Cade Cavalli imagined this life

As a boy, he jotted down his goals and ambitions. Now the top prospect in the Nationals’ system, his dreams are becoming reality.

The Nationals drafted Cade Cavalli in the first round in 2020. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
The Nationals drafted Cade Cavalli in the first round in 2020. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Picture Cade Cavalli, not yet an imposing 6-foot-4 — not yet 4-foot-4, even — picking a quiet spot with his spiral notebook, head full of dreams. Once Cade was old enough to hold a pencil between his fingers, Brian Cavalli, his father, mentioned writing down goals during his downtime in Shawnee, Okla. It could have been to meet a new friend at school. It could have been to play football with his big brother or to get a pet at Christmas. It could have been to have ice cream for dinner.

Now try to picture Brian when, two summers ago, he and Cade’s mother found that notebook in a stack of papers. It survived a move to suburban Tulsa and an entire amateur baseball career. Cade was about to be drafted in the first round by the Washington Nationals, but his imagination was way ahead of schedule.

Some of the entries, scribbled before he was in grade school: When I grow up I whant to be a baseball player. I just love to play baseball. The best dream I ever had was me in the MLB.

“If you could see it in front of you, it was a little more real,” Cavalli, a right-handed pitcher and the Nationals’ top prospect, said at the team facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., this spring. “I could always see exactly what I wanted. I remember being in third grade, looking out the window during class, thinking about being a pro ballplayer. Nothing has really changed.”

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At 23, he’s close now, trying to add to the Nationals’ dearth of homegrown arms since Stephen Strasburg debuted in 2010. Cavalli led all of the minor leagues with 175 strikeouts last year, his first professional season. This spring, he got a shot in major league camp, learning the limits of his high-90s fastball and the importance of dead-on command. He will begin the season with Class AAA Rochester, but he could be the Nationals’ present and future very soon. That will depend on when General Manager Mike Rizzo wants to test his four-pitch mix in Washington. A proven strength for Cavalli is an ability to imagine himself there.

One year in elementary school, Cade wrote a letter to his English teacher, saying he would never get below 80 percent on a test and wanted to get a degree in the medical field and, oh yeah, be a professional baseball player, too. In high school, he tore a page from a notebook, drew six bubbles and connected them all to “Excel in the Big Leagues.” And while at Oklahoma — another of his earliest goals: If I could do anything I wanted, I would be a OU baseball player — he began each season by making a list and taping it to his bathroom mirror.

He titled his 2019 goals sheet “Take-off Year.” He made 12 starts for the Sooners, posted a 3.28 ERA and crushed the ball in 72 at-bats.

This memory of a Frank Howard home run, vivid and bright, will live in his mind forever. But is it true?

“I saw these old notes to himself, and it’s cute, right?” said Becky Cavalli, Cade’s mother. “But then I look closer and I’m like: ‘Whoa, wow, these are serious. These are lofty. Goodness gracious.’ From the beginning, he’s just been driven and confident in his abilities in a way that stuns me.”

“It’s both envisioning it and then being okay with chasing it really, really hard,” Brian Cavalli said. “And then if you don’t get all the way there, being okay with it. That’s not easy, but Cade could always manage that.”

Cavalli learned how in his freshman year of high school. For a decade, he and his older brother, Tristian, had a simple plan: In Cavalli’s first season at Bixby, he would start at second base while Tristian played shortstop. They would be the siblings turning double plays up the middle. But that fall, Tristian felt swelling in his arm, then saw it get puffy from hand to shoulder.

Tests soon revealed a blood clot from his chest to his armpit. Their parents took him to a specialist in St. Louis, where surgery removed a rib and cut neck muscles, ending his baseball career.

“My goal was to be on the field until someone ripped me off it,” Tristian Cavalli said. “I couldn’t do that, obviously, and that hurt a lot. But it just made me want it for Cade even more, which I hadn’t thought was possible.”

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“Looking back, I don’t think my mental health was where it needed to be,” Cade Cavalli recalled. “I was worrying about my brother and my family and I was really struggling with it. You have to understand: I really wanted him to be able to chase his dream. He tried everything he could to get back in the sport. It just didn’t work. Watching him battle through the surgery was horrible — seeing how he couldn’t move, just in complete pain.

“I was 14 and in a super dark spot, starting to question things, questioning my faith, like, ‘Why would you let this happen to my brother, who’s been so good to me and everyone else?’ And now we’re on the backside and I’ve seen the answers with how he’s pushed me to become who I am.”

The brothers share an apartment in Tulsa during Cavalli’s offseasons. Many evenings have been filled with spirited putting contests, though Tristian contends his brother has way more time to practice. Cavalli, a skilled barber, gives haircuts to friends in their kitchen, just as he will for teammates in Rochester or with the Nationals this year. And this offseason, while looking to hone his imagination a bit more, Cavalli began learning visualization and meditation techniques.

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YouTube videos by Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete, were his go-to. When Cavalli first started to watch them, he could hold his breath for no more than 45 seconds. He tried settling his mind and heart rate but had little luck. In late February, though, he sat in his hotel room in Florida, eyes closed, and did so for three minutes, his longest yet.

As the seconds ticked by, he put himself on a mound in a nondescript major league stadium. He chose fastball, slider, curveball or change-up. At one point, Mike Trout stepped into the box, the game on the line. He considered the sequence of his pitches and how he may react to such a high-pressure situation. Then he stopped feeling his body, left with only the make-believe at-bat in his head.

“Almost there,” Hof said in the video as the clock wound down. “You’re almost there.”