me, I feel a responsibility  to get back in the game and I’m going to stay in the game in some capacity.  Maybe it’s not my primary job.  I don’t know.  I haven’t thought that far ahead because I’m still focused on what I’m doing now.  I’m not going to say I haven’t thought about it at all.  I haven’t come to any real decisions.  I want to stay in the game in some capacity because I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of fulfillment out of helping some of the players- you brought up the Zach Collier thing and to me, that was one of the first times I felt pride because that was a different type of fulfillment than if I was to do it myself.  I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I finally saw the benefits of being able to help somebody, coach somebody and being able to talk to them about my own experiences. 

I have to believe that’s what a lot of coaches feel.  You get a sense of accomplishment even though you’re not the one out there doing it.  And I felt that.  I want to be able to continue to help people and make a difference.  My wife and I talk about that a lot and I still say when people ask me what I want to do next and I my only answer is, “Make a difference.”  Whatever that may be, whatever that may be doing.  ‘Cause in this first career, I’ve basically been doing it for me, chasing my dreams and in my next career I want to help other people do that.  I want to make a difference.  I don’t know what that’ll be yet, but that’s where we’re at.

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