Be Ready for When Your Name is Called
By Darren Fenster
Unless you followed the Rutgers University Baseball program in the mid to late 90’s, you probably have no idea who Joe Waleck is. Even if you were a fan of the team, he wouldn’t likely be one of the first 15 players from that roster who you’d remember. Why would you? He was the team’s third-string catcher, and in 1998, the fifth-year senior finished the season with a grand total of 28 at bats after appearing in just 19 games. But for those who closely watched the school capture its first Big East Conference title, you know exactly who Waleck is, and are quite familiar with one of the greatest moments in history of Rutgers Baseball that he authored.
On Wednesday, May 13, 1998, our top-seeded Scarlet Knights opened the conference tournament against sixth-seeded and in-state rival Seton Hall. With two outs in the top of the 9th inning, the tying run on second base and us clinging to a 6-5 lead, a routine ground ball was hit my way at shortstop. As the classic, good-field, no-hit infielder, most people in the stadium in that moment probably thought the game was over. They thought wrong. The ball kicked off of my glove for an error, and instead of shaking hands, we were headed for extra innings.
In the bottom of the 16th inning, our starting catcher reached base and was lifted for a pinch-runner. With our backup catcher hurt, in came Joe Waleck to catch the top half of the 17th. By the time he came up to hit in the bottom half of the frame, records had already been set for, among others, the longest game in league history. After sitting on the bench for more than five hours, Joe Waleck stepped to the plate for his first at bat of the day, ready to seize the opportunity that every player dreams about. He hit a three-run, walk-off home run that, he would tell you, is the greatest moment of his athletic life.
Still to this day, I thank him for hitting that home run and he thanks me for making that error.
It is hard being a back-up. It is a challenge to stay motivated and to feel like a part of the team when the stat sheet says otherwise. But the truth is, every single player who has a uniform has an opportunity. It may not be the opportunity that you want, but it is an opportunity for you to be ready to take advantage of. The biggest challenge of being a reserve player often is simply not knowing when your chance is going to come. It is incredibly tough to be ready for something that doesn’t have a date or time.
Right, wrong, or indifferent, no two opportunities are the same. Some may find their names penciled in the lineup everyday regardless how they perform, while others may only enter the game as a backup. What is constant between the many vastly different opportunities that exist are the players equality to take advantage of them.
For role players who rarely see game action, the opportunity to take advantage of is batting practice. THAT’S your game for that day; your opportunity to get better. That’s how you ready yourself for your chance when the lights go on. For the backup who only gets in when the game is out of hand, your lone at bat when your team is down by seven is your opportunity to take advantage of. It may seem like a meaningless AB to everyone else, but to you, it carries meaning. When you take advantage of one opportunity, others generally follow.
During this unprecedented time in our history, in a way, Coronavirus has turned us all into Joe Waleck. Like him, none of us know for sure when our number will be called again. But just like he came off the bench in a key point in the game, it’s up to us to be ready for when that moment comes.
Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.