Viva Las Vegas: Eric Yardley’s Journey to Fort Wayne
Apparently going to Las Vegas ain’t all it’s cut out to be.
That rings true for down-on-their-luck gamblers in Nevada’s Sin City, and for those going to play baseball in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The other Las Vegas.
That’s where TinCaps reliever Eric Yardley began his pro baseball career.
The drive from Yardley’s hometown of Richland, Washington, to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he lived in his first stop as a ballplayer collecting a paycheck, runs about 23 hours. Driving a packed Honda Civic, the lanky righthander twisted through Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Colorado, before arriving in New Mexico to start living the dream—or something like that.
“I get there and pull up to an old beaten-down house that has like 20 air mattresses in it,” Yardley said. “(The team) had two houses; one was a loft that was an old shop that was two stories, and then this frat house with air mattresses and a TV. I was told we had a home game the next day. A home game was an hour-and-a-half drive.”
Welcome to the good life.
Yardley was playing for the Taos Blizzard in the Pecos League, a non-affiliated circuit in which players sometimes earned $50 weekly paycheck.
“You just didn’t know if you were going to get paid that week or not. If you’re playing in that league, the money really doesn’t matter,” Yardley said. “You’re down there because you’re trying to extend the dream, but there’s a slim to none chance of that happening.”
Making it big is even harder to do when the team folds a few weeks into the season, and when that happens on the road and there’s no team bus to take players back to their frat house.
He ended up finding another Pecos League team in Colorado, the Trinidad Triggers. At least they had a bus.
“It was a school bus, that’s painted our colors because our colors happened to be black and yellow. All they had to do was put a black stripe on it,” Yardley said.
Fortunately for Yardley, who played in Trinidad with current TinCaps reliever Nick Mutz, his stint in Colorado only lasted eight games before he got a life-changing phone call.
Professional baseball, let alone Division-1 college baseball, almost didn’t happen for Yardley. Mostly a corner infielder in high school who pitched on occasion, he had visions of playing at a two-year community college, and ultimately getting a degree to become a math teacher.
“I like that it’s a definite thing…Two plus two equals four, but you can find several ways to get to it,” he says of math.
Yardley pitched fewer than 10 innings his senior year at Richland (WA) High School, but played American Legion baseball over the summer and pitched more there. Somewhere along the line, he caught the eye of Seattle University head baseball coach Donny Harrell, who was reviving the school’s baseball program as the athletic department transitioned back to Division-I.
“Eric was recruited as a 2-way player and as a pitcher – he was competitive – but was not able to put people away with the stuff and strength he had at the time for Division 1 baseball,” Harrell wrote in an email.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be a guy when I got (to Seattle University),” Yardley said. “I wasn’t going to be that guy who was going to come out of the program and play pro baseball. I was going to be a role player, try to be as mature as possible, and use those four years to finish up a baseball career and say I played college baseball.”
He made a combined 15 appearances over his first two seasons, walking 18 and striking out 15 in 30 1/3 innings. Heading into his sophomore year, he had tweaked a muscle in his back, which led to decreased velocity and results, as he puts it, that led him to perform below the level that both he and his coaches wanted. Playing with a collegiate team in Walla Walla, Washington in the summer of 2011, as is common for many high-level players to do, Yardley got a phone call from his Seattle U pitching coach Dave Wainhouse, a former Major Leaguer, who told him it was time for a change. Wainhouse, while watching the College World Series had been inspired by a submarine-style pitcher.
“(The University of) South Carolina had a guy who had dropped down and (Wainhouse) basically said, “If you want to play, this is what you’re going to do.” I thought, “I don’t want to be that weird. I can succeed at what I’m doing.”
Despite a few instances in which Yardley says he might have injured his throwing partner, he started to figure out the whole submarine thing after some practice and realized after getting some swings and misses, “This is a lot better than what I was.”
The baby boomer version of opportunity knocked. After all, that was the polite thing to do. The millennial version of opportunity, however, is an electronic interrupter that waits for no one. And when opportunity comes in the form of a phone call, it’s best to answer.
Fortunately for Yardley, he wasn’t quite asleep when his phone rang with opportunity on the other end.
“As I’m trying to change my alarm for an extra hour of sleep, the guy who scouted me in college calls, and I’m like “Hey, what’s up, Justin?”’
That would be Justin Baughman, a former Major Leaguer, who is the Pacific Northwest area scout for the Padres.
“We’ve got a spot for you if you want it,” Baughman told Yardley.
“Excuse me?” Yardley asked.
“A spot opened up for you. Can you get to Arizona?” was the reply on the other end.
Yardley was no longer living in Las Vegas, but instead was on the roster for the team in Trinidad, which it turns out for him happened to be the true “City of Second Chances”.
“The funny thing about that is he asked if I was in shape. He was still going off my college stuff, he didn’t even know if I was playing,” Yardley said.
When the 2013 MLB Draft rolled around in June, Yardley thought he might have had a slim chance on the second day when rounds three through 10 take place, and his best shot on the third day with rounds 11 through 40. Nothing.
“Eric was a lot easier to scout than you might think. He didn’t have overpowering stuff, nothing that jumps out at you. That’s probably the reason he wasn’t drafted,“ Baughman wrote via email. He is a hard guy to sell to your organization because his velocity is below (average) and his (curveball) isn’t all that sharp. But because he threw from the low slot he automatically has some value. What made me think that he could have success at the pro level was all based on stats, though. He was ranked in the top three in division 1 baseball in ground ball rate and he didn’t walk anybody.”
Through the first 60 games of Fort Wayne’s 2014 season, those numbers have continued to prove true. In 13 appearances spanning 17 2/3 innings, Yardley struck out 20, walked four, and averaged 6.2 ground balls outs to every one fly ball out.
“Strike throwers who get ground balls from a funky slot can be very good at any level. Of course, his coaches raved about his character and when I sign somebody after the draft for no money I want to make sure that he is going to be liked by the coaches. If he isn’t, a coach doesn’t have any incentive to play a kid that an organization hasn’t invested any money in. Eric just checked all the boxes for me as a guy who could hold his own and represent the Padres well,” Baughman wrote.
In truth, Yardley signed for $1,000 and a plane ticket to the Padres’ facility in Peoria, Arizona.
America’s growing gap of inequality doesn’t just tamper with the minds of trend-hound economists who study income and cable television talking heads. Its effects are also seen in baseball. Players selected on the first day of the draft each year expect to be drafted and have known for some time that they’d be professional baseball players. Their day-to-day existence on a 25-man roster is more certain, in part due to the organization’s financial investment in their careers. To a Major League Baseball team, $1,000 is a pittance.
Yardley’s older brother, Brian, played baseball at Gonzaga University, and Eric travelled with his parents to Brian’s final game of his collegiate career in 2010.
“I remember pretty vividly the 27th out of that game and seeing his reaction and seeing how everything….just kinda…it’s over, “ Eric said.
“There’s no way of fighting back for it. You don’t have the résumé. You don’t have anything to help you. It was tough seeing him end it and then move on but still have, in the back of his head, “What could I have done differently?” I don’t want this to end because I could have done something differently now that I’m in the system. I don’t want to look back and doubt what I could have done.”
Yardley is one of few submarine-throwing pitchers in Minor League Baseball, and takes every chance he can to watch those in Major League Baseball who throw the same way. He lists Brad Ziegler of the Diamondbacks and Darren O’Day of the Orioles as two players whose styles he tries to emulate. Even within the Padres farm system he has a sidearm compatriot in Adam Cimber, who currently pitches for the Advanced-A Lake Elsinore Storm.
“I was watching Ziegler when I was down in Arizona, and (the Padres) were facing the Dodgers, and the lineup he had to face for that inning was Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonazlez and Matt Kemp for a giant Dodgers team and he went through it like it was no problem,” Yardley said. “I had to focus on what his thought process was on each pitch. What did the throw there? Why did he throw it? That’s the best way to learn, really in any job, is anyone who is above you that does the same thing as you—what did he do to get there and how can I do it better than he does?”
After finding his way on to a Division-1 baseball roster, where he was twice named the team’s Cam Christian Award Winner, given to the team’s most outstanding citizen on and off the field, and then to independent baseball, Yardley is finally living out his dream, and he’s well aware of the privilege he’s been granted.
“I’ve changed and adapted to make it to this one spot to play Minor League Baseball. I’ve seen guys play for no money, if not pay for what they can do, to play in what is one of the worst leagues you could possibly play in for pro baseball. These guys are fighting to play so they can say they did it. Once I signed the contract with the Padres logo on it, anything and everything I can do to make this last as long as possible is what’s going to happen.”