I will need to check if I am breaking some “fourth wall” writer’s rule by saying this, but it feels so good to be back on the keyboard. I have had trouble confronting my new reality the last seven weeks, while I also have struggled to put the last 14 months of baseball into words. Mentally, and yes this is very dramatic, it felt like something really important in my life vanished or evaporated into thin air right before my eyes. This April was the first time I was not on a baseball team playing the game somewhere since I was three years old. One afternoon I’m pinch-hitting in the 9th inning of a Big League Spring Training game battling to keep the game alive against Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano, then 15 hours later I get released by the Baltimore Orioles and I’m hauling up I-95 headed home thinking about what I did wrong and the people that I let down.
The people I let down. The toughest part has been getting over that hump, relieving myself of that burden. I feel like I had what it takes to be a Big Leaguer, many coaches and teammates said the same thing to me. I also know for a fact that I gave it every ounce of effort that I had to the game that I love so much, and I truly believe that in my heart. I have had heavy but necessary conversations with my family, girlfriend, close friends, agent, and even Coach Penders, who took the time to have a long talk about this during the busiest time of the year for him, gotta love that guy. The one constant, for the most part, was that I am the only one who thinks I let anyone down. As long as I know that I gave it everything I had and I left it all on the field all these years, then I should have no regrets when the end arrives.
So, is it officially over? I don’t know. When the best farm system in baseball released me from my Minor League contract on April 6, I thought another organization would come calling for sure. I thought, if the Orioles were not going to give me a shot after surviving the madness that was my 2021 season experience then another team would. Just one other organization had to be interested in giving a super-utility guy at least half a season to sink or swim, right? Nope. Sadly, my agent and I have heard very little after he sent out my information to nearly every other organization. If anything, my agent said he heard back from a few people within various organizations, not with interest, rather to convey that their systems were still log jammed with players even after making cuts at the end of Spring Training.
At this point I am hoping lightning strikes and the phone rings, but who knows. The one thing I do know is after many days of thought and long conversations, I decided that I am not interested in playing for a team within any of the Independent Leagues.
I do not want to dive into why I made this decision too deeply. But there were a few reasons, one being that since the end of 2020 when the MLB took full control of Minor League Baseball (MiLB), they have downsized the number of teams in MiLB significantly along with the number of rounds in the MLB Draft. The MLB is making it harder for ball players, ages 18-21, to earn the shot of playing affiliated baseball. You can imagine a 26-year-old that was involved in 10 transactions from Low-A to AAA in 2021 with at best ‘streaky’ success, who then hypothetically signs an Independent Ball contract with a $10,000+ buyout clause… that guy is not going to be very high on a team’s acquisition totem pole.
Which brings me to my other reason for deciding to not play Indy Ball: I thought about how I wanted to remember the end. Although my end with the Orioles was surely a struggle, there was a lot of beauty in that struggle. From the beginning of 2021 to the morning I got the ax at the end of this year’s Big League camp, there were a lot of situations I persevered through that many others could not or chose not to. Whether it was the scarce playing time, being shipped from team to team what felt like weekly, playing every position except centerfield, or mentally persevering through the things that I went through in Spring Training which I will touch upon later, I showed up and worked hard everyday. Some days were more difficult than others, but I brought my best effort and was a pro on a daily basis. In my fifth and potentially final Spring Training I earned my first three Big League Spring Training at bats and played a solid third base for a few innings. I hit a double against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Ed Smith Stadium, I made one of the best defensive plays of my life the following day against the Toronto Blue Jays, Jordan Romano sworded me on a slider, and that’s the end.
“It’s okay,” my Old Man said to me. “You did good, my son. If it is the end, it is more than okay.” Walt has a way of making these short but memorable statements to wrap up the bigger message he is trying to get across. Do I want to remember the end like this? The beautiful struggle of a “Birdland” Minor Leaguer not necessarily getting the most fair shake, in my opinion, but going out about as close to the top as you can get without giving up. Or, do I grind through a season or two of unaffiliated professional baseball where even major success by no means guarantees an affiliated ball contract, and have that be the memory of the end of my professional days?
Now, do not get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for all Independent Ball teams in general. Not to mention, because of the downsizing of Minor League Baseball these teams are undoubtedly getting better than ever and the quality of the leagues will continue to rise for years to come. For a younger player to reach that level is a major accomplishment and those leagues can provide an avenue for those players to be seen when they were otherwise overlooked elsewhere. But for me, unless affiliated baseball comes calling, my gut tells me this Spring Training was how it was supposed to end. It is a tough pill to swallow, but it has been one hell of a ride and if it is the end I can rest easy at night and live my life in peace.
Before Spring Training I had the most productive offseason of my baseball career. Thanks to the UConn Baseball coaching staff for letting us come in to get work done with and around the team, I was hitting and lifting in Storrs five days a week. Usually joining me was Jack Sundberg but also many other former Husky teammates came in for reps. In live at bats I felt great going into the year, including plenty of knocks and a good amount of extra base hits according to the HitTrax technology. I wish I had the exact numbers, but I probably had more live at bats in Storrs than I did in Florida.
Look, this part is definitely not to trash the Orioles by any means or how Minor League Spring Training was run over at Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex in Sarasota, I am trying to give my unabashed perspective on what happened. We played just 13 Minor League Spring Training games against other jerseys after one or two rainouts. All but two of those games were seven innings in length. In a normal Spring Training, there are four rosters representing each affiliate and Low/High-A play on the road and AA/AAA would play at home or vice versa. Until the last few games of spring, they grouped AA and AAA together but had two separate Low/High-A rosters due to “lack of pitchers”. There had never been a Spring Training like this where game reps were so hard to come by. Coaches and player development staff blamed the Pirates because we played them something like 10 out of 13 times, I really do not know. All I know is this Spring Training was not easy for anyone to get through. When you are a starter in one of these games you get two at bats, if you’re really lucky you get three at bats. If you were coming off the bench you get one at bat, if you’re really lucky you get two at bats. There were a few exceptions to that template, but in my case I started one game against another team and the rest I came off the bench; you can do the math.
It was March 22, one week into Minor League Spring Training games and with very few reps to my name I went to talk to our head of player development about my situation. If you want the nitty gritty parts we can talk about it in person, all I can say about that conversation is that in the middle of Spring Training, he told me I will definitely be released at the end of Spring Training unless there were a lot of injuries to guys that were going to AA or AAA. That’s it? After not complaining at all through a 2021 season where it seemed like their only plan for me was to remain uncomfortable, after grinding my balls off all offseason, that’s it? He claimed it took seven at bats to come to the conclusion that I would certainly be released barring multiple injuries to my friends. It felt like a big fat ‘F-U’ to my sacrifice and hard work for the organization. I was dejected. I was in shock.
After hearing that, I was just supposed to step back into the box the next day and act like any of it mattered? What else was there to do, though, quit? Never. I told myself I would never do that to the game. Although the next day when I exited the on-deck area for my first at bat of the day and looked at that batter’s box, I truly had no idea how I was going to get in there and compete. I had him saying “released” in my head over and over as I stared at the dirt and chalk next to home plate. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
I thought about being a Husky, a Housatonic Mountaineer, a Sharon Cyclone, and about how I owed it to those versions of myself to step in the box and to suck it up and compete. I owed it to all my hard work I put in over the offseason, as well as my whole life, and I owed it to the game; to be where my feet were in that moment and just play the game. I hit the second pitch of the at bat pretty well but on two hops right to the shortstop, ran like hell to first and trotted back to the bench. I sat down and stared at the field. Holy shit. I thought to myself. I got through that at bat.
That at bat alone was a revelation. Why? I am not sure. For whatever reason, I felt like I was going to keel over dead if I even attempted to step in that right-handed batter’s box. Then I put a decently struck ball into play and grounded out, came back to the dugout and the brightness of the world returned to me. Nothing fazed me the rest of Spring Training, nothing anyone said or did weighed on me too much. I was playing with house money. I told myself I had to keep playing and working as hard as I could because I was showcasing my talents for other teams while playing Minor League games for the Orioles.
I started getting hot at the plate the last week of Minor League games, spraying knocks around the field and finally hitting my first Home Run of the spring in Pirate City down the road in Bradenton. It was the best I had felt in Spring Training since 2019, before the most productive season of my career in Frederick and Bowie. Norfolk broke camp first and it was one day before all of the other teams were due to head north, and I still had no idea if I was going to get cut or make a roster.
An interesting circumstance as a result of the MLB Player’s Strike was that Big League Spring Training games started late, causing them to break camp later than the Minor Leaguers. They kept myself and a couple other Minor Leaguers in Sarasota for a few more days to back up three Major League games.
The first of the three Big League games I backed up was in Ft. Myers against the Minnesota Twins. I had been in uniform for one of these games a week earlier at Ed Smith Stadium against the Detroit Tigers, but the bench was absolutely flooded that time and my chance of getting in there that day was minuscule at best. In Ft. Myers however, the bench wasn’t too full and I had a decent shot. The back up guys from the Minor League side take a different bus that leaves much later than the Big League bus. Due to a miscommunication between the coaches, all eight of us back ups had to sneak into one of the Twin’s battings cages underneath Hammond Stadium and feed underhand flips to each other for 15 minutes before the game. In the next cage over were Gio Urshela and Carlos Correa getting pregame flips from a coach. Talk about a tale of two cages.
Regardless of my likelihood of getting into the game, it’s always very cool to have a dugout perspective of these Big League Spring Training games. Sonny Gray started for the Twins on that cloudy afternoon and was nasty. He ended up tossing four perfect innings while racking up six punch outs. Urshela and Byron Buxton had a pair of doubles each while Correa had one for himself, and Miguel Sano demolished a 394 foot bomb just to the left of dead center field. The bats were cold for us Orioles until Cedric Mullins broke up the no-hitter in the 6th with a single.
At the end of the 6th, myself and the other back ups began to get loose as one by one the starters accumulated their desired amount of at bats that game and packed up for the clubhouse. Fredi González, former Big League manager for the Marlins and Braves, is the current Orioles Bench Coach and tells us where we will be playing and where our spot is in the batting order.
“Yahn!” He yelled looking around in circles for me.
“Yessir, right here,” I said as I stood next to him.
“There ya are! Okay, so you’re going to third for Gutierrez but you’ll hit in Roogie’s spot.”
“Yessir, sounds good,” I replied. I looked up quickly to remember where we were in the order. Right as I did the guy I was replacing, Rougned Odor, smacked a hard grounder right at Correa’s replacement shortstop and that concluded the top of the 7th inning. I was about to enter my first Big League Spring Training game, but I was aware that an at bat was relatively unlikely for me with only two more chances for us at the plate.
I threw quickly across the diamond with AJ Graffanino to get our arms hot and we took a few warm up ground balls as Mike Baumann made his way from the bullpen to the mound. I took a few chances to just look around the field and take in some of the moment, while still getting ready and focused. As I fielded a warm-up ground ball from first baseman Jacob Nottingham they announced, ‘Entering the game for the Orioles at third base for Kelvin Gutierrez, number 86, Willy Yahn.’
Catcher Anthony Benboom threw it down to shortstop Richie Martin at second base and it was time to shut that noise off in my head and focus. I flipped the ball to Big Mike and walked back to third. My Old Man always told me whenever I appear on television to make sure of two things: make sure you don’t pick your nose and do not throw a ball into the bushes. That’s pretty good advice, but I was more concerned about the latter.
Ryan Jeffers led off the bottom of the 7th, a 2nd round draft pick in 2018 from the University of the Fighting Thorburn’s (some may also know it as UNC-Wilmington). I trained with Jeffers briefly over two offseasons when I made my stop to visit one of my favorite former teammates, Robbie Thorburn, in Wilmington en route to Spring Training in 2019 and 2020. He is a power-hitting catcher and Big Mike is a hard-throwing sinker-baller, so I had a feeling I was going to get a play right away if Jeffers got the barrel out on a Baumann Bowling Ball sink-piece. Jeffers got to a 2-0 count and sure enough, he turned around a 96-mph fastball and smacked a hard two hopper to my glove side. I took two quick shuffles to the left and watched it into the webbing of my new Rawlings blonde glove named Pearl. I took two more shuffles to gain ground towards first and delivered a toss to Nottingham’s chest, beating the less than fleet of foot catcher with time to spare.
Benboom led off the top of the 8th with a single to left field. Then with one out, Ryan McKenna deposited a ding dong to left center field for our first runs of the game. This increased my chances of getting an at bat significantly. I would only need one person to reach base in the top of the 9th.
In the bottom of the 8th, Brent Rooker stepped up to the plate with two outs and worked a two ball and two strike count. Big Mike delivered a 98-mph fastball and Rooker rolled it over towards me, almost an identical grounder to the first play. Shuffled over, watched it into the glove, a few shuffles and a flip to first and I made my two routine plays without issue. Now, was I going to hit?
While I was getting my helmet and tarring up my bat, Zach Jarrett led off the 9th with a solid at bat to get to a 3-2 count. Unfortunately, he grounded out to second baseman Will Holland for the first out. I went onto the steps of the dugout as I was in the hole and started talking to one of the coaches, Christian Frias.
“Man, how bad do you want this one?” Frias asked, obviously referring to me getting an at bat.
“I want it like oxygen,” I said pretty seriously followed by us both laughing. As our laughter faded, Anthony Santander crushed a one hopper towards right field that looked like a guaranteed hit. However Holland, who was shifted into shallow right field from the normal second base position, made an incredible sliding play to snare the hotshot and get Santander by a step at first. I looked over at Frias and our smiles vanished.
The left-hand hitting Graffanino stepped up to the plate and was able to work the count to 3-1. Just a walk or a knock here from Young Nino and I had my at bat. Graff got into a high fastball and smoked it to the opposite field and I really thought it was going to find some grass. Sadly, it hung up just long enough for the left fielder to run to his right and make the play and the game was over with a final score of 8-2. So close.
I recall going into that Pirates game the following day thinking that it was less likely than the Twins game that I would get in the ballgame. Since we were at Ed Smith Stadium we had our entire roster on site, so to me and the other back ups it surely felt like a long shot.
We found ourselves playing from behind again in the 7th inning, despite racking up a bunch of hits, as the Pirates were up 8-2. González had explained to me a few innings earlier that I was going to go in for Ramon Urías at third base and if he did not get his fourth at bat by the 7th inning, he was going to call it a day. Luckily for me, his spot did not make it to the plate in the 7th and I was due up second in the 8th inning. I was going to get my at bat.
The top of the 8th inning was over and I jogged in from 3rd base to prepare to face Duane Underwood Jr., a hard throwing right hander with 78 career Big League appearances with the Pirates and Cubs. After Martin punched out to start the inning, I began to walk towards home plate. I thought about the day I was told that I was going to get released. I thought about how hard it was to step into the box that day compared to the thrill of a lifetime that was stepping into the box in this moment. Talk about an emotional roller coaster of a few weeks, eh?
I flailed the bat with both hands over my head and back to stretch my shoulders, then I grabbed some dirt from the batter’s box to dry the sweat from my hands and gripped my tar-covered Dove Tail bat. ‘Now batting for your Baltimore Orioles, third baseman, number 86, Willy Yahn.’ I’ve been waiting for that for a while. Some of the Orioles faithful, who must have gone to a lot of Minor League regular season games, recognized my name and started to cheer.
Underwood Jr. started me off with two fastballs, one high and one away, both out of the strike zone. I felt like I was seeing it well. I took a borderline 2-0 fastball for a strike on the outside corner, followed by another fastball for a ball to make it a 3-1 count. I was hunting a fastball without question. He was living up and away with his fastball to that point, so I was looking for something middle-away while making sure I saw it down so as to not chase any high cheese.
The 3-1 offering was a 96-mph fastball on the black of the outside corner. I saw it pretty deep into the zone while I released my hands and buried my head into the contact point. It jumped off the barrel and shot towards the right field corner and upon contact, I thought it was going to slice foul. I was able to stay through it well, giving the ball enough backspin to keep it just inside the right field line. The small crowd got loud for a moment and I glided into second with a stand up double. I had an extra base hit in a Big League Spring Training game.
I remember thinking to myself that no matter what transpired after that moment, I had that, I did that. My impending demise as an Oriole was hanging over me like a storm cloud for the last two weeks, but I whipped out my metaphorical umbrella to block it all out. The crap that I was dealing with was not going to take away from the opportunity I had at that moment and that is why I succeeded.
With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, I found myself at the plate again with another opportunity to get a Big League Spring Training knock. The crowd of Minor League fans in attendance that day started going absolutely insane for me. For me? I thought it was awesome, but I was also hilariously in shock. The crowd definitely had been far from rowdy throughout the day to say the least. But a 5-year Minor League journeyman with a double to his name on the day, perhaps, was what riled them up? Perhaps, inspired them? Maybe the beer guy blessed the folks with one more round of pounders before they closed up shop? All I know is they were fired up, and in all my clutchness I smacked a hard one hopper right back to the pitcher on the first pitch. He easily flipped it over to the first baseman, while I ran like hell as if I wasn’t thrown out by 30 feet.
I returned to the dugout where the players and coaches made many jokes about how many of my family members were in town for that game based on all the crowd noise. I assured them that as far as I knew, no one I knew or invited was in attendance. They all laughed and everyone slowly filed out of the dugout. I was one of the last guys to head for the showers after collecting all my things.
“Hey Yahn,” a voice bellowed from behind me. I turned around and it was Orioles manager Brandon Hyde.
“Hey Skip, what’s up?”
“Was that all your cousins or your frat brothers or something in the stands or what?” He said jokingly. “They were getting loud for you today!”
“I swear I didn’t know any of those people yelling,” I said with a shrug and a grin.
“That was awesome, man. I hung onto this for you, I thought you would want it.” Hyde proceeded to hand me the ball that was the one I hit for a double with a description of the knock and his John Hancock.
“Wow, I appreciate the hell out of this! Thank you!” We continued to chat as we walked across the field towards the clubhouse beyond the right field wall. A slew of reporters were waiting to talk to Hyde near the clubhouse as he and I emerged from the field.
“You know what? Yahn is going to take care of postgame with you guys, I got other stuff to do,” Hyde said to the reporters as he chuckled and motioned towards opening the door. Some of the reporters thought it was funny and others looked incredibly confused, obviously not picking up the joke. Either way, they were all staring at me waiting for me to say something.
“Uh, I think he’s kidding,” I nervously said to the group.
“Haha, I’m kidding Yahn, get the hell outta here,” he said while laughing. I had a feeling he was kidding, but I was rattled there for a second.
My last game as an Oriole was against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin. My guy Pete Foley and his wife were in town and were able to make it to see the game. Truth be told, I was excited that I was going to see a familiar face from home in the stands for one of the Big League Spring Training games. We took a picture after the game as he sported the infamous “Willy Who??” Housatonic Baseball shirt and caught up quick before I had to hit the showers. You just never know who is going to be there to see the end of something important. But Pete Foley saw my last game ever as an Oriole.
I had said hello once, maybe twice, to Trey Mancini over the course of the spring in passing, but had not had a conversation with him yet. I had been wanting to tell him about a coach from our amateur days that we both knew well. I walked out of the locker room to head out to the field and held the door for the person behind me, who ended up being Mancini.
“Hey Trey, Willy Yahn, pleasure to officially meet you, man.”
“What’s up Willy, nice to meet you too,” he said while we shook hands.
“I’ve been meaning to introduce myself and tell you about a coach we both used to play for.”
“Oh yeah, who’s that?”
“Daryl Morhardt, you remember him?”
“You know Daryl??” He asked enthusiastically.
“Yeah! He coached my last two seasons of high school, he used to talk about coaching you for the Holyoke Blue Sox.”
“Wow that’s funny man, I remember him well. Holyoke was a very interesting place, but I liked playing for him!” We laughed and talked a little more before the game. I already knew a lot of guys on the roster from playing with them at one level or another. But having guys like Mancini, Odor, Chirinos, among others, as teammates even just for a few days was a really cool and unforgettable experience.
The 6th inning concluded and we were down to the Blue Jays 2-1. González began making his rounds to the back up players. He told me if Urías got on base that I was going to pinch run for him and then play third base the last three innings. With one out in the 7th, Urías slapped a liner out to center field for a base hit and when the play was dead I immediately jumped out of the dugout to replace him at first. I got to second on a wild pitch but a strike out and a ground out ended our threat.
In the bottom of the 7th, Chris Ellis entered the game to pitch for us. He induced a fly out, hit a batter who then stole second, and struck out a Blue Jay to get to two outs. Right handed hitting Rainer Nunez stepped up to the plate. With an 0-1 count, he hit a hard chopper down the third base line. I laid out completely to get my glove to it, jumped to my feet and threw it as fast as I could in the direction of first base. I just missed pelting the runner on second going towards third in head, but after four hops across the diamond it made it to Tyler Nevin to get Nunez for the final out of the inning. It was one of the better plays I had made at third base in a long time.
Again, I found myself on deck with two outs in the bottom of the 9th. Jordan Romano was on the mound for the Jays facing Martin. With two strikes, Martin barreled up a base hit on one of Romano’s filthy sliders that he left a little up in the zone. One last chance for me to do something.
Romano when he pitches out of the stretch slowly and uniquely reaches his set position. Then he will usually come set for a split second and boom, leg kick and 97-mph coming in hot. His first pitch fastball to me was a ball or two above the zone, but I took an absolute daddy hack. Timing wise I was on it, but I fouled it straight back. The second pitch was a high 96-mph fastball that I took for a ball. With a 1-1 count he came back with another fastball high and away but it caught the top of the zone for a called strike. With two strikes he snapped off a nasty slider just out of the zone low and away, but I reached for it and punched out to end the ball game. The next morning the Orioles terminated my contract and I drove straight home to Connecticut.
So, is it over? Professionally, it might be. I would say that there is still a glimmer of hope that the phone might ring and I get one more whack at it in affiliated ball. But the odds certainly are not in my favor. So… now what?
I recently read the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield after it was recommended to me by my Uncle Charlie. The sub-caption is “Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles”. What an amazing read. At least for me, the book made me check myself. From my daily habits to my self-talk, from my procrastination tendencies to my core values and what it means to be a professional in more ways than just on the ball field. The book has a plethora of fascinating and thought-stirring quotes.
“A professional reinvents himself… the professional does not permit himself to become hidebound by one incarnation, however comfortable or successful. Like a transmigrating soul, he shucks his outworn body and dons a new one. He continues his journey.” – Steven Pressfield.
I want to be a successful baseball writer and broadcaster. This is the early beginnings of formulating this vision, the view of which is very telescopic and I am working to find the first official steps towards this new path. I want to be a part of the Baseball Writers Association of America (B.B.W.A.A.), the group of talented sports writers who vote on who will be immortalized as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Having been a former player who got as close as you can to the Big League dream, I believe I would bring a unique, fun and calculated brand of writing to the fans of baseball.
“It’s one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.” – Telamon of Arcadia, Mercenary of the 5th Century B.C. (Via Pressfield in ‘The War of Art’)
My five years in the trenches with and against some of the best young ball players in the world will contribute to my analysis of individual games and the game of baseball as a whole. It also has allowed me to be extremely connected throughout the baseball world, including lifelong connections with players, coaches, front office staff and members of the media. Broadcasting is something I like and I would enjoy being able to do that as well, but writing is a true passion of mine that I know I will do for the rest of my life.
“Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?” – Steven Pressfield.
Baseball and writing. Playing baseball alone all the time would stink, but I could find an auto-feeder pitching machine and take batting practice on a field and write everyday for the rest of my life and be happy as a clam. If you know me at all, you know that I will be playing baseball until I am physically unable in some way, shape or form. Currently, I am just starting seasons with three different teams in Connecticut. The Tritown Trojans in the Tristate League, M&T People’s Bank out of the Greater Hartford Baseball League, and the Milford Monsters out of the Nutmeg State Baseball League. Oh yeah, I’ll be getting my reps this summer.
The beginning of a new path is hard, bittersweet, and can feel confusing. But it feels great to realize these new goals after a lot of thought and conversation with those close to me. I feel like a train that has returned to the tracks. If it really is the end for me in affiliated baseball, I am proud of myself for what I did and I am looking forward to a new chapter in my life. I am also thankful to everyone for supporting me in my career and in life to this point, as well as to my teammates at every level who were grinding right next to me. It takes a village, I would not have come nearly this far on my own.
“Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” – Steven Pressfield.