WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Here is how my first conversation with Jake Noll began, way back on Feb. 17, before he started tearing through the Grapefruit League:
“Has anyone ever told you ...” I started.
“Yes,” he said, cutting me off.
“You know what I’m going to say?” I asked Noll, a 24-year-old infielder in the Washington Nationals’ minor league system.
“Yeah,” he shot back. “That I look just like Ryan Zimmerman.”
To be fair, he really does. The next question I asked him was about wearing a number, 70, that seems better suited for an offensive lineman in football. Then Noll hit and hit — and hit some more — so I figured I owed him a conversation about baseball. Not that he was waiting for that or seeking my approval. He wants that from Washington Manager Dave Martinez or General Manager Mike Rizzo or anyone who can decide that the Nationals want him in their future. Because maybe one day they will. And maybe that sounds crazy to the guy who once walked on at Florida Gulf Coast University, figured his career was over after his freshman year and was just fine with that. He still gets surprised looks when people back home hear he is playing pro ball.
Now Noll is in his first major league camp after finishing last season with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. He has a .344 average in 32 spring plate appearance. He has two home runs and nine RBI and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.122. He has played third base, second base and first base, and Martinez has joked, sort of, about trying him at shortstop and in the outfield. Martinez has actually talked about him, prompted and otherwise, more than any other nonroster invitee. You could say that these games don’t count, that Noll’s numbers are from too small a sample size, that he has no realistic shot of making this year’s team.
And you would be right. And Jake Noll would still be having the spring of his life.
Here is how our second conversation started, this past Friday morning, before he boarded a bus to Port St. Lucie for one more day in the sun:
“Hey, Jake, you have a minute?” I asked in a near-empty clubhouse, a reporter’s way of requesting much more time than that.
“You mind if I finish this game first?” he responded, without looking up, as he tapped away at his iPhone. “I’m playing Bloons Towers Defense. I’ll be done in five minutes tops.”
He waved me over once he set a high score. Then I asked where he came from.
“I don’t know, man. I feel like I’ve sort of always been overlooked,” Noll said, the lockers around him empty because most young players have been sent down to minor league camp. “I always thought I could do this, but I can’t really explain how I ended up here. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it?”
It is kind of funny. At least how he said it was. Noll mixes the confidence of a professional athlete with the self-deprecation of a washout. Maybe that’s because he almost was a washout. Noll hit just one home run at Charlotte High in Punta Gorda, Fla., played a pretty good outfield, was undersized and, with skill and dedication, became a preferred walk-on at nearby Florida Gulf Coast.
One of the scholarship catchers quit Noll’s first year, so he was named a bullpen catcher. He had never caught and now received 90-mph fastballs day after day after day. He thought he was finished after that season. Being a walk-on is hard, he says now. But there was an opening at second base, he started in that spot on the B-team, and soon he was playing varsity and spending hours in the weight room. His muscles caught up to his mechanics, and he hit 12 home runs with a .367 average as a redshirt junior. He was named player of the year in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He was a unanimous first-team all-league selection. He became the second first-team all-American in program history. The other is Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale. The Nationals took Noll in the seventh round of the 2016 draft.
“Wait, are you writing about me?” he asked, laughing, in the middle of telling me all this. I told him I was thinking about it. He shook his head and kept going.
He has had a few rookie moments down here, starting in Fort Myers on Feb. 28. Martinez figured Noll would have a big crowd there because it was near his college and high school, so he made sure to get Noll in the game. When his name was announced over the loudspeaker, Martinez heard only scattered cheers in an otherwise quiet ballpark. He told Noll that he must know more people than that. Noll admitted that it was his mother, Cindy, and a handful of her friends.
Then there was that afternoon in Jupiter, last Monday, when he shuffled into the parking lot with his hands on his head. He asked me whether I saw where the team bus drove off to. I hadn’t. He had picked up somebody else’s bag and left his equipment behind. He looked around for a few seconds before jogging in a random direction. First pitch was in 40 minutes.
“Everything here has been incredible,” he said because he has mostly reached first base and knocked runners in and crossed home himself. “I know everyone will say spring training doesn’t matter. It matters to me. This is my chance to impress these coaches for the future. I’d rather do it here than anywhere else.”
He paused and thought about that for a moment.
“Okay, I also want to have a really good season,” he relented. “Let’s hit well now and during the season.”
Soon Washington will shave its major league roster down to 25 players. Noll will not be one of them. But he will never forget these six weeks and, who knows, maybe one day the Nationals will remember them, too.