The 2009 season was a big one for baseball in Fort Wayne. Newly renamed the TinCaps and playing in a brand new Parkview Field – still, one of the best venues in minor league baseball – the club won its first and only league championship as a Padres affiliate. The club won 104 games that season, the most in team history.
While 19 future big-leaguers appeared in the Summit City that season, a pair of young outfielders, who arrived in the Summit City by two very different routes, were at the heart of the team’s success.
Jaff Decker, a first-round pick in the 2008 draft, signed for just under a million dollars to bypass a scholarship to Arizona State. At 5-foot-10, he was considered one of the best prep hitters in the draft and was going to join the Sun Devils as a two-way player – the left-hander threw a no-hitter his senior year – and could touch the low 90s with his fastball.
After hitting .352/.523/.541 in the Arizona League just down the street from where he prepped at Sunrise Mountain High, during his professional debut, he entered the 2009 season as one of San Diego Padres’ top prospects, and the youngest player on a college-heavy squad.
Daniel Robertson was selected 963 spots after Decker. The 5-foot-8 speedster wasn’t on the travel ball circuit as a West Covina, California, high schooler, but was a star wide receiver on an outstanding football team.
Despite an offer to walk on to the Arizona State football team, Robertson attended Concordia College, a local NAIA school, to play baseball. He hit .415 before transferring to Oregon State for his senior year when he hit .327.
Robertson began his career in short-season Eugene, getting an opportunity for playing time when the Padres couldn’t agree with fourth-round pick Jason Kipnis. He took advantage, hitting .378/.444/.497 to earn a spot on the Northwest League all-star team and a starting role in Fort Wayne the following spring.
Thirteen years after that run, both Decker and Robertson, who each had brief big league careers and have retired from their playing days, have fond memories of the championship year.
“You know it was Low-A, and it’s not supposed to be that special, but it was,” said Robertson by phone, who is now part of the Cleveland Guardians organization as a minor league bench coach. “It just showed us how much the fans loved the game and appreciated us. I think the city kind of saw themselves in us, not a bunch of flashy guys but players who would compete every time they were on the field.”
“We were young in the old school era,” recalled Decker, who now coaches girls softball, from his Phoenix home. “Getting worn out for not being the first guy to the field because you were the youngest there and things like that. You might have to be here at noon all by yourself to be first, but that is just how it was.
“It made you tougher; it made you want to get better.”
In addition to making it to San Diego, Decker had brief stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s before hanging it up after the 2018 season.
“All of us loved the game, and we all still talk and get emotional about it too. Cumby [Drew Cumberland] getting hurt and the trades,” said Decker on leaving the game. “It’s always the what-ifs, and that is especially true with Drew, who was one of the best athletes that I ever saw play baseball.”
“It was hard for me to watch the game on television for a while because when you think you can still compete, whether you can or can’t, it’s tough.”
What did help Decker get over playing baseball was something he never imagined; coaching girls’ softball.
“My Dad was doing softball, and I was like, what are you doing,” he said on how he first got involved. “My bedside manner may not have been the best just coming out of pro ball, but they came to work every day and I connected with certain ones that helped me get through what I was searching for.
“Once ball was done, what are you going to do? They really helped me get through everything. They were 12 years old when we started, and now they are 16.
“Becoming a mentor for them like so many people did for me. I started a training facility and tried to grow it and coach softball. I did a little bit of baseball, but right now, the main focus is with women’s sports and helping them grow.”
Robertson made his major league debut with the Texas Rangers, days after the Padres traded him for cash considerations in 2014. He logged big league time with the Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners and Cleveland in parts of each of the next three years. After a year in the independent American Association, he hung up his cleats at 33 after 12 years of professional baseball.
“It was tough, but easy at the same time,” said Robertson on his emotions on leaving the game. “When I retired, the Pandemic hit, and at that point, there wasn’t really anyone looking for a 33-year old free agent that could play six different positions, run and hit – so they didn’t want me anymore.
“I don’t know what else I could have done, so that made it easy. Going into coaching and returning to Oregon State was great. I was an undergraduate assistant and learned the day-in and day-out tasks of coaching; what I did and didn’t like, along with picking up new skills that helped point me in the right direction.”
As with everything in his playing career, nothing in coaching has been given to Robertson. He took a position in the Independent Mavericks Baseball League. Four teams played all of their games in Salem, Oregon, one of the cities that had just lost their major league affiliation because of the minor league contraction. As the Campesinos de Salem-Keizer manager, Robertson led his team to a championship in its inaugural season.
“The way that they come together and battle together, it’s hard not to get emotional when talking about them,” said Robertson after the championship game to the Keizer Times. “It is something that I will never forget.”
Both Decker and Robertson have been able to release the hold that baseball had on their lives by doing for others what people did for them; working to get people to the next level.
“So yeah, these girls got me over to the next part of my life,” said Decker. “To me, working with them became much more than just about sports, but all parts of their lives and being able to make a difference in those lives made a big difference in mine.”