April 11, 2010

The Story of a Walk On

Hey guys, most of you know I coach baseball but I don’t talk much about my playing days. They are mostly uninteresting, however I do have one story that I think is sort of cool. In high school I was a solid defensive catcher who wasn’t that good at hitting. I did hit .360 my senior year but everything fell in for me and I had no power. I think I had 4 doubles my whole senior year.

I could’ve gone to a local junior college and made the team there however playing baseball in college was never really an ultimate goal of mine. When I graduated in 2004 I decided to go to Niagara University and didn’t know what I was going to do as far as baseball. My friends and coaches encouraged me to walk-on basically saying I had nothing else to lose and it wasn’t that great of a baseball school. So when I arrived on campus I made it a point to go talk to the coach and he mentioned that walk-on tryouts will be posted in the next few days. Little did I know that this was becoming a very good northeast school. The 2005 team had 4 players drafted in the MLB entry draft. (2 in the 5th in 2005, 1 in the 12th in 2005, 1 in the 48th in 2006.)

For those that don’t know, a walk-on is someone who isn’t offered a scholarship to play on the team. Some walk-ons are invited to tryout if a school doesn’t think they’re quite good enough for a scholarship. Most walk-ons just go to a tryout at a date specified by the coach.

There was a meeting about a week into school and then tryouts on the next day. I went to what I thought was the meeting and nobody was in the classroom on a very rainy day. No big deal I thought I’d just go to the coach the next day. The next day I walked into the coaches office and he saw me and immediately said a make-up date will be posted soon. I then looked at the board right next to the coaches office and realized that the tryouts were the previous day, when it was raining.

So receiving that fortunate break I made sure I had all my medical papers in order and made sure I wrote down the make-up date. I remember the tryouts were right after a practice. I got there about a half hour early as the team was finishing up batting practice.

First of all let me say that many parents think their sons can go division 1 when they’re in high school. However, D1 is just at a higher level than anyone who hasn’t played it can imagine. Niagara, at this time was a solid northeast school and the balls coming off the bat of these players I was watching was just much different than high school. As I waited 7 other kids joined me to tryout. As they wrapped up practice the coach addressed us. As a catcher I would get 10 swings, 2 throws down to second and that’s it. Which I later found out was pretty standard.

My 2 throws to second were good, but I had no idea how they were for a divison 1 catcher. Hitting, all I remember was my first swing in which I basically swung from my heals and lined it to the right centerfield gap. Other than that i don’t think I hit too well. After everyone was done we had to rake the field and meet in the dugout. The coach talked to us for a bit and at the end he basically said “Thanks for trying out, but sorry we don’t have any room for anyone, but I’d like to speak to the catcher.”

My head popped up and I was stunned. He then said this to me “If you’d like to be on the team we’d love to have you. We have 4 other catchers on the roster right now, but you’d come to practice everyday and improve. For this year you’ll basically be in the bullpen during both games and intrasquads. I’ll give you a day to think about it, thanks again for trying out.”

So at this point I realized that any catcher that tried out was going to be offered a spot on the team. Nevertheless I was ecstatic I was offered a spot and immediately told all my friends I made the team. I went back the next day and told him I’d take the spot. He gave me the practice schedule and I was on my way.

I can still remember the first day of practice very well. I was walking to the field with my own baseball pants and my old legion t-shirt. I was incredibly nervous and walked into the dugout and took the first open bench space available. The coach was at the cage helping out a hitter which didn’t make it an easier for me. I’m not sure what the other players were thinking but only one came up and introduced themselves to me.

I was thrilled when I saw the coach walking over. When he got to the dugout he introduced me to the team and we were on our way. The bad part about being a walk-on especially in this case is 2 weeks into fall ball everyone is already tight. The first few days were sort of weird for me as I basically would just do whatever and go home. Slowly I was being accepted as part of the team and the group of guys on the team we had were great in welcoming me in as a teammate.

Up until the fourth practice I had avoided the hard throwers on the team (both 5th round draft picks). On that day I caught one of our better pitchers for the first time. He could throw as hard as 92-94 but I don’t think he was topping out at that speed when I caught him for the first time. However, while catching guys who throw mid 80s in high school I’ll be the first to tell you that catching/hitting someone throwing 90+ is much different. I can’t really explain how fast the ball is on you and it’s more noticeable as a hitter, but it’s just something you have to experience to appreciate how good the major/minor leaguers are.

While the increased velocity was a big adjustment the most difficult part was adjusting to the movement. The first 2-seam fastball on the inside corner I caught from him nearly broke my thumb as I missed centering it by that much. I probably caught about 10 balls the rest of the way as I was in so much pain, but didn’t bother to take myself out as I had one job to do and that was catch bullpens. However it was embarrassing having to go to the trainers before practice to get my thumb taped up the rest of the year as I was just a bullpen catcher.

The rest of the fall was fun and I was excited to roll into winter practices. The first day of winter practice my thumb problem flared up again as the coach was taping it up now and the tape job wasn’t as good. Going into the season I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to travel. I went into the coach’s office and asked him about this and he said there would be certain trips i would be able to go to.

It was cool traveling to places like the University of South Carolina, despite being heckled by their fans. Unfortunately I wasn’t on the travel roster as I didn’t go on every trip. As a result I wasn’t in the program. So it was right after the national anthem as the stadium was very quiet and as I started to turn around I heard. “HEY ONE, ONE (I was #1), YOU’RE NOT EVEN ON THE ROSTER, YOU’RE NOT EVEN ON THE ROSTER!!!!!.” This was obviously pretty embarrassing but I have to tip my cap to those guys it was really good. It also didn’t help matters that we lost 18-1 that game. However their stadium and atmosphere are unbelievable.

About one-third of the way into the season I broke my index and middle fingers when I was setting up too close to a batter in one of our practices. I missed 5 weeks of the season which sucked and when I got back we were fighting to make the conference tournament. Top top 4 make it in the MAAC and we had to sweep our last series and needed some help to make it. Fortunately we did our part and got help from another team.

The conference tournament was a ton of fun. Since the schedule is so condensed i was able to warm up the starting pitcher in the pre-game which was very cool with music playing and it being such a big game. We lost our first game to the 1 seed and the host school (box score Here ) on one of the worst defensive interference calls I’ve ever seen. But were able to win the next 2 advancing to the finals where we had to win twice. Unfortunately we lost 5-4 and were sent home early. This was my only year as the commitment is huge and I really didn’t see myself every playing for this team.

One thing I took from our coach was to always be honest with your players. He easily could’ve sugarcoated things to make them sound better than they were but he let me know what was happening the entire time and I’ve tried to do that with my players as well.

I also learned a ton from the players on this team. From how to pitch guys with 2 strikes to figuring out pitchers patterns, I can’t even begin to tell you how much valuable information I picked up from my teammates. Also, it was generally the best players on the team that would be sharing the information with me which I thought was very cool. The whole experience was awesome and I was very fortunate to experience it.

“We Americans are a peculiar people. We are for the underdog, no matter how much of a dog he is.”
Happy Chandler

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