Mike Marjama made it.
He reached the big leagues. He is employed by the Seattle Mariners, a 28-year-old catcher every bit as gritty as his position, and he cleared myriad hurdles, self-imposed or otherwise.
Marjama made his Northern California return this week in Oakland, gleefully greeting family and friends that supported him from as far back as his Roseville East Little League days, people who would have driven to the other end of the Earth to watch him reach this summit. He debuted as a starter Wednesday, collecting two hits.
After navigating through seven seasons, 480 games and five levels of minor-league ball – and the region’s high schools as a substitute teacher – he made it. The Mariners end their season in Anaheim this weekend, and he vows to report to spring training prepared to stick.
“The game is a beast, and it’s the nature of the beast, trying to make it, and it’s like putting your life on the line,” Marjama said. “Not literally, but your reputation is on the line. You’re being judged on how you play, because if you don’t produce, you’re out. That’s the real world we live in.
“My story is incredible, and that’s what makes this so much sweeter.”
His story began in Placer County, and it will continue there this offseason. He longs to raid the fridge in the home of his parents, Kim and Greg, to power nap on the couch and to log more time filling in at area classrooms. His bigger calling is to visit his alma mater, Granite Bay High School, as he has since he was drafted in the 23rd round in 2011 out of Long Beach State, and talk to the students about his successes, as well as the demons he’s overcome.
‘Best asset ... biggest downfall’
The teens relate to Marjama the person more than than Marjama the athlete.
“I always go back to (Placer County),” Marjama said. “I love to substitute teach. I’ve done everything – math, PE, science, AP chemistry. My dad’s a science teacher at Rocklin High. I’ve filled in for him, and I’m probably better at it than he is (laughs). I’m a well-rounded guy and I tell the kids we will have fun, but we’ll also learn, and they think, ‘Hey, this guy knows what he’s talking about.’ ”
As a junior at Granite Bay 11 years ago, Marjama’s weight plummeted to 130 pounds as he battled an eating disorder. He cut weight for wrestling, and then kept dropping the pounds despite the pleas of friends and a family that initially felt helpless to stop it. Marjama would work out feverishly, and he conditioned his mind that he did not need to eat any more than ounces of food. He struggled with his image: Am I good enough?
“I’ve always had this tenacious will,” he said, “and when others would stop, I’d keep going, which was my best asset – it got me this far – but it was also my biggest downfall, a push to great extremes.”
At his lowest point, he entered a “lock-down” in-care facility. Marjama regained his weight, his health and his self-esteem by the end of his junior season. He did not play baseball in 2006 as the focus was to get well. He returned to the infield for the Grizzlies as a senior motivated to make up for lost time.
“When you have a kid with his passion, and you understand his situation and what he went through with the disorder, you welcome him when he’s ready,” Granite Bay coach Pat Esposito said.
Marjama hasn’t missed a season since and he is inspired to never reach those depths again, to educate through words and actions.
“When I had the eating disorder, I was stubborn. Now my eyes are open,” Marjama said. “A lot of high school students have a tremendous amount of pressure on them. We all want to see things out of reality, and we don’t always see things fully clear. It was a hard time, what I went through, but it changed my perspective on life. It definitely helped me grow.”
Marjama’s 6-foot-3, 210-pound body is his livelihood now, and he stresses that a healthy body makes for a happy one.
“At this level, we have all these nutritionists, dietitians, daily screenings, things we can do to help our bodies,” Marjama said. “The more information we can give college and high school students to help with injuries, diet or to avoid burning out, the better.”
Seattle Mariners, Sacramento City College connection
Esposito was impressed with Marjama’s ability to see and feel the game.
“I’d put a scouting report of the opposing hitters on our dugout wall, and there’s Mike, writing tendencies down on tape on his wrist,” the Granite Bay coach said. “He would stand at second base and wave outfielders over to align them. Amazing. That’s a natural leader.”
Marjama wound up at Sacramento City College, struck by the challenge levied by coach Andy McKay. The coach said if Marjama had any visions of playing pro ball, he had to at least crack the starting lineup of a community college.
“I walked out of there thinking, ‘Who in the heck does he think he is?’ ” Marjama recalled. “Then it hit me: He’s right. I wanted to prove to him what I could do. Andy McKay was the biggest influence of my career.”
And they remain close. McKay is now the director of player development for the Mariners.
Marjama played infield at Sac City and at Long Beach State, where he planned to study medicine before getting drafted, and then he became a catcher.
“Anyone who knows Mike knows he has that X-factor of a relentless belief in himself, a world-class work ethic; you put those things together and it’s a hard combination to beat,” said McKay of the 43rd player to reach the bigs out of Sac City. “No one in Seattle knew my history with Mike, so what he’s done to make it this far is 100 percent Mike.
“He’s here, a big leaguer, and I couldn’t be more happy or proud. He’s one of 750 major-league guys in the world, and one of just 60 or 70 of the best catchers in the world. It’s mind-boggling what he’s done because this game can be really harsh.”
There are no bigger fans than Marjama’s parents.
“Wow. That pretty much explains it in one word,” said Greg Marjama, in between science classes at Rocklin High. “It’s a dream come true for all of us. Everything he’s gone through in his life has prepared him, in and out of baseball. Him giving back is more important than the accolades. What good are the accolades if you don’t share it? And that’s the big picture of life, and he understands that.”