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Jared Koenig's trip to New Zealand, his fifth independent league, brought him to major leagues

You won't see video of the moment Jared Koenig found out he was going to the big leagues for the first time. He does have the clip in his possession, and it's a former Milwaukee Brewers player who gave him the news, but he said he's keeping the visual evidence of that moment to himself for now.

"I'll cherish that," he said. "I'm gonna hold on to that until maybe I'm done or something."

It was current Cleveland Guardians manager (and former Brewers catcher) Stephen Vogt who delivered the message. Vogt was on a rehab stint with the Oakland Athletics in 2022 at Class AAA Las Vegas and called a team meeting to thank the players for their hospitality.

"And then he took a pause like he was done and said, 'Oh, one more thing. It's really cool to be a big leaguer. Everyone's got their own different path.' And he says, 'Jared Koenig, you're going to the big leagues.'"

As with every player who's traveled a long, long, long road to get to Major League Baseball, it's not the only footage you haven't seen from Koenig's career. But if you had tape of the five different independent leagues, the stop in New Zealand or that additional year of minor-league baseball after finally tasting the big leagues, you'd have pretty good grounds for a Jared Koenig documentary.

"I would say was very grindy at times," the Brewers left-hander said of his career. "At the same time, when you're at the field, time kind of just goes, like you're happy to be there. You're happy to be with the team. And you all have a common goal. (Maybe) it's a small championship, like we won in '18. Small, in terms of grand scheme of things, but for us, that was everything. We got to win this championship, we got a ring, that's what you strive for every year.

"Playing there, wherever you're at, your goal is to show up every day to do whatever you can to benefit yourself in the long run."

Brewers pitcher Jared Koenig traveled a long road to get to Major League Baseball, including a stop in New Zealand.
Brewers pitcher Jared Koenig traveled a long road to get to Major League Baseball, including a stop in New Zealand.

Koenig's first professional baseball experience lasted just one month

As a Brewer, Koenig already has four wins to his credit and a 2.93 ERA in 10 games. His first year in the organization also includes a short stint – five effective innings – at Class AAA Nashville. He's already earned the trust of manager Pat Murphy to work in high-leverage situations.

Before he was here, the 30-year-old Koenig could call himself a member of the Vaqueros, Monarchs, Otters, Beavers, Amberjacks, Stockade, Pacifics, Milkmen (yes, those Milkmen), Crushers and Tuatara – and that was just in the time between high school and his first game of affiliated ball.

Koenig attended Aptos High School in California, and after his second year of junior college at Central Arizona, the Chicago White Sox drafted him in the 35th round of the 2014 draft but never even offered him a contract.

All told, he spent time at three college programs, and his first stint in independent baseball lasted just one month.

Koenig said his dad ran into the mother of his former teammate, Logan Trowbridge, and heard Trowbridge was playing with the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers (Utica, Michigan) in the United States Baseball League, so Koenig reached out to see if he could land a tryout. After sending video to the coaches, Koenig got an invite to spring training in 2017 and made the team as a reliever, though he struggled as a lefty specialist.

After the short stay, he latched on with the Monterey Amberjacks of the Pecos League, connected through his former high-school pitching coach and ex-big leaguer, Mark Eichhorn. He figures he was making $50 a week, but the dominoes had begun to fall.

"And then from there, it kind of just kind of trickled down," Koenig said of the move from team to team. "There was no real reach-out from myself, it was either the coach that I got released (by) or the owner, they called the next team or recommended me to that team, and we went from there."

He pitched for the Salina Stockade of the American Association of Professional Baseball, a travel team that played exclusively on the road.

In 2018, he said he fared well on the police-officer entrance exam in California but was also named pitcher of the year in the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs after recording 11 wins in 16 starts for the San Rafael Pacifics, posting a 3.54 ERA.

In 2019, he was prepared to open the season in Milwaukee with the Milkmen, mere miles from the venue then known as Miller Park, but was traded to the Lake Erie Crushers (Avon, Ohio) of the Frontier League, where he again had a sensational season.

Jared Koenig is 4-1 this season through 10 appearances with a 2.93 ERA.
Jared Koenig is 4-1 this season through 10 appearances with a 2.93 ERA.

The stop that got Jared Koenig noticed: New Zealand

Ironically, his next move brought him physically as far away as he could get from Major League Baseball and somehow moved him closer when he signed to play with the Auckland Tuatara in New Zealand, part of the Australian Baseball League.

"I was looking to go enjoy my time in baseball, trying to find other places to go and experience the world," Koenig said. "That was kind of my goal. And if I didn't get signed to the ABL team that I did, then I would have gone to Australia and played for a club ball team with a chance to make an ABL team."

The Tuatara, as the only New Zealand team in the ABL and a three-hour flight from Australia, have since folded. But then-pitching coach D.J. Carrasco (another ex-big leaguer) liked what he saw and gave Koenig a shot.

"I do love New Zealand," Koenig said. "Love the people, the culture there was amazing, and everyone treated me so well. I really do like that and miss it. I'm looking forward to going back back there when I get the chance."

But he had a ticket home, too, when Koenig caught the attention of the Oakland Athletics international scout. He'd gone the other side of the world only to finally see his dream come true thanks to an MLB team just 80 miles from his high school.

There was one problem: He signed in December 2019 with the Athletics organization. And in March 2020, everything shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 doesn't derail Jared Koenig's rise to the big leagues

Koenig said he caught a break, though; he'd signed a minor-league deal with the Athletics, not a free-agent contract that would have made him a likelier release once the pandemic shut down baseball operations in 2020. Add two more mascots to the collection: the Class AA Midland RockHounds in 2021 (where he posted a 3.26 ERA and made 21 starts) and the Class AAA Las Vegas Aviators in 2022. Vogt's surprise announcement came in time for his major league debut on June 8, 2022.

The outing didn't go particularly well, but he did record his first big-league strikeout against … William Contreras, then of the Atlanta Braves and now Koenig's catcher in Milwaukee. Koenig said he hasn't brought up that moment just yet.

"Maybe later on," Koenig said with a smile. "I love throwing to him, and he's a great baseball player and it's a pleasure to share the field with him."

Koenig worked nearly six shutout innings on June 19 for his first big-league win, though he finished with a 5.72 ERA in 10 games. He was non-tendered after the season.

"Honestly, I thought (after getting non-tendered), 'All right, here's a good opportunity to get a free-agent contract,'" he said. "And it wasn't like that. It was much more difficult to get signed. … There was no doubt I was going to get better, it was just a matter of getting an opportunity."

After his big-league start, it's more than another year of minor-league baseball

The opportunity came with the San Diego Padres, but Koenig said the club couldn't even promise him a spot at Class AAA. So he started at Class AA and worked his way up a level. Add the Missions (of San Antonio) and the Chihuahuas (of El Paso) to the mascot list. He didn't get another shot in the big leagues throughout 2023, but he did enough to get noticed by Milwaukee, which signed him quickly in the free-agency period in advance of the 2024 season. Add the Sounds (of Nashville) to the list. And then one more.

"I'm very fortunate," Koenig said of his time thus far in Milwaukee. "I truly enjoy the coaching staff, the players. Everyone has been fantastic."

Brewers signed out of independent-league baseball

A sampling of players who have made appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers after spending time in domestic independent leagues:

  • Jake Cousins. Played for the Schaumburg Boomers and Chicago Dogs in 2019 and 2020 of the Frontier League and American Association, respectively. Joined the Brewers as a minor leaguer in 2021, then appeared in 30 big-league games (2.70 ERA) before appearances in 2022 and 2023, as well.

  • Justin Topa. He played with the Rockland Boulders in 2018 of the Canadian-American Association, then joined the Brewers organization in 2019. He made his debut in 2020, posting a 2.35 ERA over six games, then appeared again in 2021 and 2022.

  • Quintin Berry. He had already been to the big leagues in 2017, when the Brewers signed him from the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League. He played in seven games but stayed in the organization in 2018. Today, he's the Brewers' first-base coach.

  • Mark DiFelice. Played for the Somerset Patriots in 2005 and Camden Riversharks in 2006, both of the Atlantic League, as well as two Mexican League teams before signing with Brewers in 2007. Appeared in 15 games for the Brewers in 2008 (2.84 ERA), 59 games in 2009 (3.66 ERA) and briefly in 2011.

  • Mike Rivera. He'd also been to the big leagues before the Brewers signed him in 2005 from the Atlantic City Surf of the Atlantic League. The backup catcher saw time with the Brewers in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and even for one game in 2011 after returning to the organization, good for a total of 120 games with the Brewers.

More: His elbow rebuilt, the Brewers' Wade Miley is shooting for a return to pitching next spring

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Jared Koenig played in five independent leagues before MLB opportunity