Fourteen years ago Russ Canzler graduated from Hazleton Area High School and began a journey in professional baseball.
As a pro for 12 years, he traveled from Iowa to Durham, making stops in the Major Leagues with Tampa Bay and Cleveland. But he never strayed far from his roots, always making time for people in his own backyard.
Now, he has come full circle, returning to where it all started.
Canzler was named the head baseball coach at his alma mater replacing Gino Cara.
“It’s crazy to see where the game takes ya, and I’ve been fortunate to play the game I love all over the country,” Canzler said. “And to come back where it all started is surreal and I can’t wait to wear the Cougar uniform again.”
Canzler, 32, was drafted in round 30 by the Chicago Cubs in the summer of 2004 shortly after graduation. From there, he went on to play for six other organizations before hanging up the cleats in 2015. In addition to the Chicago Cubs organization, he also played for the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies.
While playing in the Yankees and Phillies organizations, he lived at his home in Conyngham playing for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
The highlight of his minor league career came in 2011 with Durham when he won the International League Most Valuable Player Award, was a midseason and postseason All-Star and was named the MVP of the Triple-A All-Star Game. Later that season, he earned his first call-up to the Bigs playing under then-Rays manager Joe Maddon, also a Hazleton native.
The next season, he played in 26 games for the Indians, but didn’t make it back to the Majors after that despite being among the final cuts out of spring training for the Yankees and Phillies.
Even while playing pro ball, he always made time to return to the area for an offseason clinic or two.
He’s been working with baseball players in the area for a long time and is excited to get started with the team that made everything possible. The Cougars are the reigning District 2 Class 6A champions and have produced a line of MLB draft picks — six more since he was drafted himself — to lead the Wyoming Valley Conference.
“I’ve always loved coaching. I’m still a student of the game,” Canzler said. “I always thought it’d be cool to share with kids what I had at my fingertips, to give them that advantage that you have and you certainly want to share it. And now to give it to the Cougar program.
“I’m certainly motivated to be taking over the team. I believe there’s a state championship team there. It certainly a lofty goal, but I believe it can be accomplished.”
With four children ages 10, 6, 3, and 2 and being married to his wife Kim for seven years, Canzler has been active in coaching Valley West Little League and Stripes & Strikes Legion among other things. He’s enjoyed spending time with his family.
But he also can’t wait for what lies ahead.
“It’s been outstanding,” Canzler said. “Everybody misses playing. When you get to a certain point, you know, but the silver lining has been to be at home. I have to thank my wife because she knows I have a burning desire and she’s been very supportive of me in chasing these baseball dreams.”