From Fort Wayne to Fruition: Matt Antonelli
Welcome to the second installment of our new series here on “It’s All Relative”, From Fort Wayne to Fruition, a look at players that have spent time during their minor league careers with either the Wizards or the TinCaps and then have gone on to play Major League Baseball. The word fruition, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as ”the state of being real or complete”, and for our purposes that’s very fitting. Players reaching the majors have their dream come to fruition, although by no means does that mean their journey is complete. Some of the players in this series have had storied MLB careers, while others have only seen a few games of time in the show. However, the odds of ever making it onto a Minor League Baseball roster, let alone an MLB one, are slim, and so it’s worth recognizing those who have been fortunate and talented enough to reach the apex of professional baseball in the United States.
I’m going to go in no particular order with any of these players, but if you do have any requests, please do let me know and I’ll be happy to accommodate you. (You can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter, @MikeCouzens.) As of today, the list of former Fort Wayne players to have reached the majors stands at 118. Some of the more notable alums include LaTroy Hawkins, AJ Pierzynski, Torii Hunter, and David Eckstein, while some names you may not be as familiar with, like Mike Baxter, George Kottaras or Cliff Bartosh. Each one of them has a story–where they’re from, how they got to Fort Wayne and, ultimately, how they got to play in Major League Baseball.
Our second Fort Wayne alum that I’m profiling is Matt Antonelli, who was the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 2006 draft by the San Diego Padres. He played five regular-season games for the Wizards in 2006–a very short stay in Fort Wayne–but he’s written a lot about his baseball career and I’ve had the pleasure of reading it, so I wanted to let him share his insights with you, the readers of It’s All Relative. Matt made his MLB debut on September 1, 2008, with the Padres, before spending time in the Nationals, Orioles, Yankees, and Indians organizations. He is now coaching baseball and is finishing his studies at Wake Forest University, where he was when drafted by San Diego.
Please enjoy the Q&A, and know that you can follow Matt on Twitter at @MattAntonelli9.
It’s all Relative: You got drafted in June of ’06, and after starting out at Eugene, and came up to Fort Wayne for the very end of the season. What was that 2006 year like for you?
Matt Antonelli: The thing that comes to mind about the 2006 season was how long it felt. Our college season basically started in January of that year, then I got drafted in June and went directly to Eugene to start my short-season schedule. I believe after being sent to Fort Wayne in August, our season ended around the middle of September. From there I went to instructional league until the beginning of November. It was the first time I had ever played baseball everyday for basically 10 months straight. Plus, I was getting use to the travel demands of pro ball, so the first year is definitely unique.
IAR: You played just five games with the Wizards, and only one at Memorial Stadium. What do you remember about Fort Wayne?
MA: Although I was only with the Wizards for a few weeks, I really remember my time there because professional baseball was still very new to me. It was my first time as a professional being called up from one level to the next in the middle of the season, so it was a really big deal to me. Coming from Eugene, where the stadium was very old and the clubhouse was extremely small, I remember thinking Fort Wayne’s stadium felt like a big league park. I was also very lucky to get promoted right before the start of the playoffs, so it was my first experience as a professional player in a playoff situation, which was a lot of fun.
IAR: When that 2006 season ended, you had a good amount of future major league players on the roster—Yourself, Mike Baxter, David Freese, Jose Lobaton, Will Venable, Wade LeBlanc, Jon Link, and Joakim Soria…did you notice anything among that group, as a whole or from individuals, that would’ve indicated to you they had major league potential?
MA: All of those players you mentioned were really impressive players. At that point I was so new to professional baseball and the Major Leagues seemed so far away that I never really thought that far ahead. With that being said, they were all extremely talented players and I knew they all had very bright futures. The first time I saw David Freese hit I felt he was one of the better hitters I had ever seen. Wade LeBlanc possessed the best change-up I’d ever witnessed. Will Venable was such an impressive athlete with his size and speed combination. Jose was great behind the plate and really impressive with his ability to pick runners off the bases. Mike Baxter was a gamer. He was such a hard nosed and smart player that always got the job done. Jon Link had a great sinker / slider combination that made him dominant. Joakim was the one player I never got to play with because of my limited time with the Wizards, but his success at the Major League level speaks for itself.
IAR: What was that first off-season like for you since you were out of school and now a pro ballplayer?
MA: The first off-season is definitely strange once you become a professional player. It was the first time in my life where I didn’t have to go to school or play baseball for about a three month period. One thing I love about baseball is the practice time. I really enjoyed the off-season, being able to get up everyday and have three months to dedicate yourself to working out and preparing yourself for the following season. It was always one of my favorite times of the year.
IAR: What was it like hearing you were getting called up in 2008?
MA: Being called up in 2008 was definitely the highlight of my baseball career. When I received the news it was a little strange for me because I was in the midst of one of my toughest seasons of my baseball career. I really struggled that year and it wasn’t until August that I started to turn my season around. I definitely did not envision myself getting an opportunity to play at the Major League level that year, but when I got the news I was extremely excited.
IAR: I know you’ve battled through a lot of injuries during your career…what was the decision like to retire and what are you up to now?
MA: People are very surprised when they hear me say this, but my decision to stop playing wasn’t as hard as I would have imaged it to be. The last few years of my career I had a lot of issues with my hand and wrist. I had already missed almost 300 games because of it during my career, and I just didn’t feel like I was the player I needed to be to make it back to the Major Leagues. I wasn’t able to practice the way I needed to. It was really tough for me to hit multiple days in a row without it hurting. I wasn’t able to work out in the weight room the way I once was. And I played a good amount of games the last few years in a lot of pain. When I was finally released at the end of this April and did not receive any phone calls from Major League teams, I decided it was best to step away from the game and get into coaching. I just finished the fall coaching and finishing my Senior year at Wake Forest University. I love coaching and have really enjoyed my transition from player to coach. I envision myself coaching and developing players for the rest of my life.
IAR: From having been in the minors, we know about the bus rides, the hotels…all of that good stuff. What would you want people to know about Minor League Baseball who have never experienced it?
MA: Minor League baseball was a great time and I have a ton of memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. It is really unique because you literally spend every single minute of the day for almost eight months straight with a group of twenty five or so guys that basically become your family. That is probably the strangest part about not playing anymore. I no longer arrive at Spring Training every February and reunite with all of my buddies.
IAR: What was the greatest sacrifice you made to play professional baseball?
MA: I don’t know if I would call them sacrifices, but I definitely had to make some choices throughout my life to make sure I prepared myself for the opportunity to play professional baseball. The biggest thing is putting in the time and being dedicated to your development. A lot of my life was dedicated to traveling around the country, finding teams to play with and against that would push me to keep improving as a player. Once you become a professional player the biggest sacrifice players make is with regards to their family. I’m from the Boston area and played most of my career on the West Coast away from my family. I spent eight seasons away from my girlfriend and now wife, which is never an easy thing to do. Many players spend extensive time away from their kids. The lifestyle is definitely not easy, but the reward of realizing a childhood dream and making it to the Major Leagues makes it a little easier and ultimately worth the ride.
Away from baseball, I’ve been keeping busy on the basketball trail. This past weekend, I was down in Wheeling, West Virginia, to call high school basketball, and had the pleasure of working with Paul Biancardi (left) and Fran Frashcilla (center), two great basketball analysts.
In the midst of all this deep cold, I’m thinking about next weekend, when I’ll be down in Florida at Montverde Academy for another high school hoops game. If you’re around the TV on Saturday at 4:00, flip on ESPN and I’ll keep you company for a few hours.
We’ve still got no word on the coaching staff for 2014, but will let you know as soon as we hear it. The Dayton Dragons just announced theirs today, and both Manager Jose Nieves and Pitching Coach Tony Fossas will return. Luis Bolivar joins the club for his first season as hitting coach, replacing former Padres infielder Alex Pelaez.
Coldplay…take it away!