There’s something purely hopeful about “firsts.” A baby’s first word or first step, your first job or first kiss, or the first dollar you made in that new business you put your life savings toward opening. The first person to walk on the moon is something that’s still celebrated 50 years later, and this country’s first black president inspired a swelling of hope in many that is rarely replicated. The first day of school brings about excitement and nerves similar to the first day on a new job, and everyone of course remembers the first time they … well, first loves never die, ya know?
A “first” can evoke any number of emotions, excitement and/or anxiety perhaps as prevalent as any. It’s something we expect to remember for the rest of our lives; a milestone saying we advanced to the next level in life, or an achievement that is the culmination of years or even a lifetime of hard work and dedication. Everyone — even non-baseball fans — knows the name of the first player to break MLB’s color barrier. It’s safe to say considerably fewer know the name of the second, despite the fact that Larry Doby was, too, a Hall of Famer.
The first pick in the 2011 draft was Gerrit Cole. It took Cole a few years, but he’s mostly lived up to the expectations that come with being no. 1. Cole was one of 1,231 players selected that year, and of those 1,231 players, 247 had, until last week, reached the majors at one point or another during the eight-plus years that have elapsed since that draft. Not included in that list of 247 was the guy selected directly after Cole, no. 2 pick Danny Hultzen.
That is, until Sunday.
Hultzen didn’t pitch at all in 2014. He threw 10 combined innings in 2015 and 2016. He again didn’t pitch in 2017. Injury after injury derailed his career, and he sat near the top of every “biggest MLB draft bust” list you can find. On Sunday, he threw a scoreless inning for the Cubs in a 8-5 loss to the Brewers, striking out three and allowing one hit. It was his first career major-league appearance. The first batter he faced was reigning MVP Christian Yelich (he hit him). The first batter he struck out was Eric Thames.
“Once I threw that first pitch, it was baseball again,” Hultzen said. “I settled down.”
Hultzen, 29, said he calmed his nerves through deep breaths at the suggestion of his teammates, who were aware of his journey to the majors.
“I got a lot of great advice from a lot of these guys,” Hultzen said. “Not fighting the adrenaline. But this is life, what you’ve worked for. Just embrace it.”
The Mariners, the team that drafted Hultzen back in 2011, had their own special “first” this week. Five years after selecting Hultzen at no. 2 overall, they took toolsy outfielder Kyle Lewis at no. 11.
Three years isn’t as long as eight years (read Baseball Prospectus for more expert analysis like this). In fact, most of the first rounders from that draft have yet to reach the majors, many just because of their developmental arc. So why is Lewis’ “first” more notable than, say, Zack Collins’ first?
Thirty games into his professional career, Lewis was doing exactly what one would expect from a first-round college bat in short-season ball when he basically shred his leg to bits. Torn ACL, torn medial meniscus, torn lateral meniscus. Because of this, Lewis has yet to play anything resembling a full season in the minors, and many of the tools that made him such an exciting prospect on draft day had diminished to the point that he projects more as an up-and-down fourth outfielder than the budding star once promised.
Lewis got a September call from the Mariners, less because of his performance this season than because he needed to be added to the 40-man this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. His first game was … well, just watch and smile
First MLB hit. ✅
First MLB home run. ✅
What a special moment for @KLew_5. pic.twitter.com/djfVb3tqav
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) September 11, 2019
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
THE CALL-UP, KYLE LEWIS, By Kevin Carter and Kevin Jebens
The Mariners are calling on yet another prospect in light of the minor-league season ending.
Aaron Barrett’s story is different than these other two in that when it came to reaching the lifelong goal of making the majors, he had been there, done that. A ninth-round pick in 2010, Barrett reached the big leagues with the Nationals in 2014 and for the next two years was a serviceable if unremarkable middle reliever before being befelled by Tommy John surgery toward the end of his 2015 season, 70 innings into his career.
Nothing too notable about that. Everyone gets Tommy John these days. But …
From the Washington Post:
Less than a year later, in July 2016, he was throwing a simulated game in Viera, Fla., during his recovery when he broke his arm. The bone snapped in a way that people who were there, such as pitcher Ronald Peña and then-minor league pitching coordinator (and current Nationals pitching coach) Paul Menhart, never forgot. The broken humerus sounded like a “full-on gunshot” or a piece of plywood being kicked in.
Mat Latos, a pitcher waiting to throw, vomited. Peña, in line after Latos, didn’t want to pick up a ball. Barrett writhed and howled and bawled and asked why this had to happen to him. The Nationals had video of the incident, and they sent it to manager Dusty Baker, who saved it on a locked hard drive so no one would watch it again.
By now, you know where this is going. Four years after throwing his last major-league pitch, following two separate rehabs and going back to square one as a minor leaguer, Barrett returned to the majors this week. And in his first game back, he tossed a scoreless inning with a strikeout. The emotions were palpable.
Aaron Barrett after first MLB appearance in over 4 years. pic.twitter.com/DR3kEVmTJO
— Carol Maloney (@carolmaloney4) September 8, 2019
Finally, there’s David Ortiz. The legendary Red Sox slugger made his first public appearance since being shot in the Dominican Republic in early June, throwing out the first pitch before Monday’s game against the Yankees.
Ortiz had three surgeries before being released from the hospital in late July, and his return to the limelight in Boston was, more than anything, a signal to his fans that the franchise icon is doing well and expected to make a full recovery.
Big Papi tossed his pitch to former teammate and Red Sox captain Jason Varitek, and they shared an embrace after.
Then, Ortiz, who was wearing sunglasses and a Red Sox home jersey, took to the microphone and spoke as he usually does — from the heart.
“First of all, I want to thank God for giving me a second opportunity in my life to be able to be here with all of you,” Ortiz said. “I want to thank the Red Sox, my real family, they have always been there for me, supported [me]. With what happened to me, they were the first supporting me. Thank you very much, Red Sox family.”
“I think any time you see a brother, a teammate, as someone who means so much to you, in good spirits, I think it’s a positive thing,” said Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. “We’re just glad to know he’s back being who he is.”
There’s beauty in baseball’s ability to deliver moments like we saw with Hultzen, Lewis, and Barrett. The misfortunes of any player — and particularly those with a higher profile — are so common and so public that we’ve almost become numb to the experience. Draft pick busts? On to the next one.
Likewise, the work these players put in to return is so private that it’s easy to take for granted. We know that Hultzen failed to live up to the expectations in Seattle, but there are no cameras or reporters in his face when he’s doing long toss at 6 a.m. on a Saturday or spending his 10th consecutive day in the weight room building his strength back up.
An unintended consequence of next year’s rule change that will shrink September rosters is fewer moments like these. In the case of Hultzen and Barrett, particularly, these opportunities for firsts may not have come a year from now. But for them and Lewis and, in a completely different scenario, Ortiz, we saw through various circumstances raw, human emotion thanks to these firsts. That’s the best thing in baseball this week.
Thank you for reading
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