Jason Maxey and Joe Michalski grew up less than eight miles from each other in Howard County, playing baseball for much of their childhood then blossoming into standout catchers at rival high schools. Yet it wasn't until they stepped onto the freshly trimmed grass at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., a couple of weeks ago that their lives converged.
Maxey, a Columbia native, graduated from Hammond High School in 2001, and Michalski, who is from Ellicott City, finished at Mount Hebron the same year. Both won baseball scholarships, with Maxey choosing the University of Maryland and later Towson University and Michalski selecting George Washington University. As college underclassmen, both saw their careers derailed by serious injuries. Maxey had a broken bone removed from his right hand and surgery on his right rotator cuff; Michalski had six pins inserted in a damaged knee to hold it together.
Both rebounded for productive senior seasons, only to watch 1,501 other players get selected in last month's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and to wonder whether they had swung a bat for the final time.
And now they have something else in common: a chance to play baseball professionally. Each was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Baltimore Orioles less than 48 hours after the draft concluded.
"All I ever wanted was a chance to see if I could make it in this game," Maxey said. "That's all any player wants. I feel so fortunate to get that opportunity. I mean, we play baseball for a living. I got up at noon and then came to the ballpark to go to work. Does it get any better than that? Whatever happens, at least I know that I got my chance."
For both, that opportunity begins with the Aberdeen IronBirds, a short-season Class A affiliate of the Orioles that competes in the New York-Penn League. Maxey and Michalski are still four classifications away from playing at Camden Yards, the Orioles' ballpark -- and statistics say their chances of making it to the major leagues are at best remote. Typically, only one or two players from each of the league's 14 teams wind up there per season, said New York-Penn League historian Charlie Wride. But those odds don't discourage Maxey or Michalski.
"After I didn't get drafted, I thought my career might be over," Michalski said. "But now, the way I look at it, I have just as good a shot to get there as the players here who were drafted. I just have to play better than they do."
Waiting for the Call
On June 8, at the Towson townhouse he shares with three friends, Maxey was watching the second day of the 50-round draft unfold on the Internet. Michalski was doing the same thing at a friend's house in the District. Names of players flashed on the screen alphabetically until the last player was taken.
Maxey was frustrated. At Towson, where he transferred after a series of injuries sent him plummeting down the depth chart at Maryland, he had just produced the finest season of his career. He hit .346 with 18 doubles and 23 home runs, which ranked third nationally among Division I players.
"One of the first things Jason said to me that night [after the draft] was, 'What did I need to do, hit 50 home runs?' " recalled Bob Maxey, Jason's dad. "I felt after the season he had, he was going to get drafted. I just wanted to know why he wasn't. What more did he need to do? I looked at some of the players who were selected, and they didn't put up the same numbers as Jason."
It wasn't any easier for the Michalski family. Kathy, Joe's mom, cried. After all, she thought, her son had overcome what one doctor diagnosed as a career-ending knee injury to hit .255 with 10 home runs in his junior year and have 32 RBI as a senior.
"At dinner that night I looked at Joe and said: 'You know what? You're too good of a player to stop playing, so you do whatever you have to do to try and find a team, like in the Independent Leagues,' " Kathy Michalski said. "It was a very emotional night. We all cried our eyes out. But we weren't ready to give up. Joe had his whole life to find another job. We still felt like he could play."
On June 10, Maxey and Michalski received a call from Dean Albany, a regional scout for the Orioles, asking each one to come to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. There, free agent contracts awaited their signatures.
"We basically needed two catchers that we felt had a chance to play at Aberdeen, and I had coached both Jason and Joe before during summer league," Albany said. "So both of their names came to mind."
Ty Brown, a scout for the Orioles who evaluates talent in the Mid-Atlantic Region, doesn't know exactly why all 30 major league teams passed on Maxey and Michalski, but he believes their previous injuries were a factor.
"I'm sure teams had questions about if they were each healthy enough to survive the rigors of playing catcher every day," he said. "There were questions about Jason's arm and Joe's knee. And for a catcher, arms and knees are the most important parts of the body. But after the draft was over, we were looking for players, and we always try to sign local kids."
Maxey and Michalski each received a $1,000 signing bonus and were assigned to Aberdeen. They will each make $1,150 a month during the 21/2-month season, in which their team will play 76 games in 80 days.
"This is Joe's first job," his mom said. "Every summer he's never had time for a job. He's always played baseball."
Maxey and Michalski called everyone they knew, but it wasn't until a few days after they arrived in Aberdeen to take a physical examination and receive their uniforms that they discovered they were teammates. Assigned to lockers next to each other, the two catchers hung their crisp white-and-black uniforms alongside blue warmup jackets and freshly laced pairs of black cleats. They were issued two wooden bats, which they leaned against their lockers.
"It makes it easier when you see someone you know," Maxey said. "I've known about Joe for a long time because we've played against each other so many times."
"I can still remember it: The last out I ever made in high school my senior year I popped it up to the catcher, and Jason caught it," Michalski said.
It's a Start
On the night of June 22, Ripken Stadium was filled with 6,344 spectators for the IronBirds' second game of the season, against the Hudson Valley Renegades.
It lacked the luster of Opening Night, when retired Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., the IronBirds' president and chief executive officer, and Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams threw out the first pitches and fighter planes flew over the stadium. But the night was memorable for Maxey and Michalski. They were in the starting lineup -- Michalski at catcher and Maxey as the designated hitter.
Jason's parents, Bob and Suzanne Maxey, and about 10 of his high school and college teammates sat in the section overlooking the home team's dugout, on the first base line, as did Michalski's father, Chet, and younger brother Mike. His mom, Kathy, was in Atlanta on a business trip.
Michalski finished 0 for 3, but Maxey fared much better. After grounding out in his first two at-bats, Maxey strode to the plate with a runner on first. Suzanne Maxey couldn't stop her hands from shaking: "I was so nervous that I wanted to go sit in the car."
Bob Maxey, who has coached high school baseball for three decades, including 25 years at Hammond before stepping down after the 2001 season, watched the Renegades pitcher try to power a fastball past Jason over the outside edge of the plate.
Jason swung. The swing Bob taught him. The one Bob had seen thousands of times in batting cages and during a high school career in which Jason set or tied five state public school records.
The ball rocketed off the bat and inside the third base line.
"Take second!" Bob yelled as the ball rolled into left field and a runner scored.
"Way to go, Jason," yelled Suzanne, jumping to her feet.
Maxey finished the game by striking out, but he was given the ball he struck for his first professional hit and named the IronBirds player of the game in the team's 5-2 loss.
The next night, Maxey and Michalski were not in the lineup for the team's final game against the Renegades. IronBirds Coach Andy Etchebarren said he was spending the first week of the season giving everyone on the 25-man roster a chance to play before determining who will fill the starting roles. Either player could be cut this season. And it's not likely that either will play major roles -- at least during the first part of the season -- because the franchise has invested more money in draft picks and returning players.
"You've got to remember, both of them are free agents, and the players that have been drafted are going to play. That's just baseball," Etchebarren said. "I've only known Jason and Joe for nine days, but for free agents, they are doing okay."
But neither that nor the team's having two other catchers -- Kyle Dahlberg, a 13th round choice in this year's draft, and Cody Wargo, a 27th round pick in 2004, who hit .179 last summer in Aberdeen -- will stop Michalski and Maxey from trying to increase their playing time. And if Maxey and Michalski play well, they will probably have to compete against each other for playing time.
"The way I have to look at it is that I'm going to have to play better than someone who got drafted if I want to keep playing," Michalski said. "In anything you do, there are going to be obstacles you have to overcome, so you just have to compete the best you can."
At the beginning of this week, Maxey was hitting .227 with five RBI, the team's second highest number, while Michalski was hitting .167 with no RBI.
'A Lot of Wear and Tear'
Life in the New York-Penn League won't be glamorous. At Camden Yards, Orioles players dine on lavish complimentary meals in the clubhouse, with postgame spreads featuring crawfish, pasta, chicken, steamed vegetables, salad and fruit.
In Aberdeen, players have to pay $5 for a tuna fish or peanut butter and jelly sandwich to go along with carrot and celery sticks, ranch dip, pretzels and sports drinks before the game. After the game, players can eat hot dogs, fried chicken strips and soft pretzels left over from the stadium's concession stands.
The IronBirds will travel to games -- the majority of which are in small towns in New York -- in a chartered bus. Each player gets $20 a day for meals during road trips.
"They can expect a lot of wear and tear on their bodies and to eat a lot of fast food -- we'll all get plenty of McDonald's and Wendy's," said pitcher James Hoey, now in his second season with the IronBirds. "Sometimes, the only time I can sleep is if I just lie down in the aisle. But since Jason and Joe are rookies, they haven't been here long enough to each get a row of seats to themselves. They will probably have to share one."
As Maxey and Michalski's careers have blossomed, so has their friendship. They carpool to games. Michalski drives from his parents' home in Ellicott City to Maxey's apartment in Towson, then the two head an hour north to Aberdeen.
Both families agree it's an ideal situation. The majority of the IronBirds' players live with host families, who help make their extended stay away from home easier, but Maxey and Michalski have the luxury of seeing their parents in the stands almost every home game.
"You know, if Jason got drafted by someone else, he could be playing somewhere in Utah, and we'd hardly get the chance to see him," Bob Maxey said. "So as a parent, what could be better than getting the opportunity to come to the stadium every day and see your kid playing professional baseball? I've looked at the schedule, and I'll be at 38 games this year, if not more."
One section over from Bob Maxey, Kathy, Chet and Mike Michalski recently watched the Renegades complete a three-game sweep of the IronBirds. They realized that it was just the first of many nights that will be spent at ballparks across the region.
"You know, before the draft I sat down and was thinking how great it would be if the Orioles drafted Joe because we could see him play every day in Aberdeen," Chet said. "Now, to sit here and think about how it all worked out, I don't think it could be any more perfect."