Working Hard and Believing
Steve Holm is one heroic moment away from becoming a Hollywood movie. A simple game-saving tag at the plate or game-winning hit in the World Series is the only scene missing from turning Holm’s baseball career into the feel-good movie of the year.
He’s part, Rocky, part Rudy, part Crash Davis.
The script would begin when Holm was five years old and was asked for the first time what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“A baseball player,” he said without hesitation. As the years passed and other boys shifted to more pragmatic ambitions, Holm never changed his answer. He nagged his parents to make the drive from Sacramento to watch Giants and A’s games. He collected baseball cards. To this day, he keeps a Nolan Ryan rookie card in his gun safe.
He played shortstop through Little League, high school and college, choosing schools based solely on their baseball programs. He switched from Sacramento City College to Cosumnes River College to American River College in search of the best coaching and most playing time. When he received invitations from Oral Roberts, Western Kentucky, UNLV and Sacramento State, he chose Oral Roberts, which fielded the best team at the time.
When a pro scout told him he’d have a better shot at making the majors if he switched to catching, he didn’t hesitate. The Giants drafted him in the 17th round in 2001 and turned him over to Kirt Manwaring, the former Giant who is now a catching instructor.
“He taught me to get something out of every bullpen session,” Holm says.
And that’s what he did for most of the next two seasons at Salem-Keizer – catch the bullpen. “If there was a bullpen I caught it,” Holm says. He’d get into a game only if it was a blowout.
Accustomed, as most pro ballplayers are to being one of the best players on their teams, Holm had to swallow his frustration at being one of the worst as he was learning his new position.
“To be a good catcher, you have to do it enough to develop instincts,” Holm says. “You almost have to see it before it happens. And that comes only with repetition.”
Sometime in 2003, he says, after nearly three seasons of pro ball, he became comfortable enough to trust his instincts.
“That allowed me to hit better because I wasn’t so worried all the time about catching,” he says. In 2004, he hit nine home runs in Single A San Jose after hitting just one the previous three seasons.
He was still learning the strategy of calling a game and of adapting to the different personalities of the pitchers. And learn to get better at calling a game. “I didn’t understand early on how to get the most out of every pitcher,” he says.
Still, for as much as he was developing as a catcher, he was stuck at Single A.
Season after season after season.
For six years he played in Single A, with only an 11-game stint in 2005 marking a higher showing.
He didn’t make it to Double A for a full season until he was 27 years old.
“He never even hinted at giving up,” said a childhood friend who played baseball with Holm. “He figured as long as he kept fighting, he’d make it. He is an extremely hard worker. He perseveres. And he has very, very, very high baseball intelligence. He knows the game within the game, and he knew it at an early age. He loves the game. He won’t give it up until someone takes the glove off his hand.”
Holm believed that one day he would be the right place at the right time. That’s how it worked.
Last spring, he was in the right place at the right time.
At the age of 28, on the last day of training camp, only two catchers were left on the Giants roster: Bengie Molina and him.
“Even so, I didn’t count on making the team,” Holm says. “I knew things can happen on the waiver wire, a trade, something. It didn’t sink in until Opening Day against the Dodgers.”
After six years in Single A and one in Double A, suddenly Holm was playing at AT&T Park in front of a ton of friends and family who drove down from Sacramento for most home games.
He peppered Molina with questions, sitting with him between innings to talk strategy. He had one thing going for him from all those years in the minors: He had caught almost all of the homegrown Giants pitchers. He caught Brian Wilson in 2005 in Low A Augusta and in Double A; Tim Lincecum in 2006 in San Jose; Matt Cain in Low A and A; Merkin Valdez in Low A, High A and Double A in 2005; Jonathan Sanchez in Augusta in 2005; and Kevin Correia in Salem in 2002.
As valuable as he was behind the plate as Molina’s backup, he struggled at the plate and was sent back and forth to Triple A through July and August and became the third catcher behind Pablo Sandoval and Molina through September. By season’s end, he had raised his batting average to .262.
With Sandoval playing third, Holm is likely to make the opening day roster again – a long way from those six long years in Single A. But Holm kept working – putting in hours upon hours in the off-season improving his throw to second, for instance – and the most amazing thing happened.
He grew up to be exactly what he dreamed.