Today is the unofficial start of the baseball season. I know it’s a cold January day, but with the Hickory Crawdads hosting the Texas Rangers Winter Caravan today, the occasion is a reminder that games begin in a few short months.
For the past three years, the caravan has been an occasion for the Rangers to bring back some of the former players to Hickory. This year, Jose Trevino and Jeffrey Springs return to the city where they helped win the 2015 South Atlantic League title.
The event is especially meaningful for Springs. Here is a 30th-round pick as a senior out of Appalachian State and, before that, South Point High in Belmont, about an hour drive from Hickory. Not many 30th rounders get to the major leagues. Not many senior signees get to the major leagues. Not many alums of App State get to the major leagues – in fact, only seven have. Yet, the left-hander defied the odds and last July he made his MLB debut on July 31 with the Texas Rangers in Arlington.
My memory of Springs was a guy that really was too good for this league. A sharp-cutting slider – I’d swear it was a curveball at times – accentuated his low 90s fastball and made it seem even faster. In parts of two seasons with the Crawdads, Springs posted a 1.05 ERA in 34.1 innings pitched (20 games) with 46 strikeouts and nine strikeouts.
With his arsenal, the Rangers had Springs return to the starting role he had at Appalachian State. With mixed results, he jumped back to bullpen work and showed enough at AA Frisco and AAA Round Rock to get a look-see with the Rangers over the final two months of the season.
So, when Springs comes back to Hickory today it will be as a big leaguer. In itself, that is something the left-hander had little imagination for this time last year when he was working for the YMCA in Charlotte, trying to supplement his minor-league income. The whole idea of Springs coming home this fall as a major leaguer was surreal to him. But now, he is in a position to make that surreal dream an annual reality.
It is that mindset that this interview with Springs begins.
What was it like going home this fall, after the season, being a big leaguer?
Springs: It was kind of surreal thinking back on the season. You kind of reflect a little bit when you get home, because you’ve been going at it since February. Kind of looking back, it was unbelievable how quickly it happened. I was just taking it one step at a time. I was hoping it would go well at AA and, obviously, trying to end the year there. Before I knew it, I was in AAA and then the next thing I knew, I was getting called up to the big leagues. I mean, it was everything you could think about. It’s crazy to think about.
The first couple of months at home, it was kind of hard to think that I could call myself a big leaguer.
Do you have a different mindset this winter than when you went home last year from Kinston, or when you went home from Hickory, etc.?
Springs: I was hungrier, I guess, looking at it in the sense of I got there. Now, it’s a matter of really establishing myself and staying around and making a career of it. It’s one goal to get there, but then once you get there, you only want to play there. It kind of opens your eyes to the competition, to the lifestyle, and the teammates. It motivates me more that I want to stay there. Like I said, I want to be a part of the team. I had a little bit of success and I feel like I can compete at that level. That was a big takeaway that I had from those two months, that I can pitch at that level and I can have success.
How did you find out you were going to Texas?
Springs: I was actually sitting at my apartment in Round Rock on an off day doing laundry. I knew the trade deadline was coming up, or whatever, but I didn’t look too much into it.
I was on the phone with my mom, calling her and touching base. I saw Paul Kruger’s (Texas Rangers assistant director of player development) name popped up on my phone. So I told her that I’ve got to go real quick. He answered the phone and he was like, “Hey, hold on just a second, you’ve got the Triple-A manager on the phone.”
He asked, “what are you doing?” I was like, ‘I’m doing laundry.’ He said, ‘Stop doing that and get to the field and get to the airport. You’re meeting the team in Arizona. You just got called up. Congratulations.’
After he said that, I blacked out almost, because I really didn’t know what to say back to him other than thank you. He was like, “You’ve got about an hour-and-a-half to get to the field and get to the airport. So hurry up.”
I was running through the airport trying to make the flight because I was scared I was going to miss it. On the whole plane ride, it was, “is this really happening?” I showed up to the park at about 5:45, six o’clock. I played catch with the pitching coach and the next thing that I knew I was in the game that night. It was a hectic day, but I would do it over and over again if I had to.
Did you fly with wet clothes?
Springs: No (laughing). I had some clothes, but he was like, ‘just wear whatever you wear to the ballpark because you’re going to turn around and fly right back home that night.’ I was only there that night, because it was their last game in Arizona.
So, I flew in with the team and then I caught a flight back to Austin and drove my car back to Arlington because it was an off day the next day. It was pretty crazy; it really was. Like I said, I was nervous that I was going to miss the flight, because if I missed the flight, I wasn’t going to be at the game. It all worked out, that’s for sure. Like I said, I would do it over and over again if I had to for that experience.
What was your first moment in the big leagues where you said, “okay, this is for real”?
Springs: I feel like the first outing, it was so surreal that I didn’t really register what was going on the first inning. Once I got that out of the way, I felt like I got back to pitching. Once I was able to strike out the first guy of my career, I felt like it was, “Hey, it’s just baseball. You’ve just got to make pitches.” and things like that. They’re just a little bit better hitters. I guess, after that, it was three or four outings into it that I realized, “Ok, I can do this.” It’s a matter of doing what I do and executing pitches.
Who was the first hitter you faced where you really got a sense that this was a surreal moment? You see them on TV and you hear about them and read about them, and there you are.
Springs: Probably with Arizona. They had A.J. Pollock, and Paul Goldschmidt and John Jay – I remember facing him when he was rehabbing at Lake Elsinore (High-A San Diego) out in the California. These are guys you see on TV all the time. Paul Goldschmidt is unbelievable. Pollock was on the All-star team. All these guys that you watch. Probably the first couple of hitters with Arizona. Facing guys like Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen and people like that, it’s pretty crazy.
The last time you and I talked was two years ago just after you were selected for the South Atlantic League All-Star game. What clicked for you from your time at Hickory until your callup? What was the period of time where you began to think, maybe I can get there?
Springs: I think, maybe, throughout the year in Kinston. I had some ups and downs as a starter, but I think I realized how to read swings a little bit better, and really what I did well and what I didn’t do so well, so I could pitch to my strengths. I really focused in on that. This is where I can go to get hitters out. This is where I can go to get ground balls or popups. It was really understanding what I could do and sticking to that and always pitching to my strengths, unless the situation calls for something different. Understanding that if you’re going to get beat, you’ve got to get beat with your best pitch with a hundred percent conviction.
So, once I kind of understood, hey, this is what I’m good at and this is how I pitch, this is what I need to do to have success, and really focusing in on my reading swings. Kind of watching how other guys attack hitters and thinking to myself, “what would I do in that situation?”
As a starter, you would have to sit up in the stands and chart the game. I think that really helped me a lot understanding the swings. It’s something that I never really focused on. I was just out there trying to make my pitch. Once I kind of realized why you’re trying to make that pitch, I think that helped me out tremendously.
Obviously, there’s a lot of room to improve, but I think I have a pretty good understanding of what I do well, and I just continue to work on it as I move forward.
I looked back and remembered that you had pitched for South Point in the state 3A title series. If I remember reading this right, you were a hitter. How did you decide to go to App to be a pitcher instead of a hitter? You had quite a series in the championship.
Springs: My first year, my coaches didn’t like the young guys to hit, he wanted them to focus on pitching. So, I hit a little bit then – obviously, I hit in my career before that. But, the days I pitched, I didn’t get to hit. So, I played first base.
I had committed to college – I think, my sophomore or junior year. I had committed early as a pitcher. I was a decent hitter my junior year, but I was already committed to be a pitcher. So, my senior year, since I knew it was going to be my last year hitting, I really worked on it in the offseason. I just kind of clicked, because I knew there wasn’t any pressure in it. I knew I was going as a pitcher and I probably wouldn’t get to swing the bat very much. I was just having fun and enjoying that last year in high school.
Do you go back to South Point very much?
Springs: Every once in a while. I went back and signed autographs at one of the football games. They asked me to come out and do that for a little recognition thing. But, I’ll go back to the high school a couple of times. They’ll do their winter workouts and stuff. I don’t want to impose, so I’ll throw on my own and stuff like that, because they have a limited amount of time that they can do their workouts and stuff, so I don’t want to bother them too much. I kind of follow them and stuff and my parents still live in Belmont.
You had the chance in the last year to be an opener, which is a new thing going on in the major leagues. How have you embraced that role and how has that been different from what you’ve done in the minor league as a traditional reliever?
Springs: Honestly, I treated it the exact same. I went out there, obviously, a little earlier. As a bullpen guy, you don’t have to get out there quite as early. The first one I did in Arlington, I went out to the bullpen before people were even out there. I just kind of sat down there and did my normal routine. I sat there by myself a little bit and then I got up and started stretching. By that time that catcher and the pitching coaches were coming out because the game was about to start in 15-20 minutes, as opposed to a traditional starter, who gets out there 30-40 minutes early.
I went through my stuff. I had played catch earlier that day with the relievers, so I was going to treat it like a normal day. I’m just coming into the game earlier. Basically, I’m starting it. I just got up on the mound and went through the routine and then went into the dugout. I treated it as close to my normal routine as possible, because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it by overthinking. I treated it the exact same. I had a little success with it, so I did that the next time in Oakland and it worked out okay. I think it went pretty well.
Do you have a sense of doing something different and unique that is on the ground level of this sort of thinking with the opener? Not many people have the opportunity to do something that is different and outside of the box?
Definitely, I was very fortunate they allowed me to do that, the few times that they did. I kind of just embraced it with an open arm and open mind. For me, whether I’m pitching in the first inning as an opener, or the ninth inning as a closer, I’m focusing on three outs, one inning at a time and putting up zeros.
I try not to look too much into it. I like to keep it as simple as possible, but it’s just I have to go out there and do my job whether it’s as an opener or facing one hitter. I just try to treat it the same as possible. It is pretty cool and I’m pretty fortunate to be a part of that, if that’s what they continue to do. It’s pretty neat.
What were you doing this time last year?
Springs: This time last year, working part time jobs and kind of getting back into shape and try to get ready to go to spring training.
Where did you work?
Springs: The YMCA in Charlotte.
So now, you’re doing Winter Caravan with a major league team?
Springs: Yeah (laughter). It’s a little different, because, you know, this the time I always come home and try to work part time, because money is not great. It is what it is, so it’s a little different this year for sure.
No part-time jobs this offseason?
Springs: No, part-time jobs. I’m pretty booked up with the wedding and all that. Other than I teach a lesson to a young kid and stuff like that. That’s not really for money, it’s just to help him out and try to teach him some things that I wish I had have learned younger.
Being a 30th-round pick and you were a senior sign to the major leagues, how surreal is that whole journey, where most of you guys don’t make it?
It’s pretty crazy; I mean, really thinking about that, like you said. From that first year in Spokane, just thinking about the guys that I played with that were very good and were much higher draft picks, and things like that, it didn’t necessarily work out for them, even after that year, to where I am now, it’s pretty crazy. It’s definitely really crazy to hear. I don’t really think too much about it except for when people bring it up. It’s very humbling and an amazing experience, that’s for sure.
As the 2017 season begins, 29 former Hickory Crawdads will dot major league rosters. That is up from 25 to start the 2016 campaign.
Ten of those are on the Crawdads parent club, the Texas Rangers. Among American League clubs, only Toronto has two former Hickory players. Thirteen former Crawdads are on National League teams, including three on the Pittsburgh Pirates, left over from the days of their affiliation with Hickory. The Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres each have two.
Three players on MLB rosters will start the year on the disabled list: Hanser Alberto (Texas), Robbie Erlin (San Diego) and Zach Duke (St. Louis).
Here is a synopsis of each player in the majors:
Hanser Alberto (’12): The infielder will begin the season on the disabled. He has played the last two seasons with Texas, posting a .194/ .204 /.226 slash over 76 combined games.
Jose Bautista (’02): The right-handed hitter will be in his 14th major league season, the ninth with the Toronto Blue Jays. Battling injuries in 2016, Bautista hit 22 homers in 116 and posted a .234/.366/.452 slash. He signed a one-year contract with Toronto during the off-season to remain with the club.
Alex Claudio (’13): The soft-tossing, lefty reliever will be in his fourth major league season with the Texas Rangers. In 39 games in 2016, he put up a 2.79 ERA over 51.2 innings with 34 Ks and 10 walks.
Rajai Davis (’02-’03): The speedy outfielder will be in his 12th major league season, his first with the Oakland A’s after signing a free agent contract in the off-season. The right-handed hitter posted a .249/.306/.388 slash with Cleveland in 2016 and led the American League with 43 stolen bases. He is expected to start in centerfield for the Athletics, with whom he played for from 2008-2010.
Joey Gallo (’13): The left-handed hitter will be in his third major league season with the Texas Rangers. He has played in 53 games the previous two years, putting up a .173/ .281/.368 slash. Gallo will start at third in place of the injured Adrian Beltre.
Leury Garcia (’09-’10): The switch-hitter will be in his fifth major league season, most of those with the Chicago Cubs. Out of minor-league options, Garcia was kept on the big league club and will fill a utility role. He spent much of last year at AAA Charlotte.
Jose Leclerc (’13): The right-handed reliever will be on his first opening-day roster after he made 12 relief appearances for the Texas Rangers in his debut season last year. He put up a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings with 15 Ks and 13 BBs. He split last year at AA Frisco and AAA Round Rock.
Nomar Mazara (’13-’14): The left-handed hitting outfielder will be in his second major league season with the Texas Rangers after playing in 145 games during his debut season. He posted a .266/.320/.419 slash with 20 homers and 64 RBI. Mazara will start the season in right.
Rougned Odor (’12): The left-handed second baseman will be in his fourth season with the Texas Rangers and recently signed a six-year extension with the club. Last year, Odor hit 33 homers and collected 88 RBI in 150 games. His posted a .271/.296 /.502 slash.
Steve Pearce (’07): The right-handed hitter will be in his 11th major league season, the first with the Toronto Blue Jays after signing a two-year deal during the off-season. Pearce split last year between Tampa Bay and Baltimore, posting a .288/.374/.492 slash over 110 games. He his expected to start in left.
Martin Perez (’09): The left-handed pitcher will be in his sixth major league season with the Texas Rangers. Perez went 10-11 with a 4.39 ERA over 33 starts in 2016. He is expected to be the No. 3 starter for the Rangers.
Jurickson Profar (’12, ’15): The switch-hitter will be in his fourth major league season with the Texas Rangers, but is on his first opening-day roster. Profar had a .239/.321/.338 slash over 90 games in 2016. He is expected to play a utility role for the Rangers this year.
Drew Robinson (’12): The left-handed hitter will make his major league debut with the Texas Rangers this season after spending last year at AAA Round Rock. Robinson will play a utility role with Texas.
Robbie Ross (’10): The left-handed reliever will be in his sixth major league season, the third with the Boston Red Sox. Ross posted a 3.25 ERA in 2016 and fanned 56 over 55.1 innings.
Ryan Rua (’13): The right-handed hitter will be in his fourth major league season with the Texas Rangers. Rua posted a .258//331/.400 slash over 99 games last year. He is expected to split time in left and at first.
Chris Young (’01-’02): The right-handed pitcher will be in his 13th major league season, the third with the Kansas City Royals. Young went 3-9 in 34 games (13 starts) in 2016 with a 6.19 ERA. He lost out in a battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation and will be a long-man out of the bullpen.
Zach Duke (’03): The left-handed reliever will miss the 2017 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He is currently with the St. Louis Cardinals after the team acquired him from the Chicago White Sox in a 2016 trade.
Carl Edwards, Jr. (’13): The right-handed reliever will be in his third major league season with the Chicago Cubs. This will be his first opening-day in the majors. In 36 games last year, Edwards posted a 3.75 ERA with 52 Ks and 14 BBs over 36 innings. The National League hit just .123 against Edwards.
Jerad Eickhoff (’12): The right-handed starting pitcher will be in his third major league season with the Philadelphia Phillies after he completed his first full year with the club in 2016. He went 11-14 with a 3.65 ERA over 33 starts, striking out 167 and walking 42 over 197.1 innings. Eickhoff will be the No. 2 starter for the Phillies.
Robbie Erlin (’10): The left-handed pitcher will begin this season on the disabled list with the San Diego Padres while he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2016. He hopes to return to the club this midseason for what would be his fifth major league season.
Justin Grimm (’11): The right-handed reliever will be in his sixth major league season, the fifth with the Chicago Cubs. In 68 appearances in 2016, Grimm went 2-1 with a 4.10 ERA and fanned 65 to just 23 walks over 52.2 IP. Grimm will pitch in middle relief.
Odubel Herrera (’11): The left-handed hitter will be in his third major league season with the Philadelphia Phillies after he took a big step as one of the National League’s best young centerfielders in 2016. During a season in which he represented the Phillies on the National League All-Star Team, Herrera posted a .286/.361/.420 slash and stole 25 bases in 159 games.
Jared Hughes (’07-’08): The right-handed reliever will be in his seventh major league season and recently just signed with the Milwaukee Brewers after the Pittsburgh Pirates released him last week. Hughes went 1-1 with a 3.03 ERA over 67 appearances in 2016. He will pitch in middle relief for the Brewers.
Andrew McCutchen (’06): The right-handed hitter will be in his ninth major league season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. McCutchen struggled over 153 games last year and posted his career-worst slash (.256/.336/.430). He hit 24 homers, but stole just six bases in 13 attempts. After manning center his entire career, McCutchen will shift to right this year.
Jordy Mercer (’08): The right-handed shortstop will be in his sixth major league season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played in 149 games last year and posted a .256/.313/.377 with 11 homers and 59 RBI.
Neil Ramirez (’09-’10): The right-handed pitcher will be in his fourth major league season, the first with the San Francisco Giants. Ramirez signed a minor-league contract with the club during the offseason and made the club out of spring training. Ramirez made 18 relief appearances with three clubs (Cubs, Milwaukee, Minnesota) and struggled to a 6.00 ERA over 24 innings. He did strike out 24, but walked 18 and had a 1.67 WHIP. He will come out of the bullpen for the Giants.
Luis Sardinas (’12): The switch-hitter will be in his fourth major league season, the second with the San Diego Padres after the team acquired him from Seattle during the 2016 season. Sardinas played in 66 combined games last year with a .244/.295/.356 slash. He will play some shortstop, but will start the season in a utility role.
Neil Walker (’05): The switch-hitting second baseman will be in his ninth major league season, the second with the New York Mets after resigning in the offseason. Despite battling a back injury, Walker still posted a .282/.347/.476 over 113 games with the Mets and blasted 23 homers.
Tony Watson (’07): The left-handed reliever will be in his seventh major league season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the midseason trade of Mark Melancon, Watson took on the job of the Pirates closer in 2016 and will serve in the same role this year. He went 2-5 with 15 saves last year over 70 games with a 3.06 ERA. Watson struck out 58 and walked 20 over 67.2 IP.
It’s always fun for me – and for most minor league observers, those who are paid to do this and those who are not – to try and figure out which players from a Low-A roster will get to the major leagues. Looking at the 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster and trying to guess who from that squad would make is a fascinating exercise in hindsight
The 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster featured FOUR first-round selections and only one – Luke Jackson – made it past AA. Nick Martinez, who threw 26 innings at Fordham University, a program which hadn’t had a former pitcher in the majors since 2001, started the 2012 season in the Crawdads bullpen. He went on to make the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, then put together a strong 2013 season that catapulted him to a major league debut with the Rangers at the start of the 2014 season.
Martinez, now looking to his fourth MLB season, has a key stretch coming up during which he is trying to make the team either as a fifth starter or a bullpen arm.
The first full season for Martinez was somewhat average for the then-21-year-old. He posted a 4.83 ERA over 117 2/ 3 innings, though he did strike out 109 batters to just 37 walks. The native of Miami, FL admitted that 2012 was one in which he was learning to become a professional.
In the interview below – done during last week’s Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C., Martinez talks his rise to the major leagues with Texas and what helped him along the way.
When you were here in 2012, did you ever think that you’d be coming back here in 2017 as a major league pitcher?
Martinez: No, I couldn’t look that far ahead down the road. It is good to be back. The memories are coming to me. I used to play many golf rounds out here at Rock Barn and I had a lot of great memories playing for Hickory.
What is the biggest memory you can recall from that season?
Martinez: Baseball wise, it’s an interesting year because it’s your first full season. You get to learn a lot about yourself mentally and physically. Obviously, that’s one of the milestones of playing a full season. Off the field, though, it’s a chance to really bond with your teammates. We had a lot of great memories playing here at Rock Barn.
You had come out of college, and if I remember right, you had thrown something like 26 innings in college. Who or what circumstance gave you the confidence that you could pitch at a professional level?
Martinez: My father, since high school, kind of prepared me just in case I ever became a pitcher. He had me go to some pitching lessons, so it wasn’t completely bazaar for me to make that transition. I was okay with making that transition before it even happened. In college, I just wanted to play professional baseball. Once the Rangers gave me that chance as a pitcher, I was all in and eager to learn and get better. I still am.
You had pretty much a quick rise when you left here and debuted in 2014. What flipped the switch and gave you the confidence that you could do this on a major league level?
Martinez: 2013 was probably my best minor league season. I was more consistent. I knew what I needed to do to keep that consistency. I was clear mentally and I knew what I needed to do. Obviously, when you transfer up to the major league level, it doesn’t exactly equal the same amount of mental pressure and mental consistency. I went through my ups and downs in 2014, but once you get over that hump, it makes things a lot easier. Again, once you know what you need to do, you kind of establish a work ethic and things to help you maintain that.
Who is somebody that had a big influence for you to get to that level, that you could do this at the major league level?
Martinez: Every pitching coach I came across in the minor league system, as well as the pitching coordinator. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with coaches that have made me better at every level and taken my game to the next step and prepare myself mentally and physically.
What was it like to step on a major league mound for the first time?
Martinez: Surreal. It’s crazy. Obviously, you’re anxious and nervous and stuff like that, but it’s kind of an anxiousness and nervousness that you can work with, because I felt prepared. I felt like I was ready for this. Obviously, it’s something you train for your whole life. It’s something you dream of and I felt like I belonged on the mound and I was ready to go. I was very fortunate, also, to be pitching in my home state, so my family was able to drive up and watch my debut.
Who was the first hitter that gave you the reality check that you were in the major leagues?
Martinez: Evan Longoria. The reality check that said, “this is the show; this is the big leagues.” In my debut.
Did he hit you hard or something?
Martinez: He smoked a ball. I got him out, but he smoked a ball somewhere. I think it was right at someone. Thank God, he got a good handle on it. (Note: In the second inning of Martinez’s debut, Longoria grounded sharply off Martinez for a 1-4-3 putout.)
Who was the first hitter you faced that was a dream hitter. Maybe somebody, when you were in high school, that you said, “I’d like to face this guy.”
Martinez: 2014, Derek Jeter’s last year in the major leagues. I got to face him at Yankee Stadium and once again at home in Arlington. It’s just something I’ll never forget, obviously. He does his whole pre-pitch routine in the box. It’s something that you see on TV and on video games, and now he’s doing it to you and letting you know he’s ready. It was a dream come true. It was wild.
Looking ahead to this year, I know the Rangers are looking to solidify the number-five spot. What are you looking for, as far as getting your foot in that door and keeping that spot?
Martinez: Competing. I’m going to go into spring training competing for that fifth spot in the rotation. I’m still in the part of my career where being in the major leagues at all is a goal. I’m going to be competing for the fifth spot, but if a bullpen spot opens up, I’m also going to be eager to land that spot. My main goal, first, is to be in the major leagues, but, obviously, I set my goals a little higher. I know I can help this team at the start.
I meant to ask this earlier, what did (pitching coach) Storm Davis mean to you for that 2012 in Hickory?
Martinez: Storm played a huge part in that mental game of baseball and what to expect in your first full season, mentally and how your body is going to feel physically – how tired you’re going to get and ways to grind through it. He helped me out a lot with different sequences and what to look for in hitters.
I’m not going to pretend that I knew Walter Young. I never met him. However, from the people I talked with and heard from that did know him, I wish I had. Simply put, Young was described as a giant of a man with an even bigger heart.
I did get to see Young play at the end of the 2002 season. I was in Hickory preparing to move my family here from Columbus, GA. I saw the big powerful man – listed in 2002 at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds – approach the plate and saw the numbers that went with it. From what little I knew about the Crawdads at the time, I knew that this was the powerhouse in the lineup that likely had a lot to do with the Hickory Crawdads making the playoffs – a run that ended with the Crawdads first South Atlantic League (SAL) title.
What I do remember about seeing Young play in 2002 – oddly enough – was the intentional walk. It was in such a situation that I taught my then eight-year-old son about intentional walks, and it happened simply because the other team didn’t want to get beat by the big man.
Young was certainly feared by SAL pitchers in 2002. At a level where intentional walks are rarely issued, Young received six that season – more than the Crawdads team has received in six entire individual seasons since 2008.
The numbers Young put up that season were among the best ever by a Crawdads hitter. His 34 doubles were a single-season record until 2011. He led the SAL that season in doubles, home runs (25), hits (164) and total bases (277). For his efforts, Young received the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
His power was certainly legendary among players in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
“I had a chance to spend instructional league with Walter in ’02,” said 2003 Crawdads outfielder and SAL batting title winner Chaz Lytle. “He was what we called a ‘gentle giant’, but let me tell you he could hit the furthest home runs I have ever seen. The word ‘Tower Power’ doesn’t even describe his power. I watched this guy hit a golf cart behind our Spring Training complex in a game against the Reds.”
While the tales of his Paul Bunyan-type power were recalled by players and fans alike, they paled in comparison to stories of Young the person – a man who enjoyed what he did on and off the field, often with lots of laughter.
“He was a great guy,” said pitcher 2001 Crawdads pitcher Kenny Henderson. “I remember nothing but him hitting a laser off me in spring training and hearing him laugh rounding first base.”
He was described by several players as a mentor who took them, in some cases, literally under his care.
“One memory I have of Walter is him inviting me to stay at his place when I got called up to Low A in which we won the championship that year,” said Rajai Davis, now an outfielder with the Detroit Tigers. “It was at the end of the year so was really beneficial for me. The next year the Crawdads made a bobblehead of him of which I still have now.”
The combination of power and personality of the man were such that the Crawdads held a Walter Young Bobblehead Night the next season. He’s the only Crawdads player I can recall that had a bobblehead night the following season after playing with Hickory.
The friendships that Young made were not just for the moment, but in many cases turned into lifelong friendships. Former teammate Vic Buttler (’01-’02, ’05) told of his first meeting with Young at the Pirates complex in Bradenton, Fla.
“I still vividly remember until this very day, after getting drafted and being shipped to Bradenton, Florida. Walter Young was the very first person that greeted me as I exited that white van. He asked me my name and told me his. From that day forward, Walt and I developed a strong bond and were roommates during our playing seasons together. Although Walt stood amongst the giants, he was the friendliest and most courteous peer I’ve ever played with!”
Young was certainly revered by fans and the Crawdads front office staff that got to see Walter Young play. When I began working with the team’s front office in 2005, occasionally you’d here talk of “Big Walter” with big smiles and occasional laughter. It was simply a reflection of what they had received from Young himself.
“Walter Young always had a big smile and was very kind to everyone that he met,” recalled former long-time Crawdads employee Barbara Beatty.
When Young received what turned out to be his lone major league call-up in September 2005, those who knew him were genuinely glad to see Big Walter get his chance with the Baltimore Orioles.
Perhaps the best story from those who worked for the Crawdads comes from former Crawdads bat boy, Eric Davidson, who celebrated his 18th birthday on the night the Crawdads won the decisive game five of the SAL Championship Series at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory.
“I was working as the batboy for the series and right after the final out was recorded,” Davidson recalls. “We were all out on the field celebrating and Walter walks up to me with a bottle of champagne and dumps it over my head while singing, Happy Birthday.”
Young played through the 2009 season before returning home to his native Purvis, MS, where he worked as a deputy sheriff.
“He was always kind, funny, and reached out to everybody,” Lytle said. “I am sure he is making someone laugh now. You will be missed JR.”
#2. Walters walkout song was “It’s getting Hot in Here” by Nelly.
#3. Mike Maulding at Peak Motors down the street got Walter to sign a bat for him, I remember him and Walter chatting after the championship game about how much fun the season was and how Walter was a man playing with boys during the year. Walter literally lead almost every offensive category that year.
#4 Walter made the 2002 SAL All-Star team with Keppinger, Vic Buttler, Jeremy Harts, Chris Shelton and Manager Tony Beasley. I believe Bautista was too. Walter was named the Most Outstanding Prospect and MVP of the game. That same year Robinson Cano, Angel Pagan, David Wright and Ryan Howard all made the All-Star team with the Crawdads boys.
#5 Our last series before the All-Star game we were playing in Hagerstown. I was on the road doing radio with Canio. Before we left the plan was for me to drive our All-Stars to Lakewood from Hagerstown. We rented a van from enterprise and I drove Walter Young, (Jeff) Keppinger and (Jeremy) Harts while Chris Young drove (Chris) Shelton. It was a fun and interesting ride from Hagerstown as Harts and Keppinger and Walter just shot the breeze about the season and the goal to win the championship. It was like being that fan who had the chance to sit in the clubhouse and shoot the breeze about the game and the season. Walter was never an outgoing guy so that was a special moment.
#6 Walter lived with Harts across from our Brad and I inside Northside Apt. We routinely picked up these guys for player appearances and all these guys wanted to do was sleep. Can’t blame them, I would too.
Walter Young, a first baseman for the Hickory Crawdads during their first South Atlantic League (SAL) championship in 2002, passed away on Saturday, September 19 in his hometown of Purvis, MS, where he served as a deputy sheriff. He was 35.
The first baseman came to Hickory three seasons after the Pittsburgh Pirates took him in the 31st round of the 1999 draft out of Purvis High.
Young was named the SAL Most Valuable Player for his dominant work in the Crawdads lineup. In 132 games that season, Young posted a .333/.390/.563 slash with 34 doubles, 25 homers and 103 RBI. His doubles mark at the time set the club’s single-season mark. He led the SAL in hits (164), homers and total bases (277).
Other top-10 Crawdads marks still held by Young: second in total bases, third in hits and RBI, sixth in batting avg. and slugging, seventh in HBP (15) and eighth in games played.
Along with his MVP honors in 2002, Young was named to Baseball America’s Low-A all-star team. He went on to all-star honors in the Carolina League at High-A Lynchburg in 2003 and in the Eastern League at AA Bowie of the Baltimore Orioles chain in 2004.
Young played much of 2005 with the Orioles’ AAA farm team at Ottawa before he got his lone big league callup to Baltimore on September 6.He went 10-for-33 in 14 games with a double, a homer and three RBI.
His lone homer in the majors came on 9/13/05 for the Orioles at Texas – a solo shot in the seventh inning against R.A. Dickey.
Young’s affiliated career lasted one more season in 2006 with the Astros and Padres. From there, he played for various independent league teams, the last coming in 2009 at Edmonton of the Golden League.