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.
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. I 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.
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!*