Brian Simmons' legs and feet helped accelerate his journey to professional baseball and the major leagues.
Injuries to those same legs and feet slowed him down just enough to diminish his chances at being — at the very least — an All-Star caliber and maybe even a star centerfielder for the Chicago White Sox. The injuries ultimately ended his career.
While Simmons, 44, reflects positively on his professional experience, he has been left to wonder what might have been if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2000 and an ankle injury to the same foot while at Class AAA in the San Francisco Giants’ organization in 2002.
He played two more minor league seasons before his career ended.
Simmons, a Peters Township graduate, played in three big-league seasons, 1998 and 1999 with the White Sox and 2001 with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he was traded in January of that year in a multi-player deal.
“Certainly, reaching the highest level that you were working for your entire life is an achievement,” Simmons said. “But I do feel my (professional) career was unfulfilled. I feel I had the potential to be a regular big-league player.
“I was never the same after the injuries. I lost some speed and being a centerfielder, you can get weeded out quickly. To have 10 seasons in professional baseball is a pretty long run. I am proud of what I accomplished at that time.
Simmons was initially drafted in 1992 after his senior season at Peters Township in the 35th round by the Baltimore Orioles. He opted to attend the University of Michigan on scholarship, where he enjoyed a strong career.
At Michigan, Simmons was named to the Mizuno Honorable Mention Freshman team in 1993. He was a member of the Big 10 All-Tournament Team in 1994.
He is fourth all-time in triples at Michigan with 12 and ranks 20th all-time in home runs with 20.
Simmons excelled off the field as well. He was a two-time Academic All-Big 10 selection (1994 and 1995) and was a three-time member of the Michigan Athletic Academic Achievement honor roll.
“The tough thing at Michigan was we didn’t get outside until the first game we played in Florida,” Simmons said. “We’d get crushed by teams that had been outside all winter. We played Miami, LSU and Alabama and we just got pummeled.
“We weren’t very successful. We had talent. But the early results in our seasons hurt us in Big 10 play. But I had a great opportunity at Michigan.”
Simmons was selected by the White Sox in the second round of the 1995 draft.
It was a draft that included former major leaguers Darin Erstad, Jose Cruz, Jr., Kerry Wood, Todd Helton, Matt Morris, the late Roy Halladay, Carlos Beltran, Mike Lowell, Bronson Arroyo and Joe Nathan.
Simmons was taken two picks after Sean Casey, a long-time MLB veteran and his competitor throughout their youth league baseball and high school careers.
Casey, an Upper St. Clair graduate, said Simmons was always the most impressive player on the field.
“He was always a next level player,” said Casey, who is now an analyst with MLB network. “A lot of people throw around the five-tool label. Brian was a five-tool player. He was legit. He could run, he could throw, he could hit for average and hit with power and was a great defensive player.
“Brian was the real deal, a big-time player. If not for the injuries, I think he would have become an All-Star player in the major leagues. He could do things other players could not. He was the man.”
Casey recalled a time during a “municipal game” when he hit a “rocket” into the outfield.
“Brian tracked it down,” Casey laughed. “It’s one of the hardest balls I hit back then. He got to everything. Brian did things other players didn’t or couldn’t do. He did things in baseball that were exceptional since he was a young player. We played against each other a long time.
“Our baseball careers kind of mirrored each other. But I wasn’t capable of doing things he did. He was always the better prospect. He’s one of the best players I played against and with.”
Simmons and Casey played together in the Arizona Fall League.
Casey is one of a handful of former teammates and schoolmates he remains in touch with.
“Some of the athletes I was fortunate to play with did very well,” Simmons said. “Chris Peters had a great career with the Pirates. My high school teammates, Joe Kail and my brother, David (West Point), went to great schools to play baseball. Those guys paved the way for guys like me.”
Simmons credits his high school coach, Joe Maize, his time with the Peters Township American Legion team and former Detroit Tigers’ standout catcher, Bill Freehan — his coach at Michigan — for being influential in his career.
He also credited former major league players Von Joshua and Gary Pettis for being great instructors and mentors in the majors.
Simmons’ father, Del — longtime baseball coach at Mt. Lebanon High School — was supportive and the perfect mentor.
“He taught me about the game, the fundamentals,” Simmons said. “He was always there for me.”
Maize said Simmons was a great teammate, knowledgeable about the game and a leader.
“His personality is very low-key,” Maize said. “We had him at shortstop and pitcher and you knew when he was out there, it was like having another coach on the field.
“Brian always had baseball sense, he knows what the game is about. Michigan moved him to the outfield and it was just the right spot for him. He had those long arms, the speed and his mechanics were great and he was a switch-hitter.”
It was his switch-hitting prowess that helped land him a scholarship to Michigan.
“We were playing a section game at Chartiers Valley — Duda Middle School — and Freehan had come to scout Brian,” Maize recalled. “Our first two guys get on and Brian, hitting left-handed, hits a three-run home run. We bat around and by that time, Chartiers Valley brought in a lefty. Brian comes up again, bats right-handed, and hits a grand slam. He had two home runs and seven RBI in the first inning. Freehan saw enough. Shortly after that, he came to the Simmons’ home and offered Brian the scholarship.”
That is not the only time Simmons flashed that dual-sided power. In September 1998 while playing for the White Sox against the Kansas City Royals, he belted home runs from both sides of the plate to establish a MLB record for fewest at bats required to do so in an MLB career.
Simmons said American Legion baseball also provided him the opportunity to improve and be seen by scouts and professional teams.
“The American Legion All-Star program then was outstanding,” Simmons explained. “You’d have these consecutive tryouts — taking the best players. You’d just go to the next one, to the next, to the next one. It ended East versus West in the state.
“Without those tryouts, I doubt I would have been discovered.”
Simmons currently is employed as a salesman for DePuy Synthes — a Johnson and Johnson Co. — focused on innovative medical devices and services.
He resides in Canonsburg with his wife, Jennifer, and sons, Will, 13, and Blake, 10.
“I don’t follow baseball much until the playoffs,” Simmons said. “I spend the majority of my time with my family and on the weekend going to games with my son.”
Maize said family has always been a focal point in Simmons’ life and a huge reason for his success academically and athletically.
“One common thread of all the players we have had at Peters Township who went professional or played big-time college baseball is they all had support of their parents,” Maize said.
“Brian’s parents gave him all the support. Del had a lot to do with Brian’s success. It’s a great family. Brian received tremendous support from his mother, Janet, and dad. Brian just has that great character and that’s a tribute to the entire family. He has a super family.”