Behind the Dish in Brooklyn

Preface

As each day goes by in the beginning of this off-season, my appreciation in hindsight for the 2021 season increases. Regardless of how a full-season unfolds, in terms of individual or team success, it is a marathon mentally and it is an accomplishment to make it through in a good headspace after 130 Minor League baseball games. 

Lindsey, Mama Yahn, myself and my Old Man after a Sunday day-game in Bowie.

Thanks to my family, my teammates, coaches and my girlfriend Lindsey, who lived with me for much of the season, I persevered through the most challenging yet rewarding season I have ever experienced. It was challenging in that I visited all four affiliates over nine total transactions to-and-from teams within the Orioles organization. Along with stretches of time where I was not playing well, leading to less playing time which makes it very difficult to establish any sort of rhythm or comfort in the box. 

I embraced my role to the best of my ability physically and mentally, trying to be the ultimate utility guy as I played every position except centerfield. Whenever I saw my name in the lineup I wanted to make sure I was playing my ass off and contributing to a win. When you’re not playing everyday and you finally get in there, being a part of W’s means that much more. 

With a season like the one I had, there were some big highs and also significant lows. There were days I will never forget like my Triple-A debut, or the very forgettable days such as when it’s my first start in a few games and I go 0-for with a pair of punchouts. There are many other wild moments, positive and negative, that the year brought along. 

I wasn’t sure which story I wanted to start with, as this is my first blog post in some time. It feels like a huge cluster of baseball experiences are sitting in my head and I am trying to figure out how to pluck them out and tell my stories. I decided to begin on a game that started as a normal off-day for me, but turned into one of the most unique days of my baseball career. 

Behind the Dish in Brooklyn

“Damn, not in there again,” a familiar phrase I muttered to myself a fair amount this season after looking at the lineup card. We were approaching the beginning of September during my second stint of the season with the High-A Aberdeen Ironbirds. We were in Coney Island, New York for the final game of a six-game series against Mets affiliate, the Brooklyn Cyclones. Both these teams used to be Short-Season affiliates in the New York-Penn League, until the league dissolved and both Aberdeen and Brooklyn replaced the organizations’ former High-A teams.

I was not having a great series in Brooklyn thus far and the week before against Wilmington wasn’t one to remember either. It is times like these where not being in the lineup stings even more. I desperately wanted the opportunity to do something to break out of that slump and help the boys get a W in the process. It looked like that Sunday, August 29 in Brooklyn was not going to provide that opportunity.

Maverick Handley had been catching most of the Ironbirds games since I had rejoined the team. However, earlier in the week he sustained a minor injury that put him on the Injured List for a few weeks. When that happened our manager, Kyle Moore (KMo), told me on Thursday that I was the emergency backup catcher in case anything happened to our other catcher on the roster, Ramon Rodriguez

“Absolutely, I used to be a catcher,” I replied all excited, although I was very doubtful anything would come from the situation. 

It was true that I had caught in the past, but not seriously since my sophomore year of college and not in-game since my senior year of high school. My last season at Housatonic Valley, it was Chris Vernali and myself flip-flopping between pitcher and catcher every other game and it was a blast. However, my left meniscus became very swollen and sore, requiring that I have blood drained from the area of my knee to relieve the pain. Then there was my sophomore year of college at UConn in early 2016, when Coach Penders asked if I would train to become a catcher. He asked me to do this to add some more depth to the position going into that season and it would increase my versatility and, in turn, increase my draft stock just a year before I was eligible to be drafted. I agreed to give it a shot and I worked hard with Coach Penders before and after practices to try and be the best catcher I could be. Unfortunately my knee blew up again in preseason, after a few months of catchers training and live at-bats in “the Barn”. Luckily I didn’t have to get my left meniscus drained again, but going into the season the coaches and myself agreed to shut the catching down unless it was an emergency situation. That was the last time I strapped on the “tools of ignorance” competitively. 

I changed into my batting practice attire, exited the locker room and went into the dugout to wait for team stretch. Then, KMo approached me before the workday began. 

“Hey Willy, Ramon isn’t feeling so hot and there’s a chance he doesn’t go today, so just in case why don’t you go catch a few bullpens and get a feel for it, sound good?” 

“Uh, okay sounds good,” I said slightly excited but mostly kind of horrified realizing the reality of my position as emergency catcher. 

“Hopefully he bounces back and feels fine in a few hours so he can play, we’ll let you know,” KMo replied calmly. I borrowed Maverick’s gear and caught a few Ironbirds in the bullpen, thinking that KMo was probably right and Ramon would bounce back to play. I wasn’t trying to block or anything crazy, I just wanted to make the glove pop and not clank anything – the old “ejecto-mit” if you will – we don’t want that. The bullpens concluded and I went to finish batting practice with the rest of the position players. 

The team went inside after batting practice about an hour and fifteen minutes before gametime. We ate the pregame spread and I took my pregame shower, I still did not know if I was catching or not. Finally I was hailed into the coaches office where the whole coaching staff is waiting for me. 

“Well Willy, looks we’re gonna need you back there today, you ready?” KMo asked. 

“Uh, yup, as ready as I can be,” I remember saying while half-laughing in disbelief. Holy shit, I’m about to be the starting catcher in a professional baseball game. 

KMo ran through basic catcher 101: the sign-giving stance, signals for pickoffs and 1st and 3rd situations, general protocol for signs while a runner is on second base, etc. They gave me a card for certain pitch recommendations for most of the Cyclones hitters and then I really was as ready as I could be. I had so little time to jersey up and get out there on time to start warming up the starting pitcher. 

Ryan Goll was the ‘development coach’ in Aberdeen but specialized in working with catchers. He came out to the bullpen with myself and starting pitcher, Jake Prizina (Prizzy), and helped me get ready to catch by way of brief blocking drills and some quick transfers. 

Prizzy is a lefty who is around high-80s with his fastball, with a nice changeup and a curveball. We knew going into the game that the Cyclones starting lineup was all right-handed hitters, so it was going to be a steady dose of the fastball-changeup combination. For a catcher with incredibly minimal experience that’s an ideal game plan to work with out of the gate. I caught Prizzy’s pregame ‘pen and we were ready to go. 

The top of the 1st started and we took our hacks. The dugout was all sorts of fired up seeing me prepare to head out there with the gear on, especially the pitchers. We got a run on the board in the 1st, then recorded our final out and it was time to head out there to catch. 

I introduced myself to the umpire, Dylan, and caught Prizzy’s warm up pitches. Umpire’s in pro-ball always prefer that coaches and players call them by name, instead of ‘ump’ or ‘blue’.

It turns out Dylan remembered me from the Gulf Coast League days in 2017. He was the umpire that absolutely hosed me on a strike three call against the GCL Twins. The pitcher ‘quick-pitched’ me and I was not even completely in the box when he started. I looked up and the ball was halfway to home plate and Dylan was the home plate umpire who called strike three. This was probably the most angry I had ever been at an umpire. I was screaming obscenities at him and was basically trying to get thrown out of the game because I was so ticked off at the guy. I believe he didn’t throw me out of the game because he knew he messed up so bad. 

“Are we cool now Willy?” Dylan asked jokingly during the game. I laughed and said we were cool, even though I was just shocked he remembered the incident. I guess it’s safe to say I was memorably angry that day in the GCL. 

Cody Bohanek was the lead off hitter for the Cyclones and said hello to Dylan and myself as he stepped into the box. 

“You been catching a little bit now, Willy?” He asked, assuming I had been training to catch before today. 

“No haha, first time catching in a game since high school. I didn’t know I was [catching] until an hour ago.” He gave me a funny look, either in shock or that he thought I was kidding. Prizzy went into his wind-up and the catching debut was underway with a strike. Bohanek, along with the two-hole hitter Jaylen Palmer, grounded out to our shortstop AJ Graffanino. Right off the bat for both of those ground balls, I was late to remember the catcher’s duty of running behind first base to back up the throw. My late move in that direction resulted in colliding with Dylan the umpire both times, as he had to move out into the field upon contact (for whatever reason).

“My bad Dylan, I’ll remember to get going right away on the next one,” we laughed and he said it was no big deal.

The number three Minor League prospect for the Mets, Ronny Mauricio, came up to the plate bumping “Pepas” by Farruko. There’s always one Latin hip-hop/pop song that I take away from the season as my favorite and that was the one of 2021. Mauricio was curious about my catching experience as well. It seemed many of their guys were surprised that I was back there and wanted to ask throughout the game. 

“First time catcher?” He asked with a big grin with a bit of an accent. I nodded and repeated the circumstances and he smiled, laughed and wished me luck. I appreciated it, I needed all the luck I could get as I prepared for nine innings back there. Mauricio hit another ground ball to Graff at shortstop, I finally remembered to start running right away to back up first base, and the 1st inning went by without any issue. 

I was so focused on getting ready to catch that I didn’t know anything about the Cyclones starter. Jaison Vilera was on the bump and the report said that against right-handed hitters he featured a two-seamer/slider mix. Our hitting coach, Tom Eller, had sheets of paper displaying charts and pitch percentages, so we could get a quick idea of how each of their pitcher’s pitches will move and how frequently they tend to use each pitch in their repertoire. 

Dylan Harris led off the 2nd inning with a double and after an out was recorded I came to the plate with one out. Being the starting catcher that day sort of gave me the ‘playing with house money’ feeling, if you will. It was an emergency situation and I just tried to stay loose, not overthink the moment and do my best on both sides of the ball. 

All I was thinking about was timing up that two-seamer and ‘zoning’ it up on the outer part of the plate. If out of the hand it looks like it will be on the outside corner or middle-away, it is going to be a great pitch for me to hit over the heart of the plate. But if out of the hand it looks like it’s going to be middle-in borderline inside corner, that’s the one I want to leave or else my bat is going to turn into firewood.

I took two fastballs out of the zone to reach a 2-0 count. I had the timing on his fastball down for sure, I just had to make sure I had a good one to hit. The 2-0 offering out of the hand looked like it was middle-away at the top of the zone and then two-seamed almost right down the middle, maybe just a touch middle-in. I put a good swing on it and got the barrel to it, just barely waiting long enough to keep the screaming liner down the left field line fair. It was a two run shot to make it a 3-0 Aberdeen lead. 

Tim DeJohn, or DJ, high-fives his catcher after the score moved to 3-0 in Aberdeen’s favor over Brooklyn. (Picture courtesy of Gordon Donovan @gordondonovan on Instagram.)

I remember watching it disappear over the left field wall in front of the Coney Island amusement park’s roller coaster, thinking about how my first at bat as a catcher in pro-ball was a home run in New York City. I pointed to our pitchers in the bullpen who were hyped, high-fived our third base coach and fellow CT native, Tim DeJohn, before stepping on home plate and getting mobbed in the dugout. Having been in a slump going into the day, along with the crazy catching circumstance, that one felt really good. 

Growing up a Yankees fan, but even more importantly a baseball history fanatic and knowing of the rich history of New York City baseball, it always feels special having a memorable baseball moment in the City. I think of Roy Campanella, the famous Brooklyn Dodger catcher who was a three-time MVP before a car accident ended his career. Of course, I also think about Jackie Robinson who made history and broke the color barrier right there in Brooklyn. One of my favorite features of the Cyclone’s ballpark is the statue of Jackie Robinson and “Pee Wee” Reese with his arm around Jackie’s shoulder. What I was doing that day was absolutely nothing compared to the history that Jackie and Campanella etched in Brooklyn baseball lore. However, to have a wild baseball experience such as this one in a baseball-historically rich city made it that much more memorable for me.

After all of those thoughts floated around in my head for a minute or two, I had to strap the gear back on and forget about what I had just done. It wasn’t going to help me behind the plate for eight more innings. I had to flush it and get ready to roll for the bottom of the 2nd.

Prizzy was in command right from the jump, filling up the zone and featuring a steady mix of fastballs and changeups to the all-righty lineup the Cyclones had that day. He stranded a leadoff walk in the bottom of the 2nd after we got two punchouts and a groundout for another scoreless half-inning. 

Bohanek and I watch one fly towards the “Thundrebolt” roller coaster, beyond the scoreboard in left field, for a solo-shot to cut the Cyclones deficit down to 3-1. (Picture courtesy of Gordon Donovan @gordondonovan on Instagram.)

In the 3rd inning, trouble came as fast as it went. We got the first batter on a foul-tip strikeout, then they turned the lineup over and Bohanek was up for the second time. Prizzy fell behind 2-0 and I called a heater away but it caught a lot of plate. Bohanek timed it up and sent this puppy a long way. It was my first time since high school being behind the plate for a home run, and no one hit one even close to as far as Bohanek just did; launching it over the scoreboard and video board in left field. 

I rarely referred to the card from the coaches, which had information about some of the hitters, as I was calling my own game for the most part. Prizzy shook me off a few times and I got a little confused in the two situations we had to deal with runners on second base. To avoid sign stealing, catchers will either give a bunch of signs in a row and the pitcher knows it’s either first sign, last sign, outs +1, “floating”, etc. We got past my confusion in those situations and the solo shot was the only damage for Prizina. 

In the top half of the 5th, my boy Adam Hall launched one off the center field wall for a double to drive in another fellow CT-native I had the pleasure of playing with, TT Bowens, to make it a 4-1 ballgame after five innings. I wanted to win this one badly and I could start to taste it, as the saying among catchers goes: “1-4 with a W”, meaning 1 for 4 at the plate with a win is how catchers get paid. Prizzy finished his day after five innings, allowing just two hits and two walks with five strikeouts while in line for the win as he exited with the Ironbirds up by three runs. 

Shelton Perkins was the next arm for us, a right-hander that was a freshman at East Carolina when I was a junior at UConn before he transferred and was drafted out of James Madison. He had a nice two-seamer with both vertical sink and horizontal run, along with a slider with really tight spin that is tough for hitters to pick up and compliments his fastball very well. Despite a knock from Mauricio, Perk breezed through the bottom of the 6th as he recorded two strikeouts out of the ‘pen and his day was done. 

Adam Stauffer came in for us in the 7th, an old GCL teammate of mine who was drafted out of high school the same year I was drafted. The 6’7” righty has a low-to-mid-90s fastball with a sharp 12-6 curveball, slider and a changeup. Out of the ‘pen for him, he’s effective when he’s throwing his hard fastball for strikes and when he’s got his feel for his big curveball, which he did that Sunday afternoon. He got two quick punchouts in the bottom of the 7th before surrendering a single. However, the nine-hole hitter grounded out to Jean Carmona at third base to end the 7th. With the top of the Brooklyn order looming next inning, we still had a 4-1 lead. 

  I led off the top of the 8th inning, looking at a 1 for 2 day with a walk and a homer thus far. The pitcher was Michel Otanez whose fastball was around 96-98 MPH with a little sink along with a big, slow 12-6 curveball. Brooklyn had a pretty solid bullpen with some flamethrowers, including this guy Bryce Montes De Oca who touched 102 on the ballpark radar gun in an at bat against me earlier in the series. With high velocity guys, I try to have a slow and smooth load while getting it going earlier. There’s no need to swing harder with higher velocity, I just needed to get the timing right and catch the ball with my barrel. However, my first pitch against Otanez I remember experiencing a rare feeling. I had gotten it going way too early. He threw a 97 MPH sinking fastball at my shins and I swung over it and was way out in front, as if it was a changeup. 

“Woah buddy, reel it in,” I remember whispering to myself. “Not that early on the load.” The next pitch was a 98 MPH fastball middle-in with some sink, I was slightly out in front and it went just to the left of third base on the ground for a foul ball. I was still a little out in front as I tried to get the correct timing on the fastball. No balls, two strikes against this guy was a tough spot to be in. Was he going to come back with another fastball or was he going to show the curveball? I remember thinking, ‘I’m not swinging at some cheese at neck height, see it deep, you have more time than you think’, especially after being out in front of two hard fastballs. I needed to trust my hands and make a good swing decision. Otanez’s offering out of the hand looked like a high fastball, but I picked up the tumbling curveball spin early. The pitch ended up almost right down the middle and I punched it up the middle on the ground for a two-strike single to lead off the inning

Cristopher Cespedes’s fly-ball brought me in to score and extended our lead our lead to 5-1 in the Top of the 8th inning in Brooklyn. (Picture courtesy of Gordon Donovan @gordondonovan on Instagram.)

2 for 3 with dinger and a walk on the day was great, but I wanted to come around and score badly for another insurance run to make my life easier in the last two innings defensively. Back-to-back walks and an out brought Cristopher Cespedes to the dish, who hit a deep fly ball to left field allowing me to score on a sac fly. We now had a comfortable four-run lead going into the bottom of the 8th. 

Stauffer had to face the top of the order in his second inning of work. Bohanek hit the second pitch of the at bat hard but right at Adam Hall at second base for the first out. Jaylen Palmer walked to bring up Mauricio who was hitting left-handed this time, being a switch-hitter facing the right-handed Stauffer. We got him to one ball and two strikes and I remember giving Stauffer the ‘fake shake’ two times, then calling a fastball inside. Mauricio definitely was looking for something off-speed because we froze him for a called strike three for the second out. Next we got Jose Peroza to a three and two count, meaning Palmer on first was running on the pitch. Peroza foul tipped a fastball but I hung onto it to secure Stauffer’s big strikeout to get us out of the inning. I was fired up, as we were now only three outs away from this wild day ending on a high note. 

Stauffer, or “The BeanStauff” as I dubbed him in the GCL, struck out the first batter of the top of the 9th as I got to throw it ‘around the horn’ one more time. The second hitter grounded out to Carmona at third base and we were just one out away from the conclusion of my catching debut. In a two and one count, Tanner Murphy hit a towering but playable fly ball to Dylan Harris in centerfield. I remember seeing that ball take flight, Murphy let out some frustration because he just missed the pitch, and I realized it was over. It felt like the ball was in the air forever before I could go out and give Stauffer a victory hug. I forgot to say thanks to my new friend, Dylan the umpire, in the process but we will probably see each other again. I just wanted to dab up all my boys after surviving that battle and getting the win.

Adam Stauffer and myself right after the final out of our 5-1 win over the Brooklyn Cyclones. It looks like I’m releasing a huge exhale after surviving my day as a catcher.

Prizzy earned the win, Perk tallied a few K’s in his inning, and Stauff earned the three inning save all with me behind the dish. We surrendered one run, I managed not to have any pass balls and tallied a few decent blocks which both Ryan Goll and myself were pumped about. It’s safe to say, this was one of the craziest days of my professional career.

The boys made sure I got the ball from the final out as a memento. We got into the locker room still buzzing as we bumped some tunes. Like any other getaway-day, we showered and packed our stuff up as fast as we could to get on the bus back to Maryland. I took a minute to sit in front of my locker and take a breath. It slowly but surely began to sink in how insanely lucky and happy I was that the day went as well as it did. A lot of people would not have wanted to find themselves in the same situation I was in earlier that day, but despite the challenge I knew I could play well enough to help us win that day. 

It felt like a metaphor for my beautifully imperfect year. I the ‘yes-man’, ready for any assignment all year long, which led to some great moments like that afternoon behind the dish in Brooklyn. That game kickstarted a decent stretch of hitting for me going into the end of the year, eventually leading to getting called back up to Double-A and then Triple-A before season’s end.

Chapter 6: The Gator was also a Banker

We played back-to-back games on Thursday and Friday (7/16 & 7/17) following the Gator business trip to Maine. Our first game with our brand-spanking-new barrels was against the Arch2 Indians in Rocky Hill. I had a pair of custom bats that were being shipped separately, with Gator green DTB (Dove Tail Bats) as well as the model and my name in green on the barrel with a natural finish. For the Arch2 game I used a Matte Black Gator 243 model bat that we brought back with the team shipment. First at-bat, she did the job, connecting on a solo dinger to left-center to get us out to an early 1-0 lead with two outs in the 1st inning. Will Perotti followed up the next inning with a solo shot of his own, as the Gators played a clean game and went on to win 6-2. Miles pitched another gem, tossing six innings while fanning eight batters and allowing one earned run. Zack Larson relieved Scribby in the 7th and struck out the final batter to seal the Gator victory. 

The following day we were back at Muzzy Field under the lights, as former UConn righty and California-turned-Connecticut native Jeff Kersten made his Gator debut against the Bristol Knights. This would be our first of a handful of times in 2020 that we would face the crafty lefty Chris McGrath for Bristol. Kersten and McGrath held it scoreless through five innings. Finally in the 6th we got on the board, when Will drove me in with a liner up the middle after I singled and stole second. After Kersten went six innings and struck out seven in his debugt, Jacob Shpur came in for the save. Big Shpur struck out one batter and got some help from our backstop Landon Gardella, who threw out a runner attempting to steal and then caught a foul pop up to secure a 1-0 victory. The Gators were now 8-2 on the season. 

Back on June 25th, the day of our first game at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, a man approached me after the contest and asked if I wanted to play for his team in the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League (GHTBL). The GHTBL was established in 1929 and is one of the oldest baseball leagues in the U.S. That man turned out to be Tom Abbruzzese, the manager of the People’s United Bank team out of Wethersfield. Tom and I stayed in contact and I was also in touch with Justin Morhardt, former Atlanta Braves minor leaguer and two-way player for People’s United Bank. I hashed out dates that I could work around Gator games and sent them to Tom. On July 21, Lindsey made the trek over with me to Riverfront Park in Glastonbury as I made my Banker debut. 

Between the Great Falls Gators and the People’s United Bank team, I was just shy of playing 30 games from the end of June to the end of August.

I did not make a glowing first impression with the bat, as I went 0 for 4. But Justin started that game on the mound and I remember converting on about a dozen plays at shortstop en route to a close victory over Rainbow Graphics out of Manchester. I quickly began to enjoy playing for People’s Bank for a few reasons. For starters, I always find it fun getting to know a new group of teammates and showing proving that no matter who I played for I wanted to win badly and that I had my eye on two league rings that summer. 

Second, I was a touch more anonymous in the GHTBL, or at least I felt like that was the case (correct me if I’m wrong people). But with the Gators everyone generally knew ‘that’s Willy’s team that he made’, I would do the coaches meetings a lot of games, I stuck out like a sore thumb. But with People’s Bank I could sneak into our dugout with a plain t-shirt and the team hat that resembled that of the Philadelphia Phillies, and I could surprise the opponent at least for my first at-bat from the leadoff spot. I say that because after my first game as a Banker, many of my first at-bats I received fastballs that caught a lot of plate early in the count, as pitchers were trying to establish their fastball early in the game to the leadoff hitter. AB number one would go: knock, swipe second base, then third, another Banker drives me in for an early lead. It was at this point I felt like teams thought “oooooh it’s that long hair schmuck from UConn who belly flops everywhere” and they remember for the next at-bat. 

On the Gator side of things, we had our third matchup against the Terryville Blacksox the day after making my Banker debut. The final time we would meet them in the regular season did not go our way, as the bats stayed quiet in a 5-1 loss. It was a hard fought battle, but the Blacksox jumped out to a lead early by way of the longball and Kody Kerski shut us down. Our lack of offense carried over into our matchup on Friday night against Elmer’s Angels back at Muzzy. We scored a lone run early, when Landon Gardella drove me in with an RBI single after I reached with a knock and stole second, but that was our only run of the ballgame. Luckily for us, we had former Bridgeport Bluefish Adam Piechowski in stellar form that night. “Pie” went the distance for the complete game shutout with 13 punchouts while allowing just one hit. 

As the final week of July was upon us, we were slated for a Monday night double header at Muzzy Field against the Bristol Knights and the Southington Aftershock. It proved to be one of the more memorable nights of the Gator season.

Scribby got the start for us that night and pitched well. Through six innings he had struck out nine Bristol batters while the Knights scattering six hits for two runs on only one earned run. But our offensive woes continued as we entered the top of the 7th down 2-0. Then came some “Muzzy Magic”, which always reaches its height at the end of July and beginning of August. 

Danny McCarty, a Trojan veteran and consistent hitter in the order for us all season, started the rally with a big leadoff double and was pinch-ran for by Brad Ellis. After an out, CJ Brito laced a double of his own and brought us within a run. Team strength coach, Nicky Yousefzadeh, worked a walk after a long at-bat and Matt Perotti wore one like a sweater to load the bases. Austin Patenaude tied the game with a sac-fly to center field with two strikes, and Caleb Shpur stepped up with two outs with runners at second and third with a chance to drive in two runs. After he worked the at-bat to a 3-2 count, Young Shpur fisted an inside fastball out to left-field for a clutch two RBI single to give us a 4-2 lead. I stepped up next and Caleb stole second on the first pitch before I got one way off the end of the bat but nestled a looper into left to score Caleb and make it a 5-2 ballgame. Scribby would shut it down in the bottom of the 7th to secure the W in Game 1 of our Double Header in dramatic fashion. 

We had the Aftershock next and first-pitch was around 8:30 after the wild finish to the Knights game. Our offense kept the momentum going from the end of Game 1, as all three of our first hitters of the ball game scored. Austin reached on a walk, as did Caleb on an error, followed by a single of my own. Will Perotti laced a two-RBI single to plate Austin and Caleb, then Danny McCarty drove a fly ball deep to center to send me home for a sac-fly.

Bobby added on to his list of quality starts for the Gator Gang. “Chat” tossed a complete game, fanned 11 batters without a walk and surrendered two runs. After getting three quick runs in the first, the bats went quiet again. We wanted to create some insurance and even try to run up the score after such a hot start. However, sometimes we had a recurring tendency, one I have seen in great teams that I have played with. The tendency to be complacent with an early lead and rarely putting together a full game offensively. We were able to secure the victory though, 3-2, capping off an incredibly unique double header. We were victorious in both contests while only scoring in two back-to-back innings, the 7th inning of Game 1 and the 1st inning of Game 2. Just another crazy night at Muzzy Field.

The Gators began to limp towards the regular season finish line, starting the next day after our late night at Muzzy. We had to make the trek to East Hampton High School to play the Fat Orange Cat Brewers, about an hour and forty minutes from the Gator Offices back in Lakeville. Down early, we made a comeback and the game was tied 4-4 after five frames. Then the wheels came off in the 6th as the Brewers hung seven runs on us before I came in for a mop up roll on the mound as we were out of arms. The game would finish 11-4, making the already long ride home feel even longer. 

The first week in August was the final week of the regular season and we had three games to improve our 9-3 (.750%) record, trailing only the Blacksox (12-2, .857%) in winning percentage in the whole league. Monday night, we were on the road against the Glastonbury Pirates and another Husky made an impromptu Gator appearance. Garret Coe, from Morris and current UConn lefthander, made the start for us that day. He had participated in a few scrimmages in May and June and I texted him the night before to see if he wanted the ball. Garret was lights out, going the distance while punching out 16 Glastonbury batters and scattering five hits. The Gator bats were as cold as ice, however, and we couldn’t manage to manufacture one run to avoid extra innings. Their pitcher was throwing all sorts of slow junk, I recall reaching at pitches in my at-bats that game just out of the zone resulting in fairly deep but harmless fly outs. 

To the disdain of everyone on the field, the umpires called the game a 0-0 tie after eight innings due to darkness as we were at a field without lights that evening. It felt worse than a loss. Tying is just gross, especially in baseball. The bad energy rolled into our next game, a loss to Elmer’s Angels 3-2. I really do not want to touch on this game at all, but after this one was the most angry I was all season by far. I was mad at myself for trying to swing out of my shoes too much and popping up a lot of my at-bats the last few games, a selfish approach that may have rubbed off on a few guys causing our slump. I was also mad because I felt like I was struggling to get my guys fired up for our games of late. We were getting away from our game, the way we played when we were beating the top teams and demolishing other teams, which was racking up the knocks and being really aggressive on the base paths. 

We got back on track Friday night in a rematch against the Aftershock, as we won the season finale 7-1. Piechowski got the W and pitched the five innings he needed to qualify to pitch in the postseason, striking out five in the process while allowing only one hit. Big Shpur closed the door with two innings and two punchouts allowing one earned run to lock up our 10th win of the season. Everyone contributed a little bit on offense that night which was encouraging headed into the postseason. 

It was about to be playoff time for the GHTBL as well, as I needed to get into one more regular season game to qualify myself for the playoffs with People United Bank. We were playing the East Hartford Jets at Wethersfield High School after I had finally received my custom Dove Tail Bat in the mail earlier in the day. It had a natural finish with the DTB and Willy Yahn in Gator green. She was beautiful. I wanted to use her that day because she was fresh out of the box in which it was shipped. I was the lead off hitter and the first pitch of the bottom of the first with the new weapon, I smashed a line drive into center for a single. A good sign for the new bat headed into the playoffs. Then a new pitcher came in for the Jets in the 3rd innings, throwing pretty hard from a funky angle. I learned after the game that it was Lief Bigelow, former UConn sidearmer who transferred to University of Maine. I faced off against him my second at bat, first pitch was a hard runner fastball on the corner inside. I took a hack at it and the barrel of my brand new bat explodes off the handle. I watched the beautiful green label saucer away in disgust. My running so fast in anger and the infielders being distracted by a flying wooden knife allowed me to reach on an infield single. But at what cost, folks? I jokingly called out to Lief (at this point was still trying to remember who he was) saying he owed me a new Dove Tail. 

I finished the game with three knocks and three swiped bags, the Bankers came out on top 4-2. We were able to win all five regular season games for which I made the trip, as we had a pretty solid team. About the same average age as the Gators, with a lot of solid hitters throughout the line up and a few college pitchers who knew what they were doing. Justin Morhardt contributed highly on both sides of the ball. On top of hitting some bombs out of the clean-up spot, he is a competitive pitcher who induces a lot of ground balls, which as a shortstop makes him a guy that is fun to play behind. People’s United Bank finished 6-6 as we would face off against the GHTBL powerhouse the Vernon Orioles. 

The Gator Gang finished the season at 10-4-1 and the #3 seed in the CTL playoff picture. We were matched up against the #6 seed Bristol Knights for August 11th at Riverfront Park.

The playoff picture for the CTL and the GHTBL (drag left or right to see each set of standings).

Chapter 5: From Muzzy Field to Moosehead Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4: A Day at the Dunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: The Gator Offices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2: I was getting too good at golf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Willy Yahn

Prologue: Calm before the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1: The Epidemic & The Roaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Chapters will follow shortly!

“I’m Home Mama” Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ma and pa hartford.jpg
Ma and Paugh with me after my first Double-A game in Hartford.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

IMG-0487
The Bowie Baysox host family squad, the Fenn’s, from Severna Park.

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

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

 

 

“I’m Home Mama” Part I

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 5.49.32 PM
Ryan Minor played parts of three seasons for the Baltimore Orioles. He famously replaced Cal Ripken Jr. at third base on the day his historic games played streak ended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 6.49.17 PM.png
The “New Market Gang” the Witt’s, my man JC and his host family the Stewart’s, my parents and Lindsey.  

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

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

 

The Carolina League

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

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

         

FrederickKeys_5.2-107
Occupying the Hot Corner in Frederick, MD. Picture Credit: Alyssa Howell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myrtle Beach Tournament 23JUL09-20
There I am at 13-years-old, playing 3B at Pelican Stadium nearly 10 years ago. Still rocking long sleeves, but no high-socks, no long hair, indeed… ancient history.

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