Blake Treinen walked into the baseball office at the University of Arkansas and asked to speak with Coach Dave Van Horn. He’s not in today, the secretary told Treinen. Out recruiting. Treinen had come this far, from a map-dot town in eastern Kansas, and he only wanted a chance. He replied he could wait for an assistant instead. Minutes after Treinen took a seat, Van Horn walked past the waiting room and into his office.
“Wasn’t that him?” Treinen asked.
“No,” the secretary said. “That wasn’t him.”
Treinen knew it was.
Still, he stayed. Another few minutes passed, and an assistant emerged. He knew Treinen’s history, how he had thrown 79-mph fastballs for his small-town Kansas high school, how he pitched on the junior varsity at an NAIA college, how he now wanted to try out as a walk-on at a Southeastern Conference power.
“If we let you try out,” the assistant told Treinen, “we’d have to let the whole state of Arkansas try out.”
Six years have passed since Treinen walked out of the office. Last weekend, he sat in the visitors dugout at PNC Park and laughed at what has happened since. Currently a rotation replacement for Gio Gonzalez, Treinen throws 98-mph sinking fastballs for the Washington Nationals. Treinen, 25, took a winding path to the major leagues from Osage City, Kan., through three colleges and countless roadblocks, aided by a blend of small-town connections, genetic fortune, relentless work, unwavering determination and unshakable belief.
“It’s an amazing story,” his college coach said. “I think Disney could make a movie on it in 10 years.”
Treinen’s mother said, “He’s faced some shut doors, but he’s found a way to open the next one. That’s his story.”
Said Treinen himself: “It blows my mind. That’s straight God.”
Treinen’s improbable career began in Osage City, population of about 2,600, where he graduated in a class of 48. Treinen stood out as a pitcher in Little League, but unhealthy habits stunted him. He watched sports on television rather than playing outside, and he would guzzle a two-liter of Dr Pepper over the course of a couple days. As he reached high school, Treinen developed a precursor to Type II diabetes. As a sophomore, Treinen stood 5 feet 7 and stopped playing baseball.
“You got to get this in check,” his mother, Gete Treinen, remembers telling him. “You’re getting close to where you’re going to be a diabetic. You got to make changes in yourself.”
Treinen quit drinking soda and began eating vegetables and taking long runs. Joint aches dissipated. He grew taller, and started playing baseball again as a junior. By his senior year, he was 6-1.
Still, no scouts noticed the late bloomer with a 79-mph fastball. Gete Treinen worked with a radiologist whose husband was a pitching coach who knew someone at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan. Treinen made the junior varsity.
Treinen liked the people at Baker, but the team had no pitching coach and no weight room, and he believed he could go further. Searching for something more, Treinen transferred to Arkansas. The school had landscape architecture, the degree he wanted. He thought he could show coaches enough to let him try out. When they did not, Treinen lifted weights more intensely than he could have if he had been pitching. He built strength, and his fastball crept into the mid-80s.
Treinen went home for Christmas break, intent on playing baseball for a career, uncertain as to how. He heard about a pitching clinic being held by a former Kansas University pitcher. He had nothing better to do, and it cost only about $20.
Don Czyz pitched in the minor leagues for the Miami Marlins and needed a way to make extra money in the winter, so he traveled across Kansas to give pitching lessons. He hooked on with the Osage City recreation department and offered a one-day camp. Czyz attracted a gaggle of middle school kids, high school pitchers and one college sophomore who stood 6 feet 4.
Treinen could not throw 90 mph with regularity, but Czyz saw potential. Treinen had a fluid motion, an ideal pitcher’s frame and, Czyz could sense, an intangible desire.
Czyz called Ritchie Price, his old college shortstop. Price had become the head coach at South Dakota State.
“I’ve got a kid here,” Czyz told Price. “You won’t believe it, but he’s throwing 90 and wants to play college baseball.”
As Treinen mulled his next move, he established strict criteria: He would leave Arkansas only for a Division I school that offered a degree in landscape architecture. Once Czyz told him South Dakota State would offer him a walk-on spot, Treinen researched the school. South Dakota State had moved up from Division II the previous year, and the school had just added a landscape architecture program.
“I was like, ‘You know what? That’s just a God thing,’ ” Treinen said. “You can’t explain that.”
NCAA rules forced Treinen to sit out for a year. “The best thing that could have happened,” Price said. Without the pressure of pitching in games, Treinen could hone his mechanics and build muscle with the team’s strength coach. His average velocity ticked up from 84-86 mph to 87-88.
That summer, Treinen found a personal coach in Laramie, Wyo., who had played minor league baseball. Treinen had gained strength and ironed out his delivery. In Laramie, he learned how to unleash his arm. He played long toss and “burnout” — Treinen and the coach stood 60 feet from one another and threw the ball as hard as they could.
Once he returned to school for fall practice, Treinen established himself as one of the Jackrabbits’ best pitchers. “He really transformed himself in that year and a half,” Price said. During the regular season, Treinen’s fastball touched 96 once and hit 94 most games. Once the season ended, the Marlins drafted him in the 23rd round. He was going to play professional baseball.
“He probably would have signed for 100 bucks,” Czyz said.
But the Marlins shocked Treinen when they informed him an MRI exam revealed inflammation in his shoulder and pulled his contract.
“It was two steps forward, one step back,” Gete Treinen said.
After wrangling with the NCAA over eligibility, Treinen returned to South Dakota State for a fifth year. They put him on scholarship, he earned his degree, his fastball ticked up to 97, he became a more refined pitcher and his stock rose. The Oakland A’s selected him in the seventh round in 2011, and this time he really was going to pro ball.
Before the 2013 season, the Nationals traded Michael Morse to the Seattle Mariners in a three-way deal. The A’s sent Treinen to the Nationals, a secondary piece to the trade behind prospect A.J. Cole.
Treinen reported to Class AA Harrisburg. Manager Matt LeCroy, now the Nationals’ bullpen coach, watched him throw a 97-mph sinker in spring training. “Wow,” LeCroy thought. “This is going to work out pretty good for us.”
In one playoff game last year, Treinen threw a pitch 101 mph. He wowed Nationals coaches in spring training. When injuries struck their pitching staff, the Nationals summoned him. Gete Treinen flew to Atlanta for his debut. She thought she should be bawling with nerves. When she settled into her seat, she felt calm. Her son belonged.
“The doors keep opening,” Treinen said. “It’s a slap in the face if you don’t take the most out of your opportunities. You just got to trust His plan and give it all you got.”
Now a coach at Kansas, Ritchie Price will never turn down a walk-on who wants to try out. In Osage City, people wear Nationals jerseys and attend “Blake Parties” on days he pitches. Czyz works for an engineering firm in Kansas City — “a real job,” he said — but through Treinen, a part of him remains in baseball.
And before every time he pitches, Treinen finds the same text message sent from his father, Tim. It reads, “Keep living your dream.”