CHICAGO – Cubs relief pitcher Steve Cishek hardly lifted weights or played long toss in high school. He was a self-described “late bloomer.”
Cishek, a Massachusetts native, played college ball at Division II Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. He will admit he wasn’t accustomed to the level of work that being a college athlete required.
“I had some guys on our team that pushed me, and that’s what took me to the next level,” Cishek said. “There was potential there that was untapped that I didn’t realize was there.”
Currently, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound right-hander has become one of the most consistent arms out of the Cubs bullpen in 2018. Entering Monday, he had made more appearances (41) than any other Cubs pitcher and held a 1.83 ERA in 391/3 innings.
When he set foot on campus at Carson-Newman, his fastball topped out in the low 80s. With the right focus and regimen, by the time his freshman year started that spring, he was hitting the low 90s.
“We had the right coaching staff to bring that out,” Cishek said. “I don’t think it matters what school you go to.”
The Marlins drafted Cishek in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. He played parts of six seasons with the Marlins before bouncing around St. Louis, Seattle and Tampa Bay. Cishek signed with the Cubs as a free agent in December.
He’s not the only former Division II ballplayer to find success in the Cubs clubhouse. Relief pitcher Anthony Bass, who grew up in Michigan, was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft by the San Diego Padres after playing at D-II Wayne State in Detroit.
“If you’re good enough, from my experience, scouts are going to find you,” Bass said. “Word of mouth spreads quickly. If you’re performing, it’s going to get the attention of scouts.”
Bass, a righty, played three seasons with the Padres from 2011 to 2013 before stints with the Houston Astros (2014) and Texas Rangers (2015). He spent all of 2016 in Japan before returning to Texas in 2017 and signing with the Cubs over the offseason.
In between all of that, he earned his degree a decade after he was drafted. Bass started taking classes again in 2016. He had just over 30 credit hours to complete.
In Japan, playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Bass had a little bit more time on his hands. Starting pitchers in Japan can leave games in which they are not pitching after the third inning, so Bass used his extra time wisely.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Bass said. “It’s more or less time management, knowing when to knock out certain assignments.”
Bass made it to the big leagues by setting goals in incremental steps. At Wayne State, he just wanted to stand out among pitchers in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He wasn’t worried about MLB scouts or the rest of D-II baseball.
While at Wayne State, Bass got to know future NFL running back Joique Bell. The two lived in the same dorm as freshmen and they still keep in contact. Bell, who was trying to make it as a D-II running back, famously worked security at Detroit Lions training camp one summer in college before years later leading the Lions in rushing.
Bell was signed and released by four different NFL teams, playing on numerous practice squads, before finally earning his chance to play with the Lions.
“A situation like mine and Joique’s, we really had to open up people’s eyes to get noticed,” Bass said. “I knew in order to play professional baseball, I needed to do something different, something unique. Whatever that is, just find your niche and go for it.”
Bass became the highest draft pick out of Wayne State and the first big-league ballplayer from the school since 1988. In 141/3 innings of relief for the Cubs this season entering Monday, Bass had a 0.63 ERA with 14 strikeouts and one walk.
Cishek became Carson-Newman’s first MLB player since 1985.
“The first day in I was watching guys in rookie ball throwing 95, every single one of them,” Cishek said. “I had never seen anything like it before. I was at a D-II school. It puts it into perspective.”
Cishek put part of his signing bonus toward finishing his degree in physical education during his first year in the minors. He wanted a fallback plan.
Ten years later, he still hasn’t needed it.