ESPN's Buster Olney is on vacation this week, but he's still compiling roundups. View his latest roundup here.
I got the call.
A simple four-word statement. Devoid of context, it can mean anything, but in the world of baseball, it means everything. To some, it's a logical next step, something that was bound to happen. To others, it's a shock, an unexpected jolt of lightning out of nowhere that changes your life overnight. To a few, it's vindication. A player's existence within the game, coupled with their place on the road of life, help shape their reaction to the news they are going to "The Show." Every player's call is unique, in how they receive it and how it ripples through their life. This is mine ...
It was a Thursday night, April 7, opening night for the Reno Aces and the Pacific Coast League. I was scheduled to start the fourth game of the season that Sunday. After the game, I moved all my belongings into the apartment I rented and was finally feeling settled in so I could concentrate on baseball. After the last suitcase was thrown into my room, I settled into my new couch, ready for some Netflix and a late-night meal of fast food (it was the only thing open ... it happens). The season really hadn't started yet for me, and I had just finished what I thought to be a successful spring training. I had the same positive, high expectations going into the season that I have every year. The only thing that mattered to me that night was eating and getting to bed. Just as I was about to take my first bite, my phone rang. It was Phil Nevin.
Nevin is the manager of the Reno Aces. For the uninitiated, calls from the manager late at night -- it was about 11:30 p.m. -- generally mean only one thing: a move is happening. I immediately got chills and then became nauseated, simultaneously feeling excited but also thinking, "What the hell did I do wrong?" After 10 years of playing minor league baseball, one doesn't necessarily assume the best. I answered, and the conversation went something like this:
Me: "What's up, Nev?"
Nevin: "Hey Busch, uhhh, you move into an apartment yet?"
Me: "Yep, just moved in tonight."
Nevin: "Oh, OK. Which one? (I tell him.) All right, there's this bar right by there. Meet me there in 15 minutes. We need to talk."
I hung up. I felt like I wanted to throw up. Don't know why. I stared at nothing for a good two minutes, and then the wheels started turning. I went through every conceivable possibility as to why Nevin wanted to talk. No way I'm getting released, right? Maybe I just got traded. Or maybe I'm getting moved to the bullpen and he wants to tell me in person? All these thoughts were borderline insane, because every one of those scenarios would be done over the phone or at the field. But I wasn't exactly thinking rationally at that moment. I think deep down I knew as soon as I saw his name on the caller ID, but I wouldn't let myself go there, not yet.
The bar was about a minute away from me, so I waited five and then got in the car and headed over. I think I drove about 10 mph the whole way. I was in a daze. I walked into the place, which was pretty much empty, and sat at the bar, ordered a water and waited. The more I thought about it, the more I knew this could only mean one thing. This had to be it.
From the moment I sat down to the moment Nevin walked in the door was about six hours -- or so it felt. In real time, it was about 10 minutes. He walked in, I felt nauseated again, and he came over and sat down.
Nevin: "You ordered a water? Why didn't you get a real drink?"
Me: "Well, Nev, the type of drink I order depends on what we have to talk about."
Nevin: "Ha, fair enough. Let's get a beer."
And then the man started making small talk. I can barely breathe, and he's striking up a random conversation. I think he saw the look on my face and said, "Don't worry, nothing bad. Just want to wait until Mike Bell gets here." (Mike Bell is the director of player development for the Arizona Diamondbacks). So we chatted some more.
At this point, I was pretty much certain. I don't remember what we talked about, because the only thing going through my mind at that moment was "Holy s---, this is really happening." My whole body started tingling. I couldn't swallow. Bell walked in, and he had this big smile on his face. He walked over and said to hold on because he wanted to get a beer first. The bartender wasn't there; he was in the kitchen. I almost jumped over and got the beer myself. Mike finally got one and sat down.
Nev turned to me and said, "All right ..." My hands started shaking, and I pretty much stopped breathing. I locked eyes with him, and, with a huge smile on his face, he says, "I wanted to meet you here, in person, because I couldn't tell a guy he's going to the big leagues for the first time over the phone. Congratulations, man."
He said it, he actually said it. I had imagined/dreamt/visualized this moment so many times over the years. I had always pictured myself crying, for some reason, to the point where I even got choked up just picturing it. I had thought of all the different ways I would tell my loved ones. Keep in mind that when I started playing professional baseball, the iPhone didn't exist yet. Until those words came out of Nevin's mouth, I had pitched in 279 games and amassed more than 1,300 innings as a pro, all in the minor leagues. This was the start of my 11th season.
As it turns out, I didn't cry. When Nev said what every professional baseball player wants to hear, I first exhaled, then proceeded to ask him if he was serious. Once I was assured that he was, the biggest grin took over my face, and I shook his hand and simply said, "Thank you." I turned to Mike, shook his hand and told him, "Thank you so much for this opportunity." Two of the most heartfelt thank-yous in my life. They had weight, filled with countless bus miles, PB&Js and crappy offseason jobs. They had a decade of successes, failures and everything in between behind them. And they weren't just from me, they represented every family member, friend or coach who ever supported me. I stood up -- I couldn't sit down any longer -- and they both commented on how long the journey had been and how cool this was. It struck me in the moment how excited they were for me, and that's something I'll never forget.
I got choked up, but I didn't cry. Not then anyway. I just remember feeling really relieved. Like a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders. Finally. Mike and Nev told me to make my calls, wake people up, go! I had imagined this part as well, how I would tell people, how I would be witty about it. Nope. I was just too excited to get the news out to be coy. I called my wife, my parents and then the best man in my wedding that first night.
It was 3 a.m. when I called my wife, and it took her a bit to wake up and process what I was telling her. Once she did, it was like she snorted six Red Bulls. She didn't go to sleep again for 24 hours. I woke my parents next. It took a call to both cellphones and the house phone before they finally picked up. There was screaming, and the phrases "oh my god" and "we are so proud of you" were being thrown around liberally. Last, I called my best man, also a professional baseball player who had gotten the call before. He knew better than anyone at that moment what I was going through.
It's when I got off the phone with all of them that I cried. Not because I was accomplishing a lifelong dream, but because hearing the people closest to me react to that news made me understand how lucky I was in that moment to have the support of these loved ones. Let's just say it all of a sudden got, uh, real, real dusty in my room.
I had a flight the next day to Phoenix at noon -- first class baby! I actually slept fairly well but showed up to the airport about three hours early. That flight wasn't getting missed. I called all the other people on my "list." (All baseball players have a short list in their head of the people they will call to tell them about their call-up before the news gets out. It's a big deal if you're on that list, because it means you've been very important to the player and his journey.) It got dusty again, especially when I spoke to my college head coach and pitching coach. I boarded that plane, took my seat in first class and thought, "This plane better not freaking crash."
The rest, as they say, is history. I made my debut against the Cubs three days later, and the emotions and feelings of that day, now that's a whole other can of worms. But "the call" is special in its own right. It's the initial shockwave before the oncoming explosion of one's dreams becoming a reality. Sports are dominated by the general narrative of good season or bad season, but what makes sports truly great are the smaller human narratives, the stories that have nothing to do with wins to losses. Like the story of a 32-year-old minor leaguer getting his first call-up to the big leagues.