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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seton Hall Double-Header (2015)
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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
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.
We’ve made it folks, after driving down to Sarasota for early camp in the middle of February for my first Spring Training and after being assigned to Extended Spring Training at the end of March, learning that I would remain in Sarasota for another two and a half months with many teammates from last season. At long last, I have my first taste of what Minor League baseball is really like, in the Short Season-A New York-Penn League with the Aberdeen Ironbirds.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Gulf Coast League (GCL), where I played last summer, is a legitimate Minor League experience in terms of the talent. However, I’ve been told by many coaches and players in the higher levels that the GCL is the farthest you will ever feel from the Major Leagues your whole career.
Waking up every morning at 7 A.M. and having full practices before games, playing in 100 degree heat with 100% humidity at noon before a crowd of maybe 15 people, isn’t exactly the Minor League experience you expect just coming off of the draft. For me, the GCL meant a few things. For starters, it further proved my true love for the game itself. Despite the absolute grind we endured in that league, I still wanted so badly to get up each day and prove to the Orioles that I could make my way up from the bottom of the barrel and enjoy doing so. The GCL also proved to me that if I can have success in that league, with nothing really getting you hyped up for a game besides self-motivation, I knew that I could climb my way up the chain when playing in nice Minor League ballparks with a good amount of butts in the seats.
Which brings us to now. Ripken Stadium is one of the nicest ballparks in the league. It seats over 6,000 and has a humongous JumboTron in right-center field, with a very nice clubhouse considering we’re in A ball. Yes, it’s only one level above the GCL, but Aberdeen feels a million miles away from Sarasota baseball in the summer.
It’s been a blast so far, hearing the crowd roar when we get a big knock or make a nice play, kids asking for autographs before and after games and the wacky ballpark games in between innings. It’s what Minor League baseball is supposed to be.
Road games are great too. We got back a few days ago from playing my favorite childhood team’s affiliate, the Staten Island Yankees. Not all of them, but a good amount of those S.I. Yankees fans were mean, saying some brutal stuff to my teammates and me. I’ve been berated by fans at some college and summer ball games too, but it didn’t feel as serious just because many of those fans were my peers in college when we were at other schools, and besides the wackadoo Elmira Pioneer fans in the PGCBL, that really didn’t happen in summer ball. It really just didn’t seem hostile what those fans were doing and saying, but now these older men and some women are toeing the line just a little bit. “What the hell are you doing here, 6? You’re never gonna make it to the big leagues, just go home!” Imagine having that right in your ear hole when you’re on deck trying to lock in for your at bat. And don’t even think about striking out or making an error if you’re not trying to get shredded by the crazy lady who’s 14 Lime-A-Rita’s deep. I honestly don’t mind it for a few reasons, one being it’s that person’s loss that instead of enjoying the game and the atmosphere, they pay to come get hammered and make a fool of themselves. I also don’t mind it because there’s no better feeling when you’re getting ripped and proceed to get a knock or make a nice play and shut them right up.
Wednesday was our first of the only four off-days we will have until the end of the season in September, and we spent it driving up to Lowell. We were supposed to leave on the bus from the clubhouse at 1pm but our bus did not show up until 3, lining us up perfectly with the New York City traffic. We also did not book a hotel room in Lowell for Wednesday night, so we had to find a hotel in Norwich, CT for the night. It’s always nice to get back into Connecticut, as we will be back here down the stretch in the middle of August to play the Connecticut Tigers. This league is great because we get pretty close to home quite a few times. We’ll be in Albany playing the Valley Cats next weekend, then we eventually play the Renegades in the middle of August which is right over in Fishkill about 2 minutes from my Dad’s office. If you want to catch a game when the Ironbirds make the treks up north or if you’re passing by Ripken Stadium on I-95, check out the schedule at: http://www.milb.com/schedule/index.jsp?sid=t488 !
I thought I would mix it up a little bit and do a countdown of my seven favorite ballparks that I’ve competed on in one form of competition or another. They can be fields that I played at in college with UConn, in collegiate summer ball leagues, in pro ball so far, or in showcases in the past. Every field in the countdown has some special stories and memories, and I’ll be elaborating on those along the way.
Fenway Park/Fluor Field at the West End/Fenway South
Yeah, hot start to the list Willy… putting three in one, right? They’re all pretty much the same ballpark so I figured it made a little sense (I’ll explain). Also, let me lead by saying I am obviously a huge Orioles and Yankees fan, and the Dignacco Boy’s would throw up if they saw I had any type of appreciation for Fenway Park or other variations of that place. But, come on, not only is it a relic of the game filled with history, but I am a big fan of fields with screwy dimensions. All ballplayers my age played the video game NCAA Baseball 2006 when we could make our own custom field with messed up dimensions and wall heights, and some jack wagon in 1912 actually got to do that in real life for an MLB field, the lucky son of a gun.
ANYWAYS, I’ll go in chronological order with these three stadiums to sort of explain why I have three in the number six spot.
Fluor Field at the West End is the home field of the Greenville Red Sox, the Low-A affiliate of the Red Sox, and the field’s dimensions and wall heights are exactly as those of Fenway Park. It was my freshman year at UConn just before I became the regular third baseman, where I got a few at-bats in this awesome ballpark. The Huskies were whupping Furman that Saturday in the middle of March 2015 and I came in with some of the bench guys to get a few swings and grounders. Although I didn’t notch a base knock at that park, I remember those at-bats very well because of the venue. If you recall from my blog post about superstitions, that game against Furman was the one just before the night those drunken wedding goers blessed me with my lucky wedding glass at the West Inn in Greenville just down the street from the ballpark.
Fenway Park has an asterisk next to it, because I did not play a game in there, sadly. The Cape Cod League All-Star Game used to be played there, however, the last time it was played at Fenway Park was 2011 as the League wants to keep the game on the Cape for the fans. Because of this, they let each team have a few hours on the field at Fenway to take ground balls and try to smack one over the Monstah. Although I gave it all I had and ruined my swing for three days by trying to hit taters, I couldn’t get one over the Green Monster that day, as the closest I came was hitting the top rung of the ladder at the very top of the wall. Just being able to spend some time on that field, and having my Mom there to check it out as well, was a blast
Lastly, we get to Fenway South, also known as jetBlue Park, which was the home field for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox last summer. The GCL has more than 50% of their games played on backfields, the fields with one small set of bleachers behind home plate and no scoreboard. This setting along with playing in the middle of the Florida summer at noon every single day, can make the GCL quite a grind. This is what made playing at Fenway South so memorable for me. It gave me a little bit of an extra edge and fired me up a little more for the game; there was an actual scoreboard which even flashed some fastball velocities. It was refreshing if anything. Being able to play in a replica of Fenway Park was almost like a defensive puzzle, as the dimensions had its positives and negatives for pitchers as the fielders navigated the confusion. 330 foot can of corns to left were automatic doubles because of the Green Monster, a fact teammate Will Robertson took full advantage of as he would just pepper balls off that wall. He even said to me once, “I just aim for the wall, it’s so big, just hit it and get a double.” Yeah sick dude! I’m just trying to drop it in where they ain’t! A ball that rolled out to the triangle near the 420 foot marker was an automatic triple every time. A well struck ball hit 375 feet to straight away right was a can of corn, while a chip shot off the end of the bat down the right field line was a 302 foot dinger. It was quite the adventure playing all those games at that field.
Marlins Park – Miami, FL
We go from number 7 which included the oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball in Fenway Park, which opened in 1912, to the second youngest park in the MLB, which opened 100 years later in 2012. My senior year of high school I was lucky enough to get to participate in the High School Power Showcase in the very beginning of 2014, just after New Year’s. My Mom somehow pried me out of bed early the first morning of the year to get me on a plane for the first time in my life. It was the first time I had ever gone from the freezing cold Northeast to the vacation-like weather of Florida in the blink of an eye, the best feeling in the world that I would do quite a few times during my time at UConn.
The skills portion of the showcase (60-yard dash, ground balls, batting practice, etc.) was my first time on a Major League Baseball field, and I’ll never forget that feeling. Thinking about all of the current MLB studs that had been standing exactly where I was, being an 18-year-old from Sharon, was an awesome feeling.
One of the moments I remember very well happened before one of our showcase games the day after the skills portion of the Power Showcase. We were hanging out in the dugout waiting for the grounds crew to finish preparing the field, when 2013 Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez emerged from the tunnel into the dugout. He and a trainer walked casually out to the outfield to stretch and have a light toss before our game started. The whole dugout stood up and went to the railing just to watch him throw. It was incredibly uneventful, but we were all so interested in every throw, some guys listing off his stats, others talking about how they faced him in high school when he was a senior and they were freshman. Little did we know what the future would hold for him, including Tommy John surgery that year in 2014, followed by an incredibly impressive 2016 season only to be cut short by his untimely death.
Dunn Field – Elmira, NY
Before I start sharing my experience with this relic of a field during my time in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in the summer of 2015, I just wanted to rattle off some amazing facts about this historic venue.
In the late 19th century when Major League Baseball was just getting started, Dunn Field (known at the time as Maple Avenue Driving Park) was the alternate home field for the Buffalo Bison of the National League. Maple Avenue Driving Park hosted the first ever professional football night game in 1902, as the Philadelphia Athletic Football Team beat the Kanaweola Athletic Club 39-0. The field was a minor league affiliate for the Red Sox for many years, where many Sox legend’s came through and played their early years of their minor league career. When Don Zimmer was a coach for the minor league team known at the time as the Elmira Pioneers, he and his wife were married and Dunn Field in 1951. Last but certainly not least, in 1984 the Beach Boys had a concert at the historic venue (awesome stuff)!
Years after the minor league Red Sox affiliate decided to leave Elmira, the Perfect Game League founded a team their and used the same name, the Elmira Pioneers. The Pioneers were a Western Division rival to us playing for the Newark Pilots, and although I remember some of those guys being real great people and still follow a handful of them on social media, there were others that myself and my teammates were not too fond of, which did lead to the benches clearing once or twice while we played at Dunn Field.
The atmosphere was electric, the team gave away tickets to the people of Elmira, and they came out in droves. I was absolutely blown away when we played there for our home opener and 6,000+ filled the stands and the place was rocking. They had a cool, old, nasty locker room that I loved to hang out in, and sometimes would go in there by myself throw my helmet around after I struck out and the fans showered me with expletives. I soon realized after playing a few games that despite the historic feeling and the amazing crowd, the actual playing surface was one of the worst I’ve ever played on in my life. The infield grass was regularly not mowed, killing any chance of a ground ball getting through the infield, while the infield grass area itself was maybe four inches more elevated than the infield dirt leading to some nasty hops. The shadows were a disaster for the first three innings of night games, especially for the left side of the infield and the left fielder, because there was a gap between the concourse and roof of the stadium. We were essentially blind on that side of the field for an inning or two, which is always exciting when you’re playing the hot corner. Then, when the sun finally went down and they fired up the lights, a swarm of thousands of moths would fly all over the field at head height, making it look like it was snowing in the park. It was tolerable because it only lasted for about 15 minutes before they finally made their way above the field to the lights.
You’re probably wondering why the heck I liked this field so much right? Well other than the historical significance of the old place and how many fans they always drew, my favorite part of playing at Dunn Field was the walk-up song the fans gave me. Why just me you ask? Well Newark played their more than any other team, and I’ve always been known for having very long hair, and that summer it was close to the longest I had ever had my hair before. Upon maybe our fourth or fifth game in the stadium, the interns started playing “Dude Looks like a Lady” by Aerosmith every time I came to the plate, and the place would go absolutely bananas. The fans would sing every single word at the top of their lungs and dance like the crazy people they were undoubtedly. Dunn Field was incredibly unique and weird, and I loved every second of playing there.
Spectrum Field – Clearwater, FL
The spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies has a special place in my baseball life, because it is the home of the American Athletic Conference Tournament where we were victorious in 2016. I’m not sure where to begin with this place, which I’m still getting used to calling Spectrum Field as it was known as BrightHouse Field my first two experiences there before changing its name last spring.
Who could forget the Joe Duffin game from my freshman year? When we came back from a 6-2 deficit in the 8th inning and a Siena triple and a Duffin go-ahead moonshot set up an Anthony Kay save, giving Trevor Holmes the win.
Hitting a grand slam there last year in the first game against Cincinnati (thanks to some center field facing gale force winds) was another great memory at that stadium, as that put us up by a bunch en route to a solid beating of the Bearcats.
Those two memories have something in common, though, which is why my reminiscing on them was rather brief; we didn’t win a championship. Nothing is more memorable than dog piling with your brothers after clinching a NCAA Regional bid (at least not yet). Hitting the triple in the 9th inning to give us an extra run and Pete Rose diving into third was a feeling close to that. So was going over to my Dad after we left the pile, giving him bear hug, holding back tears and saying “we did it Paugh, we f–ing did it”. Those feelings I had at those two moments were tied for a very close second to right when the ball went into John Toppa’s glove in left field and we clinched the title. It felt like Christmas when I was five years old; I was yelling uncontrollably and tackled Pat Ruotolo as we went to the bottom of the pile. It’s really hard to put into words, so enjoy this:
J.O. Christian Field – Storrs, CT
Just like the way the Sharon house is my home in real life, I associate three venues as “home” in my baseball world: Veteran’s Field (where Sharon’s Little League and Middle School fields are), Housatonic High School Field, and J.O. Christian Field. The “JOC” as anyone who played for the Huskies calls it, is one of my favorite places on planet Earth. I remember visiting the field for the first time when I was on an unofficial visit to UConn with my parents. Coach Penders over the years, even back then, has been getting flak from in conference opponents about not having updated facilities similar to those of Houston’s, Tulane’s, etc. To me, though, it would be the nicest field I would ever call my home field up to that point, and for Connecticut, it was beautiful. On that middle of July day they had it mowed nicely and the dirt was raked nice and flat. I always thought the hedges going along the outside of the outfield fence complimented the field nicely. I remember thinking, “wow, there’s no goose poop, it’s beautiful”.
Sure, it had its days in the early spring after snowy winters made the infield lips steeper and the infield grass uneven, but that field represented everything that UConn Baseball stood for. Teams dreaded coming up to play us when it was 55 and windy in April, but we were excited because it was 55 and windy in April in Connecticut! Break out your T-shirts and flip-flops! We took a lot of series against teams that were more talented than us at the JOC because we were the tougher team, ready to play in 25 and snowy or 95 and smoldering hot, the Huskies were up to the task.
Dunkin Donuts Park – Hartford, CT
The brand spanking new ballpark is one of the nicest field’s I have ever played on. I only had one opportunity to play at Dunkin Donuts Park, and we were blessed with a perfect 75 degree night, one that UConn Nation came out in droves to enjoy with us. Just that one game was one of my favorite baseball games I have ever been a part of for selfish and unselfish reasons. We’ll start with the selfish reason, starting with the fact that I was going into the game with 199 career hits as a Husky. I’m not one for caring too much about something like that going into a game, but I knew a lot more of my friends from home, along with a whole bunch from UConn, were going to be in Hartford that night waiting for that hit to come, and I really wanted to do it that night.
We were facing East Carolina lefty Jacob Wolfe that night, who had thrown a complete game against us in a loss the season before in Storrs. He slotted me a middle away two-seam fastball first pitch of my at-bat in the first inning and I punched it through the four hole to right field for a base hit. (200 hits sign) I looked up to my parents and just gave them a little wave, and then thought of my first career hit as a Husky my freshman year in Port St. Lucie during a blowout against Siena and how far I had come from that moment, it was an amazing feeling.
The unselfish reasons are a lot more fun, as the game continued and had a few other great moments, Zac Susi recorded his 100th career base hit, Tim Cate absolutely shoved en route to a complete game shutout, but none topped the moment that made me absolutely lose my marbles. It was first and third with two outs in the bottom of the third inning, I was the runner on first and Grandpa Frenchy, Alex Lefevre came up and uncorked on a fastball to left-center field. I knew it was hit well, but I wanted to make sure that I was going to score for first, so I was motoring around second picking up Coach Penders and he put his hands up. I thought ‘there’s no way someone caught that ball’, and then he gave me the finger twirling home run signal, and I lost it.
It was Frenchy’s first career home run, at Dunkin Donuts Park, with all of Connecticut there to see it, it was another celebrate like a little kid moment for me. We all loved Frenchy, and he was such a huge help with leading the team that year that I really needed as a young captain, which explains why myself and the whole team mobbed him like Derek Jeter be would if he was spotted walking around New York. What. A. Night.
Muzzy Field – Bristol, CT
My favorite field to play at in my baseball career was Muzzy Field. Now, let me clarify: I’m not talking about the 14U Team Connecticut travel ball games, which were still a blast. Rather, I am talking about being a part of the inaugural season of the Bristol Blues in the Futures Collegiate League in 2015. I began the summer with the Newark Pilots as I mentioned earlier, but our team in upstate New York did not make the playoffs. Because the Perfect Game League season started a lot early than the Futures League Season, the Blue’s still had two weeks left and I signed a contract to finish out the regular season and post season.
Boy did I walk into a beautiful situation, accompanied by UConn teammate Griffin Garabedian and future UConn teammate Tim Cate, we would go on to 10 of our last 12 games going into the post season as the first place team in the league. I can’t say enough about Muzzy Field, not only the old time feel of the park with the bleachers hanging right over our dugout and the old school locker room, but the city of Bristol packed the house every single night for all of those games. They were amazing people coming to watch our games as well, and welcomed the mop headed new kid with open arms.
The playoff atmosphere at Muzzy Field was unlike anything I had ever experienced, as our first round game was against the in-state rival Torrington Titans, whom I had played for the year prior. We knocked off the Titans and then the Nashua Silver Knights in the semifinals to get to the defending champion Worcester Bravehearts in the Championship 3 game series. We dropped the first game of the series at Worcester, but because we were the number 1 seed, the next two games would be in Bristol, up there with two of the greatest games I had ever been a part of in my career.
Game 1 was a pitchers dual, with our ace Dominic LoBrutto from Florida International on the mound for us, who would go on to be drafted by the Red Sox. There were no runs batted in by either team that game. Instead after I had lead off an inning with a base hit and got to third base, and after a lengthy at-bat I scored on a dropped third strike wild pitch to take a 1-0 lead over the Bravehearts. We ran into trouble in the top of the 8th, still leading 1-0 with LoBrutto on the mound, Worcester had runners on 1st and 2nd with no one out. We set up our bunt defense thinking they were 100% going to lay a bunt down, however, they decided not to.
The first pitch LoBrutto through was a grounder to our shortstop Ty Roberts who flipped it to me at second and I fired it over to first for the double play. Dom then struck out the next guy, prompting a roar from the crowed so loud I couldn’t hear myself screaming with joy. Our closer finished the job in the 9th and we won 1-0 to send it to the final game three. I love hearing my Dad talk about the end of the 8th inning ovation that LoBrutto received. Dom was walking back to the dugout and raised his hands up to the crowd, my Dad says he’d never screamed like that before at a game as the crowd responded.
Game 3 the Bravehearts brought two coach buses full of fans, and the Muzzy Field staff had to fill up the left field bleachers which usually only had a few fans hanging out down in that direction. There were just about 5,000 fans at that game at 5pm on a beautiful August evening, and the atmosphere could not have been more electric. Soon to be UConn freshman Tim Cate was the starter that night, and he held his own for a young buck just graduating from Cheney Tech.
However, in the bottom of the 7th we found ourselves down 4-2 in desperate need for a rally, and I remember that rally like it was yesterday. I came up with one out and hit a double into the left-center gap, and Tyler Packanik from Marietta College hit a bloop double down the right field line to drive me in. Finally, we tied it up with a Dylan Morris of UMass single to center, and the roar was deafening.
Game 3 of the Futures League Championship Series had gone into extra innings, an atmosphere like which I would never see until I experienced an NCAA Regional the following year. The fans were all screaming for both teams while we were warming up in the field. I remember clear as day looking at our infield, Gerard Rohan at first, Roberts at short, and Ryan Costello at third, just shrugging while thinking “this is pretty cool eh?” Sadly, we would lose the game in 11 innings, a heartbreaking loss for our teammates, but especially our fans. I had only been there for three weeks, and I loved those teammates of mine, those fans of Bristol, and that beautiful old stadium, thanks to Muzzy Field it was one of the greatest experiences of my baseball career.
Well, that concludes my countdown including the stories that came with the stadiums. Sorry that took so long, ballplayers can’t help but remember the details about some of their favorite places to play the game.
Slowly but surely over the 18 years that I’ve played baseball, starting at ‘coach-pitch’ when I was 4, fastball velocities have increased year by year. The adjustment always takes a few at-bats to get used to, but soon it clicks. It was just last week, against the Minnesota Twins extended spring training team, that I faced a guy throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball. Brusdar Graterol was feeling himself that day, as he was 97-100 and touched 101 a few times.
I had two at-bats against him. The first one, I was looking for an outside heater just to shoot into right field, but he threw a 100 mph cheeseball about 2 inches above my hands for a slow roller to the second baseman and somehow my bat lived to tell the tale. The next at-bat I got to 2 strikes after he snapped off a curveball for a strike. I knew he was going to come with the fastball, so I was just getting geared up for it as early as possible. Somehow I got on top of 100 at my letters and hit a one hopper to the second baseman for a ground out, but I was at least pleased that I could get a decent piece of that kind of fuzz. A step in the right direction.
I was telling my Dad about the at-bats that day, and he really only had one question for me: “What did that sound like?” 100 miles per hour inside close to your knuckles sounds like a swarm of wasps hurtling towards you just for a split second. Then I told him I was just happy he had decent control and wasn’t all over the place like a lot of those young Latin pitchers with bazooka’s for arms tend to be.
He said “Well, you’re pretty much staring down the barrel of the gun hoping it goes over the plate and not at your face”. It’s true, you have to have a lot of faith in that guy on the bump to stay in there on heaters and curveballs.
Standing in on 100 for the first time brings me back to the blurs that were fastballs coming out of the hand of UConn teammate Wills Montgomerie when Sharon Little League faced off against Lakeville. He was bringing low to mid 70s when we were 12 years old, and even though I hit him a little bit, it was pretty horrifying for chubby Willy to hang in there for what was the equivalent of about 100 from just 45 feet as opposed to 60 feet 6 inches. When Wills and I both played on the same all-star team in Little League, (The Mid-County All Stars, possibly the greatest sports team in human history), Wills was firing mid 70s against La Grange and mowing guys down with strikeout after strikeout.
In an attempt to just get a base runner, one of the right-handed hitting La Grange players tried to get a bunt down, bringing his back foot all the way around and squaring up to Wills. The maneuver threw off Wills’ release point for whatever reason and he deposited a 75 mph fastball into the poor kids face. He didn’t stand a chance of getting out of the way because of how hard Wills was throwing and his choice of bunting technique leaving his face vulnerable. He walked off under his own power after some of his teammates helped him pick up some off his teeth and his mom brought him to the hospital. That kid from La Grange was tough as nails for a 12-year-old.
The Huskies saw some serious fuzz in the 2016 Gainesville Regional against Florida when we were given the task of facing AJ Puk as their Gators starting pitcher, who would eventually be the 6th overall pick of the draft that year to the Athletics. We were so fired up coming off a win against Georgia Tech the day before, that we didn’t have too much trouble facing his 98 mph fastball from the left side.
Who could forget the home run that Bobby Melley hit in the first inning that landed in Canada, giving us a lot of confidence early that we could knock off the number 1 team in the country.
I remember very well my first at-bat against Puk, watching the first pitch whiz just to get the timing down at 98. A friendly Florida fan with two total teeth chirped “just walk back to the dugout 6, you don’t stand a chance in hell against AJ!” I had a decent at-bat, fouling off a few pitches and taking one slider. The Florida fan continued “this is the greatest at-bat of your life! You’ve peaked 6! You’ve peaked!” I popped up to second base and jogged back to the dugout and looked over at the fan and chuckled. My third at-bat against Puk was real interesting, as I was up with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth and he was losing confidence in his fastball. I got to 1-1 and he spiked a slider and a wild pitch brought us to within a run of Florida. The Gator skipper walks out and takes the ball from Puk with a 2-1 count in my at-bat to go to Dane Dunning, another first round pick that draft year to the Nationals. The scouting report was 91-93 with a pretty good slider, so I was going to sit on a slider the first pitch I saw from him to see if he was just trying to sneak a slow one by me for strike two.
Sure enough, he fires the stinky cheese painted on the outside corner and I look up at the scoreboard and it says 96. Scouting report was just a wee bit off, but with two strikes I just had to see it deep and try to get something into the air in the outfield to get the runner in from third. Luckily, Dunning hung a slider and I hit a sack fly to center to tie that game. Despite losing by one in a classic, the Huskies did pretty well against some soon to be professional fuzz.
High 90s can be hard to avoid when it comes up and in. Even a mid-90s fastball can clip your hand and lead to injury, as I learned six days before the beginning of my junior season at UConn when I broke my hand on a fastball up and in. A similar situation almost happened in the Gulf Coast League last summer against the Red Sox, but instead of a broken hand I got a base hit out of it.
We were facing a young Latin pitcher who was throwing mid to high 90s with a little bit of run. I was fighting off fastballs and curveballs with two strikes, just trying to put something in play. He proceeded to come up and in with a two-seamer. I was choked up a pretty healthy amount and it hit the knob of my bat square. It rolled out towards shortstop, past the pitcher, and no one on the Red Sox had any clue what happened. Of course me, sniffing any chance for a cheap base knock, took off running immediately. The ‘knob-knock’ is spoken of reverentially by teammates to this day.
Baseball’s so much fun and so damn hard all at the same time. In order to be the best you have to beat the best. Being able to reach a level where we see guys throwing mid to high 90’s, consistently, is an awesome challenge. I overcame the fear of a fastball near the ol’ coconut back in Little League. If it happens it happens, but I’m not scared of it, especially after I was pegged 13 times last summer. Hell, Colin Woody who I met this spring training and is now on the Frederick high-A team, wore 35 pitches in a full-season last year and he loved everyone one of them, mostly for the On Base Percentage. That’s the type of stuff a ballplayer will do to get an advantage and help a team win. I always think of one of my favorite quotes of all time from Honus Wagner: “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer”.