The photograph hangs like a billboard, blown up and plastered onto the concourse wall at Davenport Field. It’s the first thing visible when fans enter the University of Virginia baseball stadium, depicting bodies tossed into the heap of jubilation, unabashedly clumped like piglets at a trough. Cleats and butts, that’s what you see.
The image, snapped four years ago after Virginia won an NCAA super regional, captures the Cavaliers at their finest moment: bound for Omaha and the program’s first College World Series. They had never been there before, so they celebrated as they never had. The bruises were worth it, evidence of the kind of unadulterated joy a game can provide when that’s all it is.
The achievement was driven by the greatest recruiting class in school history, one that from 2009 through 2011 anchored Virginia through three super regionals, two College World Series and more wins than any Division I team. Eight Cavaliers who were freshmen during that 2009 season advanced into the professional ranks, and, coincidentally, half of them ended up with affiliates of the Seattle Mariners.
All four are somewhere in that photo, strewn among the heap of white jerseys. Slugging third baseman Steven Proscia belly flops over the top, Superman-style. Behind him, pitcher and first baseman Danny Hultzen tumbles back-first, a toothy smile center frame. Designated hitter and catcher John Hicks and second baseman Keith Werman can’t be distinguished, but rest assured they’re celebrating, too, screaming over what they had just achieved, clinging to the hopes of what they could yet become.
After they sparked a college program’s golden years, baseball cast these four peers down different roads, confronted them with disparate realities. Baseball became a profession instead of just a game, and the sobering truth is that sometimes even the dream jobs must come to an end.
The black Ford F-150 pickup swings into the Denny’s parking lot precisely at 11 a.m., because that’s when Danny Hultzen promised to meet for breakfast. Inside, he orders the usual: Lumberjack Slam with sausage links, wheat toast and eggs over-easy.
“I don’t really bother with specials,” Hultzen says, closing the menu and nudging it away. Structure made him Virginia’s career leader in strikeouts and wins. It turned him into the second overall pick in 2011. Last June, it earned him a promotion from Class AA Jackson (Tenn.) to Class AAA Tacoma. He’s one phone call and less than an hour’s drive from the major leagues, so why change now?
With his patchy scruff and “back-of-the-classroom” humility, Hultzen makes it easy to forget that he ranks as the 38th-best prospect in the entire minor leagues and third in Seattle’s farm system, according to Baseball America. A left-hander with mid-90s speed and masterful control, Hultzen handles fame fine but easily could live without it. His two-bedroom townhouse remains undecorated, offering no hints of the multimillion-dollar contract inked two years ago. An overturned cardboard box in the garage doubles as a workstation for rigging fishing lines.
“It took him forever to get a smartphone,” said Andrew Carraway, a 2009 Virginia graduate who now pitches for Tacoma, another former teammate now in the Mariners system whom Hultzen calls a big brother. “Eventually, he joined the rest of America.”
Except Hultzen, the 2008 All-Met player of the year from St. Albans, has spent the better part of the past decade separating himself from the herd. A self-starting ethos, honed through early mornings flipping tires over the outfield wall at Virginia, serves him well in Tacoma, where he is 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts.
“I don’t think I’ve changed,” Hultzen said. “I’d like to think I haven’t changed.”
Two days later, everything changed. Warming up for a scheduled start, Hultzen felt stiffness in his throwing shoulder. He recognized the pain immediately, an inflammation of the strained rotator cuff that landed him on the disabled list earlier this season. The Mariners scratched that start and shut him down for at least 10 days. They’re exploring changes to his mechanics and routine, the very foundation of Hultzen’s unflappable consistency. Everyone considers it a minor setback but nothing more. At least, that’s the hope.
“It happens again, and that kind of shows you how things can be taken away from you like that, at the drop of a hat,” Hultzen later said by phone. “I still believe that, if this is the worst thing that happens to me, not only in my life and in my baseball career, that’s going to be fine.”
Thousands of miles away, in the heartlands of Tennessee, two of Hultzen’s classmates grapple with similar verities, except with futures far less guaranteed.
Steven Proscia grew up in Suffern, N.Y., just across the New Jersey border, raised by a traditional Italian family. He was a two-sport star at Don Bosco Prep, a private high school with an annual tuition higher than most in-state universities. His father built movie sets in New York City.
So imagine Proscia’s surprise when, entering his freshman year in Charlottesville, he learned the surname of his future roommate, from a rural town called Goochland, Va.
“It’s going to be a guy named John Hicks?!”
Five years later, little has changed. Proscia is still the muscular corner infielder who holds New York Giants season tickets and wears a silver chain with his jersey number around his neck. The catcher Hicks, despite a faded accent that still affords the occasional y’all, loves country music, hunting deer and slopping gravy onto his biscuits. And it’s here, in the bucolic town of Jackson, Tenn., where the latest episode of the Hicks and Proscia Show sets its scene.
Teammates now with the Class AA Generals, Hicks and Proscia have been inseparable ever since their recruiting trip to Virginia, when their football bye weeks happened to fall on the same weekend. They roomed together all three of their years in Charlottesville, were both drafted by the Mariners in 2011, lived together at Class A High Desert last season and at spring training this year, and even slept in the same bedroom during their one summer at the Cape Cod League.
“A lot of great times,” Hicks says, fully confident. “And it’s only going to get better.”
For some, such as Hultzen, Class AA in Jackson was a minor hurdle easily cleared. But for others it’s a barometer, an opportunity to impress the clipboards and radar guns sitting behind home plate. Hicks and Proscia have struggled this summer — neither is hitting over .220 — but remain everyday starters for the Generals. They teeter on the fringe and face the idea that an extended slump could mean demotion. But they do it together.
“They’re complete opposites but kind of similar in a weird way,” says Chris Taylor, their third roommate in Jackson and Virginia’s sixth alumnus in Seattle’s system. “They’ll bicker back and forth, kind of like brothers. They might not admit it . . . ”
“John won’t admit it,” Proscia interrupts. “I’m not ashamed. John tries to keep up the older brother persona. He won’t admit the love.”
At this Hicks can only laugh. With a nine-hour bus ride ahead after that night’s game, Proscia departs to buy gas and deodorant. Taylor scurries between rooms, folding shirts and packing chargers into a duffel bag. Hicks remains seated, watching “SportsCenter” highlights on loop. Before long, Taylor dumps himself into a suede recliner. Then the conversation turns to dog food.
As promised, the ballpark in Clinton, Iowa, reeks of puppy chow. The noxious odor from the Purina factory rolls eastward toward the Mississippi, right into the noses that occupy Ashford University Field. Here, among the lowest rungs of the Mariners’ organization, is where the most famous member of Virginia’s class of 2009 began the season.
But tracking down Keith Werman isn’t easy. He began the season here with the Class A LumberKings. Then he was demoted to rookie ball in Pulaski, Va., shoved into the Appalachian Mountains for five games in eight days. By the time his Clinton roommates remembered to ship his gear, Werman was back in Iowa. Lucky for him, they missed the UPS truck.
An Oakton High School alumnus and former first-team All-Met, Werman has made his way in baseball doing everything coaches love and opponents hate. He floats bloopers into no-man’s land and almost never strikes out. He turns double plays, smooth and quick, straight out of an instructional video. And he bunts. Goodness gracious, does he bunt. For two straight seasons at Virginia, no one in Division I baseball laid down more sacrifices than the 5-foot-8, 145-pound second baseman.
Werman became a celebrity in Charlottesville. His freshman year, when the Cavs hit a lull and Coach Brian O’Connor dropped him into the postseason lineup to shake things up, Werman hit .400. The next year, he hit .414. Before long, fans began wearing custom orange T-shirts emblazoned with “FEAR THE WERM!”
“On teams with the Proscias and the Hicks and the Hultzens and all these people, this kid was adored more than anybody,” O’Connor said, eyes drifting skyward like he’s remembering an old crush. “Pretty cool.”
In this manner, Clinton is perfect for him, with its cheap Miller Lite, Depression-era stadium and fleet of aging loyalists who dish out pregame candy atop the home dugout. But the fans don’t really know Werman. He never played enough. Earlier this season, Clinton tossed Werman onto the disabled list twice in one month, even though he wasn’t injured, just to free a roster spot. He was the only player to have suited up for four Mariners affiliates, none higher than low-Class A. “I can’t bring my girlfriend out here,” he said earlier this month, because the last time he tried, he got demoted the next day.
Then last Monday, following another game Werman never played, he was undressing for a shower when Clinton’s manager asked to meet. Flipping on a T-shirt and shorts, Werman wondered why. Another plane ticket to Pulaski? An unexpected promotion to High Desert?
“Hey,” the manager said instead. “The organization has made the decision to let you go.”
The conversation lasted five minutes. Werman had watched other teammates pitch tantrums or bawl uncontrollably after being let go. Last season, one player dumped his gear into a nearby trash can. But Werman knew this was coming, that sitting six days, then playing one with a .077 batting average could never last. So at the moment his minor league career ended, shaking hands and saying goodbyes, Werman began to laugh.
“That’s the way it is with any business,” Werman said this week by phone from his Vienna home. “If they don’t have room for you, they don’t have room. Then they have to get rid of you. That’s just how the business works.”
Inside the home clubhouse at Safeco Field, French toast was the featured breakfast item — with fresh strawberries, if you prefer. Seattle’s major leaguers filtered in slowly, walking over the carpet emblazoned with the Mariners nautical compass.
Earning a nameplate inside this locker room means permanence. It means you’ve made it. None of the four former Cavaliers have been here, except for rehabilitation workouts and post-draft tours. But they’ve heard stories from former teammates: about the individualized attention, the chartered flights and catered meals and chaotic first days, posing for photographs and distributing complimentary tickets and wondering how to properly dress for trips.
Much of the minor league experience involves filling those dull hours between baseball games, reading fishing magazines during nine-hour bus rides or looping “SportsCenter” in empty apartments or playing rummy on a folding clubhouse table. But to be jolted from the tedium typically means one of three things: a promotion, demotion or, God forbid, a one-way trip home.
Each offseason, O’Connor, the Virginia baseball coach, invites all Cavaliers alumni playing professionally to reunite and train together. Last winter, Hicks commuted from his home near Richmond; Werman visited from Northern Virginia. Proscia took his hacks and cracked his jokes. Hultzen stayed the longest. He bought a four-man johnboat off Craigslist for $200, and they went fishing on a nearby lake.
Eventually, all four packed up and flew to Mariners spring training in Arizona, all sporting the same jersey once more, before scattering to their respective affiliates, some with gaudy expectations, others with expiration dates.
Professional baseball is a volatile business, something all four realized after leaving their scholarships and security behind in Charlottesville. To accept the lifestyle is to admit its ephemerality. But until that call comes, they find refuge in the familiar: by lacing their spikes, grabbing their gloves and sprinting onto the field, where between the foul lines it remains just a game.