The beginning of this week marks a full calendar month of Carolina League play for the Frederick Keys, the Advanced-A affiliate for the Orioles where I have been assigned to play this season. The year has already been a rollercoaster ride of individual and team highs and lows, which is typical in baseball. Above all, it’s indescribably exciting to be getting my first full (140 game) season under my belt since being drafted. With 108 games left in the season, there’s still a TON of baseball to be played, but the first month of the season has had some funny stories worth sharing.
Forgive me for this but I feel the need to start by noting how thankful I am to even be in this league in the first place. Things went well last season and the goal all offseason was to break camp with Frederick or Bowie (Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate). I’m not a betting man, but I’ll be honest, would I have put money on me getting assigned to Frederick going into this Spring Training? Not necessarily.
Things went my way this Spring Training on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, which didn’t really happen in my first Spring Training the year prior. I would compare it to my first fall ball experience in college. My freshman fall, back in 2014, for whatever reason I felt I had to come in and light the world on fire to even sniff the field during the 2015 spring, and I put too much pressure on myself and stunk, which eventually didn’t affect my playing time in 2015 much at all. Then my sophomore fall came along and obviously everything was better because I was not a freshman, but I had also been through a fall season, I knew what to expect, the new school and new environment wasn’t so new anymore, and I could just play. That’s how I felt this Spring Training, I felt my second time going down to Sarasota and showing what I did in the offseason was far less stressful. Knowing the facility, knowing the players, proving that I could produce at one of our Northern affiliates and not just in the GCL; the pressure, for the most part, was absent this year.
*A conversation that occurred with a coach near the end of Spring Training*
“Huh, this list has you going to Frederick, is that right?” the coach said as he approached my Spring Training locker.
“Haha, probably not,” I replied super casually, thinking to myself that means I’ll probably at least be breaking camp with Full-Season Delmarva. Then the coach returned.
“Yeah so you’re going to Frederick,” he said and continued about my play this spring and what to expect in Frederick, while my mind began to spin. High-A? Me? Huh? You sure? I held back from asking those questions, and immediately called my parents, naturally.
So here we are, in western Maryland, moved in with my new host family, The Witt’s. You could say I’m 2 for 2 with having awesome host families in pro-ball so far. Living with all four of the Hodgson’s last year and their three cats was a blast, and so far the four Witt’s and their two doggos have been just as great! The only one in the family who has mixed emotions about me so far is Blu, the families large Bullmastiff who is afraid of men. He and I have come a long way, though, he just yells at me when I wake him up at night to use the bathroom, which I understand.
The Carolina League has some great ballparks to play at, including a brand new stadium in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I do have a special attachment to one in particular, that being Pelican Stadium down in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Chicago Cubs affiliate’s stadium was also the main host stadium for the Triple Crown Summer National Tournament.
I’ll never forget stepping onto that field for the first time as a 13-year-old in the National Quarter Finals for Team Connecticut. At the time, it felt like I was in a Major League ballpark, playing the most intense baseball of my life in the hottest weather I had ever encountered to date. Those games will stay with me forever, and to come back to that field as a High-A baseball player was quite the feeling. I remember seeing the Pelican’s players in 2009, looking at them like they were already Hall of Famers, and now I was at that level. What a difference 10 years can make, eh? I guess we can chalk it up to the fact that time flies when you’re playing baseball, and it feels that way in 2019 more than ever. February 1, when I began my trek south, doesn’t feel that long ago. The first day of live at bats in Spring Training feels like yesterday, and being told I was assigned to Frederick feels like it happened just after this morning’s cup of coffee. But here we are, a week into the month of May preparing for the 32nd game of the season. There’s so much baseball left to be played, but I remind myself everyday to be where my feet are and enjoy the moment. I remind myself to play every single game like it’s my last, to have fun, and to play for the something bigger than myself. I play to win, I play for my teammates, I play for my family, I play for Sharon, I play for Housatonic Valley Regional High School, I play for the University of Connecticut, and I play for this great organization that gave me a chance to continue my dream, the Baltimore Orioles.
I was going to preface this with the fact that Connecticut has had a few unseasonably warm days since my departure 12 days ago. A recent snowstorm returned Connecticut to it’s natural mid-February state. In any case, the last week that I spent in New England was some of the coldest weather I have ever experienced, including a few days that created a bone-chilling -30 degree windchill. Sure, we could all have it worse, as they say, but at least we’re not from Minnesota, which was probably the coldest place in the world for a ‘hot second,’ no pun intended. No matter how cold it is, when it’s below freezing, it is very hard physically and mentally to get quality baseball work done, due to a general lack of resources for New England ballplayers. But also that type of cold can make it hard some days to even get out of bed. As much as I loved being near my family and my closest friends in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut and still doing everything I could to get quality baseball work in at various locations, I knew that I had to get out of there and go south sooner, rather than later.
So there I was, 9 a.m. Friday on February 1st, when the temperature had warmed to a modest -3 degrees upon my departure. I packed Casey (my pick-up truck) up real tight and made the trek southward. Although it was sunny in Connecticut’s tundra that morning, it did not last. As soon as I crossed over the border into Pennsylvania, a snow storm came along that I was not aware of, and it seemed many other drivers were not as well. Traffic, after merging from I-84 onto I-81, was horrendous. Cars had slid off the road nearly every 5 miles. Multiple lanes were shut down as a result, as well as the roads being completely unplowed. It was a mess, but finally I ran out of gas and stopped in West Virginia at an Applebee’s for a late lunch. The snow continued, and the bartenders were excited that the weather was so bad that some staff members could leave early to celebrate their snow day.
‘It’s fricken worse here than it is back home,’ I thought to myself regarding the weather. My goal was to escape the cold and find warm baseball fields, but I felt like I was competing in the Iditarod just to even make it past the Mason-Dixon line. But after finishing my surf-n-turf meal and filling up the truck, I continued, as did the snow. It wasn’t until about 6 p.m. in Southern Virginia that the snow finally stopped and turned into cold rain.
The destination was Davidson College, just outside of Charlotte. It wasn’t until I was about 45 minutes away that I checked the temperature on my phone, because Casey doesn’t have a temperature gauge. It was 48 degrees outside, a full 51 degrees warmer than it was when I left in the morning. I cranked the window down on the highway and stuck my head out the window like a dog on the way to the dog park. It felt like 95 degrees. It truly felt like a dream, I wouldn’t have been surprised if my alarm went off and I was back in -3 in the blink of an eye.
The next two days, my friend Will Robertson, the Davidson baseball legend from their Super Regional team and fellow Oriole, provided me with access to practice on the field with the team on days that were in the 65 degree range. I was trying very hard not to quote the Field of Dreams movie, but that’s what I was thinking. Taking ground balls on dirt, hearing the crack of a wood bat and watching the ball fly, I surely felt like I was in heaven.
I left Davidson and my friend Will after watching that despicable excuse for a sporting event known as Super Bowl LIII (I’m a Giants fan give me a break) and headed for UNC Wilmington, where UNCW Baseball legend and also fellow Oriole, Robbie Thorburn provided me with access to work out, hit on the team’s field, as well as in their impressive indoor facility. Then, a few of us went to the beach and jumped into the ocean for a swim, which was freezing but epic because I was at an ocean beach that wasn’t in Florida, swimming and playing Spikeball in 75 degrees on February 4th. Queue the alarm clock going off while sleeping in Sharon… no? This is real? I kept feeling that feeling over and over again.
Now I write to you from my friend’s Angus Gracey and Zane Acord’s home in Charleston, SC, where it is also in the 70s and beautiful. Over the course of a few days, I got to see Zane and his band perform an awesome gig outside at night, and Angus showed me the sights and sounds of Charleston. Needless to say, it’s been a great trip so far.
But anyways, this about cold weather baseball, so I thought I would countdown the top-3 coldest baseball games I have ever played in during my baseball career, which all happened to be when I was playing at UConn. The memories still give me the chills (literally) but it was all part of being a New England college ballplayer.
Seton Hall Double-Header (2015)
For context, these games on March 20th, 2015 were only my third and fourth career collegiate baseball games. My debut was on Wednesday at the College of William & Mary. Then we had a relatively warm Friday night game against Seton Hall, highlighted by a complete game bulldog performance by Carson Cross. The second game of the series, on Saturday, was snowed out and moved to Sunday, along with the third and final game of the series. Coach Penders would say ‘always mentally prepare like you are going to play, regardless of the weather,’ but I think everyone was pretty uncertain that we were going to find a way to play those two games on Sunday, especially in windy conditions topping out in the mid 30s. However, Seton Hall shovelled off their turf field, and the Double Header was scheduled to start at 12 pm. At least I was playing and got to move around. My parents made the trip down to South Orange, NJ, and had to sit on metal bleachers for 18 innings. With snow banks on the side of the field and wind freezing up our faces and hands, we fought to split the Double Header and ultimately clinch the series against the Pirates.
University of Hartford midweek Road Game (2016)
Nothing against the University of Hartford, I have a few friends who played ball there, but I absolutely hated playing at their field. Not only did we have a hard time beating them during my time as Husky, for whatever reason, but it always seemed like the conditions at their field when we came into town were downright miserable. On this particular day, April 6th, 2016, the weather was in the low 40s and there was some precipitation on the turf field from earlier in the day, but wind gusts that day were up to 25 miles-per-hour, just dreadful. You know that feeling when you get your hands wet in a cold environment? That happened to me in the first inning after a base hit and sliding head first afterwards. I could not feel my hands the rest of the game. They were so numb it felt like they were missing from the ends of my arms. I’m not over here trying to make excuses and validate errors, but I made a throwing error that game mostly because when I went to make the transfer after catching the baseball, I wasn’t entirely sure the ball was in my hand to be thrown over to first. I also felt during each at-bat after my first one that the bat was going to fly out of my hands on the backswing and launch into Hartford’s third base dugout. No amount of pine tar can give your frozen, damp hands grip in that situation. We ended up losing that game 4-3, and it was never a pleasant post game conversation with the coaches when we lost to Hartford.
University of Cincinnati Road Game (2016)
This game feels like somewhat of folklore in UConn baseball history, in good ways and bad ways (mostly bad at the time). We travelled to Cincinnati to play the Bearcats immediately after that cold and wet Hartford game, and we were in desperate need of a few wins. At first, the game was pretty chilly, low 40s, but there was no precipitation and the sun hadn’t quite set at first pitch. Anthony Kay started the game and threw well, making only one mistake his whole six-inning outing in the form of a solo homerun. Our offense, however, was stagnant, putting up a goose egg in the runs column through 8 innings. It was right around the 7th or 8th inning of that game when the temperature dropped. Some weather system was coming through the area and the temperatures went quickly down to the mid 30s. Then the precipitation came along. A sleeting rain type that immediately made the field conditions similar to those during the Hartford game from earlier in the week, if not worse. In the 9th inning down 2-0, we mounted a rally, as Connor Buckley and Jack Sundberg drew back-to-back walks which brought me to the plate. I got the sac bunt sign and put one down right on the third baseline that the Bearcat third baseman didn’t touch because he thought it might have rolled foul. It stopped right on the white of the third baseline, I was fired up, and we had bases loaded, no outs in the top of the 9th. Bobby Melley and Joe Duffin, by way of a RBI groundout and a sac fly, respectively, tied the game up at 2 as we headed into extras. And that’s when it started snowing. It wasn’t too much, mostly flurries with a wintery mix, but I will never forget that sight. Standing on that field at 2nd base, so focused on trying to win this Friday night conference game that the cold wasn’t bothering me, and then looking around and feeling as though I was in a snow globe inside the stadium. But there’s one detail from that frozen game that I will never forget. After sliding a few times during extras on defense and on offense, I came back into the dugout and got a pat on the chest from someone and it felt like I had a catcher’s chest protector on. My baseball jersey had frozen on the chest area and on parts of the back of my grey pants. One could say… I was slightly cold that evening in Cincinnati. The Bearcats took the game in 13 innings, after a few walks and then an infield single to walk it off. We went back to the locker room pretty distraught after such an epic battle, but good gracious, I don’t think a warm shower has ever felt so good.
Those cold days of baseball aren’t necessarily over, depending on where the Orioles assign me after Spring Training. Cold games are potentially on the horizon. I can thank UConn baseball, and being born and raised a New England ballplayer, for exposing me to any situation Mother Nature may throw my way.
“I’m never taking another class as long as I live.” I had convinced myself that this was a reality after I left UConn’s campus and prepared for the 2017 MLB Draft that June. There were a few reasons why I thought this, the main one being that I had convinced myself that the only way of making it through the Minor Leagues to the MLB would be by doing so in two or three seasons. This is not the case, especially for me. My skill set doesn’t jump off the diamond at you, the type of player that hits the ball 450 feet and burns down the baseline. I’m going to do exactly what I have to do to win that day, to set my teammates up for success, and succeed when my teammates set me up for success. My batting practice does not include 10 home runs and I’m not going to get clocked at 97 mph throwing across the diamond. In reality, my player type doesn’t result in a player shooting up the system quickly, but it gives me a chance to make it eventually to prove that consistency and endless effort can get you anywhere in this game, and in life.
Anyways, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, school. Setting up classes and communicating early with professors about missing the first week of school was quite the hassle, mostly because I was doing all of this in the locker room in between lifts and batting practice.
“What are you doing, Yahn?” Someone would ask me in the locker room.
“Getting my classes in order for the fall,” I would reply.
“That sucks, why are you doing that?” Imagine having that conversation individually with 15 or so guys, it definitely made me wonder if following through with this and finishing school was worth the effort. Some of my teammates thought I was doing it because I did not believe I could make it to the MLB. It was really hard, but I had to swat away all those negative thoughts and go back and finish, which at the time felt forced.
Our last game of the season for Aberdeen was Labor Day on Monday, September 3rd against the Hudson Valley Renegades in Fishkill, N.Y., and our record stood at 37-37. The Ironbirds were fighting for the last Wild Card spot until the very end of the season, as our loss in the first game of the three game series on Saturday, officially ended our mathematical chances. To add insult to injury, we lost on Sunday 19-2 in embarrassingly bad fashion as I had the day off and watched the fiasco from the bench. I went into that Sunday thinking about how great the summer had been up to that point, remembering the fact that we were nearly 10 games out of a wild card spot with the month of August to play and we got hot and gave ourselves a chance. I wanted to win that game so badly, for the Aberdeen fans who had made the trip all the way to Fishkill for the final series of the season, for our first year manager whose first season being above or below .500 was in the balance, and of course for friends and family who lived close by that attended the game that night.
I had an OK game at best, 1 for 5 with an RBI and a run scored and a few plays in the field, but we had blown a pretty significant lead. We were up 6-1 after three innings of play and were getting a little too comfortable with the lead. It’s hard to keep your focus after such a long season when you’re up by five on the last day, of course, but it started to slip away. We added two more runs after that, but Hudson Valley put up two runs in three consecutive innings, making it 8-7 going into the last two innings of the season.
My last at-bat of the season, in the 9th inning, I smoked one on the ground to the right side, appearing for sure it would sneak through the “4-hole” for a base hit to right field. But, the first baseman made a nice backhand play and got the force out at second for the fielder’s choice. A pair of base hits brought me around to third base with one out as we were desperately trying to push across an insurance run. Jean Carmona then hits a lazy fly ball to the outfield. I went back and tagged up at third base, getting my tired legs ready for the final sprint of the season. The ball slapped the outfielders glove and I took off, piercing my cleats into the turf third base foul line, then reaching the dirt home plate area. I took flight and turned my body slightly to the right to reach around the tag and touch home plate. What a beautiful slide it was on such a close play. I had executed it perfectly.
“HE’S OUT!” Screamed the umpire who, in my opinion, had never been more wrong about anything in his young life.
“ARE YOU BLIND? DID YOU EVEN WATCH THE PLAY? YOU ——- MORON!” Why he did not eject me I’ll never know. It probably all happened so fast for the both of us that neither of us could process my word choice quickly enough. The crowd was going bananas. The home crowd couldn’t believe that umpire called me out, and the Aberdeen/Sharon fans were cursing umpires entire life out. Our skipper, Kyle Moore, yanked me back into the dugout, reminding me I still had to play defense, before giving the umpire a piece of his mind. I was fuming. I wanted that to be my last run scored of the season. I wanted to be rewarded for that perfect slide, but that umpire (you don’t know how hard I am to not say anything specifically that will get me in trouble right now) called me out for whatever reason. I went back out to third base all sorts of pissed off during warm ups, but I finally pulled myself together and knew I’d botch a play when it mattered most if I carried that anger onto the field.
The Renegades came up and the first two hitters went down quickly, and the Ironbirds were one out away from finishing above .500 somehow after entering August with a record 20-26, going from 10.5 games out of the Wild Card spot to missing it by just 2 games. Needless to say, baseball was good to the Ironbirds in August, and we wanted to finish on a high note by getting this last out. Josh Keaton delivered a fastball and the left-handed hitter slapped a sharp two hopper towards the “5 hole” far to my left. I was going to belly flop towards it, but I really did not think I had a chance for this one. I followed it all the way and I went full extension as I watched it go past my visual. And then, WHAP, the very edge of my web held onto it. I did a push-up, spun my feet around and flipped it over to first base for the final out of the season. What a feeling. To finish one of your pro ball seasons with your favorite kind of defensive play, something that perhaps could only be trumped by a walk off. The beautiful summer with the Ironbirds had ended, as we shook hands for the last time, I said hello to some family and friends in attendance, and made my last trek over to the locker room. I looked around the stadium, trying to soak it in one last time as the stadium lights slowly dimmed down. Then, a reality check of a thought slapped me in the face as I stepped out from between the white lines for the last time in 2018.
“Holy shit. I have class in 12 hours,” I whispered to myself. It was a sad thought for a somewhat sad time. We all showered and joked around one more time in the away locker room and said our goodbyes, knowing for sure that because of trades, injuries, call ups, etc., that this would be the last time that group of men were ever going to be in the same room. My Dad and I rode home together in my pick-up truck that I had driven up north a few days earlier, and all the focus I could possibly muster up had to make a complete 180 from playing ball to being a full time student with six classes.
I had made an effort to let all of my teachers know my situation, and that made returning to the classroom for that first week very smooth, at least compared to my anxious expectations as I took the elevator up to the 4th floor of Oak Hall for the first class of the year. It was at the exact moment, when I sat down in Professor Kalb’s Reporting and Editing TV and Radio News, that I realized how important my being back there was, and that I was exactly where I needed to be for the fall of 2018. It wasn’t easy by any stretch, but it was fun taking an entire slate of Journalism specific classes and creating so many cool pieces of work, which led to the creation of an awesome portfolio. My teachers this fall were more than great to me, my Journalism advisor and academic advisor, Mike Stanton and Alana Butler respectively, helped me through the graduation process and approved my plan of study, and despite some incredibly shaky semesters in the past I was able to finish on a great note with UConn academically with a 3.0 GPA in six classes. It could not have gone any better.
I love baseball. I have confidence that professional baseball is going to work out exactly the way I have I have imagined it would in my dreams. But I love journalism as well. I love writing and I love sharing ideas, events, and peoples stories in creative ways. Finishing my degree has cemented the fact that my two loves have given me two amazing opportunities, two paths in this life, one that I never thought would be possible. I am forever grateful to my teachers and coaches from all walks of life, from Sharon Center, Housatonic Valley, and UConn, to Sharon Little League, Team Connecticut
Baseball, UConn Baseball, and the Baltimore Orioles. But most importantly, I am forever in debt to my parents, my sisters, and all of my beautiful friends who have supported me and made the adventures more than fun. I cannot thank you all enough. I didn’t do anything, WE did it.
We’ve made it folks, after driving down to Sarasota for early camp in the middle of February for my first Spring Training and after being assigned to Extended Spring Training at the end of March, learning that I would remain in Sarasota for another two and a half months with many teammates from last season. At long last, I have my first taste of what Minor League baseball is really like, in the Short Season-A New York-Penn League with the Aberdeen Ironbirds.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Gulf Coast League (GCL), where I played last summer, is a legitimate Minor League experience in terms of the talent. However, I’ve been told by many coaches and players in the higher levels that the GCL is the farthest you will ever feel from the Major Leagues your whole career.
Waking up every morning at 7 A.M. and having full practices before games, playing in 100 degree heat with 100% humidity at noon before a crowd of maybe 15 people, isn’t exactly the Minor League experience you expect just coming off of the draft. For me, the GCL meant a few things. For starters, it further proved my true love for the game itself. Despite the absolute grind we endured in that league, I still wanted so badly to get up each day and prove to the Orioles that I could make my way up from the bottom of the barrel and enjoy doing so. The GCL also proved to me that if I can have success in that league, with nothing really getting you hyped up for a game besides self-motivation, I knew that I could climb my way up the chain when playing in nice Minor League ballparks with a good amount of butts in the seats.
Which brings us to now. Ripken Stadium is one of the nicest ballparks in the league. It seats over 6,000 and has a humongous JumboTron in right-center field, with a very nice clubhouse considering we’re in A ball. Yes, it’s only one level above the GCL, but Aberdeen feels a million miles away from Sarasota baseball in the summer.
It’s been a blast so far, hearing the crowd roar when we get a big knock or make a nice play, kids asking for autographs before and after games and the wacky ballpark games in between innings. It’s what Minor League baseball is supposed to be.
Road games are great too. We got back a few days ago from playing my favorite childhood team’s affiliate, the Staten Island Yankees. Not all of them, but a good amount of those S.I. Yankees fans were mean, saying some brutal stuff to my teammates and me. I’ve been berated by fans at some college and summer ball games too, but it didn’t feel as serious just because many of those fans were my peers in college when we were at other schools, and besides the wackadoo Elmira Pioneer fans in the PGCBL, that really didn’t happen in summer ball. It really just didn’t seem hostile what those fans were doing and saying, but now these older men and some women are toeing the line just a little bit. “What the hell are you doing here, 6? You’re never gonna make it to the big leagues, just go home!” Imagine having that right in your ear hole when you’re on deck trying to lock in for your at bat. And don’t even think about striking out or making an error if you’re not trying to get shredded by the crazy lady who’s 14 Lime-A-Rita’s deep. I honestly don’t mind it for a few reasons, one being it’s that person’s loss that instead of enjoying the game and the atmosphere, they pay to come get hammered and make a fool of themselves. I also don’t mind it because there’s no better feeling when you’re getting ripped and proceed to get a knock or make a nice play and shut them right up.
Wednesday was our first of the only four off-days we will have until the end of the season in September, and we spent it driving up to Lowell. We were supposed to leave on the bus from the clubhouse at 1pm but our bus did not show up until 3, lining us up perfectly with the New York City traffic. We also did not book a hotel room in Lowell for Wednesday night, so we had to find a hotel in Norwich, CT for the night. It’s always nice to get back into Connecticut, as we will be back here down the stretch in the middle of August to play the Connecticut Tigers. This league is great because we get pretty close to home quite a few times. We’ll be in Albany playing the Valley Cats next weekend, then we eventually play the Renegades in the middle of August which is right over in Fishkill about 2 minutes from my Dad’s office. If you want to catch a game when the Ironbirds make the treks up north or if you’re passing by Ripken Stadium on I-95, check out the schedule at: http://www.milb.com/schedule/index.jsp?sid=t488 !
I thought I would mix it up a little bit and do a countdown of my seven favorite ballparks that I’ve competed on in one form of competition or another. They can be fields that I played at in college with UConn, in collegiate summer ball leagues, in pro ball so far, or in showcases in the past. Every field in the countdown has some special stories and memories, and I’ll be elaborating on those along the way.
Fenway Park/Fluor Field at the West End/Fenway South
Yeah, hot start to the list Willy… putting three in one, right? They’re all pretty much the same ballpark so I figured it made a little sense (I’ll explain). Also, let me lead by saying I am obviously a huge Orioles and Yankees fan, and the Dignacco Boy’s would throw up if they saw I had any type of appreciation for Fenway Park or other variations of that place. But, come on, not only is it a relic of the game filled with history, but I am a big fan of fields with screwy dimensions. All ballplayers my age played the video game NCAA Baseball 2006 when we could make our own custom field with messed up dimensions and wall heights, and some jack wagon in 1912 actually got to do that in real life for an MLB field, the lucky son of a gun.
ANYWAYS, I’ll go in chronological order with these three stadiums to sort of explain why I have three in the number six spot.
Fluor Field at the West End is the home field of the Greenville Red Sox, the Low-A affiliate of the Red Sox, and the field’s dimensions and wall heights are exactly as those of Fenway Park. It was my freshman year at UConn just before I became the regular third baseman, where I got a few at-bats in this awesome ballpark. The Huskies were whupping Furman that Saturday in the middle of March 2015 and I came in with some of the bench guys to get a few swings and grounders. Although I didn’t notch a base knock at that park, I remember those at-bats very well because of the venue. If you recall from my blog post about superstitions, that game against Furman was the one just before the night those drunken wedding goers blessed me with my lucky wedding glass at the West Inn in Greenville just down the street from the ballpark.
Fenway Park has an asterisk next to it, because I did not play a game in there, sadly. The Cape Cod League All-Star Game used to be played there, however, the last time it was played at Fenway Park was 2011 as the League wants to keep the game on the Cape for the fans. Because of this, they let each team have a few hours on the field at Fenway to take ground balls and try to smack one over the Monstah. Although I gave it all I had and ruined my swing for three days by trying to hit taters, I couldn’t get one over the Green Monster that day, as the closest I came was hitting the top rung of the ladder at the very top of the wall. Just being able to spend some time on that field, and having my Mom there to check it out as well, was a blast
Lastly, we get to Fenway South, also known as jetBlue Park, which was the home field for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox last summer. The GCL has more than 50% of their games played on backfields, the fields with one small set of bleachers behind home plate and no scoreboard. This setting along with playing in the middle of the Florida summer at noon every single day, can make the GCL quite a grind. This is what made playing at Fenway South so memorable for me. It gave me a little bit of an extra edge and fired me up a little more for the game; there was an actual scoreboard which even flashed some fastball velocities. It was refreshing if anything. Being able to play in a replica of Fenway Park was almost like a defensive puzzle, as the dimensions had its positives and negatives for pitchers as the fielders navigated the confusion. 330 foot can of corns to left were automatic doubles because of the Green Monster, a fact teammate Will Robertson took full advantage of as he would just pepper balls off that wall. He even said to me once, “I just aim for the wall, it’s so big, just hit it and get a double.” Yeah sick dude! I’m just trying to drop it in where they ain’t! A ball that rolled out to the triangle near the 420 foot marker was an automatic triple every time. A well struck ball hit 375 feet to straight away right was a can of corn, while a chip shot off the end of the bat down the right field line was a 302 foot dinger. It was quite the adventure playing all those games at that field.
Marlins Park – Miami, FL
We go from number 7 which included the oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball in Fenway Park, which opened in 1912, to the second youngest park in the MLB, which opened 100 years later in 2012. My senior year of high school I was lucky enough to get to participate in the High School Power Showcase in the very beginning of 2014, just after New Year’s. My Mom somehow pried me out of bed early the first morning of the year to get me on a plane for the first time in my life. It was the first time I had ever gone from the freezing cold Northeast to the vacation-like weather of Florida in the blink of an eye, the best feeling in the world that I would do quite a few times during my time at UConn.
The skills portion of the showcase (60-yard dash, ground balls, batting practice, etc.) was my first time on a Major League Baseball field, and I’ll never forget that feeling. Thinking about all of the current MLB studs that had been standing exactly where I was, being an 18-year-old from Sharon, was an awesome feeling.
One of the moments I remember very well happened before one of our showcase games the day after the skills portion of the Power Showcase. We were hanging out in the dugout waiting for the grounds crew to finish preparing the field, when 2013 Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez emerged from the tunnel into the dugout. He and a trainer walked casually out to the outfield to stretch and have a light toss before our game started. The whole dugout stood up and went to the railing just to watch him throw. It was incredibly uneventful, but we were all so interested in every throw, some guys listing off his stats, others talking about how they faced him in high school when he was a senior and they were freshman. Little did we know what the future would hold for him, including Tommy John surgery that year in 2014, followed by an incredibly impressive 2016 season only to be cut short by his untimely death.
Dunn Field – Elmira, NY
Before I start sharing my experience with this relic of a field during my time in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in the summer of 2015, I just wanted to rattle off some amazing facts about this historic venue.
In the late 19th century when Major League Baseball was just getting started, Dunn Field (known at the time as Maple Avenue Driving Park) was the alternate home field for the Buffalo Bison of the National League. Maple Avenue Driving Park hosted the first ever professional football night game in 1902, as the Philadelphia Athletic Football Team beat the Kanaweola Athletic Club 39-0. The field was a minor league affiliate for the Red Sox for many years, where many Sox legend’s came through and played their early years of their minor league career. When Don Zimmer was a coach for the minor league team known at the time as the Elmira Pioneers, he and his wife were married and Dunn Field in 1951. Last but certainly not least, in 1984 the Beach Boys had a concert at the historic venue (awesome stuff)!
Years after the minor league Red Sox affiliate decided to leave Elmira, the Perfect Game League founded a team their and used the same name, the Elmira Pioneers. The Pioneers were a Western Division rival to us playing for the Newark Pilots, and although I remember some of those guys being real great people and still follow a handful of them on social media, there were others that myself and my teammates were not too fond of, which did lead to the benches clearing once or twice while we played at Dunn Field.
The atmosphere was electric, the team gave away tickets to the people of Elmira, and they came out in droves. I was absolutely blown away when we played there for our home opener and 6,000+ filled the stands and the place was rocking. They had a cool, old, nasty locker room that I loved to hang out in, and sometimes would go in there by myself throw my helmet around after I struck out and the fans showered me with expletives. I soon realized after playing a few games that despite the historic feeling and the amazing crowd, the actual playing surface was one of the worst I’ve ever played on in my life. The infield grass was regularly not mowed, killing any chance of a ground ball getting through the infield, while the infield grass area itself was maybe four inches more elevated than the infield dirt leading to some nasty hops. The shadows were a disaster for the first three innings of night games, especially for the left side of the infield and the left fielder, because there was a gap between the concourse and roof of the stadium. We were essentially blind on that side of the field for an inning or two, which is always exciting when you’re playing the hot corner. Then, when the sun finally went down and they fired up the lights, a swarm of thousands of moths would fly all over the field at head height, making it look like it was snowing in the park. It was tolerable because it only lasted for about 15 minutes before they finally made their way above the field to the lights.
You’re probably wondering why the heck I liked this field so much right? Well other than the historical significance of the old place and how many fans they always drew, my favorite part of playing at Dunn Field was the walk-up song the fans gave me. Why just me you ask? Well Newark played their more than any other team, and I’ve always been known for having very long hair, and that summer it was close to the longest I had ever had my hair before. Upon maybe our fourth or fifth game in the stadium, the interns started playing “Dude Looks like a Lady” by Aerosmith every time I came to the plate, and the place would go absolutely bananas. The fans would sing every single word at the top of their lungs and dance like the crazy people they were undoubtedly. Dunn Field was incredibly unique and weird, and I loved every second of playing there.
Spectrum Field – Clearwater, FL
The spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies has a special place in my baseball life, because it is the home of the American Athletic Conference Tournament where we were victorious in 2016. I’m not sure where to begin with this place, which I’m still getting used to calling Spectrum Field as it was known as BrightHouse Field my first two experiences there before changing its name last spring.
Who could forget the Joe Duffin game from my freshman year? When we came back from a 6-2 deficit in the 8th inning and a Siena triple and a Duffin go-ahead moonshot set up an Anthony Kay save, giving Trevor Holmes the win.
Hitting a grand slam there last year in the first game against Cincinnati (thanks to some center field facing gale force winds) was another great memory at that stadium, as that put us up by a bunch en route to a solid beating of the Bearcats.
Those two memories have something in common, though, which is why my reminiscing on them was rather brief; we didn’t win a championship. Nothing is more memorable than dog piling with your brothers after clinching a NCAA Regional bid (at least not yet). Hitting the triple in the 9th inning to give us an extra run and Pete Rose diving into third was a feeling close to that. So was going over to my Dad after we left the pile, giving him bear hug, holding back tears and saying “we did it Paugh, we f–ing did it”. Those feelings I had at those two moments were tied for a very close second to right when the ball went into John Toppa’s glove in left field and we clinched the title. It felt like Christmas when I was five years old; I was yelling uncontrollably and tackled Pat Ruotolo as we went to the bottom of the pile. It’s really hard to put into words, so enjoy this:
J.O. Christian Field – Storrs, CT
Just like the way the Sharon house is my home in real life, I associate three venues as “home” in my baseball world: Veteran’s Field (where Sharon’s Little League and Middle School fields are), Housatonic High School Field, and J.O. Christian Field. The “JOC” as anyone who played for the Huskies calls it, is one of my favorite places on planet Earth. I remember visiting the field for the first time when I was on an unofficial visit to UConn with my parents. Coach Penders over the years, even back then, has been getting flak from in conference opponents about not having updated facilities similar to those of Houston’s, Tulane’s, etc. To me, though, it would be the nicest field I would ever call my home field up to that point, and for Connecticut, it was beautiful. On that middle of July day they had it mowed nicely and the dirt was raked nice and flat. I always thought the hedges going along the outside of the outfield fence complimented the field nicely. I remember thinking, “wow, there’s no goose poop, it’s beautiful”.
Sure, it had its days in the early spring after snowy winters made the infield lips steeper and the infield grass uneven, but that field represented everything that UConn Baseball stood for. Teams dreaded coming up to play us when it was 55 and windy in April, but we were excited because it was 55 and windy in April in Connecticut! Break out your T-shirts and flip-flops! We took a lot of series against teams that were more talented than us at the JOC because we were the tougher team, ready to play in 25 and snowy or 95 and smoldering hot, the Huskies were up to the task.
Dunkin Donuts Park – Hartford, CT
The brand spanking new ballpark is one of the nicest field’s I have ever played on. I only had one opportunity to play at Dunkin Donuts Park, and we were blessed with a perfect 75 degree night, one that UConn Nation came out in droves to enjoy with us. Just that one game was one of my favorite baseball games I have ever been a part of for selfish and unselfish reasons. We’ll start with the selfish reason, starting with the fact that I was going into the game with 199 career hits as a Husky. I’m not one for caring too much about something like that going into a game, but I knew a lot more of my friends from home, along with a whole bunch from UConn, were going to be in Hartford that night waiting for that hit to come, and I really wanted to do it that night.
We were facing East Carolina lefty Jacob Wolfe that night, who had thrown a complete game against us in a loss the season before in Storrs. He slotted me a middle away two-seam fastball first pitch of my at-bat in the first inning and I punched it through the four hole to right field for a base hit. (200 hits sign) I looked up to my parents and just gave them a little wave, and then thought of my first career hit as a Husky my freshman year in Port St. Lucie during a blowout against Siena and how far I had come from that moment, it was an amazing feeling.
The unselfish reasons are a lot more fun, as the game continued and had a few other great moments, Zac Susi recorded his 100th career base hit, Tim Cate absolutely shoved en route to a complete game shutout, but none topped the moment that made me absolutely lose my marbles. It was first and third with two outs in the bottom of the third inning, I was the runner on first and Grandpa Frenchy, Alex Lefevre came up and uncorked on a fastball to left-center field. I knew it was hit well, but I wanted to make sure that I was going to score for first, so I was motoring around second picking up Coach Penders and he put his hands up. I thought ‘there’s no way someone caught that ball’, and then he gave me the finger twirling home run signal, and I lost it.
It was Frenchy’s first career home run, at Dunkin Donuts Park, with all of Connecticut there to see it, it was another celebrate like a little kid moment for me. We all loved Frenchy, and he was such a huge help with leading the team that year that I really needed as a young captain, which explains why myself and the whole team mobbed him like Derek Jeter be would if he was spotted walking around New York. What. A. Night.
Muzzy Field – Bristol, CT
My favorite field to play at in my baseball career was Muzzy Field. Now, let me clarify: I’m not talking about the 14U Team Connecticut travel ball games, which were still a blast. Rather, I am talking about being a part of the inaugural season of the Bristol Blues in the Futures Collegiate League in 2015. I began the summer with the Newark Pilots as I mentioned earlier, but our team in upstate New York did not make the playoffs. Because the Perfect Game League season started a lot early than the Futures League Season, the Blue’s still had two weeks left and I signed a contract to finish out the regular season and post season.
Boy did I walk into a beautiful situation, accompanied by UConn teammate Griffin Garabedian and future UConn teammate Tim Cate, we would go on to 10 of our last 12 games going into the post season as the first place team in the league. I can’t say enough about Muzzy Field, not only the old time feel of the park with the bleachers hanging right over our dugout and the old school locker room, but the city of Bristol packed the house every single night for all of those games. They were amazing people coming to watch our games as well, and welcomed the mop headed new kid with open arms.
The playoff atmosphere at Muzzy Field was unlike anything I had ever experienced, as our first round game was against the in-state rival Torrington Titans, whom I had played for the year prior. We knocked off the Titans and then the Nashua Silver Knights in the semifinals to get to the defending champion Worcester Bravehearts in the Championship 3 game series. We dropped the first game of the series at Worcester, but because we were the number 1 seed, the next two games would be in Bristol, up there with two of the greatest games I had ever been a part of in my career.
Game 1 was a pitchers dual, with our ace Dominic LoBrutto from Florida International on the mound for us, who would go on to be drafted by the Red Sox. There were no runs batted in by either team that game. Instead after I had lead off an inning with a base hit and got to third base, and after a lengthy at-bat I scored on a dropped third strike wild pitch to take a 1-0 lead over the Bravehearts. We ran into trouble in the top of the 8th, still leading 1-0 with LoBrutto on the mound, Worcester had runners on 1st and 2nd with no one out. We set up our bunt defense thinking they were 100% going to lay a bunt down, however, they decided not to.
The first pitch LoBrutto through was a grounder to our shortstop Ty Roberts who flipped it to me at second and I fired it over to first for the double play. Dom then struck out the next guy, prompting a roar from the crowed so loud I couldn’t hear myself screaming with joy. Our closer finished the job in the 9th and we won 1-0 to send it to the final game three. I love hearing my Dad talk about the end of the 8th inning ovation that LoBrutto received. Dom was walking back to the dugout and raised his hands up to the crowd, my Dad says he’d never screamed like that before at a game as the crowd responded.
Game 3 the Bravehearts brought two coach buses full of fans, and the Muzzy Field staff had to fill up the left field bleachers which usually only had a few fans hanging out down in that direction. There were just about 5,000 fans at that game at 5pm on a beautiful August evening, and the atmosphere could not have been more electric. Soon to be UConn freshman Tim Cate was the starter that night, and he held his own for a young buck just graduating from Cheney Tech.
However, in the bottom of the 7th we found ourselves down 4-2 in desperate need for a rally, and I remember that rally like it was yesterday. I came up with one out and hit a double into the left-center gap, and Tyler Packanik from Marietta College hit a bloop double down the right field line to drive me in. Finally, we tied it up with a Dylan Morris of UMass single to center, and the roar was deafening.
Game 3 of the Futures League Championship Series had gone into extra innings, an atmosphere like which I would never see until I experienced an NCAA Regional the following year. The fans were all screaming for both teams while we were warming up in the field. I remember clear as day looking at our infield, Gerard Rohan at first, Roberts at short, and Ryan Costello at third, just shrugging while thinking “this is pretty cool eh?” Sadly, we would lose the game in 11 innings, a heartbreaking loss for our teammates, but especially our fans. I had only been there for three weeks, and I loved those teammates of mine, those fans of Bristol, and that beautiful old stadium, thanks to Muzzy Field it was one of the greatest experiences of my baseball career.
Well, that concludes my countdown including the stories that came with the stadiums. Sorry that took so long, ballplayers can’t help but remember the details about some of their favorite places to play the game.
Slowly but surely over the 18 years that I’ve played baseball, starting at ‘coach-pitch’ when I was 4, fastball velocities have increased year by year. The adjustment always takes a few at-bats to get used to, but soon it clicks. It was just last week, against the Minnesota Twins extended spring training team, that I faced a guy throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball. Brusdar Graterol was feeling himself that day, as he was 97-100 and touched 101 a few times.
I had two at-bats against him. The first one, I was looking for an outside heater just to shoot into right field, but he threw a 100 mph cheeseball about 2 inches above my hands for a slow roller to the second baseman and somehow my bat lived to tell the tale. The next at-bat I got to 2 strikes after he snapped off a curveball for a strike. I knew he was going to come with the fastball, so I was just getting geared up for it as early as possible. Somehow I got on top of 100 at my letters and hit a one hopper to the second baseman for a ground out, but I was at least pleased that I could get a decent piece of that kind of fuzz. A step in the right direction.
I was telling my Dad about the at-bats that day, and he really only had one question for me: “What did that sound like?” 100 miles per hour inside close to your knuckles sounds like a swarm of wasps hurtling towards you just for a split second. Then I told him I was just happy he had decent control and wasn’t all over the place like a lot of those young Latin pitchers with bazooka’s for arms tend to be.
He said “Well, you’re pretty much staring down the barrel of the gun hoping it goes over the plate and not at your face”. It’s true, you have to have a lot of faith in that guy on the bump to stay in there on heaters and curveballs.
Standing in on 100 for the first time brings me back to the blurs that were fastballs coming out of the hand of UConn teammate Wills Montgomerie when Sharon Little League faced off against Lakeville. He was bringing low to mid 70s when we were 12 years old, and even though I hit him a little bit, it was pretty horrifying for chubby Willy to hang in there for what was the equivalent of about 100 from just 45 feet as opposed to 60 feet 6 inches. When Wills and I both played on the same all-star team in Little League, (The Mid-County All Stars, possibly the greatest sports team in human history), Wills was firing mid 70s against La Grange and mowing guys down with strikeout after strikeout.
In an attempt to just get a base runner, one of the right-handed hitting La Grange players tried to get a bunt down, bringing his back foot all the way around and squaring up to Wills. The maneuver threw off Wills’ release point for whatever reason and he deposited a 75 mph fastball into the poor kids face. He didn’t stand a chance of getting out of the way because of how hard Wills was throwing and his choice of bunting technique leaving his face vulnerable. He walked off under his own power after some of his teammates helped him pick up some off his teeth and his mom brought him to the hospital. That kid from La Grange was tough as nails for a 12-year-old.
The Huskies saw some serious fuzz in the 2016 Gainesville Regional against Florida when we were given the task of facing AJ Puk as their Gators starting pitcher, who would eventually be the 6th overall pick of the draft that year to the Athletics. We were so fired up coming off a win against Georgia Tech the day before, that we didn’t have too much trouble facing his 98 mph fastball from the left side.
Who could forget the home run that Bobby Melley hit in the first inning that landed in Canada, giving us a lot of confidence early that we could knock off the number 1 team in the country.
I remember very well my first at-bat against Puk, watching the first pitch whiz just to get the timing down at 98. A friendly Florida fan with two total teeth chirped “just walk back to the dugout 6, you don’t stand a chance in hell against AJ!” I had a decent at-bat, fouling off a few pitches and taking one slider. The Florida fan continued “this is the greatest at-bat of your life! You’ve peaked 6! You’ve peaked!” I popped up to second base and jogged back to the dugout and looked over at the fan and chuckled. My third at-bat against Puk was real interesting, as I was up with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth and he was losing confidence in his fastball. I got to 1-1 and he spiked a slider and a wild pitch brought us to within a run of Florida. The Gator skipper walks out and takes the ball from Puk with a 2-1 count in my at-bat to go to Dane Dunning, another first round pick that draft year to the Nationals. The scouting report was 91-93 with a pretty good slider, so I was going to sit on a slider the first pitch I saw from him to see if he was just trying to sneak a slow one by me for strike two.
Sure enough, he fires the stinky cheese painted on the outside corner and I look up at the scoreboard and it says 96. Scouting report was just a wee bit off, but with two strikes I just had to see it deep and try to get something into the air in the outfield to get the runner in from third. Luckily, Dunning hung a slider and I hit a sack fly to center to tie that game. Despite losing by one in a classic, the Huskies did pretty well against some soon to be professional fuzz.
High 90s can be hard to avoid when it comes up and in. Even a mid-90s fastball can clip your hand and lead to injury, as I learned six days before the beginning of my junior season at UConn when I broke my hand on a fastball up and in. A similar situation almost happened in the Gulf Coast League last summer against the Red Sox, but instead of a broken hand I got a base hit out of it.
We were facing a young Latin pitcher who was throwing mid to high 90s with a little bit of run. I was fighting off fastballs and curveballs with two strikes, just trying to put something in play. He proceeded to come up and in with a two-seamer. I was choked up a pretty healthy amount and it hit the knob of my bat square. It rolled out towards shortstop, past the pitcher, and no one on the Red Sox had any clue what happened. Of course me, sniffing any chance for a cheap base knock, took off running immediately. The ‘knob-knock’ is spoken of reverentially by teammates to this day.
Baseball’s so much fun and so damn hard all at the same time. In order to be the best you have to beat the best. Being able to reach a level where we see guys throwing mid to high 90’s, consistently, is an awesome challenge. I overcame the fear of a fastball near the ol’ coconut back in Little League. If it happens it happens, but I’m not scared of it, especially after I was pegged 13 times last summer. Hell, Colin Woody who I met this spring training and is now on the Frederick high-A team, wore 35 pitches in a full-season last year and he loved everyone one of them, mostly for the On Base Percentage. That’s the type of stuff a ballplayer will do to get an advantage and help a team win. I always think of one of my favorite quotes of all time from Honus Wagner: “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer”.
I get asked quite a bit why I hit the way I do, how I became a hitter that doesn’t walk a lot, strike out a lot, or even really take pitches. I’ve always been a hacker, just trying to get the barrel to the ball where ever the pitch may be. My Dad will always try to blame himself saying his batting practice was all over the place (relax Walt your BP is money), I tell people it’s because of a game that I love almost as much as I love baseball, Wiffle Ball.
Not only did playing countless hours of Wiffle Ball teach me how to hit the ol’ Uncle Charlie, but it made me a great ‘bad ball’ hitter (a hitter that can hit pitches out of the strike zone well). Whether the pitcher was my Dad, my Mom, my Grandma or one of my friends, I always felt like a stickler if I would take borderline pitches waiting for a good pitch to hit, so I would swing at nearly everything. For better or for worse, those habits in Wiffle Ball translated to the baseball field. Some help me out in some instances, while others are why I will sometimes get myself out by chasing bad pitches.
Who hasn’t pictured this scenario when they’re playing Wiffle Ball? Game 7, World Series, bottom of the 9th, two outs, bases loaded, down by three. I have seen quite a few interviews with Major Leaguers, talking about their playoffs and the World Series experiences, saying those moments brought them back to when they dreamed of those scenarios while playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard with their friends or parents. I have done the same thing a million times, but lets just say… I took it a little further than that when I was a kid.
My Dad and I used to set these situations up on the Wiffle Ball field in our backyard, and that man had a pretty good curveball, I had to work hard to hit that walk-off jack to earn my dinner. He’d come home from work and I’d ask him if we could play “the bottom of the 9th game”, where we would create that situation and I had to hit a tater or live with myself for the night in disgrace. He and I transitioned to regular batting practice down at the town field after he was tired of giving up walk-off Wiffle Ball bombs in Game 7 of the World Series, and that’s when Wiffle Ball started to get more serious than you could imagine.
The North West Wifflers Association (NWWA) was founded by one of my best friends, Angus Gracey, along with myself and quickly became one of the most elite and renowned Wiffle Ball leagues in the history of the sport. Originally known as the Major Wiffle Ball Mountain League (MWML), the league was founded in 2006, but sadly folded in the middle of the 2014 season due to an unresolved players strike, despite many attempts during Collective Bargaining Agreement meetings between players and owners (I give that elaborate excuse for my friends who lost interest). There are home videos in the early days of the league in 2006 of Angus and I playing our hearts out in an attempt to capture a league title. I would wear a full Yankees uniform and he would wear a full Red Sox uniform, there were brawls, web gems, walk off homers, tears, and above all a foundation of passion that led to the expansion of the league (I’m being serious here folks, we took our Wiffle Ball extremely seriously).
After our league gained popularity, we could no longer sport our favorite MLB teams’ jerseys (Trademarks and such), so we produced our own team names and jerseys.
2012 was the peak of the league’s success, as we featured a draft and had six teams with player contracts, all vying for a NWWA ring. My team that I owned and played for was the West Sharon 39ers, featuring Zach McCabe who was robbed of a Walter Wallace Award (Cy Young Award) that season by the knuckleballing excellence of Timmy Haan (Zach did earn a Rookie of the Year award, though). Angus’ team was the North Kent Wiffling Whalers who, despite taking highly touted prospect Nathaniel O’Niel early in the 2012 NWWA First Year Draft, did not have the season they were expected to as they were bounced from the playoffs in the first round (believe it or not I’m not spewing randomness from faint memories, check out the NWWA website for validation, I remember it all like it was yesterday).
The 2012 North West Wifflers’ Association World Series featured, of course, the West Sharon 39ers (in honor of the founding of Sharon, CT, in 1739) and the North Canaan Canes, comprised of two power hitters in the form of Jeremy Stiewing and Trevor Dakers. After the 39ers gained a 3-1 lead in the seven game series and were just one game away from the promise land, we went full-blown Golden State Warriors and blew it.
The Canes rattled off three straight gutsy victories, hitting balls over the fence left and right, and took the ring right off my finger. That loss still haunts me to this day, and I still hear it occasionally from Jeremy and Trevor.
Long story short people, Angus and I made Wiffle Ball our obsession. That’s what we did in our free time. Outside of school and baseball (hockey for Angus), we played Wiffle Ball. But we didn’t just play, we created a website, kept track of/compiled statistics, when we were really young we had Wiffle Ball Tonight home videos highlighting the days action, heck, we even made a MWML/NWWA National Hall of Fame in my attic. Yup, Angus and I went full nerd mode for Wiffle Ball, similarly to baseball.
That long and nerdy tangent about mine and my best friend’s obsession with Wiffle Ball wasn’t just to reinforce how weird we were as kids, rather, it was to delve into some of the origins of my passion for baseball and all forms of the game. At the time I was equally obsessed with baseball as I was Wiffle Ball,
but when I realized my Wiffle Ball professional career had peaked during my time in the NWWA, it seemed I had to focus on becoming a professional baseball player instead. At the end of the day, ballplayers just want to play any form of the game, any chance we can get to put some dirt on the uniform.
Road trips in the baseball world can get pretty repetitive. I haven’t always had a blog to kill the time, and even when I have, there are more road trips than blog posts, that’s for sure. Guys will read, write, play games on their phones, watch movies, play cards and of course sleep. Bus rides and plane rides get really boring after the first couple of trips but believe it or not, some can get pretty exciting, although those are few and far between.
I remember my first road trip for baseball on a coach bus. When I say first, I mean the first one where I didn’t have Mommy or Daddy at the wheel to pull over every time I wanted a couple McChicken’s.
My old travel ball team was bussed from East Hartford to Marietta, GA, for the East Cobb World Wood Bat tournament, which was about 17 hours with asses in every seat of that coach bus. People were coming up with very creative ways to fall asleep on the bus because staying in that seat upright for that whole time was just about impossible. I employed the method of sliding underneath the seats with my pillow and making a little nest on the floor, which was surprisingly comfortable, as long as you didn’t get kicked in the head and no one farted on you.
In my freshman year at UConn, I was introduced to plane trips nearly every weekend in the beginning of the season. I had only ever been on a plane once before college for the Power Showcase in Miami that January of my senior year of high school, so I was still very new to the flying thing. People would complain about the flights, some because they were scared to death of flying and others because they were seniors and they had done it nearly 100 times. I on the other hand, because of how our alphabet fell, got a window seat every time for those JetBlue flights, and I would get a good playlist going. It is still captivating to me, thinking about watching us take off and getting to our 35,000 foot altitude among the clouds and soaring along at 600 miles per hour….that’s my father’s pilot instincts I guess. If I didn’t have a window seat for a plane ride and I couldn’t find someone to switch with me, the whole day was pretty much ruined.
It was on bus trips while playing for the Newark Pilots the summer after my freshman year in upstate New York when I discovered a really fun way to scare the piss out of some of my teammates on the rides home, while also having a comfortable spot to stretch out my legs. I was in the very back of the bus and crawled up into the overhead storage spots, which I could just barely fit into. I would slither up and down the compartment. Some of them had doors that could be pushed open from the inside, and others had just the big rubber bands going across and nothing else. I would reach down with my arm and pick peoples noses and wake them up while they were sleeping and they’d think it was a ghost arm because they didn’t think anyone was crazy enough to do what I was doing. It was too much fun and also after a while I would get bored and fall asleep up there. Being up there seemed to make some of those 4 hour trips go by a little faster.
Road trips can also get ugly, such as UConn’s first trip my sophomore year when a handful of guys contracted the Bubonic Plague (queue the scary music). At least it felt like the Plague at the time and that’s what we called it, but in reality five or six of us got a really bad stomach bug. We were leaving campus for the University of San Antonio at 3:30am for a 6am flight out of Bradley. Luckily I had packed the night before, because I woke up around 2am before we had to leave and started puking my brains out. I still made the 3:30 bus and about 15 seconds after it started rolling towards the airport, I ran to the back of the bus and puked in the bus bathroom until we got to Windsor Locks. I was feeling a little better and fell asleep right away on our flight towards Baltimore, where we were connecting. Little did I know, while I was in my slumber, the Plague was spreading, as a few other guys puked in their seats, while others had to make a mad dash to the back of the plane to pinch a mean one. It was getting ugly.
“Willy dude,” said our pitching coach after we landed in Baltimore, “Guys were puking and pooping everywhere on that flight because of you man! You feeling better?” At that very moment, it was like someone had punched me in the stomach, and I myself made a mad dash to the airport bathroom holding my mouth. It was a nightmarish two plane rides but finally we landed in Texas and as we got to our hotel, Coach Penders told me I couldn’t practice that day, which was probably the right move, but I almost lost my marbles. After the less than perfect day of travel, all I wanted to do was go to the field, let baseball take my mind off the last 18 hours, and get ready for the game tomorrow. And after all, it was our first series and we had been working for months and months to get here. But it was for the best that four others and myself were quarantined into one hotel room. I still played that weekend, dry heaving on the field and all in the Texas sun, while losing probably 15 pounds from the Plague and the heat.
Who could forget the infamous Columbia bus breakdown? We had a game in New York City against Columbia, again in my sophomore year (rough year for travel), and we left for the City around noon for a 5pm game. I’ll never forget the trip on 195 in Storrs on our way to Interstate 84. Randomly, the bus would start fishtailing towards the side of the road, each time prompting a “woooaaaaaaah” from the whole bus. It happened three or four times before our bus driver finally pulled over in Tolland, about a quarter of a mile from the highway. It turns out, at some point, the two back right rear tires blew out.
“Holy cow!” exclaimed our bus driver in a pretty thick accent. “Good thing I stopped and checked it out, if we went on the highway with that we would have flipped for sure.” Lovely. Hanging out in a random pizza shop, eating some pie, and watching some TV took my mind off of that scary thought. We waited for an hour and a half for a new bus to come and pick us up for NYC. We rolled up to the field around 4:40pm for our 5pm game, and yes we ended up starting at 5pm, to the dismay of our starting pitcher Anthony Kay. Talk about a show-and-go!
I’ve had limited experiences in the minors, as bus trips in the Gulf Coast League and Extended Spring Training are not too lengthy (an hour and a half at most). I do know one thing, those trips are cramped for two reasons: 1) they get these in between size coach buses with just enough seats for everyone and 2) the Latin guys will sprawl out all over the far back of the bus to get comfortable, so you have to buddy up in the front and make sure you pee before you get on the bus because it’s a maze to get to the back. When I get up to the NY-Penn League this summer to play with Aberdeen, we will have a whole bunch of nice long road trips, including an eight hour trip up to Burlington, VT, with no traffic (ooph).
The higher one climbs in this game the longer the road trips get, which I’m okay with, no doubt. Although most of them are pretty boring and a lot of the same, it’s fun to see what a ballplayer will experience over the many road trips, or what they will think of to pass the time.
Yeah, we all knew this one was coming. In case you do not know, I am a big superstition guy when it comes to baseball. Regardless of the day-by-day result, I stick by them. Heck, I’m writing this on the bus back from an extended spring training game in Fort Myers after going 0 for 4, but you know I will still be wearing my long sleeves and blowing into my lucky shot glass before I go to the field tomorrow. Superstitions are just another thing that make us ballplayers a very weird breed.
The obvious one is the long sleeves, which is pretty much my signature look along with the horrendous “hands tan” that comes along with the sleeves. Believe it or not, I can remember the last game I did not wear a long sleeve Under Armor (specifically) undershirt in a game.
It was the District 17 Little League Championship game, when I was 12. One might think I was a psychopath for remembering that, but the real reason I remember is because I gave up a game winning grand slam to lose the Championship for our Mid County All-Star team, a team that would have gone to Williamsport if I hadn’t blown that game (I carry that weight with me everyday).
There have been some days where I forgot or lost my Under Armor, and all hell breaks loose. I’ll have to wear some gross, baggy long sleeve shirt sometimes as a replacement, almost guaranteeing an 0 for 4 that day. A handful of times, if I had enough time, I would make a run over to Dick’s Sporting Goods to grab a new one, or the amazing parents that I have would scramble and miraculously find my missing undershirt (usually in the most obvious place) and bring it to me back in the day. It is the single most important part of my baseball uniform without question.
A great Under Armor story goes back to when the Huskies played down in the NCAA regional in Gainesville. We won our first game against Georgia Tech and I had a pretty good game as well. Coach Penders approached me the next day, telling me that Nike called him and told them that “the Yahn kid” had to put on a Nike undershirt because the Under Armor logo was showing on TV.
Now, believe you me, I listen to everything that man says, doing so has gotten me pretty far in this game, but I did everything I could do to not yell “SCREW NIKE!” I was almost offended. I get it, we’re a Nike school, they provide us with our jerseys and cleats and such, but they have the nerve to look so closely at me on TV and tell me my lucky undershirt isn’t up to par with their dress code, with all the money they already have?? Nope, I just made sure my top button was secured and then tucked the back of my jersey in real tight.
I got a lot of questions about my Under Armor when I went down to Florida and played. Every game we played in Florida when I was with UConn I wore it, and every game in the Gulf Coast League in Sarasota with the Orioles you know I was wearing the long sleeve black Under Armor. It works, that’s why I do it, but holy hell last summer in the GCL there were a few times when I wanted to rip that thing off. We would practice in the morning from 9am-11am before home games, and when we had a quick bite to eat from 11am-12pm just before first pitch, I would throw my Under Armor in the dryer for a half hour to dry it off. I used to do this on those hot summer afternoons in Bristol before the night games with the Blues as well. Sometimes it does get warm and slightly uncomfortable, but having a piss poor batting average is a lot more uncomfortable, so I stay with the sleeves.
Now the story of the lucky shot glass is an epic one, a story which dates all the way back to my freshman spring at UConn before I was even a starter for the Huskies. The weekend before my first start was the first weekend of our spring break trip that year in Greenville, SC. After our Saturday double header, in which I had one pinch-hit at bat and grounded out, our bus had to deal with a lot of traffic headed back to our hotel, the Westin, because they were hosting a wedding. We finally get back after the bride and groom ride off happily ever after, and there was still some drunk and rowdy wedding-goers heading back to their rooms at the same time as us.
“Hey guys, take this bottle of wine,” he said while clinging to the elevator railing just to stay on his feet. “I already had two of these and it did the job, but tasted like crap.”
“We can’t take that,” one of the guys replied. “We’re here for baseball and we’re not allowed to drink in the hotel.”
“Wow you guys are a bunch of wimps, huh?” The drunkard replied and we all just laughed. “Well one of you take this here glass I don’t want it, I can’t believe I haven’t broken it yet.”
“Sure,” I said as he handed it to me. I don’t know why I had zero hesitation to take the glass. The glass read the couples names and March 14, 2015. After two more games, I woke up the morning of March 18 and looked at the glass I had saved, and simply just blew in it for good luck. Sure enough when we got to William and Mary that night, Coach Penders had penciled my name into the line up, and the rest is history.
Tragically, about 14 months later, we were down at the University of South Florida for the final series of my sophomore season, and we had three to a room for this series, so big time Anthony Kay and Pat Ruotolo put my sophomore butt on the pullout coach for the weekend. Every game leading up to that day I had blown into my lucky glass (essentially a wine glass without the long stem at the bottom) and played very well since I had started doing so. I woke up the Sunday before our final game of the season, and it was gone. I tore the living room apart looking for it, throwing my clothes, my bag, the phone, the TV, all over the place trying to find this glass. I always put the glass on the bedside table and blew into it each morning when I woke up, and it was gone that morning. I came to the conclusion that housekeeping snagged it thinking it was from the bar downstairs or something like that, even though I called the bar and housekeeping trying to find it and they said they had not seen it. I claim USF baseball team colluded, trying to steal my glass after we beat them twice to try to get a Sunday win and salvage the weekend, but we’ll never know.
We won the Sunday game, but I had a bad game, and going into the conference tournament that week, I needed my glass or that tournament could have been a bad one for me. My Dad came to Clearwater for the tournament and invited some of his old friends, one was Felton Elders, the other and our hero of the story was John Stofan, who goes by Sto, and has been a friend of my Dad’s since their middle school days up in Farmington, ME.
Sto is a pilot for Southwest Airlines, and had heard the story of my lost glass from my Dad. So during dinner after our first game of the tournament, one in which I did not get a hit (of course), Sto makes a big presentation and whips out a Southwest shot glass. I was pumped, I don’t think he knew how much I needed something like this. I couldn’t have just gone and bought myself some random lucky glass to replace my wedding glass, it had to mean something, and Sto couldn’t have come through at a better time. We went on to win the conference tournament, and with the help of my new lucky Southwest shot glass, I performed pretty well for the remainder of the tournament.
Ballplayers have all sorts of things that fall under the category of superstitions, it can be daily routines, certain meals, certain equipment, anything. I know I’m not alone in naming equipment. My current bat, Brenda, and glove, Penny, really appreciate that and it makes them feel loved and they return the favor with base hits and good plays. Baseball is such an unpredictable game in which you rarely go a day without failing. Superstitions keep the ballplayer at ease, giving them a slight sense of cause and effect. If I blow in my lucky shot glass and wear my long sleeves, then I will get two hits and make my plays. It’s never guaranteed, nothing is guaranteed in this game, that’s why I’m writing this after going 0 for 4. But will the superstitions stop? Never, I’ll go crazy if they did.
Ballplayers get asked all the time what they believe is the hardest part of our game. There are many challenges to it. Of course the hardest one is hitting a slider when you think a 90+ mph cheese ball is coming at you (or vice versa), or getting a good read on a high hopping groundball with a fast runner at the plate, the list goes on. But one of the hardest things that many people who follow baseball do not think about is trying to stay healthy for an entire season. Whether it’s a 56 game college season, a 60 game minor league short-season, a 140 game minor league full-season, or a big league 162 game season, being on the field for a majority of those games is one of the biggest challenges ballplayers face. Take that a step further, it’s knowing your body and knowing when you can, and when you cannot, play in the game that day (or in my mind tricking the trainers into letting you play). How do you think Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive Major League games (more than 16 seasons)? He just got lucky and was never hurt right… NO! That man had bruises, strains, sprains, illnesses, etc. all during that span, he just played through it, because that’s what ballplayers do.
Here’s the catch; there are injuries you just cannot play through, like torn ligaments, back problems, broken bones, etc. and I have been there. My junior season at UConn, with expectations through the roof and the most important season of my life so far as a Captain, I broke my left hand during live at-bats on a Saturday, six days before the season started. I was devastated as baseball had been taken away from me. My true love. Everything that I had been working towards since we were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament in Gainesville my sophomore year, after a surgery to repair that same left hand, after hours of work in the cages, on the turf and in the weight room, it felt like my future I had worked tirelessly to put before me was slipping through my fingers.
“5th metacarpal breaks usually take 6-8 weeks to heal properly,” said the Doctor about an hour after I had been hit by the pitch.
“Yeah well we have a game on Friday in Port St. Lucie, so what do I have to do Doc?” Was my natural response. Eventually after further evaluation and realizing the break was worse than they originally thought, I had to get my metacarpal reset and was told I would be out for the first five weeks of the season.
These times really test a ballplayer. You have to be tough for your teammates and make sure you’re getting your rehab work in everyday. But being the Captain my junior year and being on the sideline the week before the season was about to start was too much. I was sick to my stomach. It was a phone call with my parents after the first game of the season that comes to mind, when I hatched the plan while pretty emotional.
“I’m losing my mind, there’s no way I’m sitting out for that long,” I told my parents.
“Willy, you have to do what is best for your future health, to play the second half of the season, and for the draft,” my parents were saying.
“When I start giving a rat’s ass about the draft is when everything goes down the drain. I need to get back on the field as soon as possible for my sanity. I’m going to play in three weeks.” The debate continued for a while, but getting into an argument with me about not playing baseball is (in the famous words of Coach Penders) like getting into a pissing contest with a skunk. I explained how I could not live without being on a field, next to my guys, belly flopping on the dirt. I was never concerned with the draft while having success my first two UConn seasons and while on the Cape, why should that change now? I was quite literally losing my mind.
After the first two weekends went by slowly, I got my cast off the Thursday morning before we flew down to Stetson for the final series that I had planned to miss (although the Doc said I would miss two more after that). I was shooting to play again on March 10th against UC Davis, 3 ½ weeks after I broke my hand, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get that idea past our trainer and the Doc.
We got back early Monday morning March 6th and I went to the training room that Monday afternoon. Our trainer said the Doc still had me on track to get back March 25th, but I could start swinging off a tee if it felt comfortable. So, naturally, I fired up the pitching machine and took probably 10 rounds of batting practice. It felt… OK physically, but I was happy as a clam let me tell you. I returned to the training room on Tuesday and hesitantly told our trainer what I did, and that I planned on playing that Friday. He contacted the Doc immediately after that and told him what schedule I had prescribed for myself, and we never heard from the Doc again (not sure why). I was pretty much on my own and had to convince Coach Penders I was healthy to play. After he and the coaching staff told me repeatedly I was insane and borderline out of control (music to my ears) and our trainer fitted me with a plastic guard for the outside of my hand to wear at all times, I indeed started my first game of the season 3 ½ weeks after I broke my metacarpal against UC Davis. It hurt, A LOT, and that didn’t go away for a while, the guard made my hand bleed, my glove squeezed the metacarpal when it closed in the field, and I did struggle somewhat because of that. In reality, I would do a lot more to get back on the field with my brothers, no question.
There are less drastic instances that test a ballplayer’s health day-to-day. Just yesterday I faced Alex Cobb in a simulated game as he had his last tune-up outing before he goes up to the Baltimore roster. He struck me out my first at bat, so my game plan the second at bat was to jump a fastball early and stay away from a two-strike count with his nasty repertoire. Sure enough, he threw his 60-million-dollar change-up and I hit a laser directly into the inside of my left ankle. It’s not the first time I have done that and it won’t be the last. (Add swollen shin picture if you can find it) A swollen ankle cannot slow a ballplayer down because this is going to happen all the time, and no I will not put on the eyewash shin guard or elbow guard people! (That’s what we call chrome)
Another time comes to mind when we played at Boston College midway through my sophomore season and during batting practice I was taking groundballs from Coach Penders. Boston College’s old field wasn’t exactly a putting green, and there was a nice lip on the edge of the third base grass/dirt area. I went for a backhand and it hopped up at the last second, went off the heel of my glove, and smoked me in the nose. I knew it caught me pretty square but I wanted to keep going and get more reps. I look up to get another grounder and Coach was halfway towards third base looking pretty concerned and I didn’t understand why. What I thought was just a runny nose from the cold day turned out to be a gushing bloody nose and probably an undiagnosed broken nose.
Our trainer put two cotton balls in my nose to temporarily stop the bleeding after I had taken off my blood stained sweatshirt. She then asked me if I still wanted to play in the game that day.
“Does a one legged duck swim in circles?,” I replied. Despite having to get new cotton balls put into my nose every three innings because of the bleeding lasting throughout the game, I played fine and we won the game up there in Boston.
No, the point of this post was not to show that I’m some kind of tough guy, because I’m not, ask my mom (she’s the tough one). She’ll tell you about my Dad and me screaming like little girls when we see snakes or flying bats near us outside at night in the summer. The point is to show what some ballplayers will go through to play as many games as possible, not because we feel pressure on us to produce or fulfill expectations, but because we need the game to keep us sane. We don’t really know anything else besides our game, and one day our highly competitive days will brush by us, like strangers in a crowd.* Sure, I have a back up plan, and most likely would not have one without the opportunity baseball presented to study at the UConn Journalism School, but I will always play the game. I plan to become an adult league legend when I finish my professional career. Baseball is my meditation. Baseball is my sanctuary.
*Field of Dreams reference, courtesy of Moonlight Graham