St. Paul Saints Willie Argo Creates Own Pathway to Success
When you grow up the son of a former professional baseball player, the expectations for your life drastically change. The “genes” have established a certain level of promise in the eyes of many, and this generates a certain level of pressure to perform. Some wither under the force of that pressure. Others embrace that pressure and use it as a motivator to take their game to another level. Yet, still there are those who ignore the pressure all together and seek to build their own legacy apart from the expectations of others. That is image that Willie Argo has created.
The son of former Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Billy Argo, Willie was shown early on that baseball was part of the family tradition. Dad was a standout player at Iowa State University and in 1987 was drafted by the Dodgers. He played three seasons in the Dodgers system, reaching Mid-A Vero Beach in 1989. Following his professional career, Billy became the baseball coach at Assumption High School, and was blessed to be able to coach his own son once he moved to the secondary level.
Willie was a star on the diamond (as well as other sports surfaces) virtually from the moment he could walk. That may be an exaggeration for many players, but that was the reality in the Argo household.
“Baseball has always been a part of my life. I don’t think anything explains that better than the fact that I got a bat and tee for my first birthday.”
Early on Argo was able to enjoy his own success on the diamond. In 2004, the Little League team he played for, Davenport East, reached the Little League Baseball World Series, the first time a team from Davenport, IA had done so in four season, and only the third time ever.
In high school, Willie became as standout four sport star. He excelled at track, football, wrestling, and baseball, and in 2008 was named the Quad-Cities Male Athlete of the Year. That season he rushed for 1,000-plus yards, the third straight season he had done so, placed third at the state wrestling tournament and was sixth in the 100 meters in the state 2A track meet. He also earned all-state in baseball for the second time in his high-school career.
While having great success on the baseball field, Willie recognized that he was most likely just scratching the surface of what his potential was in baseball, an idea he explained to the Quad-Cities Times.
“I think I have a lot more (potential) in baseball and had a lot more in wrestling because it’s just so much about repetitions in those two sports. Everyone else that is winning state titles in wrestling is wrestling all summer, and I was playing baseball. These (baseball) guys that are going to the big-time schools in the South in the warm weather are playing baseball in the winter and fall when I was playing football and wrestling. So I hope I’m not even close to my ceiling in baseball.”
After graduation Willie went onto the University of Illinois for college. While starring in high school in the four sports, when he reached college he knew it was time to focus on the one sport he loved most. “I’ve played other sports but I have always been a baseball player.”
Coming out of high school he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 49th round of the MLB amateur draft but opted to go to college. At Illinois he flashed the same brilliance he had shown in high school. His freshman year he hit .355 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI. His home run total was the second most for a freshman in the school’s history.
His sophomore season he continued to swing the bat well, finishing with a .318 average, while setting two school records. Willie set a school record for stolen bases in a season with 41, and tied the record for the fastest to 100 hits, doing so in 269 at-bats.
The numbers boded well for his potential as a professional ball player, but his junior year saw his numbers drop sharply by his standards. Argo hit .270, but set a career best for runs scored with 48. The decrease in his numbers saw his draft stock decline as well as he was selected in the 43rd round by the Pittsburgh Pirates, well below his expectations.
“My junior year I wanted to go, but I had a really tough year and I got drafted a lot later than I expected to before the year. They offered me a couple of thousand dollars to sign, and my scholarship was worth a lot more than that,” he explains with a laugh.
In his senior season his average rose as quickly as it had fallen the previous year. Willie finished with a .318 average and set a career high in walks with 34. The upswing boosted his stock and Argo was selected in the 22nd round by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Off to Princeton he went to play rookie ball, where the results were positive from the start. In 64 games the outfielder hit .301 with 41 runs and 24 RBI. He also stole 17 bases and earned himself a spot at the Advanced-A level, joining Charlotte where he had another banner year. Willie hit .308 with 58 runs and 37 stolen bases in 95 games. He also showed he had a great eye at the plate, posting a .404 on-base percentage. The season earned him the honor as MVP of the club as Charlotte went to the Florida State League championship series. That season was a personal highlight for Argo.
“I had so much fun that season. Maybe the most fun I had playing professionally. We made it to the championship series, but didn’t win. That was a really fun team, I played well that year, got the team MVP. Winning that division and playing well was kind of a highlight.”
The following season Willie was moved to AA-Montgomery where he struggled. In 120 games Argo hit .203 with 48 runs scored and 24 stolen bases. While it was a down year for the then 24-year-old, Willie had shown in his senior season at Illinois that he adjusts and rebounds. That didn’t seem to matter. He was released but knew that this was not the end of the line by any stretch of the imagination.
“I knew right away when I got released that I still had a lot of baseball in me. I had two good years before last year, which was not exactly a fluke, but it wasn’t how I knew I could perform, so I knew I had some baseball in me. I knew that if given another shot I could make a real impact.”
Free to begin his professional career in the city of his choice, St. Paul became the natural place to do so.
“I was born in Edina and I have family in Minneapolis, I have family in Wayzata, so I live with my aunt and uncle in Minneapolis. I knew they were building a new stadium and I knew they had a ton of fans, and I just thought this would be a really good situation, so I had my agent call up George and he brought me up and I wound up making the team. I knew after talking to him that this was the place I wanted to play.”
Half-way through the season Argo has quickly fell in love with his new home and his new team, especially its new ballpark. “I can’t believe I am lucky enough to get to show up to work here every day. In the minor leagues it’s pretty much hit and miss. Some days you show up to work and there’s lockers with chicken wire between them and this is unbelievable. This is a legitimate AAA ballpark.”
What has made St. Paul such a special place for Willie is how the St. Paul Saints have such a unique place in the community and how enthusiastic the fans are for their team.
“The Saints are the staple of St. Paul. Everyone loves the Saints. It’s not like minor league baseball where there are different players every year. You get guys that come back two, three, four years in a row, so they are really attached to the players, and they really support us. It is a great feeling going out here and knowing these fans have your back and they want to see you do well. They really love the team and the organization.”
His adoration for the city and its team has quickly been reciprocated as Willie has become a key cog in the St. Paul Saints offense. Argo began the season as the club’s No. 3 hitter, but his skill with the bat and speed, coupled with the hot start from catcher Vinny DiFazio prompted manager George Tsamis to move Willie to the No. 2 spot.
Argo is hitting .312 entering Sunday’s game, and is second on the club with 8 home runs. He has driven in 34 and scored 42 runs (6th in the American Association) this season. He has also shown incredible prowess on the base paths, successfully stealing 14 bases while only being caught once. He has found a way to get on base at an outstanding rate, posting a .384 on-base percentage.
It is performances like Argo’s that have propelled the St. Paul Saints to the league’s best record and top offense. This is a club that can score at any time and get big hits from anywhere in its lineup; a thought that Willie relishes.
“No one puts too much pressure on themselves here, because everyone wants to be the guy, but if you are not the guy that day that is ok, because somebody else will do it. We always have somebody who steps up.”
This is a team with no quit in them. Whether up by 10 or down by five, opponents know they are going to get their best from the St. Paul Saints on every play. This is another aspect of his team that Argo loves.
“There is no quit here. We have so many guys that can do different things and come up with big plays for us here.”
The never quit identity of the club may be where the Saints outfielder personifies his team best. His manager referred to Argo as a “real competitor who has no quit in him. You are always getting your best out of him in every game, and he leaves it all on the field every game.”
Argo is humbled by the description from his manager.
“Wow, I think it is great that George sees me this way. That is kind of the impression I want to leave. I have always been a competitor. I get my work done, and try to prepare myself as best as I can every day, and leave in on the field. My dad always told me to play the game the right way, not get too high or too low. Nice, controlled intensity is where I want my level at.”
While a fiery competitor on the field, Willie is not the kind of guy sitting in the dugout screaming for his team to get going or pounding his bat across the water cooler when he is struggling. Controlled intensity is a very accurate description of the 25-year-old, a description DiFazio agrees with whole-heartedly.
“Willie is ready to go from the time he enters the locker room til the time he leaves. He’s a competitor but is having fun too. He’s a great guy to have on a club like this because he wants to win and does all the things we need to help us win. Quiet too. I like that because I talk enough for both of us,” the Saints catcher explains with a smile.
Argo recognizes that he is one of the quieter guys in the locker room, but wishes he had a little DiFazio in him. “I am not loud and gregarious. I am not very funny. I just try to do my thing. Get my stuff done. I don’t have great stories like Vinny. I just try to be a good teammate.”
Taking his intensity and channeling it into a passion that drives him to succeed is something that he credits his father for developing in him. Billy Argo taught his son how to play the game the right way, while also enjoying his time on the field.
“My dad is really calm and easy going. I was not always that way. I remember when I was younger he had to pull me off the field, taking me out of games because I was arguing with an umpire. He has always been about going about things the right way. Not showboating. Just do your job. Run hard. Play the ball. Catch the ball. Hit the ball. Have fun, but you don’t need to do anything extra. If you are good enough people will look at you for the right reasons.”
Many young men would struggle to live up to the legacy of a father who had such great success. The pressure would be too much for most, but Willie Argo has put the whole thing in perspective. He has quickly recognized that pressure has its place, but fun needs to be the priority.
“You are not going to play great when you put a ton of pressure on yourself. You are going to play your best when you are loose and having fun. It makes it fun when you can play your own game.”
This season the St. Paul Saints outfielder is having a lot of fun. He is not only hitting the ball well and stealing bases, but has made at least five highlight reel plays in front of the home fans this season and has thrown out four base runners. It has been a magical season for Willie Argo that has brought the attention of a few Major League organizations.
That attention may lead to him signing with one of those organizations, taking him back to affiliate ball. That may be the last time the St. Paul Saints see him on their field as he is having the kind of season that could lead him to the Major Leagues one day. If that happens for Willie Argo no one would be surprised. The outfielder has excelled at every level he has played and it would be easy to see that he would be an outstanding big league ball player. It’s the one area where family lineage matters, simply because success is the Argo Way.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA