As Nationals players and support staff were introduced one by one on the field before Monday’s season opener at Citi Field, one sported perhaps the broadest grin of all. Forgive Sam Palace; he just couldn’t contain his zeal.
For the past few seasons, he was one of the Nationals’ minor league bullpen catchers who managed to fulfill his dream by playing in a handful of games. But now, Palace, 27, stood on a major league field, as part of a major league team, for the first time in his life, promoted to serve as one of the Nationals’ bullpen catchers a week ago, and he was proud.
“To me, it feels kinda like I made it in my own way,” he said.
The Michigan native is one of the many behind-the-scenes employees who work in the Nationals’ organization. He played baseball in college, but was never drafted, and later played in independent leagues before landing with the Nationals. In 2012, after a rash of injuries to catchers in the Nationals system, Palace appeared in 11 games between Class A Hagerstown and Potomac.
He was a bullpen catcher with a minor league contract, intended to appear in games only in an emergency. Instead of playing, he caught minor league pitchers’ bullpen sessions and played catch with them, and did other odd jobs when needed. Playing in the minor leagues and making the long bus rides is tiring and thankless, but so is working for a minor league team. He taught baseball lessons in the offseason to teenagers to help pay the bills.
Palace was again a minor league bullpen catcher in 2013. He spent most of the season again on the disabled list with phantom injuries, activated on the rare occasion he was needed, bouncing between Hagerstown and Class AAA Syracuse. He appeared in three games for Hagerstown, went 4 for 13 and hit a home run, and played in one game with Syracuse. He did it all with a smile, and those around him appreciated that.
This spring, Palace was brought back again as a bullpen catcher. But instead of shuttling back and forth between the minor and major league camps in Viera, he stayed on the major league side. He worked hard and kept his head down. At the end of camp, he thought he would be sent again to another minor league team to land on the disabled list and catch bullpens.
But in the final week of camp, he was called into the coaches’ office. All of the coaches were there, along with General Manager Mike Rizzo. Pitching coach Steve McCatty, whose son was a former college teammate of Palace’s and gave him his first opportunity as a bullpen catcher, told Palace how much the coaching staff liked working with him. But, because there wasn’t any room on the minor league side for more bullpen catchers, the Nationals were going to release him.
Quickly, the gag ended. McCatty told Palace that he would instead be offered a chance to be a bullpen catcher with the major league team and would travel with them during the season. Palace went from being worried he would have to find another job to being told he had reached the majors leagues. “It was funny,” he said.
Palace instantly accepted. And on Monday, he was on the field before the game started, playing catch with Taylor Jordan and Jose Lobaton, and any player or pitcher who needed someone to throw with. Like the other support staff, his name was announced before the game.
“It’s an honor to be up here and to be around these great guys and staff,” he said. “They’ve been unbelievable. Rizzo has been great. I couldn’t be more thankful. I just feel humbled by the chance to be up here after coming through independent ball and the minor leagues and being able to like me and appreciate me has been a blessing.”
Players told of their promotion to the majors often call their families immediately to share to news. Palace did the same.
“‘I’ve been waiting 10 years to tell you this but not in the way that we had dreamed about as a kid but I’m getting a chance to go to the big leagues,'” he said he told his parents. “For them, it was just like the players who get called up. It was like my call-up. They were crying. It was a cool moment.”
FROM THE POST
Matt Williams handles a lot in his managerial debut, a wild 9-7 win over the Mets, writes Adam Kilgore.
The Nationals played an opener with everything, writes Thomas Boswell.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL