Stranded M.L.B. Prospects Find a Backyard of Dreams
- by NewYorkTimes
- May 21, 2020
Danny Hultzen, a pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization, was at the team’s spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., on March 12 when he learned that all M.L.B. practices and games had been paused indefinitely because of the coronavirus.
Almost immediately, Hultzen, the No. 2. overall pick in the 2011 draft, thought of an offer from a friend.
Several years earlier, while training in Tempe, Ariz., Hultzen had met Seth Blair. A first-round draft pick in 2010, Blair had advanced as high as Class AAA before being released by the St. Louis Cardinals. He took a five-year break from baseball and returned in 2019, pitching in the San Diego Padres farm system.
“If you ever need to throw, just let me know — I’ve got everything in my backyard,” Blair had told Hultzen, referring to the 2,500-square feet behind his rental home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
So the next morning, Hultzen drove two miles from his apartment to Blair’s house. As he walked into the backyard, Hultzen thought to himself, “Damn, this is all you need.” He saw the wooden mound covered with turf that Blair had commissioned a carpenter to build; the mat backstop propped up against a giant trampoline belonging to Blair’s 6-year-old son; a radar gun; a projection board; and a Rapsodo machine, which provides tracking data on pitches. No frills, just the basics for a pro.
“The whole ‘Field of Dreams’ concept,” Blair said of his setup, laughing. “Once I had a mound and a radar gun, it didn’t matter that my pad was attached to a trampoline — it was somewhere you could throw and talk to someone who’s in the same process as you.”
As March turned to April, other major- and minor-league players in the area learned about Blair’s backyard — and the unlikeliest of M.L.B. training facilities was born.
Inside the open-air carport there, Hultzen found a mini-gym, complete with a bench press, dumbbells and weighted plates. Small Bluetooth speakers broadcast music, and Blair’s son, Beckham, played basketball at a mini-hoop while his father pitched.
On a typical day, the first trio of pitchers arrives at 7:30 a.m. They each throw anywhere from 40 to 80 pitches, before moving over to the weight area as the next group of pitchers arrives. That usually includes Hultzen, who spends his earliest morning hours working out in another player’s backyard.
Hultzen, 30, had battled injuries to his left shoulder over the previous seven years, enduring multiple operations before his first major-league call up last September. If it weren’t for Blair’s offer, Hultzen would have returned home to Bethesda, Md., where he wouldn’t have had access to a gym, much less a baseball facility.
As many as 15 players cycle in three-man shifts through Blair’s yard before dusk — though never more than five or six simultaneously, as per social distancing recommendations. “I honestly don’t know everyone’s name at this point,” Blair said.
Still, he has welcomed everyone, with Purell and disinfecting wipes in hand.
Franklin Van Gurp, 24, met Blair when they were Class A teammates last year in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Van Gurp, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and now pitches in the Padres farm system, was staying in his apartment in Scottsdale when baseball stopped. He had utilized Blair’s backyard early this year but started driving over daily once the Padres’ Cactus League training complex closed.
A former catcher who switched to pitching in college, Van Gurp said that he had found Blair’s throwing advice to be as helpful as his facilities. Van Gurp typically arrives with several Latin players whom he befriended during his time in the San Francisco Giants farm system. Blair doesn’t speak Spanish, so Van Gurp serves as translator. That is, when he’s needed.
“Seth has such a good way of translating it that I barely have to say anything,” Van Gurp said. “He’s like a coach. He has changed the way I think about how we do things.”
The lessons appear to be working: Van Gurp said he had increased his fastball velocity from 96 m.p.h. to 103 m.p.h. (with a three-ounce training baseball, not the roughly five-ounce version used in games) while working in Blair’s backyard over the last two months.
“It’s cool to see that kind of progress,” Hultzen said. “And the conversations have been really awesome. There are so many new schools of thought in pitching mechanics and biomechanics, and we have great, in-depth conversations.”
The collective workouts have also provided a reliable routine for professionals accustomed to having their daily schedules dictated to them. “Having something that you can believe in — I think that takes away the anxiety and a little bit of the uncertainty of the future,” Blair said of providing the backyard baseball training, free of charge. “You know there’s always something you can do a little bit better today.”
Blair, 31, a hard-throwing right-hander, just wants to pitch well enough to sign with a team when baseball resumes.
His neighbors have sometimes wondered what was happening over the five-and-half-foot fence that separates their properties. After one moved in recently, Blair lost a weighted ball in the person’s yard. He knocked on the front door as he heard several dogs barking. When the homeowner finally answered, she professed to be a major Dodgers fan and showed him a side door to use whenever he wanted to retrieve a ball.
Blair said his landlord, Tony Champy, doesn’t mind the visitors or the equipment pileup. The landlord’s nephew, Georges Niang, plays for the N.B.A.’s Utah Jazz. “So he gets it,” Blair said.
Barking dogs aside, the backyard has been an unexpected boon for its visitors, as players around the country try to find ways to stay in shape. Hultzen and Blair said they knew of only one or two nearby residents with a backyard mound, including Kansas City Royals pitcher Jakob Junis. Blair said Junis had the mound built after seeing his.
“I have buddies throwing off the backside of a barn or a field, or into a net in their tiny backyard,” Hultzen said. “I think there is a little bit of, ‘Damn, that’d be really nice to have!’”
And whether the players are trying to make a 40-man major league roster or simply hoping to return to baseball, the stripped-down environment has reminded them of why they play.
“For how terrible the overall situation is, it’s kind of taken us back to the days when we were 12, and you played because you loved it,” Hultzen said. “A couple of times, Seth and I have fielded ground balls with each other, and neither of us had done that since college. You don’t necessarily need the turf, the fancy field — you just need a bunch of baseballs and something to throw to.”