Darren Ford’s been a professional baseball player for 15 years.
To put that in perspective, consider Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was a 14-year-old eighth grader in Millville when Ford’s career began in 2005. Minnesota Twins reliever Cody Stashak was an 11-year-old fifth grader in Mays Landing.
Though he’ll turn 34 on Oct. 1 and his chances of getting back to the major leagues — he appeared in 33 games with the San Francisco Giants in 2010-11 — are remote, the Vineland native has no plans to retire.
“Why would I?” Ford said in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m blessed to be able to play this game, and I’m going to do it as long as I can.”
Ford was talking from the visitors clubhouse at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Maryland, where the New Britain Bees were getting ready to play the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in front of a fan base known as Crustacean Nation.
Ford is in his second season with the Bees, who are vying for a playoff spot in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. If the ALPB sounds familiar, it’s because the now-defunct Atlantic City Surf won the inaugural league championship in 1998.
Ford is in the midst of a solid season. He entered Thursday’s game batting .270 with 71 runs scored, nine doubles, six triples and six home runs.
And like Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, age hasn’t slowed him. His 38 stolen bases were tied for second in the league, behind only Rico Noel (45) of the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters.
“Darren hasn’t lost a step at all,” Bees manager Mauro Gozzo said. “If he’s on first base, there’s a good chance he’ll be on third before too long. That’s because he plays hard all the time. He works hard at his craft, and he respects the game.”
Ford made his pro debut at 19 with Helena (Montana) of the rookie-level Pioneer League as Milwaukee’s 18th-round draft choice.
Most of the first 12 years were spent in the farm systems of Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Ford earned a September promotion to the Giants in 2010 and arrived at Oracle Park just in time to score the winning run against Colorado as a pinch runner. He wound up receiving a World Series ring that season, which he keeps in a bank safe in Vineland.
He appeared to have a future with the Giants after he hit .286 in 28 games for them in 2011 — his first major-league hit was off current Cleveland reliever Tyler Clippard — but injuries forced him to the disabled list both in San Francisco and in the minors. Following the season, the Giants removed him from their 40-man roster.
Ford so loves baseball that he frequently plays year-round.
He spent the 2006 offseason with North Shore of the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League. He also spent three winters in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League and has tentative plans to play in Colombia this offseason.
The game has taken him all over the world.
He’s played in major league ballparks with plush outfields that feature elaborate patterns carved into the grass. And he’s played in outfields with no grass.
But the game is always the same.
No matter where it is, it’s still baseball.
“I’ve been at the tippy-top and I’ve been at the very bottom,” he said. “But no matter where I’m at, no matter what league I’m playing in, I’m still doing what I love to do.”
About 15 minutes into our conversation, Ford said he had to go get ready for batting practice.
There was another baseball game to be played.
David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.