In August, when Charlie Culberson signed another minor-league deal with the Braves after they designated him for assignment, he talked to president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos.
Culberson had an idea.
"Hey listen, what if I tried pitching?" said Culberson, who was back with Triple-A Gwinnett. "What if this is something that I can do and you guys will allow me to do it?"
Anthopoulos signed off on this, and the transition began. Culberson, an infielder, started transforming into a relief pitcher. He went on the development list to work on pitching. This journey, Culberson said, can show people, "it's OK to do something different, to step out of your comfort zone and to take on a new challenge."
This is still baseball, but it's quite the change. And Culberson, who turns 35 in April, fully believes in himself.
When the Braves report to spring training, he will be in minor-league camp — as a pitcher.
We must make this clear: Culberson is not in this solely for the fluffy, feel-good story of it all. He thinks he can succeed.
"Ideally, I want to go into spring training and show these guys what I've been doing, what I've been working on, and show them that I look like a pitcher, I look like I can go out there and throw strikes and get guys out, and let them decide," Culberson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I feel like I'm capable of being an effective big-league pitcher one day. I hope that's sooner than later."
Honing his new craft
In September, Culberson took the mound in Jacksonville. The moment marked the culmination of six and a half weeks on the development list honing his new craft.
The first pitch that catcher Joe Hudson called: a slider.
Culberson landed it for a strike.
"Most people would probably just think, 'Oh, I'm gonna just throw fastballs and get by with it that way,'" Culberson said. "He calls a slider, and I'm like, 'Hey, I can do this.'"
This little victory — throwing an off-speed pitch for a strike to begin this new path — gave Culberson confidence. Days later, in his second appearance, he threw a higher percentage of sliders. In his third outing, he worked in more cutters.
Culberson allowed two earned runs over 2-2/3 innings in those three September outings. And before his position change, he had surrendered an earned run over 7-1/3 innings in major-league mop-up duty over his career.
"I always had an interest in pitching, I always really enjoyed doing it — especially for those mop-up innings that I had at the big-league level," Culberson said. "But yeah, it was just something that I knew that I can do. I know I can go out there and throw strikes. I know I can be a guy that can do it. And I just had faith in myself and my ability. If I knew that I could put that extra work in to doing something — and not taking anything away from any other guy that's pitched at the major-league level or tried to get there — I just felt like if I put in the work and the time, then why not, right?"
Culberson throws a four-seam fastball, a cutter and a split change-up. He's also working on a few different sliders. ("I know as a hitter, certain sliders are tougher than others," he said.) He has been up to 94 mph in his bullpen sessions this offseason, which made him think he could get up to triple digits this offseason.
He learned it doesn't work that way. Velocity, he said, can fluctuate in bullpen sessions. His velocity might increase when he has the adrenaline that comes with pitching in games.
Last year in Gwinnett, Culberson worked with pitching coach Craig Bjornson, whose outlook on pitching made things fun. He also spent time with Paul Davis, the Braves' director of pitching development. And this offseason Culberson has worked out at Maven Baseball Lab in Atlanta, under the guidance of Sean McLaughlin, a former minor-league pitcher with the Braves and Angels.
One thing Culberson has learned: Everyone's body moves differently.
"If you look at all the really good pitchers and guys that are unique, it's, like, everyone is different in their own way," he said. "And I feel like you just have to figure out how you can maximize the way you move. Some of the best pitchers just move differently. They all have some similarities in how they transfer weight, but I think it's just trying to fine-tune my body and then competing on the mound.
"I've had guys tell me, 'Hey, don't forget about staying athletic and being athletic on the mound.' There's still that part of it, too — not just being so mechanical and methodical out there. You still gotta move fast, you still gotta compete. Every pitch, it's gotta be your best pitch. It's a lot of mindset behind it, too."
Culberson continues to hone his new craft. His humility in this new venture is admirable.
He just went through one of the weirdest years in his career. Whether it be because he was on the bench with the Braves or on the development list in Gwinnett, he hardly played at times.
But he pushed forward.
"That was tough, and it was tough for my family, too," Culberson said. "(It was tough) for my kids to say, 'Hey dad, are you playing any?' No, I'm not playing. And then for my wife to see me go off and to work on something new. She was always behind me, but still I was going off and I wasn't actually playing in games during a season, which is the first time that's happened, really, in my whole career. ... It was just something that, if you have an ego, you have to put it to the side and just say, 'Hey, I'm just going to keep working hard and keep my head down and keep moving forward and do something different and tough, and make the most of it.'
"It is what it is. Our careers (as baseball players) are so different, and mine's been pretty interesting and fun and cool — and disappointing at some times, but it's just part of it. I feel like if you can let all that stuff go and just worry about what's in front of you and things that you can control, things tend to be a little easier. Not always easier, but I just try my best to think positive and know that I have a pretty cool opportunity in front of me, and just gonna roll with it that way."
'Everything is just not gonna come easy for a lot of us'
Last season, Culberson spent a couple of months on the Braves' roster.
He got one at-bat.
"I still feel like I can be a solid utility player for any big-league club," Culberson said, "but sometimes time goes on and teams have different thoughts."
When the Braves brought up Culberson last year, he knew he wouldn't play. The Braves fielded baseball's best team in the regular season. Culberson understood the reality, and it led to his decision to try pitching.
The process, of course, hasn't been easy. It has come with difficulties and doubts.
There are valuable lessons in his decision — about the refusal to give, about the fearlessness required to try something new, about handling a transition. Almost anyone can relate to change being scary.
"For me, this has been a challenge making a position change, but I'm still playing baseball," Culberson said. "I know how tough that is transitioning, and I'm sure it would be probably tougher transitioning out of baseball. Everything is just not gonna come easy for a lot of us in life, and at some point, you have to be ready and able to do something different, do something that's not comfortable. Get out of your comfort zone.
"And for me, I'm married, I have three children. I want to show my kids that dad can still work and still work hard, and do something that's not easy. And whether that's pitching or when I'm done with baseball, doing something different, I want them to see that their dad is actually still capable of working hard to provide and show them that it's OK to do something hard because life isn't easy all the time."
Yes, Culberson is determined to achieve his dream for personal reasons.
But he also wants to inspire others.
"I obviously want this to work out for me and my family. I want to get back to the big leagues as a pitcher," he said. "But I do want to show other people that things like this can be done. And to surround yourself with good people that are positive that are going to be able to push you because if you're trying to do something different on your own, it's probably not gonna happen. You need a good group of people, whether that's family or friends, that are behind you and helping you, because not every day has been easy for me in this process. There's been great days and there's been other days when I've questioned myself."
But he's leaned on the support of everyone in his life, from his wife and kids to the rest of his family and his friends.
One other piece of advice from Culberson: Be open to talking to people.
"I think sometimes we get a little closed off in some personal things in life, and I think we all know those few people that you can talk to, to open up to about, with whatever it may be," he said. "And you never know: That one person might be able to help you get through something really tough."
The last time Culberson pitched a lot?
Seventeen years ago, as a senior at Calhoun High.
"I loved pitching growing up, loved pitching through high school and here I am now getting a chance to try it on now toward — I'm not going to say 'toward the end of my career' but at this point in my career, I'm getting to try pitching," he said.
Culberson stopped himself in that answer because, if all goes well, he will not be toward the end of his career.
This, instead, would be a new beginning