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Non-roster reliever spends offseason as MLS intern

PHOENIX -- Once he ruled out winter ball, right-hander Mike Ekstrom needed a way to fend off the boredom that typically takes up some of a ballplayer's offseason.

After all, only so many hours can be spent working out and playing video games, or maybe golf. So Ekstrom reached out to a few connections and by late September, found himself in a new role as an intern for Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers.

"First internship ever," said the 29-year-old Ekstrom, a non-roster reliever in A's camp. "First taste of wearing dress clothes and going downtown and feeling like a real person."

Twice a week for four hours through early December, Ekstrom followed members of the Timbers' public and media relations staff, also joining the club's directors of marketing and promotions to aid in the staging of a statewide community tour to visit fans and celebrate soccer.

Ekstrom's chores included scouring Yelp for hotels and restaurants to accommodate the players on this venture, and he even played the role of journalist for a day, interviewing players over the phone for an article that was posted on the Timbers' website.

"It really broke up my week so I had something to do," he said. "It was kind of eye-opening because there was a lot of stuff I took for granted being on a pro sports team, so I have a little bit better perspective of the workings that go on. It was fun seeing all of the moving parts."

Ekstrom's tenure with the team ended in December only because he had another pending adventure marked on his calendar: an eight-day vacation to Iceland, which included hosting a spontaneous clinic with one of Iceland's club baseball teams.

By then, Ekstrom had signed on with a team of his own back in the States, with the A's beckoning for his services shortly after the conclusion of the World Series. He was slightly reluctant to sign so early in the offseason and considered what other opportunities free agency would present, but his decision to agree to a Minor League deal with Oakland ultimately proved to be a no-brainer.

"They're team I've always been interested in, being on the West Coast and how they do things," the Portland, Ore., native said. "They had one of the best bullpens last year, so there may not be an opportunity for me right now, but there's so much turnover in Major League bullpens that hopefully I do enough here to stick in their minds."

Ekstrom has made a handful of appearances in the Majors in each of the past five seasons over stints with the Padres, Rays and Rockies. He spent most of 2012 at Triple-A Colorado Springs, posting a 2.53 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 57 innings.

Ekstrom never thought a career as a professional baseball player would last this long, so he is thankful it has, particularly after experiencing a taste of working life off the field.

"It was a great environment to work in, but baseball is more fun than a real job," he said. "So hopefully I can keep doing this for awhile."