The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He and his family had dreamed of his major league moment. Amid a pandemic, he reached it alone.

“I wish they could have been there with me,” Kyle Finnegan said of his family and his MLB debut. “It was their dream, too.” (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)

The texts bounced from Texas to Long Island, to cousins and coaches, through a living room in Kingwood, just outside Houston, where a broadcast met the sound of sniffed-back tears: Kyle is in.

“. . . as we will witness the major league debut of Kyle Finnegan,” a Fox announcer said through the TV, right as Kyle — their son, their brother, their friend and their dad — drew a deep breath and took the mound in Washington. “. . . who spent a long time in the A’s organization, seven seasons.”

Everyone was a bit quieter then, watching Finnegan take the sign, reach back and skip a fastball to the backstop at Nationals Park. However long “seven seasons” sounded to fans, it felt much longer to the 29-year-old’s family. Finnegan’s father, Willy, paced through the house and whispered, “Come on, Ky,” under his breath. His wife, Rachel, tried to stay calm, hoping that would reach Finnegan in some cosmic way. And their daughter, Brayden, 8 years old and beaming, recorded a video with her iPad.

She wanted evidence for school, whenever that would start. Not everyone’s dad makes the big leagues. Hers had on July 25, tasked with the last three outs of a 9-2 win, getting them once Aaron Judge bounced into a double play. Finnegan walked forward and smiled. Everyone took a deep breath. Then a man yelled, “Go Nationals!” from a nearby rooftop, and it echoed through the empty ballpark. It only underscored the difference of reaching this point in 2020.

What does baseball sound like during a pandemic? Loneliness — and hope.

Soon, in the coming months, close to 200 players would feel what Finnegan had that night. He had made it — he had really, finally made it — but something was missing. They were all too far away.

“I wish they could have been there with me,” Finnegan reflected a few weeks later. “It was their dream, too.”

‘The rest is history’

It’s always more about staying than getting here, even if Finnegan had toiled through the minors, switched from starting to relieving in 2016, rumbled through so many small towns, from Stockton to Midland, that he could write a how-to guide for budding pros. So he went and fixed himself in the Nationals’ bullpen.

Entering the weekend, Finnegan had struck out 23 batters in 20⅓ innings. Manager Dave Martinez has begun calling on him in high-pressure situations. In an extra-innings win Sept. 11, Finnegan twice stranded the automatic runner on second before Washington won in the 12th. His coaches and teammates often call him “fearless.”

“ ‘Mental toughness, Kyle, is simply being at your best when it means the most,’ ” said Willy Finnegan, a former minor league pitcher, repeating what he told his son growing up. “So I would put Kyle in situations, in a 1-1 game with the bases loaded. I’d hand him the ball, and whether he succeeded or failed really didn’t matter. He developed this quiet confidence about himself. He was always fearless.”

The major league shot he chased his entire life finally arrived. Then it drowned.

Willy first saw this when Kyle was 2 years old, speeding a red toy car at his dad before stopping an inch shy of his shins. Next he saw it in youth football, when Kyle, all of 90 pounds, was the quarterback and middle linebacker, his Cougars jersey looking three sizes too big. Then he heard about Kyle’s attempt to date Rachel, who was a year older at Kingwood High.

Kyle asked her out in the hallway. Rachel told him to try again when he grew.

“I’ve always been tall for a girl. I’m [5-foot-8], and in high school, he was like a shrimp,” Rachel says now, laughing. “He didn’t grow until later, so I always joke that he was never on my radar really because he was too short for me. My friend and his friend were dating; we started talking in college, got together in college. And then Brayden happened, and we’ve been together ever since. The rest is history.”

Brayden arrived before they had planned to start a family. It forced the couple to mature quickly and make tough decisions: Kyle, a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, would leave Texas to play professional baseball. Rachel would stay in Houston, give Brayden a solid base, support the family with a full-time job. They separated to make their lives work.

But there were ways to meet in the middle. Rachel turned Kyle’s games into summer trips for her and Brayden. She jokes that while some families visit Mexico, they splurged on day-long drives into Central Texas. They would watch a few innings before finding the stadium’s playground. Mornings were spent searching for a museum, swimming at the hotel pool, pretending they were at some tropical resort.

And in return, Kyle spent offseasons training in Kingwood. He built a backyard mound, constructed so Brayden could play in the grass while he pitched. Sometimes she would climb to the rubber, coil her tiny arms and throw the ball as hard as she could. The promise was that after all those days beneath a beating sun they would make the majors together.

“It’s tough because I know how much they would enjoy this whole experience,” Finnegan said in August, talking to The Washington Post from his hotel room in Manhattan. “When we pulled into New York City, I was talking to my daughter and I was telling her. She couldn’t believe it. She was like, ‘You’re in New York City?’ I was just thinking how cool would it have been to have them here.”

‘You put in the work’

The trick is a lot of phone calls, a lot of FaceTime, filling free moments with each other. Under the novel coronavirus health protocols for the 2020 season, Finnegan goes straight from the field to his hotel by Nationals Park. The rules are even stricter on the road. He bats away the loneliness by calling home.

He and Rachel often laugh about the distance between the minors and the majors. A while back, in Tucson, workouts were followed by team meals at Golden Corral. Finnegan was bound for winter ball in Mexico, where he wished the Oakland Athletics would see the potential in his right arm. But now he tells her about the fancy rooms, the salmon or steak in his to-go box, the buses with air conditioning and well-padded seats.

Baseball has never been so lonely, and players are feeling the strain

“We always go back and forth,” Rachel said of Kyle crediting her for making this possible. “But I say, like: ‘You did it; this is your dream. You put in the work.’ ”

That’s why, before his July 25 debut, Rachel worked on a surprise, gathering short video messages from family, friends, former coaches and teammates. They came from West Islip, N.Y., Willy’s hometown; from Texas State University, Finnegan’s college; from old buddies ready to tell an embarrassing story or two. So when Finnegan got back to his room that night, when he put his dinner on the counter, when it seemed like he would go to bed with a full inbox and not much else, Rachel sent him a Zoom link.

He logged on, and they were all smiling back at him. The montage played, everyone offering praise, and Finnegan was nearly sobbing by the end. He already couldn’t wait for them to see him pitch next year.

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