Injuries to Nationals catchers gave minor leaguer Sam Palace a chance
By James Wagner,
You’re not supposed to know about Sam Palace. He’s one of the many catchers in the Nationals minor league system. He drove in a run on Wednesday in Class A Hagerstown’s 4-3 win over the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the minor league affiliate of the Miami Marlins. Still, nothing unusual.
Palace, however, wasn’t supposed to be here. He began this season with Class A Potomac, like he did last season at Hagerstown, as a bullpen catcher, whose job is to prepare pitchers for the game. He had a player contract but, really, he wasn’t meant to play. He was the team’s emergency catcher, but was told he couldn’t be guaranteed any at-bats.
Palace, 26, didn’t mind. He came to the stadium every day, relishing his role and holding out hope that one day he might get in a game. It was only by chance that Palace even landed the bullpen catcher job. It came about when he ran into Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty two years ago when Palace was giving baseball lessons to teenagers. And it was by chance, again, that Palace was thrust into action in the minor leagues.
“I’m just having a lot of fun,” Palace said. “I haven’t stopped smiling.”
Said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ director of player development: “He’s just grinded his way to an opportunity.”
The Clarkston, Mich., native started college at Kent State before transferring to Grand Rapids Community College. Palace then transferred to Florida Tech, where he graduated as a standout catcher. He wasn’t drafted by a major league team so he played for a winter league baseball team, the Space Coast Surge, in 2009 and then with an independent Texas baseball team, the Amarillo Dillas.
Palace worked out and gave baseball lessons in Auburn Hills, Mich., to make money. It was there he ran into McCatty, a Detroit native. They discovered that Palace had been a teammate of McCatty’s son, Shane, at Grand Rapids Community College. McCatty recruited Palace to catch bullpen sessions for his son, a recently drafted Nationals pitcher. Palace caught Shane McCatty every few days and threw long toss with him. Steve McCatty liked Palace’s work ethic and drive, and invited him to the Nationals spring training as a bullpen catcher in Viera, Fla.
Palace wasn’t a contracted player and on the final day of cuts in spring training last year, Harris called Palace into the his office. He offered Palace a chance: a one-year deal, sending him to Hagerstown, where he would be a bullpen catcher. When he first arrived in Hagerstown, Manager Brian Daubach warned Palace that he couldn’t promise him any at-bats. He watched as Bryce Harper came and went through Hagerstown.
“I took pride in doing what I could to get the guys ready,” Palace said. “If something came up, I was going to take it.”
Nothing came up. Palace didn’t enter a game last season. “I never knew if it would come,” he said. “In the back of my mind, I had never given up hope.”
The same happened to Palace this offseason. He received another invitation to spring training and endeared himself again to coaches. He earned another one-year deal to be a bullpen catcher, this time in Potomac, where he was reunited with Shane McCatty, a pitcher there.
Then, came Palace’s real opportunity. The rash of injuries to catchers in the system continued. At Hagerstown, their two catchers, Cole Leonida and Adrian Nieto, got hurt and they needed another. Palace started his first game on June 9 on the road. He called his parents the night before and they drove down from Michigan. Palace notched his first hit in front of his mother on her birthday. More than a week later, he started again, catching Nationals pitching prospect Alex Meyer. In seven games, Palace has driven in three runs. He doesn’t know how long he will be with Hagerstown but has loved getting his chance to play.
“If I’m a guy that floats between teams and helps out when I can and plays when I can, I’ll do anything for the organization because I feel like they have done so much for me,” he said.