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
Unwritten rules are a funny thing in baseball. They are completely off of hearsay from older guys or coaches telling younger guys things they need to know to respect the game, respect their opponent, and protect their own teammates. Just yesterday while playing with the AA team as spring training winds down, I learned a new one that I had never heard before.
One of the veteran guys approaches me and tells me that walking in front of the catcher and the umpire to get to the batter’s box can be a display of disrespect. Allegedly, it can be viewed by the battery (the pitcher and the catcher) as disrespect, or even sometimes by the home plate umpire as well. I didn’t take it too seriously right when I received the information. I just nodded my head with body language saying “yeah, sure, whatever” while thinking about how soft umpires and pitchers can be. But then I thought back to my at bats thus far that day. In my first at bat, I got a heater that shaved off some of my blonde chin hairs and sent me back like a limbo participant en route to a walk.
Then I had a bad at bat my second time around and popped out weakly to the first baseman. I think to myself “maybe I’m not just pissing off the pitcher by doing that, I’m pissing off the baseball Gods too”, and my third at bat I go around the catcher and the umpire with the utmost respect. Yup, you guessed it, I hit a first pitch rope up the middle for a base hit.
If I didn’t want to keep your best attention I would talk about every single unwritten rule that there is in baseball, but I won’t do that to you, rather I’ll keep it brief and talk about the infamous “snowball fight” last summer in Fort Myers against the Gulf Coast League Twins and how that started.
In hindsight, the game of dodge ball with hard white rocks could have begun by the unwritten rule I was talking about before, about going around the umpire and catcher on my way to the box, who knows. I would argue it’s because those 17 year old Latin guys who throw 100 couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from 10 feet away. Regardless, my teammate J.C. Escarra and I, in our first eight games that season, were hit probably 20 times combined by GCL Twins pitchers, and our manager and pitching coach didn’t think it was by accident. They thought J.C. and I were getting plunked on purpose, so in our 4th meeting of the season he tells one of our lefties to drill the first batter of the next inning, who sure enough was the first overall pick Royce Lewis (whether our manager knew this or not is still debated in our clubhouse in spring training). As you can imagine, that specific incident made the Twins coaching staff very upset.
It was either the 9th or 10th game against the Twins at their place in Fort Myers when the “snowball fight” began. If you were in the starting line-up that day, you got plunked. Guys were wearing pitches back and forth like sweaters on both sides, but in areas you’re supposed to get hit, the thigh, the ribs, and the rump etc., areas that won’t do too much damage. In the 6th inning or so, we’re in the field, I’m on third base, and one of the Latin pitchers for us comes up and in twice on their four hitter (worth mentioning that hitters name was Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, I kid you not, great dude) and the second pitch got him in the shoulder. He chirped a little bit and walks down to first, then all hell breaks loose with the next batter. Our guy throws it right over this shorter, feisty Latin guys head, not missing by much. Major unwritten rule: DO NOT throw intentionally at a guy’s head, no matter what. It was bad enough he came up on Benny in the last at bat near his shoulder. The hitter walks out with some pace towards the mound ready to rumble. I, not thinking just sort of reacting to the situation in front of me, get in between the two Latin guys and the benches clear, charging out towards the mound like the ‘Running of the Bulls’. No punches were thrown and there wasn’t really too much shoving going on, just a lot of Spanish cussing going on around the mound, with this little pale dude from Sharon, Connecticut acting like he’s about to break up a fight between these two furious Dominicans if it started (oh wait that’s me). The Ft Myers GCL snowball fight will forever live in infamy.
The unwritten rules of baseball have started many snowball fights across the baseball world. They’ve sent little birds twirling around Jose Bautista’s head after a dirty slide into second got him laid out by Rougned Odor, they’ve made pitchers the loneliest guys in a dugout when they’re in the midst of a no-hitter, the rules and the stories are endless. It really emphasizes how weird the creatures known as ballplayers can be.
One of my most cherished possessions, the most loved piece of rotten leather this world has ever seen, where hits through the left side go to die, after a long run my glove has been retired due to injury. The glove formally known as “Pro Preferred™ Pam: The Heat Seeking Ball Magnet 2.0” was forced to retire on Sunday, March 18, after some severe leather tears to the palm area.
A day that I thought would never come; I had to put Ol’ Pam on the shelf for reasons you can see above. The rips are pretty noticeable, but there were holes for laces close to blowing out, along with those grey patches that are more pieces of the palm deteriorating. Pam and I have been through it all together, having had her since the very beginning of my UConn career all the way back in September 2014. She’s been all over the country with the Huskies, to upstate New York in the Perfect Game League, to Muzzy Field where she and I were painfully close to a Futures League ring, to the Cape with all its historic high school fields despite the subpar playing surfaces, and finally to Sarasota to get her fill of minor league baseball in before she could take the beating no longer.
Pam, who is around 62 in glove years, could arguably be the cause of one of my worst injuries in my career back in 2016 (although I will always argue it was Florida’s catcher Mike Rivera), when a line drive off the Gator catcher’s bat crushed my palm with the corners drawn in and one out in Game 2 of the Gainesville NCAA Regional. With the adrenaline pumping from doubling off the runner at 3rd base in the top of the 9th as we approached our last licks against the #1 ranked college baseball team in the country, I didn’t feel a thing at the time. However, the next day after our loss to Florida, while taking grounders in the pregame batting practice before our matchup with Georgia Tech, every time I received a throw or grounder, my hand throbbed with pain.
After losing to Georgia Tech in what ended up being our final game of the season, I changed playing to Bourne, MA and the Cape Cod League to begin my summer ball season, and the pain remained. It didn’t bother me as much when I was hitting, rather it was when I caught balls in the palm or at the top of my web when my index finger would bend backwards. About 8 games into the season when I approached my trainer for the Bourne Braves, Karen, about the issue with my hand was another showing of recklessness to do anything it takes to stay on the field after she took a look at it herself.
“Well Willy there could be a bone broken in there, I’ll set up an X-ray for you within the next day or two to get it checked out,” Karen said casually.
“What are you crazy?” I replied. “Harvey [our coach] might sit me for a game, there’s not time for that.”
“Well what are we going to do about it then? You asked for my help,” said Karen.
“I was asking for, you know, under the table trainer advice, no one can know about this.” Karen was great about it, she didn’t say anything and performed some heavy tissue massages on the area to break up the swelling (probably not a great idea in hindsight) but somehow had me at ease mentally thinking I was at least doing something to make my hand better.
As the dream Cape Cod season came to an end after I played in every game, I went to the best hand doctor east of the Mississippi in the middle of August who just so happens to work half his time in Sharon, CT, Dr. Yaghoubian. I had last seen him when I broke two of my fingers playing goalie in soccer my sophomore year of high school. Sure enough, the X-rays confirmed I had played my summer season with a small bone in my hand, called the sesamoid bone, shattered into pieces. After a cortisone shot and finishing up fall ball for UConn, a quick surgery and some rehabbing of my hand left nothing but a cool scare and an example of how frail my glove was, granted that was almost 2 years ago now (that’s how flimsy it is now upon retirement).
It’s hard to remember, but way back in the dark ages there were gloves before Pro Preferred™ Pam: The Heat Seeking Ball Magnet 2.0. Which leads into the explanation of the 2.0 part in Pam’s name, she wasn’t the first of her kind that had been with me on the field of battle
. I had a glove that was almost a replica of Pam with the exception of a color scheme difference. She was loved, she had some great memories from junior and senior years of high school, summer ball with Team Connecticut, my first collegiate baseball experience with the Torrington Titans in the Futures League, and who could forget the two Adult League State Championships with the Tri-Town Trojans.
Towards the end of the Futures League season at a night game in Torrington, we had just finished up a game (whether we won or lost I do not remember it was too tragic of a night) and I went back to the area in front of our dugout where we all laid down our gloves and Pam 1.0 was nowhere to be found. In a full panic I asked everyone to check their bags and look all over the place for it, but no one had it and ballplayers just don’t usually take their teammates equipment 1) because it’s broken in for their teammate and not in a way they want it specifically and 2) that’s a quick way to upset the baseball gods if you ask me and you don’t want to do that. I can’t confirm it for sure, but to this day I still believe this crazy fan girl from Torrington took it (if you’re read this or the real person who took my glove reads this, show yourself you coward!)
I would be remiss if I did not bring up the first one, arguably the greatest glove to grace any baseball field on God’s green earth, my first true love, sigh, her name was Regina. What a glove she was, I first got her when I was 8 years old in 2004. She was once so fresh, nothing but the future ahead of her, before her many rips and repairs. She was with me through many epic Little League battles both representing Sharon and the Mid-County All-Star team, along with my beginning Team Connecticut years and my first two years of high school ball at Housatonic. I used Regina all the way until the end of fall ball in 2012, right around my 17th birthday.
Just as I had received Pam 1.0 for my birthday that year, Regina took a hard line drive right to the web and the ball and the web ventured out to left field while I stood at third wondering what would have happened if that had been hit right at my face. The end story with Regina is a sad one, as my Dad did repair her after that incident just so I could bring her to UConn and play light catch with her on an occasion. I went to my cubby in “The Barn”, our hitting facility at UConn, where Regina always was, incase I ever wanted to use her. Coach Hourigan one day had gone through the cubby areas at the end of fall ball early in my sophomore year to clean out what he thought was “garbage”. After looking everywhere for Regina in full panic mode, it had been confirmed that he threw Regina in the trash (moment of silence, Regina Rawlings April 2004-October 2015).
Yes I know, I’m psychotic, hell I just wrote three pages about baseball gloves that I’ve come to know and love over the years. That’s the type of mental state I’m in right now after recently retiring my girl Pam, but that’s how attached to our game-items us ballplayers can get. There are a few like myself, but when something is working well for me, a glove, a bat, a long sleeve undershirt, etc., I stick with it until the bitter end. I like to think that it’s part of my respect for the game, the respect for the tools I use each day that lead to success. Since I started at UConn every bat I’ve used has had a name (I just broke Bianca Birch over in Ft. Myers against the Red Sox, she was a great bat), I have taken all of these bats on the bus with me on road trips because it gets cold down underneath the bus for an aluminum or wood bat, and occasionally I will buckle the bats up in the seats to make sure they have a safe and comfortable ride. Just more weird and crazy things you’ll see out of baseball players, we’re a strange bunch.
But on that note we welcome my newest glove to the family, a pretty blonde glove with my name on the thumb (I know it’s way too nice I will get it dirty in no time don’t worry). Her name is Penny, welcome to the family Penny, but I will always love you Pam.
And we’re back. The excitement, the yearly expectations, the dreams for every player and every team, another baseball season is upon us. An offseason at UConn brought a good work environment, while providing some relaxation (I’ll spare you those details) after a grind of a season down in Sarasota in the Gulf Coast League (GCL). It was a bittersweet dynamic watching my former teammates and coaches at UConn prepare vigorously as a unit, while their season approached much sooner than my own. In the meantime, all members of the Orioles were scattered across the U.S. and the world (the Caribbean, Czech Republic, China, etc.) preparing themselves on their own with whatever resources they are lucky enough to possess. It was a beautiful sight seeing how many former players, other than myself, that the UConn coaching staff allowed to come back and share their resources with even after our time of wearing UConn across our chests’ expired. I would argue we all just wanted to come back and watch Coach MacDonald playfully shred the freshman, as he did with us all before in his twisted but mostly successful strategy to make us more comfortable (or just for the sake of ripping us, I give him the benefit of the doubt).
After months of preparation and repetitions with the UConn team, living at the Electric Zoo with the new assistant coach Jordan Tabakman, the voice of Huskies Chris Jones (Jonesy), and Nasty Nate, it was time to head down south. It worked out beautifully that the Huskies were playing in Atlanta that weekend and my Mom’s Aunt and Uncle, who are twins and live in Atlanta, were celebrating their 90th birthdays that weekend (here’s to them!). Thus my Mom and I made the trek in the old painters truck (Toyota Tacoma with the racks on the back) down to Georgia. Thanks to this perfect storm, my roommate Jonesy, the legendary voice of the Huskies, was nice enough to let me make a fool of myself on the UConn Baseball radio broadcast for their games against Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech with WHUS. After all that fun and doing everything in my power not to yell, clap, cheer, swear, etc. on air, I arrived to Sarasota on February 19th for my physical.
This was my second “first day” in minor league baseball, my first being the first day showing up for physicals before the GCL seasons started the summer before, but it’s not all too different from your first-day-of-school experiences (besides getting stabbed by needles twice and pissing in a cup). You migrate safely into the company of guys you played with the year before, talk to the coaches you recognize from the year before, meet and greet with some new guys and 1 minute later while still in conversation with them think, “Ah shit what’s their name again??” All the classic and awkward feelings from the first few days go off to the side and the physicals are finished and we get back onto the field.
“What’s that kid doing?” a random player asks another while pointing at me.
“Oh that’s Yahn, he’s just rolling around in the grass, he hasn’t seen green grass since October.”
I figured it’d be easier to explain my excitement of being warm and on a baseball field in this way than getting all cliché and descriptive on you. But yes, there’s nothing like going from the emotionally confusing weather climate of Connecticut to the perfectly warm, not a cloud in the sky, putting-green-esque grass environment that Florida in February features.
Quickly the days leading up to Minor League Spring Training games start to blend, in a good way, but they do blend together. Of course this is because Minor League Spring Training games start in the middle of March, as opposed to the Major League Spring Training games, which start in late February. Wake up at 7, get to the complex, eat at 7:30, lift or activate (a light lift) at 8, stretch at 9:30, throw, hit, condition, repeat.
NO, no, nono, NO I am not complaining at all. Are you serious? Me complain about baseball? I explain this to you because when you do this for 23 straight days preparing for your first at-bat or ground ball in a game against another uniform, well, it’s like a dog doing tricks for 23 straight days without his biscuit (at least for me).
At long last, tomorrow is the first day of Minor League Spring Training games. The chance I’ve been waiting for since the last game of the GCL season on September 2nd is finally upon us. The excitement in the locker room is there for sure, but I feel like there are few others who feel the way I feel about the first game. It’s not about proving to the organization that I have done everything in my power in the off-season to earn a spot on a full season team, as important as that is, no question. It’s the game; the game has been given back to me, the chance to Pete Rose dive into third as a stretch a double into a triple, the chance to show players who are most likely more talented than me that my focus and love for the best game in the world determines my reality.
Coach Penders up at UConn says it best, “Prepare like failure is inevitable, play like failure is impossible.” Many would scoff at that sentiment, thinking I should visualize success as I prepare, and understand in the game that failure happens and nobody’s perfect. That’s not how I roll, I can’t think like that. I can’t sit there while I prepare and feel satisfaction from something that isn’t happening in front of me, whether it is reminiscing on past successes or visualizing future ones, baseball is a game about the now where you need a short memory, you need to be where your feet are, and you need to focus on that rep at that moment whether in the gym or on the field. While in games I play like failure is impossible, as soon as you concede in any moment, thinking that getting out won’t put too much of a dent on your batting average or thinking one error isn’t that big of a deal, that’s when those negatives start to pile up. It’s partly an impossible pursuit of perfection that has gotten me to where I am, an instilled mindset from my parents and reiterated during my time at UConn that endless reps, putting your boots on and going to work, while being where your feet are, can make the impossible a reality.
But the other part that will stay with me until I leave this earth is a true love for the game. The preparation that goes into it and the feeling of success when it happens, baseball is really just too beautiful to put into words, it’s truly a gift. Let the games begin!