In short season A, baseball starts in June. By the time the first game arrives and the home plate umpire yells “Play ball!”, many veteran players have reported to spring training down in Arizona earlier this year. They’ve been here before. They know what to expect. They are waiting for their assignments telling them which team they will report to.
Two such veterans for this year’s Hillsboro Hops team are Ryan January and Andy Yerzy, both catchers. Ryan first appeared with Arizona’s Pioneer League team, the Missoula Osprey in 2016, where many future Hops get their early taste of pro ball. Originally out of San Jacinto Community College in Houston, Ryan is in his second year with the Diamondback’s organization. The 21-year-old was drafted in the eighth round in 2016.
Ryan found himself 1848 miles way from home as the draft approached. He hopped into his car and drove the distance to Boston, arriving the night before. After a brief nap, he awoke to watch the draft with his family and best friend, Robert Serino. “I didn’t have much time.” He confided. “I was on a plane the next day.”
Andy Yerzy also came up from the Ospreys, having played there for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Out of York Mills Collegiate Institute, he was also drafted in 2016, coming out of the second round. A native of Ontario, Canada, the 19-year-old was assigned to the Hillsboro Hops as was Ryan.
On the day he was drafted, Andy’s day was kept pretty normal. He went to school since it was a Friday. Came home to get ready for the draft with his two older brothers and a close cousin. Two of his former coaches came over for support. His moment came late on the first day in the second round. Andy was selected at the #52 pick overall by Arizona. Smiles broke out with cheers of congratulations.
Throughout the day, Andy’s coaches prepared him with advice and memories of their own playing days. Hyung Cho was drafted by the Seattle Mariners and spent two years between rookie ball and AAA, playing second and third base. Hyung ended his career with 30 games in the Pittsburgh system.
Chris Kemlo was drafted by the Yankees in 2001. In 2004, he found himself playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system where Andy now found himself. Chris even played for the Yakima Bears in 2004 and 2005 which would move after the 2012 season to Hillsboro to become the Hillsboro Hops.
Andy said, “They both told me what to expect” by sharing experiences of places he would be seeing. The two had been there before.
Though different roads brought them to Missoula, once they became teammates, career paths have now brought them both to Hillsboro for the 2018 season. On a day where players and journalists are milling about for quotes and pictures the day before the season begins, I found both teammates amid the mingling crowd, sharing conversation amongst themselves amidst the calm but swirling activity— untouched.
Leaning forward on the front railing of the home team’s dugout, Ryan was facing outward. Across the railing, Andy was sharing a comment between the two teammates. Both men showed an economy of action but not words. Their stances were both relaxed. They had been here before. Maybe not in this particular stadium but on the baseball field as a professional ballplayer. They were both ready to play but the time wouldn’t be until tomorrow night when they open the season on the road against the Everett Aquasox. Thirteen years earlier, Andy’s former coach Hyung Cho, had played five games for the Aquasox. He had been there before Andy.
In contrast, the team is also filled out with young players fresh from being drafted earlier this month. They are now professional ballplayers but they have yet to swing a bat or throw the ball in game that counts. Yet, despite their recent arrival to the professional ranks, many of the newly minted players are a year or two older than Ryan and Andy. Ironically, they are exactly where the two teammates were just a short two years ago when they signed their first contract.
One such player is Trevor McKenna. The 22-year-old pitcher is out of Savannah State University in Georgia. The Arizona Diamondbacks signed the young pitcher from Florida as a free agent two days ago on Monday and immediately assigned him to the Hillsboro Hops the same day.
Before that, while Ryan and Andy started their season in spring training, Trevor was finishing up college and going through the rigors of getting ready for the draft.
Trevor himself describes the events. “During the draft (Trevor went undrafted), we decided to go to Tampa for the day.” The ‘we’ refers to Allison Sannuto. “My girlfriend and I wanted to relax. When my phone rang, she looked at me and said, ‘I told you no phones.’” Trevor laughed. The relaxing was done for the day. “I looked down and saw it was from a scout.” He was on his way to becoming a professional ball player. The Diamondbacks were interested in signing him as a free agent.
“I called everybody.” Trevor explained. “I was on the phone for four hours.” One of those people was his mom, Linda McKenna. “She is the Facebook Queen.” Trevor smiled proudly. Like a wildfire, the news spread.
“That phone call was on a Friday. By Monday, I was on a plane.” That was when it became this ‘crazy day’. “I was on my plane at 3 AM, going from Tampa to Arizona. I had my physical at noon and they told me I would be on a plane to Portland in a few hours.” He was now a Hillsboro Hop. “The flight was from 17:00 to 9:40 (PM)”. When he stepped off the plane, he was “greeted by Shawn (Roof, the team manager) and a few of the staff.”
Trevor had some sage advice from his old pitching coaches on what to expect. Seth McClung had been drafted in 1999 by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He pitched in 85 games from 2003 to 2006 for Tampa Bay at the major league level with a record of 17-24. He was also 9-10 with the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League. Anthony Telford pitched for nine years in the majors for Baltimore, Montreal and Texas for a record of 22-25 and appearances in 333 games. I got a “lot of advice”, Trevor said. They helped him to know what to expect and prepare for his new life.
While most of their advice was and still is helpful, one of their predictions fell a little short. “I was told by one of my old pitching coaches that the first field I will play on will not be nice.” Trevor walked onto Ron Tonkin Field filled with its modern amenities, some matched only in the larger stadiums of the major leagues and immediately knew “they were so wrong.” He laughed. “This is a really nice field.”
Trevor did admit that most of the advice was taken to heart. His dad, Dennis McKenna, gave him the one he remembered first. “If it’s going to be – it’s up to me.” Trevor paused for a moment. “I want to show them (the Diamondbacks) that they didn’t make a mistake.”
These three are now Hops teammates as of this week as are 24 other players in the stadium. More will arrive throughout the season. Stories of how they got here are all different. Where they want to go next is all the same.
Ryan, being from Massachusetts, has been a lifelong fan of the New England teams such as the Red Sox and Patriots. One of his favorite players is Joe Mauer, a fellow catcher who may make it all the way to the Hall of Fame after his career is over. Growing up in Ontario, Andy followed the Toronto Blue Jays but he also is a fan of Joe Mauer. Trevor is a big Yankees fan and followed Johan Santana. All three followed their inspiration to the professional leagues and are hoping to climb their way to the top.
All three have early memories of baseball entering their lives. Of their “dad taking them out to a wing joint and getting a phone call that led their dad joining an adult league with a 3-4 year old son (Trevor) tagging along. Remembering their father umpiring with his son watching (Ryan) before he was in grade school. Or remembering their father (Dave) and older brother (Sean) playing catch in the backyard and one day becoming big enough (Andy) to join in. A common memory that 24 other teammates could chime in about someone in their life who introduced them to baseball.
All three teammates stood on their new field at different times during the day looking out at the coming season and their roles they want to fulfill. “I’m a leader.” Andy proclaims. “You have to be as a catcher if you want to control the game.” “I adapt.” Admitted Ryan. I want to be “versatile – an even mix.” Ever ready with whatever is needed to win. “I’m a dog.” Revealed Trevor. “I fight for my teammates. Whatever problems I face, I fight through it.”
Throughout this week, they have had a chance to get to know their new teammates. They’ve shared strengths and memories. Families and friends from back home. They are not only going where those have gone before, they are also going where they have never been before. They are going with their new friends. There new family. “We have a good team this year.” Said Trevor. Ryan added to that later by saying we have a “Really, really good team.”
When Andy and Ryan started to walk away at the end of the interview, Andy proclaimed, “Go Hillsboro Hops! Let’s win a championship!”
He was dead serious. Let the games begin.