Wingnuts Jon Link Shows Character Far Exceeds Talent
If you are ever wondering what is wrong with Major League Baseball, look no further than Jon Link. We are all told as kids that the best player will be the one that makes it to the Big Leagues. That if you work hard and prove that you have better talent than another player, that it will be your name that will be called to the big club. Sorry to burst your bubble, but this is just an illusion.
The reality is that if you are not the top 10 draft pick or come in with a lot of hype, you will not get the same kind of chance to make it to the Majors. The stories of a guy like Mike Piazza, drafted in the 39th round and later becoming a Hall of Fame player, are few and far between, even if the talent is there, and Link is the best example of all.
Building a Legacy at an Early Age
Jon Link grew up in Cincinnati where he was a big fan of the Reds from as early as he can remember. His dad was a fan as well, but it was his grandparents that were even more fervently so. Each time his grandmother would visit she would encourage Jon to play baseball. This included giving him a yellow whiffle bat as a present. Little did she know that a baseball was not the only thing that he would be prone to use the toy on.
“I remember swinging that thing at everything I could. There was this tree that I remember that I was wearing out. That is how I got started.”
That bat and his grandparent’s love of the game began his passion for the sport. Early on he was a much better golfer, like his dad, but his true love was in baseball, and this is where he wanted to excel.
“I was a much better golfer than I was a baseball player, but when I got to high school I started to focus much more on playing baseball.”
Even in Little League Jon knew that he was going to make it to the pros one day. It was not that he thought he was superior to anyone. He just knew that he had the skills and the right mindset to be a Major League player one day.
“I knew it then. I just felt that I had what it took. I don’t know how to explain it. We all dream that we will play in the Big Leagues one day; I just knew I was going to make that happen.”
The belief in his talent never wavered and as he was preparing to leave high school his classmates were all talking about the college they were going to. Jon was talking about the career path he intended to follow.
“I kept on getting better and I just wanted it more. I told everyone when I was in high school, they were like where are you going to school, and I was like I’m not going to school; I’m gonna play baseball somewhere. Guys get drafted out of high school all the time and I was like that is going to happen for me. I am going to wait to go to school, and everyone told me that I was stupid to do that, but I was like that is what I am going to do.”
While many doubted Link’s aspirations, those who knew him best were sure that if Jon had his mind set on it, then it was going to be a reality. “My best friends knew I was good enough. The rest of my classmates didn’t think I was serious, and it wound up happening which is kind of cool.”
It wasn’t like Jon did not have reason to believe in his talents. There were scouts at many of his games at Chantilly High School (Chantilly, VA), but they were actually there to scout Jon Link the middle infielder. “They were there for the most part to see me at second or short. In fact, only one guy came to scout me as a pitcher.”
Jon proved all the naysayers wrong when he was chosen by the San Diego Padres in the 26th round of the 2005 draft. Some players with his talent level would have been irritated about being picked later on, but not Jon Link. To the big right-hander, things like this have always been incentive. A means to show that he has the talent to be a true star on the field even if others doubted.
“I wanted to work. I wanted to earn my way. I didn’t expect to jump levels. I want to prove that when I step between the lines I am going to show you I am the best player out there.”
Link admits that his first two seasons in professional ball were not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination. He had the toughness and the wisdom to make it, but his mechanics needed some improvement.
“I was always good at the mental side of the game, but I knew I needed to make some improvements on the physical. The Padres tinkered with things at first. Anything a coach told me I would try it. I wanted to see if there were things that could make me better. If it worked I would use it. If it was comfortable I would use it.”
His first season he worked with pitching coach Wally Whitehurst, who made the necessary modifications to his mechanics. During the season the organization moved him to the bullpen and the results began to show. His last 11 outings he was not scored upon, but the next year they moved him up and the focus was back off of his mechanics and back onto the mental aspects of the game. This was not the area where he needed the improvement and the results were spotty on the field.
The next year Whitehurst asked to work with Link early on in the season. The results were spectacular. After working with Whitehurst, Jon moved to High-A Lake Elsinore where he became the team’s closer. The right-hander went 2-1 with a 3.07 ERA and had 13 saves. He showed great command of his pitches, walking just 11 in 41-innings while striking out 45. He did so well that the Chicago White Sox traded for him.
Within two seasons, Jon was at AAA-Charlotte. He had saved 35-games at AA-Birmingham in 2008, and added 13 more in Charlotte the next season. His success brought another trade, this time to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He would start the 2010 season at AAA-Albuquerque, but it was not long before the big club was looking for him to join their staff. The moment was glorious, but one that he remembers almost as much for the humor of it as he does for the thought that he would be playing Major League Baseball.
“When they called me I was at home about ready to come to the yard. My wife was in town. I was in my apartment getting my stuff together and the manager asked me if was coming in. I thought I was late and was about to lose $100. He told me to come see him when I got there, and when I walked in there was no one in the clubhouse. When I opened the door the manager and the pitching coach were in there and I thought I was traded. He told me to sit down, so I thought something really bad must have happened. He then told me, ‘Congratulation,s you are on your way to L.A.’ It was very emotional. To have your dream come true is really special.”
Link would make nine appearances for the Dodgers, posting a respectable 4.15 ERA. He had proven that he could compete at the Major League level, but he would spend all of 2011 in Albuquerque.
After the 2011 seasons, he would spend the next two seasons mostly pitching at the AAA-level, joining the Marlins, Orioles, and Tigers organizations. He proved that he had the same great stuff that made him a top prospect, even posting a 0.75 ERA at AAA-New Orleans in 2012, however that was not enough for some reason.
In 2013, Jon made 16 appearances for the Tigers AA and AAA teams before being released. A bit disillusioned by the events, Jon found himself looking for a job. It wasn’t long before he heard from then Manager Kevin Hooper and the righty soon realized that the Wichita Wingnuts were the place for him.
“This is the best organization. The front office, the coaching staff. You just can’t ask for a better place to play. I knew that this was the right fit for me. They treat people with the respect that is earned through their careers.”
Since Jon has joined the Wichita Wingnuts he has been nothing short of spectacular. The 6-0, 205-pound right-hander is just three wins away from becoming the franchise’s all-time winningest pitcher. He is 24-5 in parts of four seasons in Wichita, including a stellar 11-2 record in 2014. That season he set a team record when he struck out 17 in 7-innings.
Following that outing, the Miami Marlins resigned Link. He was sent to AA-Jacksonville where he helped the team win the Southern League title. For 2015, he was promised a shot to make the big league club, but he was never even invited to their Major League camp. The guy with the 95-mph fastball, with enough toughness for two Rottweilers, and enough skill to be a key bullpen asset to at least 15 Major League teams was sent to AAA-New Orleans, never even given a fair chance to make the Marlins. He would get limited opportunity to preform and was released after just six appearances.
The Marlins didn’t seem to think he had much left in the tank at 31-years-old, but the Wingnuts sure did. He proved Wichita right, going 6-0 down the stretch with a 1.89 ERA. That included just 12-walks in 47-innings pitched, while striking out 46.
Turning the Snub into a Positive
Most players would have become quite embittered at this point, but that has just driven Jon Link even more. He entered the 2016 season looking to set a personal goal of setting the Wingnuts all-time wins record, but he also returned because he loves his team, his organization and, most importantly, his game.
“My love for my team is second only to my wife, kids and family. I play for the best organization in baseball and for people that you want to battle for each and every day. These guys I have great love for and I am always ready to go out and battle for the eight guys behind me, the guys in the dugout, and the guys upstairs. I am so happy to play here.”
The Wichita Wingnuts are happy to have him pitching for them as well. While Jon dropped the first two starts of the season, he was brilliant in his last outing and looks to be the same guy that was undefeated after returning to the team last year.
The Jon Link Story Is a Lesson to Us All
A few days before being released by Miami, Jon asked his bullpen mates how they wanted to be remembered. Most told him as a star closer or a great pitcher, but he pointed out to them that being the kind of person that people want to have around is more important. It isn’t as important to be the best as it is to treat people the best.
The Wichita Wingnuts are arguably the best organization in Independent Baseball, but not just because they have made the playoffs every season but one since they became a team eight seasons ago. They are the best organization because they bring in the very best quality guys whose talent on the field is greatly surpassed by their character off of it. Jon Link is the very epitome of Wingnuts baseball.
He is a guy that teammates love, who battles for them like his life depended upon coming through for them. He is a guy who gives it his all on the field, and still makes sure that he gives his all to his coaches and teammates once he steps out from between the lines.
If baseball was truly a sport where the best talent was at the Major League level, then he would be starring in the bullpen of some contending team right now. Fortunately, life has made it so that he is starring in the locker room, with the fans, and in the community. Jon Link will likely be remembered as a really great baseball player who never really got his shot. What he should be remembered for is a man who showed great integrity and character even when he wasn’t shown the respect he earned. Now that’s the best legacy of all.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA