Reading through a cool thread on our message board jogged some memories about my own baseball playing days. Since it’s pretty slow with Orioles news right now, I thought I’d share a couple of stories and how in a way, a dictator invading another country may have contributed to the existence of Orioles Hangout.
I grew up loving and playing baseball. Baseball was basically my life as I collected baseball cards, watched every baseball game or show on TV, played baseball video games while keeping stats (back before they kept them themselves), made up my own fictional dice-based baseball game that included rosters for several teams all with different types of hitters and pitchers, played computer baseball games of every kind, and of course played Whiffle ball or baseball from spring to fall.
I made the all-star teams every year from my second year in T-ball (yes, they had t-ball all-star teams back in our day) until I was too old to play Pony League (15-years old). By my sophomore year in high school I was already getting pulled up to be on the varsity team for a great baseball program (Northeast High School). Basically, I thought I was going to be professional player and never gave much thought to doing anything else other than to play, coach or scout professional baseball for a living one day.
Then, my junior year came around and I was pretty certain I was going to be the starting catcher on varsity since the varsity catcher graduated. My competition was a sophomore, and although he was pretty good, I felt like I could beat him out even though the year before on JV they had asked me to play the outfield at times so he could catch as a Freshman. The coaches told me he was “only a catcher” and I could play anywhere so they felt it was in the team’s interest for me to play other positions besides catcher (I loved catching).
So, we were both playing catcher in preseason when in the 1st or 2nd preseason game I got hit on my right wrist with a 80+ MPH fastball. It swelled so bad I had to go over to the emergency room to get it x-ray’d. I thought it was broken, but thankfully it was just a bad bruise. The worse part though was that I couldn’t do any baseball activity for about a week.
During that missed time, it became clear that I was not going to be the starting catcher so my assumption was I would just start in right field where I played the year before. The season starts and low and behold, I’m not in the starting lineup. I had been back for about a week and felt like I was ready to play, but I was not starting! It was the first time in my entire life that I was on an organized team and was not starting.
Worse of all, I knew I was better than the kid they were starting in RF even though he was a senior. So what I do? I did what most 16-year old kids with a high opinion of his playing abilities would do. I pouted. I complained under my breath. I didn’t hustle during practice (I was always a hustler) and I basically did everything I should not have done. Unfortunately, I was young and immature, and I didn’t have a lot of parental guidance (I needed a foot placed up my butt).
As fate would have it, the kid in RF gets hurt in the second game of the season and I’m like, “Well now I know I’m going to start.” So imagine my surprise when they announce another kid is going to start in RF. At this point, I basically lost my mind when this happened and openly questioned my coaches. That’s when my coach basically told me I wasn’t starting because I wasn’t hustling at practice and because my attitude sucked (He was 100% right).
I should have just taken that feedback, went to practice the next day and started to hustle my butt off again. But for the first time in my life, I wasn’t enjoying baseball and being an immature 16-year old, I did the exact thing I thought I would never do, I quit. I quit the one thing that defined me. I quit the one thing that I loved more than anything because I let my ego get in the way.
I walked into the head coach’s office with my uniform and told him I was quitting. I’m pretty sure I thought he would try to talk me out of it and that we would talk and I would just go back to playing. Instead he took my uniform and said ok. I was devastated. It was my own fault.
That summer, I didn’t play any baseball for the first time in my life. I had decided I was done with baseball. However, over the winter I started to have that itch again and I realized I had screwed up. A few weeks before baseball practice started, I went to my coaches and apologized for my actions and convinced them I was more mature. To their credit, they gave me another chance. They didn’t have to, but they gave a now 17-year old one more chance and I wasn’t going to let them down.
Practice started and I hustled everywhere. I was first for drills, ran hard everywhere, and sure enough, the season started and I was starting in RF. I was always a leadoff hitter because I walked a lot and stole bases, but I was batting 6th or 7th to start the year, but I wasn’t going to get upset since I was just happy to be back in the starting lineup. But after basically losing a year of playing, I was rusty when the season started and by the 3rd or 4th game of the season I was batting around .200 and I can still remember calling my Dad and telling him that I think I forgot how to hit.
That’s when my coach did something surprising, he batted leadoff once again. That game I went 3-for-4 with a walk and two stolen bases and everything started to click once again.
By mid-season, I’m red-hot, but as a 5-foot-8 kid (I hit 5-8 at 15-years old and never grew anymore) who missed his junior year, I clearly was not getting scouted, but we had a kid on our team that had a good fastball and had power, so a few scouts started coming around.
He was pitching one game towards the end of the season when I happened to have one of my best games. I went 3-for-4, hit the only home run of my high school career, doubled, knocked in like four or five runs, made a diving catch and threw out not one, but two runners at home plate. After the game, a guy came over to me and told me he was a Kansas City Royals scout and he gave me piece of paper. He told me it was a pre-draft invitation only try-out camp and he wanted me to attend. He asked me if I was going to college and told him I was in the delayed entry program to go in the Army.
So fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting there eating my breakfast on the Saturday morning before the camp. I was excited and trying to think how I could get out of my Army commitment if I got drafted. That’s when I read the morning local paper and went to the sports section to see if there was any news on the camp. There was. It stated that the Kansas City Royals held an invitation only tryout camp ….. YESTERDAY.
I looked at the piece of paper and sure enough, I looked at the date wrong. I missed the camp.
A few years later, I was playing in a college summer league in Virginia and was hitting over .450 when I decided to go to an Orioles open tryout camp at Memorial Stadium. Honestly, I was already two years into a four year commitment in the Army so I really was going because I wanted to get on the same field where my Orioles heroes played.
I showed up and there were hundreds of young men there. They had us run a 60-yard dash and then asked us to try out at a position. I went to the outfield along with about 90 other guys and they hit us fly balls as we made throws to second base, third base and home from center field. My arm was always strong and I was throwing BBs that day with perfect one-hop throws. The funny thing is my high school coach was a birddog scout for the Orioles and was actually one of the scouts. When I ran off the field after making my throws to home my old coach said, “Where did you get that arm?” I was like, “I stopped doing those curls you told us to not do!”
They gathered us together and thanked us for coming out and then read off names for the people who they wanted to see play in a game. Much to my surprise, I was one of the six outfielders they asked to stay.
I started in left field and remember thinking of the great Orioles who had spent time out there. Even though there was no one in the stands, to me they were full of Orioles fans and I was starting for the Orioles in left field. It didn’t seem like it could get better, but then the game started and the other team quickly loaded the bases with one out. That’s when it happened.
The batter hit a flyball down the left field line and I sprinted after it. At the last second, I dove for the ball and made a full out superman dive catch. Knowing the runner would be tagging, I popped up and threw a one hop strike to get the runner at the plate.
I was pumped, but as we were taught, you never showed emotions on the field so I ran off the field as a few guys came over to high glove me. When I ran by the scouts one of them asked me, “What’s your name son?” I said, “Tony Pente, Sir!” which got some chuckles but hey, that military stuff kicks in sometimes.
I’m thinking this can’t get any better and I’m on cloud nine. It’s my turn to bat now and what do I see, but a left-handed pitcher I used to face in High School. He had a good curveball, but his fastball barely cracked 80-mph and I used to own him in high school. I was thinking, “God is really looking out for me today, this can’t get better.”
I get into the box inside the cage and I’m sure he’s going to throw me that big curve thinking I’ll be sitting fastball. On the first pitch though, he throws me that fastball and although I was sitting curveball, I was able to hit it good to right field. The ball took off and then I realized I had hit it really good. The ball kept carrying and carrying, but it also started to slice and ended up landing in the front row of the outfield fence just next to the 309 ft foul pole. Unfortunately, it was on the foul side about a foot away from a home run.
Unfortunately for me though, the scouts realized that the pitcher had already pitched to three batters and told him that he was done. The next pitcher walked to the mound had a Stanford shirt on and I found out later he was Mike Mussina’s roommate. The right-hander looked like he threw hard, probably in the low 90s, but as I watched him warm up, his curveballs just spun.
I get in the box again and I’m thinking, throws hard, no curveball, wants to light up the radar guns, I’m sitting dead red fastball. That’s when he releases the pitch and it appears to me that it’s coming directly at my head. I start to move out of the way when it starts to break and I realize too late that I just did the world’s worse “toilet seat” on a sharp curveball that was called a strike. Pretty embarrassing, but I also remember thinking that was best curveball I had ever seen and never faced a guy with that kind of heat and curveball. Three pitches later (I fouled off a fastball) he was walking back to the bench after swinging over an 0-2 hammer.
I would later make another diving catch coming in on a liner and then flew out to center field on my second at bat. A couple scouts came over to me and asked me where I was playing and I told them I had just finished playing in a Virginia College league.
One scout then asked to come back to an invitation tryout camp a few weeks later and if they liked me they would offer me a contract.
Fate though had others plans for me because the day before the camp, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait and I became very busy at my Army job in the Intelligence Threat and Analysis Center, and couldn’t get off to attend.
Now everything happens for a reason and it’s probably doubtful I would have been drafted or signed anyways, but twice fate stepped in to lead me away from fulfilling my pro baseball dreams.
Saying that, I’m sure if I would have gotten into pro ball, Orioles Hangout would not have ever existed, so I guess in some ways, people should be thankful to my 18-year old inability to read a date correctly and Saddam Hussein for the Hangout.