Mark Hamburger: The Most Interesting Man In Baseball

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — It might not look like much now, but it’s where Mark Hamburger will be living in the near future.

He’s currently restoring a 1969 camper with his brother, who’s a carpenter.

When it’s finished, it will be Hamburger’s home, so that the best pitcher in the league — a former big leaguer on a World Series team — can practice ‘tiny living’ and minimalism.

He named it Marv.

“Going through your stuff and seeing what you need and what you don’t need, it just appealed to me,” Hamburger said. “This just, it fits my lifestyle.”

In the meantime, the 30-year-old Mounds View High grad lives in his parents’ basement. He drives a 1989 wood paneled station wagon, which he named Hazel. And he frequently skateboards his commute to the ballpark — usually just from the hotel at road games or the parking lot at home, but occasionally all the way from mom and dad’s house in Shoreview — eight miles away —  whenever the mood strikes him.

Quite a lifestyle it is.

“I, yeah, yeah, I’d say I’m different than a lot of people in baseball,” Hamburger said.

He quotes Plato from memory, prefers not to carry a cell phone, and let’s not forget, his appearance – a personal style perhaps best described as hacky sack enthusiast.

“If people look at me,” Hamburger said, “and say that I’m, ‘out there?’ I mean, I guess it’s true for the job that I’m in.”

In a sport that values conformity like few others, Hamburger is as unconventional as they come. A square peg in a game of round circles.

“I don’t try to push myself on anybody or be all crazy goofy, but I am free,” Hamburger said. “I’m free to be who I am, and I don’t hold myself to, like, rules of the clubhouse. I don’t close my bathroom door. I have my players walk in while I’m using the restroom. And they’re like, what the heck?! And I’m just like, hey! How you doing!? Because I, like, just, enjoy, and I’m not embarrassed of anything. Just having fun.”

Hamburger bought the car two years ago off Craigslist.

“First off,” he said, “if you find a woody wagon, in the condition like that, and you’re looking to buy a car, you should probably buy it.”

It fits his general ethos. I mean, you didn’t picture him driving a Camry, did you?

But what may seem like the free-spirited eccentricities of a bona-fide modern hippie, is actually a man who thinks through every area of his life and lives with great intentionality and mindfulness.

Like the skateboarding, for instance.

“I’m pushing off my right leg, when I play baseball I’m pushing off my right leg,” he said. “It’s endurance; with baseball, pitching as a starter it’s endurance… I was told in minor league baseball, you can’t do that. And I was like, but it’s good for me. And I’m safe. And guys buy cars that go 160 and you’re telling me I can’t go 12? That doesn’t make sense.

“Once I started practicing being mindful, then mindfulness started coming into my life. It’s not just something that, oop, I’m super mindful! It’s like, every morning I’m waking up going ‘OK, what should I be mindful for?'”

To Hamburger, there is a direct correlation between the way he lives and the way he pitches.

And he pitches really, really well — the best in the league.

So well, you wonder why in the world he’s still here, in the lowest level of minor league baseball, rather than back in a big-league system.

When did all this mindfulness start?

“I mean, I’d probably have to say the biggest, one of the biggest shifts of my life,” Hamburger said, “was when I failed my drug test. Because my whole job and career ended. My whole life in general of what I knew, came to a complete halt.”

Hamburger was on top of the world in 2011 — in the big leagues, as rookie reliever on the Texas Rangers team that went to the World Series.

But he was left off the postseason roster, then disappointed again shortly after.

“End of the World Series they give off a playoff bonus, or a share or whatever,” Hamburger said. “And I’d had expectation that my dreams would be fulfilled. And I was given a very, very minimal amount, and I took that personally. And I was so angry. That is what started my downfall.”

As his anger burned, he smoked… lots and lots of marijuana… to sooth the frustration. And his performance reflected it, as he bounced around the minors, released by three different teams. In early 2013 he failed two drug tests within two months, which came with a 50-game suspension, essentially killing his baseball career.

“And that was exactly what I needed,” Hamburger said. “It was like I always said when I was younger — smoking, drinking, all these things, partying — I’d get caught, but never for the big thing. It’s always like little taps on the shoulder, like, wake up dude, wake up, wake up. Until finally, I have such a thick head, that it just, whack, brought the gavel down. And that’s when my life of mindfulness started.”

He put himself into rehab, which changed his whole outlook.

“The anger I was holding onto was pointless, that it’s just weighing me down,” he said. “I let it go. And once I let it go it was like… I felt like a feather, man. I felt like, after crying, letting go of all that – and it was good to cry, like screw all the manly stuff, it was like purging that out of me.

“My whole life is different now, because my past doesn’t haunt me anymore. I’m not letting my past attach itself to me anymore. I’m living presently, and mindfully.”

He joined the Saints after rehab and pitched well enough in 2013 to get signed by the Twins into their minor league system. But it was his release, two years later, that showed truly how far he’d come.

“I couldn’t get over what happened to me in 2011, or being released in 2012. I couldn’t get over it for a couple years,” he said. “I got over this within a day.”

And rejoined the Saints, with whom, the last two seasons, he’s been pitching better than he ever has. And, more importantly in his mind, living better than he ever has.

Does he still have ambitions of being back in the major leagues, or has he just decided, you know what? I’m happy here?

“Level-wise? I’d love to play there,” Hamburger said.

But he’s turned down multiple chances to put himself back on that path. Part desire to remain a starter, not a role playing reliever. Part loyalty to the Saints. Part hesitancy about wanting to change anything about what is now a really happy life.

Does he worry at all that the way he looks, or the way he lives – being different from most other ballplayers – would scare a team off? Would be a deterrent?

“Yeah. Yeah. I mean I see it,” Hamburger said. “I know I get judged. I know teams are like, ‘Hamburger’s probably still smoking. Hamburger’s probably doing this.’

Why not change, to make himself more appealing to teams?

“I thought about that,” Hamburger said. “What if I just cut my hair? Just crew cut it out, wore button-ups every day, looked fresh?

“I would hate myself at night time. I would look in the mirror, and (hate it). I love my curls right now, man. I’ve never had this before. People say I’ve got a receding hairline, I might only have two haircuts left. So I’m not gonna cut my hair, because, I like it. I feel so good right now. I feel so good in my own skin, and my own hair and my own clothing, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.

“I’m very passionate about getting better and better and better, and maybe someday being seen by the right person who wants to give me the opportunity. Hi Minnesota Twins. But I also am very content. With knowing that I throw a baseball for a living, and I sustain myself. I make a small amount a month, but enough to live a very, very happy life.”

More from David McCoy
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