Chapter 5: From Muzzy Field to Moosehead Lake

It should not have taken as long as it did, but the Gator franchise was just 26 days old when we acquired our first victory of 2020 against the New Britain Hurricanes. I failed to give any love to my pitchers regarding our first W. Former Plymouth Panther Bobby Chatfield earned the win, going five innings striking out two while only surrendering a hit and a run. Zack Larson put a bow on the 11-1 victory, tossing two scoreless innings to close it out. We had a quick turnaround for the following contest, however, as we suited up the next day to take on the Wethersfield Dodgers at Muzzy Field. 

Paugh and I after the Game 2
1-0 win at Muzzy, 8/15/15.

It was a really special night personally, as it was my first time returning to Muzzy Field since playing with the Bristol Blues in the 2015 Future League Championship Series. I could talk about that three-game series and that Blues team all day. From the 1-0 victory in Game 2 as Domonic LoBrutto twirled an absolute gem, to our improbable comeback late in Game 3 to force extra innings in front of an absolutely packed house in Bristol, Muzzy became one of my favorite parks that year. 

Beyond the epic series, I was very lucky to join a team full of awesome dudes. The Blues invited me to the team with only one month remaining after I had missed the playoffs with the Newark Pilots in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. If you asked anyone from that Blue’s locker room who their favorite and most entertaining teammate was, we would all answer the same: Ryan Costello. 

I walked into that locker room only knowing a fellow husky, Griffin Garabedian, and sort of knowing Tim Cate as he was an incoming freshman to UConn. I played a season of TCB with Mike Nocera so it was good to see him as well, but otherwise that was it. I was just finishing up my freshman year, and it is not easy to walk into a 1st place locker room and prove to these guys that I could help them right away. I felt a little anxious. I was shown to my locker, to the right of Tim’s, which was also to the left of Ryan’s spot. 

“Oh jeez not another UConn guy, don’t we have enough!” After Ryan said something to the effect of that, as he would often, he had a big smile on his face, a laugh to follow and we introduced ourselves. Right away that eased my stress and I felt accepted quickly. 

Cozzy selling out, per usual, to tag out a Pittsfield Sun’s baserunner at 2nd at Muzzy Field in the summer of 2015.

Cozzy was his usual nickname, others simplified it down to just Coz. He played at Central Connecticut, and not only was he one of the best players on the Blues but he wore his love and passion for the game on his sleeve. Coz approached the game the same way he lived his life: with pure joy, raw intensity and a hunger to win and improve. I learned a lot from him about the importance of being a teammate that positively affects the locker room environment and what good that can do for a ball club. Baseball is hard as hell. The game needs guys like Coz to lighten the mood in the locker room and make the days you go 0 for 4 not weigh so heavily on your mind. 

Tragically, we lost Coz in November of 2019 to a rare heart condition while he was overseas for the Australian Baseball League. I won’t soon forget the utter shock and pain from learning of his passing. 

I tell this anecdote in remembrance of Coz as well as a thank you to him. For being the teammate and person he was, for always having a big smile on his face, and for competing everyday like it was his last. I will do the same everyday I play. Coz was certainly in my thoughts that night when I returned to Muzzy with the Gators for the first time since ‘15.

We got our second win of the season against the Wethersfield Dodgers, by the score of 3-1. Consensus in the parking lot post-game was that the Gator Gang would have liked to score more runs against that team but otherwise we played a solid game, led by Miles Scribner’s pitching performance. The Tritown Trojan regular went the distance and would have secured the shutout if not for me trying to be a hero deep in the six-hole at shortstop. With a runner on second base, I used a pop-up slide to my backhand and launched the ball as hard as I could from the edge of the outfield grass with two outs in the top of the last inning. I let it eat, but the release point was a tad early. Man, did I sail that throw, I should have just held it anyway as an out was unlikely. I remember joking with some of the guys post-game that the ball may have cleared Bristol and landed over in Farmington, that’s how far it flew out of Muzzy Field. I told Scribby and his dad I owed him a steak for blowing his shutout. I still got you Scrib!

After two wins in two days, the Gators had to wait until Sunday, July 12, to get back to action in a big matchup. The rematch from our first game at the Dunk’, against the Terryville Blacksox. Jacob Shpur, a Springfield College hurler and older brother to Caleb, got the ball for us that day. He was a great arm for us all summer, a crafty right-hander who pitches smart and fills up the zone. That’s what he did that Sunday against a Blacksox lineup with a lot of juice top to bottom. He pitched out of a big jam with runners on 1st and 3rd, one out in the 2nd innings, getting a strikeout and inducing a 5-3 putout to Caleb. Big Shpur punched out a pair of batters that day, while scattering seven hits and three earned runs through 5+ innings. 

The Gators did damage in the 5th, getting things started with a leadoff triple by our 2nd baseman and Bowdoin Polar Bear CJ Brito. After a few walks, an Austin Patenaude knock, and an eventful two-strike RBI groundout on my part, we put three on the board as the game was tied after five frames. 

Scribby got the ball in the middle of the 6th in relief of Jacob after Andrew Hinkley hit a bomb to dead center. Hink is a solid two way player who I played against while he was at Central Connecticut and was a soon-to-be teammate of mine on another adult league team I would play for later in the year. One of the many solid players on Terryville.

There was a lot of chirping coming out of the Blacksox dugout, mostly because of the many times Scribby faced those guys during his time with the Trojans in the TriState League. All I said to him when he came in with a runner on first and no outs was to roll a double-play ball. I glove-tapped him on the back and walked back to shortstop. Third pitch of the at-bat, boom, 6-4-3 double play. Scribby got the last guy to ground out and I could tell from the start of his outing he was locked in. He was used to a starting roll and pitching deep into games, so we just needed to get one run and he would close it out for us. 

A CTL regulation ballgame is seven innings, and to our disdain it took more than seven to come to a conclusion as it remained deadlocked at three. At long last in the top of the 9th, the hero would be our guy “Stick and a Bagel” (10) Coleby Bunnell who provided the clutch game winning knock, driving home Landon after his big double to start the inning. Scribby closed it out in the 9th, and we secured our biggest victory of the season so far. We had the ‘Sox on the schedule one more time, and the whole league soon learned that someone would have to beat those guys late in the postseason if they wanted the 2020 CTL crown. But in the moment, that win on a picturesque summer Sunday and improving the Gators to 3-1 on the season felt phenomenal. 

That whole weekend I had started binge watching the Ken Burns Baseball documentary and doing hours of baseball research online. This was in preparation for a Summer School class I signed up to teach at the Marvelwood School in Kent where my Mom works. Yeah, I said teach. Crazy, eh? From July 13th-17th I would be making my best effort to jam-pack the most significant parts of baseball history, as I viewed it, into just 5 two-hour lecture sessions. A truly impossible task that I attempted to the best of my ability.

The Gators could only enjoy our victory over Terryville for the night. Right after my first day of teaching the History of Baseball, we prepared for a Monday night rematch way over in Wethersfield against the Dodgers. UConn and Cali native Jeff Kersten came to throw a flat-ground bullpen while seeing what all the Gator Gang buzz was about in our process of recruiting him to the team.

As I mentioned earlier, I felt like we had shortchanged ourselves offensively against those guys in our first matchup. Credit to their starter in that first game at Muzzy, but we left a lot of runners on base. This time around we cashed in, using a ten-run 3rd inning to cruise to a 13-0 final score in four innings. Sure enough, Jeff Kersten was interested in joining our already talented squad.

The next day, after a few days of planning, Coleby Bunnell, Caleb Shpur and myself left before dawn that Tuesday morning for a business trip up north… way north.

I had done some research and made some phone calls in the days prior with Dove Tail Bats up in Shirley, Maine. I had received many custom bats from them the last two seasons, dating back to the days playing with the Aberdeen Ironbirds. They had a team deal for a dozen high-quality Rock Maple bats of multiple models with custom Great Falls Gators labels. 

Caleb and I rendezvoused at Housy just after 4 a.m., followed by picking up Coleby in the middle of Litchfield, and we were off. I had to get to my sister Ellie’s house in Portland with enough time to set up and present my two hour lecture for my History of Baseball class before going further north. It all sounds a lot more hectic than it felt in the moment, merely a matter of getting the driving out of the way. 

After my class was over, we took off for Dove Tail Bats Headquarters in Shirley, about two and a half hours north of Portland. About an hour into that leg of our journey, we got off the main highway and it was all backcountry state routes the rest of the way. The boys were officially out there in Upstate Maine. 

At long last, around 2 p.m. we arrived. Theresa Lancisi, co-founder of Dove Tail with her husband Paul, greeted us and helped us through the process of ordering our team bats. I recalled in conversation with Theresa the time I met her husband in Spring Training as he was marketing his bats at Orioles camp in Sarasota. He saw that I already had a Dove Tail of my own and gave me two free shirts which I greatly appreciated. He was not at the warehouse the day we came, although Theresa was just as generous during our visit, offering a free shirt as we made our purchases. Due to Covid-19 protocols, we were able to get a limited look at the facility in the back where they made the bats, then we left for an hour while our weapons were produced. 

Caleb Shpur (left), Coleby Bunnell (right) and myself inside the Dove Tail Bats warehouse just before receiving our fresh Gator lumber, 7/14/20.

We drove up the road into Greenville, Maine. We hopped out of the car in a parking lot in the middle of town and there was mighty Moosehead Lake. I had only heard my father babble about this lake as his Fahmington, Maine accent subtly attempted a comeback, but never knew anything about this mystery place to which he referred. Until that day with my fellow young Gators, and even on a cloudy day it was beautiful. 

We returned for our bats after getting enough of Moosehead Lake’s glory. The boys and I loaded up the lumber, got some grub and headed back for Portland. We had to pull over shortly into the trip south to open the fresh box of bats and experience them in all their beauty. We felt out the bat models that we wanted briefly before officially putting in the order, so this was our first touch of the official Gator bats. They were magnificent. 

Us Gators were on the same page when we got back to Portland. We asked Ellie where the nearest field was and if she wanted to come take some swings with us. There we were, walking down the street of Portland, Maine with a dozen fresh Dove Tails, a bucket of 80 baseballs and our gloves going to get our Gator reps in. Ellie was out there flagging down fly balls like a champ while a hobo beyond the outfield fence mistook me for a woman until I had my chance to swing a bat. Despite a damp field and no L-screen, those Gator reps were truly unforgettable. We celebrated by ordering way too much fried chicken that took way too long to make anyways, had a few cold ones and conked out after our long day. 

Fueling up for the ride home with brunch at Miss Portland Diner, 7/15/20.

It had been quite a ride the last few days. From Sunday morning when we were preparing for our huge win over Terryville, to having brunch outside on a sunny Wednesday morning at Miss Portland Diner after my third class teaching the History of Baseball, we had accomplished quite a lot in 72 hours. Coleby, Caleb and I made the trek back that afternoon as the Gators would return to action the following day against the Arch 2 Indians.

Chapter 4: A Day at the Dunk

My first time playing at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the home of the Hartford Yardgoats, was May 18th, 2017 with UConn. It was a beautiful Friday night in Connecticut as the Huskies prepared for game one of our final regular-season series of the spring against East Carolina. I remember that night like it was yesterday for many reasons. For starters, Hook C baseball fans came out in droves and the energy was electric. Hartford was buzzing. That park would be referred to by our teammates as “The House that Frenchy Built” when our senior catcher, Alex Leferve, hit his first career Home Run. That was easily one of the most electric moments of the season. Tim Cate the Robot went out there and effortlessly twirled a complete game shutout, one of the best games I ever saw out of him during the two years I played with him in Storrs. Finally, on a personal note, it was the day I collected my 200th career knock with UConn across my chest. Needless to say, my first time at the Dunk was one of the more special days of my baseball career to that point. 

It took me just over two years to earn another chance to play at that gorgeous ballpark. The day was June 19th, 2019, one day after I had the honor of representing the Frederick Keys in the Carolina League All-Star game. The day before the All-Star Game, I was informed that I was getting called up to Double-A and headed to Hartford. I rode with my parents on the 19th from Maryland to Hartford after staying up until 3 AM packing and preparing to move out of my host family’s house, the Witt’s. That was a sad moment but wee all knew only good things were to come. 

At long last, I was allowed to enter the bowels of the ballpark, after seeing just the playing surface and the dugouts of Dunkin’ Donuts Park back in ‘17. I’ll tell you what, they were not messing around when they made that facility. Their indoor hitting area was impressive. It had two massive hitting tunnels and giant glass windows separating reporters and scouts from hitters while still allowing a close look. The guest locker room was massive, with a few tables and couches on which to play cards, eat, lounge, etc. I was so fired up when I saw a PS4 in the locker room that I’m having trouble recalling if there was one or two consoles in there. Either way some of my new teammates were ripping the video game FIFA before batting practice. The locker room kitchen had a Keurig with all the Dunkin’ K-cups we could drink. I got settled into a locker and said hi to the players and coaches I knew while introducing myself to those I did not. Then, our manager Buck Britton posted that night’s line-up. There was YAHN, penciled in the six-hole. My Double-A debut was going to happen in front of friends and family in the heart of my home state.

I do not remember much from running out there for the bottom of the first. I was so hyper-focused on making sure I was successful in my first Double-A fielding chance, the packed ballpark might as well have been empty. The top of the second came along and the six-spot was due up. My adrenaline was pumping hard and I tried my best to slow myself down. ‘Don’t think, just take a hack at the first good one you see’, I thought to myself. After I took a borderline first-pitch strike, I got a fastball up and in but inside the strike zone, and I took my first Double-A hack. I kept my hands in and got the barrel to the ball and turned on that puppy. I did not think I got it as well as I did off the bat, and to this day no one really knows whether or not that ball was a Home Run or just a double or even a foul ball. The Yardgoat’s manager came out to argue it was a foul ball and after the fact, our skipper, Buck, told me “I would have gotten tossed if they called that foul!” 

As the argument continued, I took a chance to remove the in-game blinders and I started looking into the crowd. I found my parents, many friends from the Northwest Corner and UConn among others. The joy I felt was overwhelming as I tried my best to act like I had been there before, Lord knows I hadn’t. I was excited to record my first extra-base hit and first RBI in Double-A, but to be able to do it in Hartford with so many people I knew and loved in attendance made it feel like a dream. It was another moment at that ballpark I would remember forever. The Baysox would play six total games at Dunkin’ Donuts Park that summer, of which I made the start in three of those contests. 

I know, I know, I may have covered some of this before. But all of that combined with the fact that the first game in Great Falls Gator’s history was going to be at that beautiful ballpark felt like another dream. A more confusing one, with the roller coaster of emotions that 2020 provided, yet an exciting start for a franchise that did not exist just over two weeks prior. It was June 25, 2020. I rolled up with Coach Stew and Prez Shawn bumping “We Will Rock You” by Queen on full blast. We shlepped the team equipment to the dugout and there we were, on the field, back in that beautiful cathedral for Connecticut baseball. 

The Gator Gang lined up for the National Anthem at Dunkin’ Donuts Park prior to first pitch against the Terryville Blacksox on June 25.

Once I put all the equipment down, I laid down and started doing ‘snow angels’ in the grass in shallow right field. I needed it. Just over a year after making my Double-A debut, after the pandemic sent us packing from Spring Training and canceled Minor League Baseball in 2020, just being there for a game felt like therapy. Once I had finally written a line-up and warmed up, it was time to face-off against a really high quality opponent for this level of baseball, the Terryville Blacksox. 

The Blacksox combined with another team out of Waterbury to create a talented ball club, especially from a pitching standpoint. Their staff rolled out four pitchers and only one of them, a softer throwing lefty, did not touch 90 MPH on the radar gun that day. 

The big Gator moment that day came from the bat of Caleb Shpur. Caleb is now a sophomore at Endicott College who had earned some playing time for the Gulls his freshman spring. He produced one of the more legendary moments of the entire season, crushing a solo shot in the Dunkin’ left-field bleachers for the first ding-dong in Gator franchise history.

That was all she wrote that day for the Gators, as we surrendered three runs in the first and couldn’t overcome the deficit. Kody Kerski, former Minor Leaguer for the Seattle Mariners, came in for the close sitting 91 and got up to 93 a few times. We could do nothing but tip our caps to the Blacksox that day, the better team won. I didn’t even get a freakin’ hit, sad! But the Gators were just getting started. I knew our team was going to make the adjustments we needed to have a great chance of beating those guys on July 12 when we played again.

Despite the hunger every Gator had to play again, we had to wait for a bad spell of rain to pass. Our second and third scheduled games were both postponed. It would not be until July 6th when we finally were able to get back onto the field in New Britain against the NB Hurricanes. 

Lindsey and I atop Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire’s White Mountains on July 5.

Just the day before, I had completely overcooked my body in the form of hiking and lack of sleep. Lindsey and I celebrated our one-year anniversary of dating on July 4th while in Tamworth, New Hampshire with my family. On the 5th, Lindsey and I decided we were going to make our first trip up the mighty Mount Chocorua, located in the famous White Mountains of New Hampshire and visible from the house our family has owned since 1906. The legendary mountain is 3,480 feet in elevation and over a 10-mile hike round trip. Lindsey and I crushed it, although, I wouldn’t say we properly prepared ourselves for the beating that day. We did not bring enough food and ran out of water just after reaching the beautiful summit. We risked contracting Giardia for a sip of some fresh, ice-cold water out of a creek during our trip back down the mountain (sorry if that’s TMI, but we did not get sick thank God!). 

The following morning we limped to the car and hightailed it home to be able to make it back for the game. When we were an hour from the field, fatigue was really hitting me like a ton of bricks. I knew I just needed a nap and I would feel fine but that was not an option. We stopped at Dunkin’ and I got a large iced coffee with a turbo shot. Here’s the thing: when you need to study, write a paper, or something of that nature, a turbo shot is great. When your body is already reeling and all you need is water and electrolytes, a turbo shot is most definitely not great. 

When I got to the field mentally I was all there, but physically I was dead as a doornail. I wrote up the line-up, went out to throw, and only got about five throws in before I had to go do the pregame coaches meeting. Not the most ideal of warm-ups the day after a 10-mile hike, but it would have to do for now. 

One of the two game balls from the first win in Great Falls Gators history on the road at the New Britain Hurricanes by the score of 11-1 on July 6, 2020. Bobby Chatfield earned the other game ball, tossing 5 innings allowing only 1 hit with 2 K’s.

At long last, I recorded my first career Gator knock in the top of the first inning. With Austin Patenaude reaching before me with a hit-by-pitch, we had runners on first and second. Landon Gardella stepped up and punched one into the left-center. Austin was able to score easily while I attempted to go from first to third right in the left-fielder’s face as he fielded the ball to his forehand side. I knew it would be a close play at third and without thinking, executed one of the most aggressive, Pete Rose-esque belly flop slides in my own career at any level. If I was thinking, I wouldn’t have thought to do that considering how my body felt that day. The only thing I had on my mind was getting to third base as quickly and aggressively as possible to dislodge the ball or distract the third baseman from securing the throw and applying a tag. Sure enough, the ball went off the end of the third baseman’s glove and went to the fence, but not far enough where I could not score. I came up to a knee on third base, feeling like someone threw a brick at my chest and gave me two dead legs. Honestly, the excitement of my first belly flop of 2020 was balancing out the pain and fatigue. 

Luckily the Gators bats stayed hot all night, as we jumped out to an 11-1 lead by the end of the 5th. Before I ended up yacking or something embarrassing like that from being gassed, I pulled myself from the game and let some guys who hadn’t started get in there to get an at-bat or two. The last 48 hours at that point had been just crazy. From spending time in upstate New Hampshire with my family and girlfriend of one year to my first time climbing Chocorua, to the Gator’s first franchise win, things were starting to look up in 2020.

Chapter 3: The Gator Offices

I recall a strange feeling one morning a few days after creating the Gators. The pure excitement of creating my own local, competitive baseball team was wearing off. I sat up in bed as the morning sun rose and nervously listed off all the items of Gator business that needed to be taken care of: Jerseys, Hats, Waivers, League Dues, etc. The list goes on. It took a lot more than I was expecting to make the magic happen. It was safe to say I had underestimated the task simply because I was so excited to be able to play baseball again in a real game-like situation with umpires.  

The apartment was empty again in the mornings when the lockdown ended and Shawn returned to work. Although I would occasionally wake up anxiously listing off the day’s Gator duties, there was something worse that was robbing me of sleep each and every week morning. Construction. Deafening, screeching construction smack dab right next to our apartment on Route 44 in Lakeville.  The apartment building would shake from the jackhammers, the grinding of the caterpillar tracks on the excavators felt like they were making my ears bleed, even with the windows closed. This started like clockwork every weekday at 7:15 AM. Therefore, I would wake up every day with the construction and start working on Emails and making phone calls to work on Gator business.

My main working area was the apartment’s balcony, the sunlight crushed the porch in the morning making it very nice to do work and have coffee out there. Soon enough I had dubbed the apartment in Lakeville the Gator Offices, location of the offices of the GM (yours truly), the Team President (Shawny), our Skipper (Jeremy, formally Coach Stew), and of course our beautiful statistician and scorekeeper (Book Keep Lindz).

The first thing I had to do was contact potential sponsors to help fund our season. Thankfully, at this point in time, the Orioles informed their Minor Leaguers that we would be paid through June, which led to compensation for the remainder of the summer. Selfishly, I found myself in a position where it was in my best interest to prioritize fundraising for the Gators to create those games-like reps for myself. 

Less selfishly, the Gators created opportunities that benefited many people in the moment, as well as for the future. I knew we wouldn’t have trouble finding players, but we had so many high-quality guys on and off the field that wanted to compete. Every practice, every game and any Gator event, we were a walking Energy Bus. It made every moment we spent together special during the craziness and uncertainty that 2020 featured. For the future, the Gators brought groups of unfamiliar people together and created the Gator Gang. One group united by our home area, our hunger to play ball, and our desire for a distraction from 2020’s ugliness with fun and competitive nights at the ballpark. It made the only season in Gators history about more than just baseball. This was our way of enduring through the most turbulent times of our lives and something we could not have accomplished without help.  

All 14 of the Great Falls Gator’s sponsors that helped make the 2020 season possible are recognized on the back of our team T-shirts.

There will never be enough ways to describe my gratitude to the sponsors of the Great Falls Gators. During these trying times for businesses all over the country, the Gators were able to find enough gracious local sponsors to help us pay for all summer season expenses. One of my proudest accomplishments from the whole process was that every Great Falls Gator was able to play for free. This was only possible because of the great businesses that support us. It is a true testament to the generosity of these Northwest Corner businesses as well as other businesses who contributed from afar. The entire Gator Gang is forever grateful! 

Technically our first practice was on June 10th behind Patco in Lakeville, about a Patty Mahomes flick-of-the-wrist away from the Gator Offices. I would describe that day more as a recruiting and batting practice session to see who was really interested out of the gate. Hell, I texted my buddy Seth Sherwood about the Gators 15 minutes before practice and at 6:05 he was filling out a form to join the team. Relative to how fast the Gators franchise was created, Seth’s quick path to joining the team doesn’t sound as crazy in hindsight. 

Our first documented practice was on June 14th, again behind Patco. We had a beautiful day weather-wise, but the best part was getting old teammates from Housatonic and the Trojans back together to have some fun on the ballfield. We were low on numbers so we did teams of three in order to have a full defense and let pitchers rotate on and off the mound as they wished. 

Wiffle Ball Hall of Famer, Walt Yahn, enjoying a Gator ballgame on Father’s Day.

As we inched closer to the first game of the season, we scheduled a scrimmage at Community Field in Litchfield. (pic of Walt watching the game) My buddy Kyle and I organized the game between the Gators and Elmer’s Angels on Father’s Day. Kyle joked that day saying the scrimmage was ‘just to see what I was missing out on’ because Elmer’s originally recruited me before the formation of the Gators. We didn’t quite play a full game and some pitchers were flip-flopping from one team to another to get more innings, but it was still a great day. 

Due to new teams joining the CTL late, like the Gators among others, the schedule was not announced until the Phase 2 Reopening on June 17th. We finally found out that our first game was going to be against another new team to the CTL, the Terryville Blacksox. They were not unfamiliar to our TriState League players, though, especially the Trojans guys. The Trojans and the Blacksox have been duking it out atop the TriState League for the last eight seasons. The Gators season was going to start out with a marquee matchup that to some, was personal.

Chapter 2: I was getting too good at golf

Lindsey and I were off for the North. We made a pit stop in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina with one of my favorite teammates I’ve had in my career, Robbie Thorburn. As Forrest Gump would say, Robbie was one of my best good friends and the only guy I’ve ever had as a Spring Training roommate in my first three pro springs. 

After a peaceful few days on the beach, we crossed back over the border of Connecticut on March 21, one day after Governor Lamont signed an executive ‘stay-at-home’ order that would take effect two days later. Upon my return home, the Spring Training blinders that I was wearing regarding the situation had been removed. The United States went into a nationwide lockdown, the likes of which no one had seen in 100 years. 

During the winter, I lived partly with my parents at home and other times would crash at my girlfriend Lindsey’s apartment in Lakeville. When I returned this spring for the lockdown, I moved into the apartment with her and her brother Shawn. April came around and we acquired one more roommate, Jeremy, one of our best friends from high school who had lived with Lindsey and Shawn in Florida. Not only did we have good vibes in the apartment, but rent was pretty cheap too!

Lindsey and Jeremy still had to work through lockdown, but Shawn and I both had paid time off. I would still occasionally take batting practice and ground balls during the lockdown, along with hiking to get outside. But often when the weather was anywhere near decent, Shawn and I hit the links because it was one of the few activities still open to the public during the pandemic. Shawn had some more experience golfing than me but we were both starting to get serious about golf. We both received new clubs over the holiday season from our families after playing a decent amount in the fall of 2019. 

So we golfed. And golfed, and golfed, and golfed, and golfed some more. Lindsey and Jeremy would hop in on the action sometimes, but Shawn and I had seriously developed a golfing addiction. There weren’t too many days in April and May of 2020 when you didn’t see “The Dunkin’ Boys” roll up to the first tee box at Canaan Country Club with two large iced coffees loaded with Turbo Shots ready to attack the pin. Almost every time we went we would walk 18 holes, which is anywhere from 7-10 miles depending on the course. We played through rain, snow, sleet, whipping winds. You name it, we played through it this spring. 

On my way down to Spring Training, I was playing a decent amount of golf and I cannot describe to you how bad I was during some of those rounds on my own. I’m talking averaging 55-60 on 9 holes kind of bad, although some of these courses in Maryland and Florida were much harder than Canaan Country Club. By May, after playing an absurd amount of golf day in and day out, it’s fair to say I was averaging Bogey golf, or a stroke under that on my good days or at an easier course. For local golfers, my best score on 9 holes at Canaan Country Club is a 38 (+3) and my best at Hotchkiss is a 43 (+7). I would attribute my improvement in golf more to a better understanding of how and when to play conservatively in order to limit mistakes. Just two or three shots can blow up your whole round if you are not focused. 

The mental side of golf and baseball are similarly complex and fragile. The mental approach is complex in that mechanically I could remember five things that will help me smoke a drive into the fairway, but I would forget something as simple as keeping my head down throughout the swing. Then, I found myself shanking a top-spinning worm-burner that only made it as far as the Senior’s Tee Box. Like in baseball, sometimes less is more mentally in golf. The mental game of golf is fragile in that one bad hit or one miscalculation on the course can lead to a downward spiral in ones round. Sometimes, the strongest weapon a golfer can have is a short memory, just like baseball. 

*Record scratch* Wait just a damn minute. What sport do I play again? After doing some math, by the beginning of June Shawn and I had played roughly 45 rounds of golf in 90 days. 2020 was getting so scary and uncertain I almost forgot that I was a professional baseball player and I was not chasing down a college golf scholarship. There was one positive that did come from golfing that people will not believe. As I said, when we golfed we would always walk 18 holes, which was about an eight-mile walk. All that walking, combined with unintentional intermittent fasting led me to lose around 20 pounds of fat from playing golf. Shawn and I would be so occupied with getting to the course and getting our 18 in that we would arrive hungry, proceed to golf for 4 hours while walking eight miles consuming nothing but large coffee. Granted, I did not realize I was slightly overweight for my body type until after the fact, but it was a layer of fat mostly on the upper half of my body that I shedded. 

So it was June, I probably played more golf than Tiger Woods during the lockdown and I had lost 20+ pounds. I knew I needed baseball badly. But how could I do that? I tried to get some simulated scrimmages in with a few local ballplayers. I tried my best to keep the groups small enough to not create concern among locals. Still, town officials were not pleased with this and that and we had to stop until Connecticut entered Phase II after the lockdown. 

An old teammate of mine from the Team Connecticut (TCB) days, Kyle Maglio, contacted me and asked if I wanted to play with his Adult League called the Elmer’s Angels in the Connecticut Twilight League (CTL). At first, I was on the fence about the idea. As badly as I wanted to play, I thought there was still a chance that a Minor League Baseball season would occur. In which case I could just play pick-up games locally instead of committing to traveling all over the state. After some thought, I had to satisfy my itch of getting back into any kind of game setting and competing, so I told Kyle I was probably going to play for the Angels. 

After giving it even more thought over the course of a few days, I was having second thoughts. For one, the local and competitive Adult League in the Northwest Corner, the TriState Baseball League, was canceled due to Covid-19. There were players from that league and other young, talented collegiate players in the area looking to play. I knew if I committed to a team in Newington, I wouldn’t be able to organize pick-up games or batting practice sessions as frequently as I would like with those players. Quite possibly not at all. I was not sure what to do.

The date was June 8th, Minor League Baseball was still in limbo. At this point in time, a Major League season looked less than likely with the direction those negotiations were going. So I came up with an idea that I presented to my roommates and our friend who we were hanging out with that night, Chance. 

“We could make a team of players from the Northwest Corner to play in that league with the Elmers Angels,” I said sort of thinking out loud. No one thought too little or too much of the idea. It was not a bad idea, but even to myself, it seemed pretty far-fetched off the bat. We began to spitball team name ideas.

“What if we used Great Falls?” Lindsey suggested. We all were excited about the idea because we thought if we used that name, we would be able to ask the Great Falls Brewery to be our main sponsor. 

“Oooooh gotta do Gators with that, gotta be like the Florida Gators that’d be heat!” If you knew Chance, you can probably hear this sentence. But I liked it, a lot. The Great Falls Gators. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? 

My first sketch of the Gator logo from June 8 on a loose-leaf piece of paper.

It was late that Monday night and I grabbed a silver Sharpie and my laptop to think of designs for the logo. I traced parts of a large generic G and made the inside look like a Gator Tail. Then I traced a random Gator illustration I found from a Google search and put it on top of the G. 

The excitement of choosing a great team name and creating a quality logo led me to call Scott Dickens the next morning. Scott is the chairman of the (CTL) and the league made it known that they were looking to add new teams for 2020. I had called just in time. He informed me that the season was kicking off at Dunkin’ Donuts Park on June 25th. I had little to no idea what I was doing running a team, but now I found myself in 2020 as the General Manager and shortstop for the Great Falls Gators. 

I had to recruit a roster in a short period of time. The task was made a little bit easier due to the fact that the Tristate Adult Baseball League was canceled. This is a league I have played in before with the debunked Lakeville Firemen and with the Tritown Trojans. I asked my friend Bobby Chatfield, a fellow Sharonite and Trojan southpaw, to pitch for the Gators. Luckily for the Gators, this led to us recruiting six more guys from the talented Trojans team; a team that has been near the top of the Tristate Baseball League since I first played with them during High School in 2013. We also got a few other players who play in the Tristate League, as well as some young college players from all of the divisions. We were able to put together a really quality squad in a short period of time. The Gator Gang was officially born.

2020 – The Year of the Gator: The multi-part account of the creation of the Great Falls Gators

By Willy Yahn

Prologue: Calm before the Storm

What do you think of when you think about spring? Naturally, as a baseball player, I think about a typical and enjoyable day of Spring Training. We arrived at Buck O’Neil Spring Training Complex at 7 AM on a pleasantly warm Florida day to enjoy breakfast and coffee with the guys. The Sarasota morning sun beat down on us while we took batting practice and ground balls, hoping for an outward breeze to carry some balls over the fence as well as to cool us down. Next, a Minor League Spring Training game, which for us meant we played either the Red Sox, Twins, or Rays. That has been an average spring day for me for the last three years, and besides waking up early I loved every minute of it. 

2020 Orioles Minor League Spring Training felt different for many reasons, even before the pandemic struck. For starters, there were a lot of new, young coaches that were brought in along with new player development staff members. There were new drills and new ideas that I had never seen or heard of before. They were testing how our bodies moved and operated in relation to our swings and throwing mechanics, for pitchers. It was fascinating to me. Some of the concepts were completely foreign and confusing at first, but the science obtained from new technology within the game spoke for itself. For me, I was excited to learn more ideas about baseball. It was interesting to me to see a teaching style to a game that I know so much about, and I was ready to embrace it in order to get better.

This was after the final intrasquad we played during Minor League camp at Buck O’Neil Spring Training Complex before we were sent home because of the pandemic. “It was a simpler time, it was a better time.”

Without going into too much detail, the new style and approach injected into our Minor League system was received well by the players, from what I could see. We discussed everything we were doing in detail from baseball drills to our lifting programs. Players asked questions and received answers that were backed up by analytics and examples of other people who were doing similar things and experienced success. Our player development staff preached a growth mindset, the idea that even if you are given a task that you have trouble with or don’t want to do, you will attack it with your best effort in order to make yourself and your teammates better. What we had going on at camp, from the beginning of early camp on February 17th until Spring Training was shut down, was very exciting and productive work on all sides of the ball. Hitting, pitching, defensively, we were putting in man hours, with intent, day in and day out. 

The day that all changed would be a day in history for negative reasons. Life for Americans and the entire world became very different for the remainder of 2020. This is a series of tales about what a Minor League ballplayer did during a pandemic. 

Chapter 1: The Epidemic & The Roaches

It was March 13, there was a buzz throughout the Orioles Minor League Spring Training clubhouse. No one had any idea what was about to happen. We all heard about Coronavirus breaking out in spots within Sarasota and, to a much larger scale, in various areas of the country. The NBA had positive tests and had already paused their season indefinitely on March 11th. We all had a feeling that Major League and Minor League Baseball Spring Training was in trouble. 

My girlfriend, Lindsey, and I had planned in advance for her to visit for a week during her time off in March. So she was literally on the plane to Florida when all the players received an email to notifying us that Spring Training was being shut down immediately and that we had to go home as soon as possible. Tough luck, eh? But originally when they said this, the timeline was only for 2 weeks to a month. We players knew this was not ideal and a scary health situation for the entire country. But with the temporary timeline that was in place, it sounded like an issue that we would soon have in the rearview mirror and then get right back to baseball. That was quite the miscalculation. 

I picked Lindsey up from the Tampa Bay airport and told her the news. We were both upset because in the grand scheme of things this was a scary situation for our loved ones and the whole country. But she knew having Spring Training and baseball taken away hurt me. This moment that I had worked for through another cold and miserable winter was on pause. Selfishly, I was feeling good in a few Spring Training intrasquad games and was excited to build off of a successful 2019 campaign. The realization that 2020 would not provide that chance was a major low-point. 

After Lindsey and I had a car ride from Tampa International to Bradenton to dissect the situation, we arrived at our less-than-ideal Airbnb situation. For starters, it was a Bungalow in a 55+ community, to which we were given the wrong lot number. My memory is slightly foggy because I blocked this misery out and it was approaching 2 AM so it went something sort of like this. 

We pulled up to Lot E6, which it said on the website, but we learned after the fact that we were supposed to be at Lot E15. I got out and the Bungalows looked similar but the entrance instructions on the App were not matching what we were seeing. Then, we hear what sounded like the barks of a small-sized dog inside the Bungalow, followed by footsteps. An old man came to the door looking incredibly concerned. 

“What are you doing here?” the elderly man asked with a soft intensity probably half awake, the poor guy. Lindsey and I stood on his porch and explained how we had gotten into this confusing situation and apologized for disturbing him. We tried contacting Airbnb to figure out the issue, to no avail. So, frustrated and tired as could be, we left the 55+ community with the back of the Tacoma overflowing with all of our belongings. We got a hotel room for the night to finally get some sleep until we could get this sorted out in the morning. 

We got it all squared away the next day, with a refund for the night from Airbnb, and at last we got into our double-wide Bungalow. I’m not kidding you, I absolutely loved this Bungalow. It was the perfect size for just Lindsey and myself, but if we had one more person it would have been far too small. 

After we were settled in we met up with friends for food and drinks on the water, had a grand old time, and Uber’d back to the Bungalow and went to bed. That would prove to be our only smooth-sailing day of Lindsey’s trip to Florida. 

  The next day we went to beautiful Siesta Key for a beach day. We used one of the beach accesses further down from the main part of Siesta Key to find a less crowded area and socially distance. But we looked down the beach and could see a flood of people gathered for Spring Break festivities, right at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a scary sight. 

Lindsey and I returned to the Bungalow and started to get ready to go to Texas Roadhouse for some steaks. I was watching TV in the living room area and heard Lindsey start going bananas over something in the bedroom. I entered as she continued to scream while she explained that she saw a massive cockroach and it was somewhere in her clothes. I did what any man would do: I went to the kitchen and handed Lindsey a cooking utensil and hid behind her and ushered her towards the cockroach. I was so brave!

The cockroach retreated under the dresser and Lindsey and I really did not know what to do. We called Airbnb and explained there were cockroaches, only to be told, ‘It’s Florida, one or two cockroaches isn’t a huge deal’. I am trying my best to not take any jabs at Florida but come on people, that should not be normal!

Anyway, we were starving so in the meantime we put our belongings on the bed and couch to keep the floor crawlers off of our things and we left. We ate juicy steaks at Texas Roadhouse after we returned to assess the situation in the Bungalow. What we found was nothing short of nightmare fuel. 

Cockroaches. Not one, not two. Many cockroaches. About a dozen or so. Darting across the floor randomly left and right in every part of that Bungalow. What a scene: Lindsey and I frantically tiptoed around palm-sized roaches as we evacuated the infested double-wide dwelling. We shook out all of our clothes and belongings to make sure we would not be taking any passengers up north. It was approaching midnight, and Lindsey and I hit the highway to get as many miles between us and the overrun cockroach Bungalow as possible.

Additional Chapters will follow shortly!

“I’m Home Mama” Part II

My parents and I hightailed it for Hartford at 7am from my host families house in New Market, MD for my Double-A debut. I slept for the entire ride and my parents dropped me off at the hotel in Newington where I met up with my man Cole Billingsley, another Frederick Key that got the call up who made the wise decision to fly instead of drive. We took the bus over to the stadium and walked into the clubhouse, which was the nicest one I’ve ever been in either as an away or home player. After putting all my stuff into my locker and saying hi to guys I knew and meeting some new teammates that I didn’t, Buck Britton came around the corner and posted the line-up. There I was, batting sixth and playing third base in Hartford on a Wednesday night.

I didn’t realize how nervous I was until my first at-bat. I made one play it the field, receiving a two-hopper from a lefty and proceeding to bobble it to make it look way more difficult than it was. Then it was finally my time to walk up to the plate. Dunkin Donuts Park played ‘Little Willy’ by the Sweets as I prepared for my first Double-A plate appearance.

“Cause Little Willy, Willy won’t go home,” blared throughout the stadium, a clever play by whoever made that choice considering, it was the closest I had been to home since February 1st.

I took the first pitch I saw for a ball, then I got a fastball that was up and in, but in the strike zone. I kept my hands inside the baseball and got the barrel to it, driving it down the left field line. Off the bat I thought for sure it was going foul, but to my surprise it had way more backspin than side spin and appeared to hit the base of the foul pole and roll about 150 feet back towards third base. Rylan Bannon came around to score and we were up 1-0.

The Yard Goats manager came out and argued that the ball was foul, and I had a gut feeling that they were going to call it back. They spoke for about a minute or so and I had a chance to look around the stadium to soak up in the moment. I found my parents in the stadium, really focused while praying the umpires didn’t mess this call up. I saw a group of friends from home down the first base line going bananas on the fact that I was even standing on the field. The umpires concluded that the call on the field stood, and I had my first Double-A hit and RBI.

But remember how I said, ‘the base of the foul pole’? I didn’t realize it at the time, but many people came up to me after the game and said that should have been called a home run. That’s why it ricocheted back so hard, because it hit the concrete yellow line that is considered the base of the left field foul pole. What could have been right? I didn’t care, we had a game to win and that was the Bowie Baysox first run.

The top of the 9th of that game was a crazy inning. We were down 6-5 with three outs to go. After a single, a sacrifice bunt, and an error, it was 1st and 3rd with one out and my time to hit. Skip pinch ran for our right fielder who had just reached on the error, so we had speed on both bases and he gave me the safety squeeze sign. All I had to do was get the bunt down towards the first baseman to get a game tying RBI with the speedy Ryan McKenna on 3rd. Instead, I worked one of my eight walks on the season (8 walks, yes that’s right, ocho, eight total walks) to load the bases.

Our left fielder, my roommate and my dawg Billingsley, then beat out a ground ball to second to prevent the double play and tie the game, but hurt his knee stepping on first. We put up four more runs after that to take a 10-6 lead, but after having to use two pinch runners, I had to go out and play left field for the first time since 2015 college summer ball (“a throwaway game up in Rochester”-Herb Brooks… but actually). I had no clue what I was doing out there in the bottom of the 9th in my Double-A debut. Literally 24 hours earlier, I was in Frederick rounding the bases after the guy behind me hit a game-winning bomb in the bottom of the 8th. Now I was playing left field against the Hartford Yardgoats. I was trying to focus on the foreign position while fans started chanting “UConn!… Huskies!…” and even “Housatonic baby, Berkshire League!” Somehow you can hear that stuff more in the outfield. Luckily for the Baysox, I had no action out there and we won the game 10-8.

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Ma and Paugh with me after my first Double-A game in Hartford.

After the game I met a crowd of friends, family, former teammates and classmates from all over the state who came out to watch. I couldn’t have felt more grateful to all those people who came on such short notice to support me. It was one of the happiest and overwhelmingly joyous days of my career.

Finally, we went back to our home field for the first time in Bowie where I found my truck after my amazing host dad and brother drove it over there from New Market (Jon and Lucas you’re heroes). I moved in with my new awesome and generous host family, the Fenn’s, and settled into the second half of the season. Before I continue, I still cannot stress enough how amazing both of my host families were for me this year. I could not have gotten luckier to have the Witt’s and the Fenn’s open their homes to me and create great friendships with each family.

After a pretty solid first week with Bowie, things started to go south. The swing and confidence that I had developed through my Frederick experience felt like it was eluding me as July began, and the month would prove to be the worst slump I had ever experienced in my entire life. I was in the “Interstates” as July came to a close, meaning I was hitting in the 100s most of the month. I hit .148 for the month and brought my Bowie average to .188 after an 0 for 3 performance with two strikeouts in Binghamton. Thankfully, so very thankfully, that was where I bottomed out, as my accursed month of July 2019 came to a close.

 

Willy at Bowie 2019
On Sunday home games with the Baysox, we wore these jerseys and became the Cangrejos Fantasmas de Chesapeake for Minor League Baseball’s Hispanic Outreach Effort. 

My second game of August, in Trenton on Thursday the 8th, I had my first three hit game of the second half. My average went from .191 to .225 in three at-bats (yeah, that’s where I was at that point). My at-bats were low because I was the back-up infielder, just like I was in April in Frederick. Our third baseman was an All-Star, and our second baseman played in the big leagues for the Phillies last year, so I was not surprised, being that we were in a playoff push. Despite that, in 13 games in August I hit .289 and it couldn’t have felt better. Not just to salvage the second half and at least get to a more serviceable .223 (ew), but to be able to contribute when it mattered during the playoff push.

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 10.18.32 PM.pngAfter an Erie Seawolves loss late in the schedule, we finally clinched the Western Division while in Richmond, Virginia, and we were playoff bound. It was my first time making the playoffs in professional baseball and it was electric. The Baysox bought us 270 beers and 40 champagne bottles to pop and spray all over each other and drink as much or as little as you want, it was an absolute blast. Raging like that with the boys, and having videos of us posted everywhere doing so, was really weird. But it’s just what you do in professional baseball when you win. It is probably the only time in any of our lives when we can be drunk and rowdy and have videos of us posted on social media and it’s totally OK.

We gave it all we had in the playoffs and made it to the championship series, but lost to the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees Double-A affiliate. They brought down Severino, Betances, Montgomery, and Tarpley to face us in that series, and the only game we won of the four was the one that Severino pitched. It was crazy seeing those guys up close, considering I grew up a Yankees fan and I knew I was going to be watching some of those guys as the Yankees neared the MLB playoffs.

 

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The Bowie Baysox host family squad, the Fenn’s, from Severna Park.

So, that was it. September 13 was the 148th and final game of the 2019 season. I said goodbye to the Fenn’s and went back to New Market and said one last goodbye to the Witt’s and went home.

You never know what this game is going to throw at you. Over the course of an at-bat, a game, a season, and a career, the game takes twists and turns you don’t expect. 2019 did just that. This season gave me what felt like the peak of my ability as well rock bottom of my ability. This offseason is going to be a huge one for continuing on this current trajectory towards a dream I have had since I was four years old, and I cannot wait to get better and get to work.

 

 

“I’m Home Mama” Part I

2019 was a wild ride. So much so that I’m not sure where to begin with talking about the year. The last time I blogged feels like years ago, but it was the second week in May, in the middle of the best month of baseball I have ever had by far. Since that time, there has been even higher highs and some of the lowest lows. It all added up to my first full-season of Minor League Baseball, since last season I started in Extended Spring Training before playing with the Aberdeen Ironbirds. Baseball has always been good to me, whether things were going exactly how I wanted them to or when I hit the worst slump of my career, the game is its own teacher to the players, and I will be a student of the game as long as I live, learning something about the game every single day. Here’s some of the fun experiences and what I learned from baseball in 2019.

Let’s backtrack a little here, May 8th was the last time I checked in on the blog, when I wrote about having 111 games left in the season and the day before I hit my 3rd career home run against the Potomac Nationals. To say a lot has transpired since then would be quite the understatement, and at that point in time the roller coaster ride was just plummeting down that first steep drop. During the second weekend in June our manager, Ryan Minor, brought me into his office while we were in Kinston, North Carolina, and told me I would play for him in Carolina League All-Star game.

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Ryan Minor played parts of three seasons for the Baltimore Orioles. He famously replaced Cal Ripken Jr. at third base on the day his historic games played streak ended.

What’s the first thing you’re supposed to do when something good happens kids? That’s right, call ya Mutha! The hardest part for my parents was to not spill the beans before the league made the official announcement that Monday, but they managed to keep quiet.

I vividly remember on Opening Day, when I was not in the starting lineup, leaning on the dugout railing and looking at the Carolina League All-Star Classic logo on the grass in front of the dugout thinking ‘well, I’ll probably have those three days off in the middle of June’. This is not because I doubted my ability, more so the fact that my role on the team was that of a backup infielder for the month of April. The reality of the situation was that you don’t see too many back-up infielders representing the Carolina League’s best.

The last day of April was the day things started going my way individually, as I entered the day hitting .246 while playing every second or third game. So far, though, that game was one of the toughest losses of my professional career and a game I will never forget.

It was a Tuesday in Frederick, and we were playing the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Like I said, individually it was a good night, I had three knocks with a double and my batting average went from .246 to .279 in one day. However, not only were the Key’s trying to win a ball game, but we entered the 9th inning winning 4-0, allowing no hits to that point. Mike Baumann, Co-Pitcher of the Year for the Orioles minor league system this season, had a decent start you could say. He allowed no hits in 6.2 innings with 12 punchies, not bad. The 7th and 8th went smoothly and the first batter of the 9th struck out, and we were two outs away from a no-hitter.

Slight spoiler: I tried to block the end of that game out of my memory until revisiting it for this post, so for the following information I had to go look at the game log.

Here we go: Walk. Walk. Pitching Change. Walk. Now the bases are loaded with one out with the tying run at the plate. Error. Walk. You see where this is going? Bases still loaded, we are winning only 4-2 now with one out and still no-hitting the Blue Rocks. Wild pitch, the runner on 3rd scores to make it 4-3, and now runners are on 2nd and 3rd with one out. The next batter flies out to our left fielder in foul territory and the runner at 3rd cannot tag up.

Now, this part I remember vividly. 2 outs, top of the 9th, Keys are up 4-3 and one out away from a no-hitter, but more importantly a win. I remember like it was yesterday thinking to myself ‘this guy is going to scorch one in my direction and I’m going to make a diving play to win us the game and secure the no hitter. I’m going to be the hero’. Seconds later, the right-handed hitter crushes a ball to my backhand. I had a good reaction, I went full extension, and it misses my web by the width of a dog’s whisker. My flop onto the dirt creates a cloud around me. As the dirt cloud settled, I peered down the third baseline from my stomach as the ball rolled to the wall. Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 5.52.00 PMI whipped my head around towards home plate and watched the two Blue Rock runners score and celebrate taking the lead 5-4 with just one hit the whole game. The kid in me felt like it was that moment in the first Toy Story when Buzz takes the leap to fly out the window, but then falls onto the staircase and his arm falls off, don’t act like you don’t get the reference. It felt like that times 100 after the final out in the bottom of the 9th.

The best part about baseball is that, barring an off-day, there’s always a game the next day for redemption either as at team or individually. Thus, May begins, a month that I will never forget. May 1st was the date of my first professional home run, a sound and a sight that I’ll never forget.

Despite it being a pretty far shot to left-center, I was sprinting out of the box, as I have done with almost every home run I’ve ever hit. I’m not one for pimping dingers, and the one time I decide to will probably land in someone’s glove just in front of the warning track. I was so excited I honestly can’t remember if I got the silent treatment or not, but eventually guys started to get excited for me if not right away. One of my teammates, Ryan, comes up to me and says, “How did that feel?” I just shook my head and jokingly said “I’m good, I’m all set, I can retire happy now.”

Luckily that wasn’t my last game of my career, and the next day on May 2nd we played a day game to conclude our four-game series against the Blue Rocks, and the game I hit my second career dinger. I had gone two seasons, and month into my third season, without hitting one and I had two within 16 hours of each other.

Spring Training stats don’t officially count, so I hadn’t hit a home run that actually counted since May 2017, a Grand Slam in the AAC tournament. After that second homer in as many games, the feeling I was feeling is almost indescribable. It was like a buzzing feeling, just pure joy, the type of joy that is the reason we all play this game. Smacking a single or a double brings a similar joy. But crushing a ball, watching it fly into the distance, and seeing the field umpire point the sky then twirl his index finger signaling the home run, and then the victory lap to look around and admire your work and see your teammates and fans happy, it’s perfection.

So, in a four-game span from April 30 to May 3, my average from .246 to .338 and I finally snuck a few ding dongs over the fence. My favorite stat to that point was the fact that my On Base Percentage (OBP) was still lower than my batting average, sitting at .329 thanks to some sacrifice flies and a sacrifice bunt. My OBP finally rose above my average when I mixed in my first walk of the season a few games later. But baseball being baseball, on May 4th, I finished that great week up with an 0 for 4 performance with two strikeouts on a rainy night in Lynchburg, VA. Never too high and never too low, as my old man Walt always says.

The following day we got rained out and traveled back to Frederick, followed by a day off on Monday. I was talking to Mama Yahn on the phone, catching up and talking about the week, when I found out I was the Carolina League Player of the Week. How does anyone find out anything anymore, even about themselves? You guessed it, Twitter. The notification popped up on my phone while I was making a late breakfast downstairs at the Witt’s house. That week in particular but also that month of May was the best ball I had ever played in my life. I closed my eyes a few more times while hitting that month and added three more homers. I was able to keep the average up in the beginning of June to finish the first half at .296.

So, there I am, with my girlfriend Lindsey, Sean Miller and David Lebron on a Monday afternoon preparing to get on a bus for the pre-All-Star Game party at the Flying Dog Brewery the night before the game. Then our skipper comes up to us.

“What’s going on everyone? Willy you’re going to Bowie, they need you on Wednesday,” he said in the most casual, Ryan Minor way you could imagine. Have you ever heard such good news, or gotten so excited by something you heard, that the act of hearing it felt more like a slap in the face? That’s what I felt. Lindsey told me after the fact that I played it pretty cool, but internally it didn’t feel like I did.

“Really? Cool, thanks Minor,” I said while allegedly keeping calm. “Will they be in Bowie?”

“No, they’re gonna need you in Hartford.” Another slap in the face. I thanked him for the news, and he walked away, my vision was getting spotty. I had to say it in my head a few times to process it, ‘I’m playing at Dunkin’ Donuts Park on Wednesday’. Then Sean Miller, who has such a way with words, had the line of the century.

“Congrats dude, is your stomach in your butthole right now, or what?” That is verbatim what he said. Never change Sean.

 

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The “New Market Gang” the Witt’s, my man JC and his host family the Stewart’s, my parents and Lindsey.  

After contributing a pair of knocks for the North Division in the All-Star Game, dancing in between innings and our squad getting the win, I had to prepare to leave at 7 the next morning. I had to say goodbye to Frederick, a great coaching staff including two of my favorites in Ryan Minor and Bobby Rose, and the Witt family who hosted me for the first half. It was a bittersweet night, having to pack up my locker and my entire life that was in that homey room in New Market, but it was even harder to try to sleep knowing the next day would bring my Double-A debut in Hartford.

*”I’m Home Mama” Part II coming next week!*

 

The Carolina League

          The beginning of this week marks a full calendar month of Carolina League play for the Frederick Keys, the Advanced-A affiliate for the Orioles where I have been assigned to play this season. The year has already been a rollercoaster ride of individual and team highs and lows, which is typical in baseball. Above all, it’s indescribably exciting to be getting my first full (140 game) season under my belt since being drafted. With 108 games left in the season, there’s still a TON of baseball to be played, but the first month of the season has had some funny stories worth sharing.

          Forgive me for this but I feel the need to start by noting how thankful I am to even be in this league in the first place. Things went well last season and the goal all offseason was to break camp with Frederick or Bowie (Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate). I’m not a betting man, but I’ll be honest, would I have put money on me getting assigned to Frederick going into this Spring Training? Not necessarily.

         

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Occupying the Hot Corner in Frederick, MD. Picture Credit: Alyssa Howell.

Things went my way this Spring Training on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, which didn’t really happen in my first Spring Training the year prior. I would compare it to my first fall ball experience in college. My freshman fall, back in 2014, for whatever reason I felt I had to come in and light the world on fire to even sniff the field during the 2015 spring, and I put too much pressure on myself and stunk, which eventually didn’t affect my playing time in 2015 much at all. Then my sophomore fall came along and obviously everything was better because I was not a freshman, but I had also been through a fall season, I knew what to expect, the new school and new environment wasn’t so new anymore, and I could just play. That’s how I felt this Spring Training, I felt my second time going down to Sarasota and showing what I did in the offseason was far less stressful. Knowing the facility, knowing the players, proving that I could produce at one of our Northern affiliates and not just in the GCL; the pressure, for the most part, was absent this year.

*A conversation that occurred with a coach near the end of Spring Training* 

          “Huh, this list has you going to Frederick, is that right?” the coach said as he approached my Spring Training locker.

          “Haha, probably not,” I replied super casually, thinking to myself that means I’ll probably at least be breaking camp with Full-Season Delmarva. Then the coach returned.

         “Yeah so you’re going to Frederick,” he said and continued about my play this spring and what to expect in Frederick, while my mind began to spin. High-A? Me? Huh? You sure? I held back from asking those questions, and immediately called my parents, naturally.

           So here we are, in western Maryland, moved in with my new host family, The Witt’s. You could say I’m 2 for 2 with having awesome host families in pro-ball so far. Living with all four of the Hodgson’s last year and their three cats was a blast, and so far the four Witt’s and their two doggos have been just as great! The only one in the family who has mixed emotions about me so far is Blu, the families large Bullmastiff who is afraid of men. He and I have come a long way, though, he just yells at me when I wake him up at night to use the bathroom, which I understand.

         The Carolina League has some great ballparks to play at, including a brand new stadium in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I do have a special attachment to one in particular, that being Pelican Stadium down in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Chicago Cubs affiliate’s stadium was also the main host stadium for the Triple Crown Summer National Tournament.

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There I am at 13-years-old, playing 3B at Pelican Stadium nearly 10 years ago. Still rocking long sleeves, but no high-socks, no long hair, indeed… ancient history.

I’ll never forget stepping onto that field for the first time as a 13-year-old in the National Quarter Finals for Team Connecticut. At the time, it felt like I was in a Major League ballpark, playing the most intense baseball of my life in the hottest weather I had ever encountered to date. Those games will stay with me forever, and to come back to that field as a High-A baseball player was quite the feeling. I remember seeing the Pelican’s players in 2009, looking at them like they were already Hall of Famers, and now I was at that level. What a difference 10 years can make, eh?
         I guess we can chalk it up to the fact that time flies when you’re playing baseball, and it feels that way in 2019 more than ever. February 1, when I began my trek south, doesn’t feel that long ago. The first day of live at bats in Spring Training feels like yesterday, and being told I was assigned to Frederick feels like it happened just after this morning’s cup of coffee. But here we are, a week into the month of May preparing for the 32nd game of the season. There’s so much baseball left to be played, but I remind myself everyday to be where my feet are and enjoy the moment. I remind myself to play every single game like it’s my last, to have fun, and to play for the something bigger than myself. I play to win, I play for my teammates, I play for my family, I play for Sharon, I play for Housatonic Valley Regional High School, I play for the University of Connecticut, and I play for this great organization that gave me a chance to continue my dream, the Baltimore Orioles.

Frozen Ropes (Top-3 Coldest Games)

        I was going to preface this with the fact that Connecticut has had a few unseasonably warm days since my departure 12 days ago. A recent snowstorm returned Connecticut to it’s natural mid-February state. In any case, the last week that I spent in New England was some of the coldest weather I have ever experienced, including a few days that created a bone-chilling -30 degree windchill. Sure, we could all have it worse, as they say, but at least we’re not from Minnesota, which was probably the coldest place in the world for a ‘hot second,’ no pun intended. No matter how cold it is, when it’s below freezing, it is very hard physically and mentally to get quality baseball work done, due to a general lack of resources for New England ballplayers. But also that type of cold can make it hard some days to even get out of bed. As much as I loved being near my family and my closest friends in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut and still doing everything I could to get quality baseball work in at various locations, I knew that I had to get out of there and go south sooner, rather than later.

       

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Casey and I getting ready to escape the Connecticut temperatures.

So there I was, 9 a.m. Friday on February 1st, when the temperature had warmed to a modest -3 degrees upon my departure. I packed Casey (my pick-up truck) up real tight and made the trek southward. Although it was sunny in Connecticut’s tundra that morning, it did not last. As soon as I crossed over the border into Pennsylvania, a snow storm came along that I was not aware of, and it seemed many other drivers were not as well. Traffic, after merging from I-84 onto I-81, was horrendous. Cars had slid off the road nearly every 5 miles. Multiple lanes were shut down as a result, as well as the roads being completely unplowed. It was a mess, but finally I ran out of gas and stopped in West Virginia at an Applebee’s for a late lunch. The snow continued, and the bartenders were excited that the weather was so bad that some staff members could leave early to celebrate their snow day.

 

        ‘It’s fricken worse here than it is back home,’ I thought to myself regarding the weather. My goal was to escape the cold and find warm baseball fields, but I felt like I was competing in the Iditarod just to even make it past the Mason-Dixon line. But after finishing my surf-n-turf meal and filling up the truck, I continued, as did the snow. It wasn’t until about 6 p.m. in Southern Virginia that the snow finally stopped and turned into cold rain.

       The destination was Davidson College, just outside of Charlotte. It wasn’t until I was about 45 minutes away that I checked the temperature on my phone, because Casey doesn’t have a temperature gauge. It was 48 degrees outside, a full 51 degrees warmer than it was when I left in the morning. I cranked the window down on the highway and stuck my head out the window like a dog on the way to the dog park. It felt like 95 degrees. It truly felt like a dream, I wouldn’t have been surprised if my alarm went off and I was back in -3 in the blink of an eye.

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Me: “Is this heaven?”                   Will: “Not quite, it’s Davidson College…”

         The next two days, my friend Will Robertson, the Davidson baseball legend from their Super Regional team and fellow Oriole, provided me with access to practice on the field with the team on days that were in the 65 degree range. I was trying very hard not to quote the Field of Dreams movie, but that’s what I was thinking. Taking ground balls on dirt, hearing the crack of a wood bat and watching the ball fly, I surely felt like I was in heaven.

        I left Davidson and my friend Will after watching that despicable excuse for a sporting event known as Super Bowl LIII (I’m a Giants fan give me a break) and headed for UNC Wilmington, where UNCW Baseball legend and also fellow Oriole, Robbie Thorburn provided me with access to work out, hit on the team’s field, as well as in their impressive indoor facility. Then, a few of us went to the beach and jumped into the ocean for a swim, which was freezing but epic because I was at an ocean beach that wasn’t in Florida, swimming and playing Spikeball in 75 degrees on February 4th. Queue the alarm clock going off while sleeping in Sharon… no? This is real? I kept feeling that feeling over and over again.

        Now I write to you from my friend’s Angus Gracey and Zane Acord’s home in Charleston, SC, where it is also in the 70s and beautiful. Over the course of a few days, I got to see Zane and his band perform an awesome gig outside at night, and Angus showed me the sights and sounds of Charleston. Needless to say, it’s been a great trip so far.

        But anyways, this about cold weather baseball, so I thought I would countdown the top-3 coldest baseball games I have ever played in during my baseball career, which all happened to be when I was playing at UConn. The memories still give me the chills (literally) but it was all part of being a New England college ballplayer.

 

  1. Seton Hall Double-Header (2015)

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One of Mama Yahn’s photos from her and Dad’s first time watching me play college baseball.

For context, these games on March 20th, 2015 were only my third and fourth career collegiate baseball games. My debut was on Wednesday at the College of William & Mary. Then we had a relatively warm Friday night game against Seton Hall, highlighted by a complete game bulldog performance by Carson Cross. The second game of the series, on Saturday, was snowed out and moved to Sunday, along with the third and final game of the series. Coach Penders would say ‘always mentally prepare like you are going to play, regardless of the weather,’ but I think everyone was pretty uncertain that we were going to find a way to play those two games on Sunday, especially in windy conditions topping out in the mid 30s. However, Seton Hall shovelled off their turf field, and the Double Header was scheduled to start at 12 pm. At least I was playing and got to move around. My parents made the trip down to South Orange, NJ, and had to sit on metal bleachers for 18 innings. With snow banks on the side of the field and wind freezing up our faces and hands, we fought to split the Double Header and ultimately clinch the series against the Pirates.

 

  1. University of Hartford midweek Road Game (2016)

        Nothing against the University of Hartford, I have a few friends who played ball there, but I absolutely hated playing at their field. Not only did we have a hard time beating them during my time as Husky, for whatever reason, but it always seemed like the conditions at their field when we came into town were downright miserable. On this particular day, April 6th, 2016, the weather was in the low 40s and there was some precipitation on the turf field from earlier in the day, but wind gusts that day were up to 25 miles-per-hour, just dreadful. You know that feeling when you get your hands wet in a cold environment? That happened to me in the first inning after a base hit and sliding head first afterwards. I could not feel my hands the rest of the game. They were so numb it felt like they were missing from the ends of my arms. I’m not over here trying to make excuses and validate errors, but I made a throwing error that game mostly because when I went to make the transfer after catching the baseball, I wasn’t entirely sure the ball was in my hand to be thrown over to first. I also felt during each at-bat after my first one that the bat was going to fly out of my hands on the backswing and launch into Hartford’s third base dugout. No amount of pine tar can give your frozen, damp hands grip in that situation. We ended up losing that game 4-3, and it was never a pleasant post game conversation with the coaches when we lost to Hartford.

 

  1. University of Cincinnati Road Game (2016)

        This game feels like somewhat of folklore in UConn baseball history, in good ways and bad ways (mostly bad at the time). We travelled to Cincinnati to play the Bearcats immediately after that cold and wet Hartford game, and we were in desperate need of a few wins. At first, the game was pretty chilly, low 40s, but there was no precipitation and the sun hadn’t quite set at first pitch. Anthony Kay started the game and threw well, making only one mistake his whole six-inning outing in the form of a solo homerun. Our offense, however, was stagnant, putting up a goose egg in the runs column through 8 innings. It was right around the 7th or 8th inning of that game when the temperature dropped. Some weather system was coming through the area and the temperatures went quickly down to the mid 30s. Then the precipitation came along. A sleeting rain type that immediately made the field conditions similar to those during the Hartford game from earlier in the week, if not worse. In the 9th inning down 2-0, we mounted a rally, as Connor Buckley and Jack Sundberg drew back-to-back walks which brought me to the plate. I got the sac bunt sign and put one down right on the third baseline that the Bearcat third baseman didn’t touch because he thought it might have rolled foul. It stopped right on the white of the third baseline, I was fired up, and we had bases loaded, no outs in the top of the 9th. Bobby Melley and Joe Duffin, by way of a RBI groundout and a sac fly, respectively, tied the game up at 2 as we headed into extras. And that’s when it started snowing. It wasn’t too much, mostly flurries with a wintery mix, but I will never forget that sight. Standing on that field at 2nd base, so focused on trying to win this Friday night conference game that the cold wasn’t bothering me, and then looking around and feeling as though I was in a snow globe inside the stadium. But there’s one detail from that frozen game that I will never forget. After sliding a few times during extras on defense and on offense, I came back into the dugout and got a pat on the chest from someone and it felt like I had a catcher’s chest protector on. My baseball jersey had frozen on the chest area and on parts of the back of my grey pants. One could say… I was slightly cold that evening in Cincinnati. The Bearcats took the game in 13 innings, after a few walks and then an infield single to walk it off. We went back to the locker room pretty distraught after such an epic battle, but good gracious, I don’t think a warm shower has ever felt so good.

        Those cold days of baseball aren’t necessarily over, depending on where the Orioles assign me after Spring Training. Cold games are potentially on the horizon. I can thank UConn baseball, and being born and raised a New England ballplayer, for exposing me to any situation Mother Nature may throw my way.

No More Homework

       “I’m never taking another class as long as I live.” I had convinced myself that this was a reality after I left UConn’s campus and prepared for the 2017 MLB Draft that June. There were a few reasons why I thought this, the main one being that I had convinced myself that the only way of making it through the Minor Leagues to the MLB would be by doing so in two or three seasons. This is not the case, especially for me. My skill set doesn’t jump off the diamond at you, the type of player that hits the ball 450 feet and burns down the baseline. I’m going to do exactly what I have to do to win that day, to set my teammates up for success, and succeed when my teammates set me up for success. My batting practice does not include 10 home runs and I’m not going to get clocked at 97 mph throwing across the diamond. In reality, my player type doesn’t result in a player shooting up the system quickly, but it gives me a chance to make it eventually to prove that consistency and endless effort can get you anywhere in this game, and in life.             

       Anyways, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, school. Setting up classes and communicating early with professors about missing the first week of school was quite the hassle, mostly because I was doing all of this in the locker room in between lifts and batting practice.

       “What are you doing, Yahn?” Someone would ask me in the locker room.

       “Getting my classes in order for the fall,” I would reply.

       “That sucks, why are you doing that?” Imagine having that conversation individually with 15 or so guys, it definitely made me wonder if following through with this and finishing school was worth the effort. Some of my teammates thought I was doing it because I did not believe I could make it to the MLB. It was really hard, but I had to swat away all those negative thoughts and go back and finish, which at the time felt forced.

       Our last game of the season for Aberdeen was Labor Day on Monday, September 3rd against the Hudson Valley Renegades in Fishkill, N.Y., and our record stood at 37-37. The Ironbirds were fighting for the last Wild Card spot until the very end of the season, as our loss in the first game of the three game series on Saturday, officially ended our mathematical chances. To add insult to injury, we lost on Sunday 19-2 in embarrassingly bad fashion as I had the day off and watched the fiasco from the bench. I went into that Sunday thinking about how great the summer had been up to that point, remembering the fact that we were nearly 10 games out of a wild card spot with the month of August to play and we got hot and gave ourselves a chance. I wanted to win that game so badly, for the Aberdeen fans who had made the trip all the way to Fishkill for the final series of the season, for our first year manager whose first season being above or below .500 was in the balance, and of course for friends and family who lived close by that attended the game that night.

        I had an OK game at best, 1 for 5 with an RBI and a run scored and a few plays in the field, but we had blown a pretty significant lead. We were up 6-1 after three innings of play and were getting a little too comfortable with the lead. It’s hard to keep your focus after such a long season when you’re up by five on the last day, of course, but it started to slip away. We added two more runs after that, but Hudson Valley put up two runs in three consecutive innings, making it 8-7 going into the last two innings of the season.

       My last at-bat of the season, in the 9th inning, I smoked one on the ground to the right side, appearing for sure it would sneak through the “4-hole” for a base hit to right field. But, the first baseman made a nice backhand play and got the force out at second for the fielder’s choice. A pair of base hits brought me around to third base with one out as we were desperately trying to push across an insurance run. Jean Carmona then hits a lazy fly ball to the outfield. I went back and tagged up at third base, getting my tired legs ready for the final sprint of the season. The ball slapped the outfielders glove and I took off, piercing my cleats into the turf third base foul line, then reaching the dirt home plate area. I took flight and turned my body slightly to the right to reach around the tag and touch home plate. What a beautiful slide it was on such a close play. I had executed it perfectly.

        Ironbirds belly flop“HE’S OUT!” Screamed the umpire who, in my opinion, had never been more wrong about anything in his young life.

        “ARE YOU BLIND? DID YOU EVEN WATCH THE PLAY? YOU ——- MORON!” Why he did not eject me I’ll never know. It probably all happened so fast for the both of us that neither of us could process my word choice quickly enough. The crowd was going bananas. The home crowd couldn’t believe that umpire called me out, and the Aberdeen/Sharon fans were cursing umpires entire life out. Our skipper, Kyle Moore, yanked me back into the dugout, reminding me I still had to play defense, before giving the umpire a piece of his mind. I was fuming. I wanted that to be my last run scored of the season. I wanted to be rewarded for that perfect slide, but that umpire (you don’t know how hard I am to not say anything specifically that will get me in trouble right now) called me out for whatever reason. I went back out to third base all sorts of pissed off during warm ups, but I finally pulled myself together and knew I’d botch a play when it mattered most if I carried that anger onto the field.

        The Renegades came up and the first two hitters went down quickly, and the Ironbirds were one out away from finishing above .500 somehow after entering August with a record 20-26, going from 10.5 games out of the Wild Card spot to missing it by just 2 games. Needless to say, baseball was good to the Ironbirds in August, and we wanted to finish on a high note by getting this last out. Josh Keaton delivered a fastball and the left-handed hitter slapped a sharp two hopper towards the “5 hole” far to my left. I was going to belly flop towards it, but I really did not think I had a chance for this one. I followed it all the way and I went full extension as I watched it go past my visual. And then, WHAP, the very edge of my web held onto it. I did a push-up, spun my feet around and flipped it over to first base for the final out of the season. What a feeling. To finish one of your pro ball seasons with your favorite kind of defensive play, something that perhaps could only be trumped by a walk off. The beautiful summer with the Ironbirds had ended, as we shook hands for the last time, I said hello to some family and friends in attendance, and made my last trek over to the locker room. I looked around the stadium, trying to soak it in one last time as the stadium lights slowly dimmed down. Then, a reality check of a thought slapped me in the face as I stepped out from between the white lines for the last time in 2018.

        “Holy shit. I have class in 12 hours,” I whispered to myself. It was a sad thought for a somewhat sad time. We all showered and joked around one more time in the away locker room and said our goodbyes, knowing for sure that because of trades, injuries, call ups, etc., that this would be the last time that group of men were ever going to be in the same room. My Dad and I rode home together in my pick-up truck that I had driven up north a few days earlier, and all the focus I could possibly muster up had to make a complete 180 from playing ball to being a full time student with six classes.

        I had made an effort to let all of my teachers know my situation, and that made returning to the classroom for that first week very smooth, at least compared to my anxious expectations as I took the elevator up to the 4th floor of Oak Hall for the first class of the year. It was at the exact moment, when I sat down in Professor Kalb’s Reporting and Editing TV and Radio News, that I realized how important my being back there was, and that I was exactly where I needed to be for the fall of 2018. It wasn’t easy by any stretch, but it was fun taking an entire slate of Journalism specific classes and creating so many cool pieces of work, which led to the creation of an awesome portfolio. My teachers this fall were more than great to me, my Journalism advisor and academic advisor, Mike Stanton and Alana Butler respectively, helped me through the graduation process and approved my plan of study, and despite some incredibly shaky semesters in the past I was able to finish on a great note with UConn academically with a 3.0 GPA in six classes. It could not have gone any better.

        I love baseball. I have confidence that professional baseball is going to work out exactly the way I have I have imagined it would in my dreams. But I love journalism as well. I love writing and I love sharing ideas, events, and peoples stories in creative ways. Finishing my degree has cemented the fact that my two loves have given me two amazing opportunities, two paths in this life, one that I never thought would be possible. I am forever grateful to my teachers and coaches from all walks of life, from Sharon Center, Housatonic Valley, and UConn, to Sharon Little League, Team Connecticut

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Thumbs up to you all for your help, thank you!

Baseball, UConn Baseball, and the Baltimore Orioles. But most importantly, I am forever in debt to my parents, my sisters, and all of my beautiful friends who have supported me and made the adventures more than fun. I cannot thank you all enough. I didn’t do anything, WE did it.