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* C Maxx Tissenbaum (Toronto, Ont.) is home from Australia ready to report to spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays. Tissenbaum is a former Toronto Mets infielder. …. 

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Letters of Intent

By Alexis Brudnicki
LONDON, Ont. – Maxx Tissenbaum has had a busy winter.

Fresh off of a stellar winter-ball season with the Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League, he returned home for a short period of time to see his Toronto Maple Leafs lose hockey games up close and in person, while preparing to head off to spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays, where he can follow the winning ways of his second team, the Lightning.

The 23-year-old catcher made the most of his time down under, hitting .340/.410/.562 with nine home runs, seven doubles, 29 runs scored, 29 runs driven in and 16 walks to just 14 strikeouts in 42 games for a Bandits squad that came closer to playoffs than ever before, which made for a bittersweet end to his time in Brisbane.

“By the end of the season we had come together as such a tight, cohesive group and it was tough to see it all slip away,” Tissenbaum said. “Those guys had been around for three, four, five years, slaving away at the bottom of the standings. You could see they were hurt this time.

“In that last game against Perth that knocked us out [of playoffs], you could see guys sitting in the dugout just staring out blankly. You knew it was because we really had a chance this time but we didn’t capitalize on it. That was tough, but it was awesome to be a part of the building process.”

The off-season league allowed the converted backstop to get in the work he needed behind the plate and continue his development at the position, while resting enough to give him the off-season rejuvenation he needed.

“The best part about the Australian schedule is that you’re not playing every day,” he said. “To have those three days a week to get into the gym, or if you need a day off take a day off, and still get your practice work in where you’re not spending five or six hours at the ballpark every day, that’s huge.

“It was great that I got to play and work on all my stuff defensively and offensively, but not physically or mentally get to the point where it was exhausting or a grind…It’s amazing what catching every day will do for defensive work – you become more consistent because you actually know what it feels like instead of questioning, was that right? Was that wrong?”

Amidst all of the preparation and the heartbreaking losses on the ice since he’s been at home in Toronto, Tissenbaum is also finding ways to constantly keep an eye on his alma mater as the Stony Brook Seawolves enter the college season, the team with which he had one of the best experiences of his life.

“I still follow Stony Brook baseball, I still follow Stony Brook athletics, the America East [Conference], so I always get all their stats,” the former 11th-round pick of the San Diego Padres said. “If I’m not playing or practicing or out with people, I’ll almost always try and turn on the games…

“I’m going to try and make it over to Gainesville [during spring training] for one of their games this year. I went to Florida International [University] last year and saw them opening weekend. I keep pretty close tabs on it.”

In his final collegiate season, the left-handed hitting backstop – then an infielder – was a part of the Seawolves squad that ‘shocked the world’ in 2012, advancing to the College World Series as an unheralded pick and the first Northeast Region school to make it to Omaha in 25 years. It was a nice way to cap off his post-secondary experience, but Tissenbaum enjoyed his time at Stony Brook the entire way.

“It was the best three years I’ve ever had playing baseball,” he said. “Living with the guys, working out with them every day, practicing with them, and then going three or four months of the year together and building up the team until the season, and then to go through that year with the same group was something that I wouldn’t ever want to replace.

“In high school I would joke with my mom and ask, ‘What’s the [dollar amount] I could sign [and go pro] for?’ But now looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. It was just an awesome experience for me.”

When Tissenbaum left high school at York Mills Collegiate, he had thoughts that at the time he might have been ready to enter the realm of professional baseball. Looking back, he knows that he needed those three years in New York to help him better prepare.

“[My development] was a little bit of both physical and mental,” Tissenbaum said. “It was learning how to manage my time better. I could always get away with sort of scrapping things together at school and making sure I got all my baseball work done. I had to learn how to budget my time way better.
“Then developing mentally and physically as a player – I learned how to play aggressive defence and be aggressive offensively – and at that point you learn that baseball is difficult. You’re not going to continue hitting .500 every year like you did in high school because there are so many guys who are that good.”

The biggest eye-opener for the catcher happened while he was on the road with his Toronto Mets squad to start his 16-year-old season. That was when he realized just how hard the pro ball path looked.

“I was still in high school,” Tissenbaum said. “The Toronto Mets went down to Florida for a spring training trip and I was on the 16U team. The 18U team played against a minor-league [New York] Mets team at Port St. Lucie.

“I remember we drove up to the main intersection at Tradition Field, the big-league stadium, where the practice fields are. We drove past the parking lot and saw all the Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, the parking spot reserved for David Wright.

“Then you drive about a mile down the road and go off into a dirt field. That’s where all the minor leaguers park. You see the reality that there are 200 guys on the other side of the fence scratching and clawing to get those 25 spots at the top. The sheer number of guys makes you realize this is really, really difficult.”

Though the road is unique for everyone, and some young players certainly are best suited to head off into the professional ranks right out of high school, the biggest difference Tissenbaum sees between the young players and the amateurs with a little more playing time and age is a better understanding of the journey.

“When guys sign out of high school, a lot of the time they don’t realize how long the road is,” he said. “They see draft day as the end goal. They see a big signing bonus as if they made it. You experience things in your first couple years of pro ball, like at your first spring training when you get there and see 250 or 300 guys all in the same uniform.

“It’s that moment when you think this is really a lot more difficult than it looks. Then you break camp and you’re in a minor-league town and it’s a lot different than what you see on ESPN every Sunday night. Guys don’t necessarily recognize how big the journey is.”

In the midst of his own journey to the big leagues, Tissenbaum is excited about getting the upcoming season underway and returning to a competitive game atmosphere.

“Going from the hyper-competitive ABL schedule where you’re trying to win every day, spring training is all about getting ready and developing as players and as a team,” he said. “It ends up being long work days.

“To go from showing up and trying to win every game in nine innings to just getting your work in and making sure you’re doing your defensive work, your early work, your batting practice and all that stuff, it’s going to be a long month. I’m really excited for opening day.”