It begins, of course, in the Spring.
The evenings grow lighter
The air sweeter
and all the world is filled
With sweet optimism. – John F. McCullagh
And so, it was yesterday, and in the few days ahead, as major and minor leaguers filter into their Spring training camps – major leaguers by today, minor leaguers over the next several days.
And so, it is for Willie Rios, just turned 22, ready to begin his third minor league season as a Baltimore Oriole farmhand. He’s strong, he’s disciplined, he’s hopeful, and to the major league scouts and minor league coaches, he has two of their most coveted gifts – he’s a left-handed pitcher, with a fastball that touches 99 miles an hour.
He’s a kid from nearby Connecticut, played for Saint Barnard’s School in Uncasville and initially chose college over professional baseball (a 26th round draft choice of the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school). He went to Maryland, transferring after a year to Florida Southwestern Junior College. At a four-year school, he would have had to wait three years before becoming eligible for the draft again. At a junior college, he was eligible right away. He was drafted in the 16th round by the Orioles, taking a $107,000 bonus and beginning his professional journey in the Gulf Coast Rookie League.
Scouts had rated Rios the number one prospect in 2016 in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Rhode Island has two teams in that league, the Newport Gulls, and Ocean State Waves.
“You would ask him at six, he was going to be a professional ballplayer,” says his father, also Willie Rios. “At nine, he was going to be a professional ballplayer.” At 13, the senior Willie says, after his wife’s car was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler, leaving her seriously injured, the younger Willie assured his mom that everything would be ok, and he would take care of his family. Baseball would take care of his family.
“For as long as I can remember, that was always the goal,” Willie says. “When I was a little kid I fell in love with guys playing the sport on TV, more than actually understanding what was going on. Watching the game, I told my dad that was what I wanted to do … like I was six-years-old.
“The biggest thing is I want is to have a successful career, stay healthy, take care of my family,” he says.
He’s driving to the Oriole’s Minor League training facility, the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Florida, not far from the Major League facility, Ed Smith Stadium. Minor Leaguers are scheduled to report March 6. He’ll stop and visit relatives on the way, eager to begin what he hopes will be a very productive third professional season.
His first season, a half year because of the timing of the draft, was really something to forget. In seven starts, 12 plus innings, he went 0 and 5, with an earned run average of 12.41, and as many walks as strikeouts.
But last year, splitting his time between the Gulf Coast League and the Orioles short-season Class A team at Aberdeen, he especially excelled in the Gulf Coast League, where he started seven games, pitched 31.1 innings with an Earned Run Average of 2.87, striking out twice as many as he walked.
Scouts have suggested that to succeed he needs to “work through his control problems,” something he began to do last year.
Willie understands he needs to remain focused, recognizing, he says, that when you reach the professional level there are many physically gifted athletes, but the differentiator is how you approach the game. The game, he says, is all about being “mentally” prepared, focusing on your goal, attaining consistency. It’s that consistency, he says, that really determines who makes it to the big leagues, and who doesn’t.
These are young men living a dream, willing to endure what Willie says are “long bus rides,” and a salary that’s really “below minimum wage.” But for now, it’s about chasing dreams, the dreams shared on baseball fields everywhere, and heralded in prose and poetry.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
– from Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”