As each day goes by in the beginning of this off-season, my appreciation in hindsight for the 2021 season increases. Regardless of how a full-season unfolds, in terms of individual or team success, it is a marathon mentally and it is an accomplishment to make it through in a good headspace after 130 Minor League baseball games.
Thanks to my family, my teammates, coaches and my girlfriend Lindsey, who lived with me for much of the season, I persevered through the most challenging yet rewarding season I have ever experienced. It was challenging in that I visited all four affiliates over nine total transactions to-and-from teams within the Orioles organization. Along with stretches of time where I was not playing well, leading to less playing time which makes it very difficult to establish any sort of rhythm or comfort in the box.
I embraced my role to the best of my ability physically and mentally, trying to be the ultimate utility guy as I played every position except centerfield. Whenever I saw my name in the lineup I wanted to make sure I was playing my ass off and contributing to a win. When you’re not playing everyday and you finally get in there, being a part of W’s means that much more.
With a season like the one I had, there were some big highs and also significant lows. There were days I will never forget like my Triple-A debut, or the very forgettable days such as when it’s my first start in a few games and I go 0-for with a pair of punchouts. There are many other wild moments, positive and negative, that the year brought along.
I wasn’t sure which story I wanted to start with, as this is my first blog post in some time. It feels like a huge cluster of baseball experiences are sitting in my head and I am trying to figure out how to pluck them out and tell my stories. I decided to begin on a game that started as a normal off-day for me, but turned into one of the most unique days of my baseball career.
Behind the Dish in Brooklyn
“Damn, not in there again,” a familiar phrase I muttered to myself a fair amount this season after looking at the lineup card. We were approaching the beginning of September during my second stint of the season with the High-A Aberdeen Ironbirds. We were in Coney Island, New York for the final game of a six-game series against Mets affiliate, the Brooklyn Cyclones. Both these teams used to be Short-Season affiliates in the New York-Penn League, until the league dissolved and both Aberdeen and Brooklyn replaced the organizations’ former High-A teams.
I was not having a great series in Brooklyn thus far and the week before against Wilmington wasn’t one to remember either. It is times like these where not being in the lineup stings even more. I desperately wanted the opportunity to do something to break out of that slump and help the boys get a W in the process. It looked like that Sunday, August 29 in Brooklyn was not going to provide that opportunity.
Maverick Handley had been catching most of the Ironbirds games since I had rejoined the team. However, earlier in the week he sustained a minor injury that put him on the Injured List for a few weeks. When that happened our manager, Kyle Moore (KMo), told me on Thursday that I was the emergency backup catcher in case anything happened to our other catcher on the roster, Ramon Rodriguez.
“Absolutely, I used to be a catcher,” I replied all excited, although I was very doubtful anything would come from the situation.
It was true that I had caught in the past, but not seriously since my sophomore year of college and not in-game since my senior year of high school. My last season at Housatonic Valley, it was Chris Vernali and myself flip-flopping between pitcher and catcher every other game and it was a blast. However, my left meniscus became very swollen and sore, requiring that I have blood drained from the area of my knee to relieve the pain. Then there was my sophomore year of college at UConn in early 2016, when Coach Penders asked if I would train to become a catcher. He asked me to do this to add some more depth to the position going into that season and it would increase my versatility and, in turn, increase my draft stock just a year before I was eligible to be drafted. I agreed to give it a shot and I worked hard with Coach Penders before and after practices to try and be the best catcher I could be. Unfortunately my knee blew up again in preseason, after a few months of catchers training and live at-bats in “the Barn”. Luckily I didn’t have to get my left meniscus drained again, but going into the season the coaches and myself agreed to shut the catching down unless it was an emergency situation. That was the last time I strapped on the “tools of ignorance” competitively.
I changed into my batting practice attire, exited the locker room and went into the dugout to wait for team stretch. Then, KMo approached me before the workday began.
“Hey Willy, Ramon isn’t feeling so hot and there’s a chance he doesn’t go today, so just in case why don’t you go catch a few bullpens and get a feel for it, sound good?”
“Uh, okay sounds good,” I said slightly excited but mostly kind of horrified realizing the reality of my position as emergency catcher.
“Hopefully he bounces back and feels fine in a few hours so he can play, we’ll let you know,” KMo replied calmly. I borrowed Maverick’s gear and caught a few Ironbirds in the bullpen, thinking that KMo was probably right and Ramon would bounce back to play. I wasn’t trying to block or anything crazy, I just wanted to make the glove pop and not clank anything – the old “ejecto-mit” if you will – we don’t want that. The bullpens concluded and I went to finish batting practice with the rest of the position players.
The team went inside after batting practice about an hour and fifteen minutes before gametime. We ate the pregame spread and I took my pregame shower, I still did not know if I was catching or not. Finally I was hailed into the coaches office where the whole coaching staff is waiting for me.
“Well Willy, looks we’re gonna need you back there today, you ready?” KMo asked.
“Uh, yup, as ready as I can be,” I remember saying while half-laughing in disbelief. Holy shit, I’m about to be the starting catcher in a professional baseball game.
KMo ran through basic catcher 101: the sign-giving stance, signals for pickoffs and 1st and 3rd situations, general protocol for signs while a runner is on second base, etc. They gave me a card for certain pitch recommendations for most of the Cyclones hitters and then I really was as ready as I could be. I had so little time to jersey up and get out there on time to start warming up the starting pitcher.
Ryan Goll was the ‘development coach’ in Aberdeen but specialized in working with catchers. He came out to the bullpen with myself and starting pitcher, Jake Prizina (Prizzy), and helped me get ready to catch by way of brief blocking drills and some quick transfers.
Prizzy is a lefty who is around high-80s with his fastball, with a nice changeup and a curveball. We knew going into the game that the Cyclones starting lineup was all right-handed hitters, so it was going to be a steady dose of the fastball-changeup combination. For a catcher with incredibly minimal experience that’s an ideal game plan to work with out of the gate. I caught Prizzy’s pregame ‘pen and we were ready to go.
The top of the 1st started and we took our hacks. The dugout was all sorts of fired up seeing me prepare to head out there with the gear on, especially the pitchers. We got a run on the board in the 1st, then recorded our final out and it was time to head out there to catch.
I introduced myself to the umpire, Dylan, and caught Prizzy’s warm up pitches. Umpire’s in pro-ball always prefer that coaches and players call them by name, instead of ‘ump’ or ‘blue’.
It turns out Dylan remembered me from the Gulf Coast League days in 2017. He was the umpire that absolutely hosed me on a strike three call against the GCL Twins. The pitcher ‘quick-pitched’ me and I was not even completely in the box when he started. I looked up and the ball was halfway to home plate and Dylan was the home plate umpire who called strike three. This was probably the most angry I had ever been at an umpire. I was screaming obscenities at him and was basically trying to get thrown out of the game because I was so ticked off at the guy. I believe he didn’t throw me out of the game because he knew he messed up so bad.
“Are we cool now Willy?” Dylan asked jokingly during the game. I laughed and said we were cool, even though I was just shocked he remembered the incident. I guess it’s safe to say I was memorably angry that day in the GCL.
Cody Bohanek was the lead off hitter for the Cyclones and said hello to Dylan and myself as he stepped into the box.
“You been catching a little bit now, Willy?” He asked, assuming I had been training to catch before today.
“No haha, first time catching in a game since high school. I didn’t know I was [catching] until an hour ago.” He gave me a funny look, either in shock or that he thought I was kidding. Prizzy went into his wind-up and the catching debut was underway with a strike. Bohanek, along with the two-hole hitter Jaylen Palmer, grounded out to our shortstop AJ Graffanino. Right off the bat for both of those ground balls, I was late to remember the catcher’s duty of running behind first base to back up the throw. My late move in that direction resulted in colliding with Dylan the umpire both times, as he had to move out into the field upon contact (for whatever reason).
“My bad Dylan, I’ll remember to get going right away on the next one,” we laughed and he said it was no big deal.
The number three Minor League prospect for the Mets, Ronny Mauricio, came up to the plate bumping “Pepas” by Farruko. There’s always one Latin hip-hop/pop song that I take away from the season as my favorite and that was the one of 2021. Mauricio was curious about my catching experience as well. It seemed many of their guys were surprised that I was back there and wanted to ask throughout the game.
“First time catcher?” He asked with a big grin with a bit of an accent. I nodded and repeated the circumstances and he smiled, laughed and wished me luck. I appreciated it, I needed all the luck I could get as I prepared for nine innings back there. Mauricio hit another ground ball to Graff at shortstop, I finally remembered to start running right away to back up first base, and the 1st inning went by without any issue.
I was so focused on getting ready to catch that I didn’t know anything about the Cyclones starter. Jaison Vilera was on the bump and the report said that against right-handed hitters he featured a two-seamer/slider mix. Our hitting coach, Tom Eller, had sheets of paper displaying charts and pitch percentages, so we could get a quick idea of how each of their pitcher’s pitches will move and how frequently they tend to use each pitch in their repertoire.
Dylan Harris led off the 2nd inning with a double and after an out was recorded I came to the plate with one out. Being the starting catcher that day sort of gave me the ‘playing with house money’ feeling, if you will. It was an emergency situation and I just tried to stay loose, not overthink the moment and do my best on both sides of the ball.
All I was thinking about was timing up that two-seamer and ‘zoning’ it up on the outer part of the plate. If out of the hand it looks like it will be on the outside corner or middle-away, it is going to be a great pitch for me to hit over the heart of the plate. But if out of the hand it looks like it’s going to be middle-in borderline inside corner, that’s the one I want to leave or else my bat is going to turn into firewood.
I took two fastballs out of the zone to reach a 2-0 count. I had the timing on his fastball down for sure, I just had to make sure I had a good one to hit. The 2-0 offering out of the hand looked like it was middle-away at the top of the zone and then two-seamed almost right down the middle, maybe just a touch middle-in. I put a good swing on it and got the barrel to it, just barely waiting long enough to keep the screaming liner down the left field line fair. It was a two run shot to make it a 3-0 Aberdeen lead.
I remember watching it disappear over the left field wall in front of the Coney Island amusement park’s roller coaster, thinking about how my first at bat as a catcher in pro-ball was a home run in New York City. I pointed to our pitchers in the bullpen who were hyped, high-fived our third base coach and fellow CT native, Tim DeJohn, before stepping on home plate and getting mobbed in the dugout. Having been in a slump going into the day, along with the crazy catching circumstance, that one felt really good.
Growing up a Yankees fan, but even more importantly a baseball history fanatic and knowing of the rich history of New York City baseball, it always feels special having a memorable baseball moment in the City. I think of Roy Campanella, the famous Brooklyn Dodger catcher who was a three-time MVP before a car accident ended his career. Of course, I also think about Jackie Robinson who made history and broke the color barrier right there in Brooklyn. One of my favorite features of the Cyclone’s ballpark is the statue of Jackie Robinson and “Pee Wee” Reese with his arm around Jackie’s shoulder. What I was doing that day was absolutely nothing compared to the history that Jackie and Campanella etched in Brooklyn baseball lore. However, to have a wild baseball experience such as this one in a baseball-historically rich city made it that much more memorable for me.
After all of those thoughts floated around in my head for a minute or two, I had to strap the gear back on and forget about what I had just done. It wasn’t going to help me behind the plate for eight more innings. I had to flush it and get ready to roll for the bottom of the 2nd.
Prizzy was in command right from the jump, filling up the zone and featuring a steady mix of fastballs and changeups to the all-righty lineup the Cyclones had that day. He stranded a leadoff walk in the bottom of the 2nd after we got two punchouts and a groundout for another scoreless half-inning.
In the 3rd inning, trouble came as fast as it went. We got the first batter on a foul-tip strikeout, then they turned the lineup over and Bohanek was up for the second time. Prizzy fell behind 2-0 and I called a heater away but it caught a lot of plate. Bohanek timed it up and sent this puppy a long way. It was my first time since high school being behind the plate for a home run, and no one hit one even close to as far as Bohanek just did; launching it over the scoreboard and video board in left field.
I rarely referred to the card from the coaches, which had information about some of the hitters, as I was calling my own game for the most part. Prizzy shook me off a few times and I got a little confused in the two situations we had to deal with runners on second base. To avoid sign stealing, catchers will either give a bunch of signs in a row and the pitcher knows it’s either first sign, last sign, outs +1, “floating”, etc. We got past my confusion in those situations and the solo shot was the only damage for Prizina.
In the top half of the 5th, my boy Adam Hall launched one off the center field wall for a double to drive in another fellow CT-native I had the pleasure of playing with, TT Bowens, to make it a 4-1 ballgame after five innings. I wanted to win this one badly and I could start to taste it, as the saying among catchers goes: “1-4 with a W”, meaning 1 for 4 at the plate with a win is how catchers get paid. Prizzy finished his day after five innings, allowing just two hits and two walks with five strikeouts while in line for the win as he exited with the Ironbirds up by three runs.
Shelton Perkins was the next arm for us, a right-hander that was a freshman at East Carolina when I was a junior at UConn before he transferred and was drafted out of James Madison. He had a nice two-seamer with both vertical sink and horizontal run, along with a slider with really tight spin that is tough for hitters to pick up and compliments his fastball very well. Despite a knock from Mauricio, Perk breezed through the bottom of the 6th as he recorded two strikeouts out of the ‘pen and his day was done.
Adam Stauffer came in for us in the 7th, an old GCL teammate of mine who was drafted out of high school the same year I was drafted. The 6’7” righty has a low-to-mid-90s fastball with a sharp 12-6 curveball, slider and a changeup. Out of the ‘pen for him, he’s effective when he’s throwing his hard fastball for strikes and when he’s got his feel for his big curveball, which he did that Sunday afternoon. He got two quick punchouts in the bottom of the 7th before surrendering a single. However, the nine-hole hitter grounded out to Jean Carmona at third base to end the 7th. With the top of the Brooklyn order looming next inning, we still had a 4-1 lead.
I led off the top of the 8th inning, looking at a 1 for 2 day with a walk and a homer thus far. The pitcher was Michel Otanez whose fastball was around 96-98 MPH with a little sink along with a big, slow 12-6 curveball. Brooklyn had a pretty solid bullpen with some flamethrowers, including this guy Bryce Montes De Oca who touched 102 on the ballpark radar gun in an at bat against me earlier in the series. With high velocity guys, I try to have a slow and smooth load while getting it going earlier. There’s no need to swing harder with higher velocity, I just needed to get the timing right and catch the ball with my barrel. However, my first pitch against Otanez I remember experiencing a rare feeling. I had gotten it going way too early. He threw a 97 MPH sinking fastball at my shins and I swung over it and was way out in front, as if it was a changeup.
“Woah buddy, reel it in,” I remember whispering to myself. “Not that early on the load.” The next pitch was a 98 MPH fastball middle-in with some sink, I was slightly out in front and it went just to the left of third base on the ground for a foul ball. I was still a little out in front as I tried to get the correct timing on the fastball. No balls, two strikes against this guy was a tough spot to be in. Was he going to come back with another fastball or was he going to show the curveball? I remember thinking, ‘I’m not swinging at some cheese at neck height, see it deep, you have more time than you think’, especially after being out in front of two hard fastballs. I needed to trust my hands and make a good swing decision. Otanez’s offering out of the hand looked like a high fastball, but I picked up the tumbling curveball spin early. The pitch ended up almost right down the middle and I punched it up the middle on the ground for a two-strike single to lead off the inning.
2 for 3 with dinger and a walk on the day was great, but I wanted to come around and score badly for another insurance run to make my life easier in the last two innings defensively. Back-to-back walks and an out brought Cristopher Cespedes to the dish, who hit a deep fly ball to left field allowing me to score on a sac fly. We now had a comfortable four-run lead going into the bottom of the 8th.
Stauffer had to face the top of the order in his second inning of work. Bohanek hit the second pitch of the at bat hard but right at Adam Hall at second base for the first out. Jaylen Palmer walked to bring up Mauricio who was hitting left-handed this time, being a switch-hitter facing the right-handed Stauffer. We got him to one ball and two strikes and I remember giving Stauffer the ‘fake shake’ two times, then calling a fastball inside. Mauricio definitely was looking for something off-speed because we froze him for a called strike three for the second out. Next we got Jose Peroza to a three and two count, meaning Palmer on first was running on the pitch. Peroza foul tipped a fastball but I hung onto it to secure Stauffer’s big strikeout to get us out of the inning. I was fired up, as we were now only three outs away from this wild day ending on a high note.
Stauffer, or “The BeanStauff” as I dubbed him in the GCL, struck out the first batter of the top of the 9th as I got to throw it ‘around the horn’ one more time. The second hitter grounded out to Carmona at third base and we were just one out away from the conclusion of my catching debut. In a two and one count, Tanner Murphy hit a towering but playable fly ball to Dylan Harris in centerfield. I remember seeing that ball take flight, Murphy let out some frustration because he just missed the pitch, and I realized it was over. It felt like the ball was in the air forever before I could go out and give Stauffer a victory hug. I forgot to say thanks to my new friend, Dylan the umpire, in the process but we will probably see each other again. I just wanted to dab up all my boys after surviving that battle and getting the win.
Prizzy earned the win, Perk tallied a few K’s in his inning, and Stauff earned the three inning save all with me behind the dish. We surrendered one run, I managed not to have any pass balls and tallied a few decent blocks which both Ryan Goll and myself were pumped about. It’s safe to say, this was one of the craziest days of my professional career.
The boys made sure I got the ball from the final out as a memento. We got into the locker room still buzzing as we bumped some tunes. Like any other getaway-day, we showered and packed our stuff up as fast as we could to get on the bus back to Maryland. I took a minute to sit in front of my locker and take a breath. It slowly but surely began to sink in how insanely lucky and happy I was that the day went as well as it did. A lot of people would not have wanted to find themselves in the same situation I was in earlier that day, but despite the challenge I knew I could play well enough to help us win that day.
It felt like a metaphor for my beautifully imperfect year. I the ‘yes-man’, ready for any assignment all year long, which led to some great moments like that afternoon behind the dish in Brooklyn. That game kickstarted a decent stretch of hitting for me going into the end of the year, eventually leading to getting called back up to Double-A and then Triple-A before season’s end.