I’ve been a pitcher for as long as I can remember. Even before I played organized baseball, my father showed me how to throw a knuckleball on our makeshift pitching mound in our backyard. My name is Dustin, and when I was four years old I convinced my father to coach because I was too young to play. My entire baseball life I’ve been told I am too young, too short, too skinny, and not athletic enough. Those who judged and were overly critical only drove me harder to become better, smarter, stronger and more passionate for the game of baseball.
When I was a freshman in high school, I realized I wasn’t going to have the body type to throw 92 MPH. I wasn’t very tall, and I didn’t generate the arm speed or torque to consistently throw that hard. I was getting by as an average player, but I was determined to be the best pitcher on my high school team. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, I convinced my parents to let me take private pitching lessons. I met a guy who pitched batting practice for the Baltimore Orioles, and he agreed to work with me.
After a few lessons, we decided to change my pitching motion closer to a side-armed style. The change allowed me to throw across my body more and hide the ball longer. It gives the illusion of faster velocity and created a sharper break on my slider later identified as a “slurve” by professional scouts. I developed a good change-up and now had three quality pitches I could throw at any time in the count. I practiced countless hours in the backyard with my dad, who would not only catch for me but mentor and coach me as well.
I finished high school as a three-year starter at Archbishop Spalding High School with a record of 18-4 and a 2nd team all Anne Arundel County achievement. I was disappointed—2nd team wasn’t 1st team and that meant someone at the Baltimore Sun thought there were at least three other pitchers in Anne Arundel County better than me. I was more committed than ever to practice and train harder. At this point, I was determined to play Division I college baseball. After several college visits and meetings with coaches, I committed to attend Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
The mound of dirt in my parent’s backyard became a real regulation-size pitching mound. My father and I spent countless hours that summer practicing locating pitches, changing speeds, and duplicating my delivery. Finally, it all paid off. While at Mount Saint Mary’s, I earned Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors; twice I was named to the first team all Northeast Conference; and my junior year I earned Northeast Conference Pitcher of the Year honors. I still hold university records in games pitched, innings pitched, strikeouts, and wins. I thought I had secured my path to professional baseball. What Major League team wouldn’t want a strike-throwing left-handed pitcher who could hit his target with pinpoint accuracy? Apparently, no one! Although I was scouted by at least four teams, I wasn’t drafted by any them. As disappointed as I was, I refused to throw in the proverbial towel. One way or another I was going to play professional baseball.
My former pitching coach worked for an independent professional baseball club in the Northern League in Winnipeg, Canada. I contacted him after the draft, and he invited me to join the club on a trial basis. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but the league had many former major league players on their rosters and there was no question this level of competition would be tough. This wasn’t low A ball where most draftees start out in affiliated. These were seasoned players, and I was a young rookie who looked like I was twelve years old in comparison. I would undoubtedly be facing off against some big-time hitters, many of whom were working on getting back into affiliated baseball. I asked myself if this was my only option. Unfortunately, the answer was yes. My mom helped pack my car, and I had three days to get to Winnipeg from Baltimore. I received a warm welcome into independent baseball and proved I could hold my own against some top-notch hitters, resulting in a very successful summer. The next year, I was signed by the Kansas City Royals and joined their spring training camp. I quickly learned the business of baseball was brutal and unforgiving. When you are an undrafted free agent, there is little chance you’ll be given multiple opportunities to pitch much less make the team. Every day there were red slips on guys’ lockers indicating they’d been cut. They were given a one-way airline ticket to wherever they called home and for most of them their baseball career was over. I was cut by the Royals on the last day of spring training. Now, I had two choices: get a real job or go back to independent baseball. There was only one real choice—my mom helped pack up my car yet again, and off I went back to Canada.
After another year in Winnipeg, I was traded to the Windy City Thunderbolts just outside of Chicago. It was a step in the right direction—at least I was playing in the United States! After a year in Chicago as a starter, I was traded to the Wichita Wingnuts in Kansas where I played for former major league infielder Kevin Hooper. He had a tremendous influence on me and convinced me that my shot at making an affiliated team was coming . . . that I had quality pitches and deserved a chance. It was the advice I needed at the time, and I kept working even harder. For Kevin, I worked entirely out of the bullpen. My body was filling in, and I was lifting smarter in a way that was more conducive, as a pitcher should. Correct training programs designed for pitchers are a must. My fastball velocity was reaching the upper eighties, and I finally felt that I found my place as a left-hander out of the bullpen. I had a resilient arm and had no trouble pitching three or four days in a row. I was named pitcher of the year for the Wingnuts and I broke a league record for appearances with 55 in a 96-game schedule. At the end of the season my contract was up and I was a free agent. Again.
At one point along the way, I met former major leaguer and Red Sox manager Butch Hobson. We stayed in touch, and he was now managing the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the elite independent Atlantic League. Their season still had another thirty days, and I thought that maybe I could get a contract for the remainder of the year so my family could watch me play and so that I could possibly secure a contract for the following year. He didn’t have any openings, but he sent me to the York Revolution in York, PA, where I was signed by Andy Etchebarren, a Baltimore legend, and finished the season. It was one of the most exciting times of my life: the York Revolution won their first Atlantic League championship, and I got a win in the championship series.
That year was a turning point in my professional baseball career. Little did I know at the time that my season with Wichita had caught some attention.
The San Diego Padres liked what they saw and signed me as a minor league free agent to a minor league contract. I didn’t expect much when I arrived for spring training. I’d been there before and had seen the business of baseball crush the dreams of many players. To my surprise, I made the club and was assigned to their class high A team in Lake Elsinore, CA. That year I led the California League in appearances by a left-handed pitcher, and we won the California League championship. The following year (2012), I advanced to class AA and once again led the Texas League in appearances by a left-handed pitcher. In 2013, some major changes took affect in the Padres organization. They came under new ownership and with that came new managers, new coaches, and new players. It also brought me to a new phase in my life. I was sent to AAA spring training and one Wednesday afternoon was released along with eight other pitchers (and friends) just before the end of camp.
At this point in my life, I can’t say for sure what the future holds for me, but I know it will encompass my faith in God, family, and, somehow, baseball. Of the last two seasons I played, only four players on the team graduated from college. I am proud to be one of them. Baseball has afforded me so many things: an education, friendships, travel, and a career. I may not be as tall, strong, or athletic as other guys with whom I played, but none of them could match my dedication, passion, and baseball IQ.