Garrett Whitley grew up in Niskayuna, New York and became a star of his high school baseball team. After a lot of hard work and dedication, he was drafted to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015. Since then, Garrett has risen the ranks in the Tampa Bay teams as a powerful outfielder. Garrett joins the podcast to talk about his road to playing professional baseball, where his passion and drive comes from, and how he kept his focus in the face of injury last season.
Jeff: Going down the path of becoming a baseball player because we've all been kids, we've all had those dreams and those aspirations. I want to know kind of where did sports come into play for you? When did baseball become the sport you wanted to play? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Garrett: Yeah, I mean, sports always been a huge part of my life. My Dad was an athlete growing up. It wasn't like he was pushing it on me or my brothers says or nothing like that, but I just took to it. Like I can't remember a time ever growing up where I didn't want to play some kind of sport, and baseball was always the number one for me. I played a bunch of other stuff. I played hockey, and I played football, I played basketball.
Jeff: Good God!
Garrett: Yeah, I do a lot of that. I don't know, I just liked everything, but still baseball was always the one that stuck out for me and I was always the best at it too. So that kind of helped.
Jeff: Awesome. First of all, with all of those sports playing as a kid, I gotta take a second here to shout out your parents for being so cool for giving you the ability to play all those sports, because I mean, man that's a lot of practices!
Garrett: Oh yeah. No for real. But you're always busy and I got a little brother and sister too. So my brother's playing sports, my sister dances. So it was a busy house.
Jeff: Awesome. And you are from our neck of the woods here and you went to school in the [inaudible 00:01:28]. Right?
Jeff: And I know just from being in upstate New York and stuff like that, sports is a pretty big thing in schools. Did you feel that your time in school helped you on this path or was it more extracurricular activities?
Garrett: Well, if you're talking about path to pro baseball?
Garrett: I mean obviously my time in school was a huge part of my experience in my growing up and getting better as a ball player. But the big things that helped me get here where I am now is I happened to get noticed by somebody, a scout who was from Clifton Park actually, who invited me to come do some showcase tournaments. I don't know if you've ever heard of them, the east coast pro tournament, and area code tournament. So he invited me to come try out for those. I made the team and went and performed well there and then that's what really set it all up professionally.
Jeff: Wow. So can we talk a little bit about that? Because I've heard of these before but I'm not really sure what that all entails. So like you're playing baseball for school and for that and then this scout contacts you. What goes into this tournament? Is it just kind of like feats of skill? Or do you have to perform on a team? What does that entail?
Garrett: You play on it too. You go out. So I mean obviously are gonna ... they watch kids as soon as they notice them. So they can judge guys off batting practice and how you field ground balls and all that sort of thing, but what they really want to see you do is playing games. So you go to these tournaments, and you do have an evaluation day I guess. I don't know if they call it more of a showcase day or whatever, where you go out and you just take batting practice on the field, and you run a 60 yard dash, and make throws from the outfield so that they can see everything that you're doing, and then you go out and play games.
Garrett: I think we played five games in East Coast Pro and four or five in Area Codes too. They want to see how you hit against good quality pitching, and how you perform in a game and that sort of thing. Your baseball instincts and what kind of teammate you are. All that kind of intangible things too that they can't see in a workout.
Jeff: Wow. And speaking on like being the type of teammate that you are, I mean you are coming from being on a team that you've probably been on for years and now you're like doing these events where you're stuck with a bunch of other guys who are vying for the same kind of thing, but you're all being a team. Is that like a completely different experience?
Garrett: It really was. Just being around that many great ball players was something new for me because we've got a really good baseball in upstate New York, and I played on really good teams, but this was a different level. You're talking the top of the top high school talent. It was just really fun like to get to learn from the other guys and compete against the other guys who are always pushing you through the whole thing. I had a great time and luckily enough I was able to perform well enough to forward everyday.
Jeff: Okay. Yeah. In a situation like that, does it get in your head, because I mean obviously you want to perform your best no matter where you're playing, what team you're on, but in a situation like that, you know all eyes are on you. Is that tough to get out of your own head in that situation?
Garrett: Man, I'm going to be honest with you, I went in there with no expectations because I hadn't faced any sort of competition like that before. Before I went to tournament I don't even think I'd ever seen 90 miles an hour before.
Jeff: Oh my gosh!
Garrett: Yes. So I just went in, I was just like, man, like I just want to go play as well as I can and just go have a good time. Taking this whole experience and playing loose really helped me because I was able to play well and just kind of show what I really could do, and then no proved myself to that I did belong there and I was one of the really good guys there. I just had a great time. It was a lot of fun. I didn't really feel too much pressure with it.
Jeff: I think that's inspiring because I think, as an athlete, I think a lot of athletes get tripped up because they get in their own head. You know, whether you're at the professional level or the amateur level doesn't matter. If go in there and like you said, you're just going to play, and that's what you're going to do, and you're going to do your best. I think you are going to do your best rather than, "Oh shit! I better try my best here in this situation." I think that's really inspiring.
Garrett: Yeah [inaudible 00:06:14]
Jeff: Yeah. So talking on moving forward in the timeline then, do you get discovered at that point? Because you're now drafted by, correct me if I'm wrong, the Tampa Bay. Correct? And does that come directly from that moment or was there more steps involved before you got to that point?
Garrett: There is a lot more steps. Those few tournaments I started a pretty late for guys who are going to get drafted. Not saying obviously that there weren't other guys who didn't get noticed until I did, but I wasn't on anybody's radar until those tournaments. I played those, it was the August going into my senior year of high school. So it was all really quick process for me I guess, but there's a lot that went into it. You went in there, you perform, you showed everybody you can play and then from there they want to see you a bunch more times. They want to talk to you.
Garrett: We did probably like 20, 21 in home meetings [inaudible 00:07:32] scout team would come to my place, sit down with me and my parents and try to get to know me as a person. Because if they're considering drafting you and putting a lot of money in you potentially, they want to know everything that they can about you. So there's a lot of that sort of thing. Once my school season started up, I had scouts at every game watching me play then. Because, I mean there's a lot of really good ball players out there, and they only get a certain number of picks. They want to make sure that they're picking who they want to get. So they really do their due diligence.
Jeff: Wow. And it seems like such a different organization going from playing amateur ball to play professional baseball. Was it eye opening, like now being part of this organization and being in that professional setting? Is it really different?
Garrett: It is different. I had a lot to learn at first, just because I hadn't been around anything like that. So there's a lot of baseball things actually that ... Obviously I could hit and I can run and that's sort of thing, but little things like just small technique things, base running things, bunting stuff, situational baseball that in high school they're just kinda like go out and do it. In pro ball though, they teach you the correct way to do it so that we're the best at it. You know what I mean? There was a big learning curve with that. There's just a lot of guys down here too, so I took a little while to get used to to all of those things, but I just try to do the same thing. Like I said, I try to come in here with as positive attitude as I could, a good mentality as I could, but it definitely took a little while to get used to.
Jeff: Yeah, and on the work side of it, how much do you play? Practice, play, workout, is it every single day?
Garrett: Yeah, it is. Right now we're in spring training, and I think we actually do have an off day this year, which is a first. So usually we come in for spring training, and it's the full month of March, no off days, and then when we break camp, it's ... I want to say we get like eight off days through the whole season. Which is April through early September, and they're spread out. It's like one a month or so. So it is every day. We practice 10 before games. I'll get to the field at 12:30, 1 o'clock, depending on what I have going on. And I'm working for the majority of that until the 6:30, 7 o'clock game that we're playing that night, and then we play the game, go home, go to sleep, do the same thing the next day.
Jeff: Wow. And now, I don't want to get this wrong, you are playing single A ball? That's right. How many games a year? Because I know the level above that obviously is MLB, and they've got 162. Do you 162 as well?
Garrett: Everyone in the minor leagues plays a 140.
Jeff: 140! That's still an incredible amount of games a year.
Garrett: Yeah. Yeah, it is.
Jeff: That's incredible. And for our listeners and watchers at home too, what position do you play?
Garrett: I'm an outfielder. I was drafted as a center fielder, but I can play all three positions.
Jeff: Is that what you played in high school as well? All outfield?
Garrett: Yeah it is.
Jeff: And kind of going back to to our younger days, as a fan of the sport, what drew you to baseball? Was it like maybe a team, or a player, or a position? Was there something that like sparked your interest as a kid? Like, Oh wow, baseball is really cool.
Garrett: I was a big Red Sox fan growing up.
Jeff: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:11:30] big red sox fan.
Garrett: Yeah. My family's from Boston. I was born down there and just huge sox fan. So I grew up rooting for the Red Sox and you know, 04' happened, and it was just ... I mean I was hooked on baseball already, but I could tell you the whole reds sox line up, front to back. I could do every batting stance. Me and my little brother used to go out in the back yard and play with a ball and it'd be Red Sox versus Yankees. We argue about who got to be the Red Sox, but we could do every batting stance from both teams. We knew the line ups and it was just ... I don't know. It was a great time to be growing up a baseball fan, and great time to be growing up a Red Sox fan too. It was just really fun.
Jeff: Yeah, for sure. I'm a little older than you and I dealt with lots of years of heartache from the Red Sox. 2004 was a wonderful year, but another thing about the Red Sox that I tell people, as even just auxiliary baseball fans or even people who have never even cared about the game, one of the coolest things about baseball in general I think is the history behind it. Fenway Park is one of ... it's a museum. It's one of the most amazing places just to step foot into. I'm sure you were able to do that so much as a kid growing up in Boston.
Garrett: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in [inaudible 00:12:56]. I grew up in New York, but I have family down there, so we would go to [crosstalk 00:12:59]. Yeah, so we would go to at least a game or two a year, which is just awesome. I mean, like you said, it's a museum. It's like there's so much history in there and it's just an unbelievable atmosphere to play. Yeah. It was a whole ... everything. It was great to grow up a Red Sox fan.
Jeff: It really, really is. And I also kind of want to talk a little bit on this, because I think it's important, I'm not sure if you're currently dealing with it, but I had heard that you were dealing with an injury. Are you through that or are you still dealing with that?
Garrett: I'm through it now. I'm officially, as of four or five days ago, cleared for all activity. I've been playing in games in spring training. I'm out doing everything as a normal ball player now.
Jeff: That's excellent. How do you keep your head in a situation like that? Because so many athletes it can be detrimental to their career if it gets in your head. You know like "Aw man! I'm hurt." I obviously can't perform the way I want to perform because I have this injury. How did you deal with it to get through it?
Garrett: It was tough. It was a lot mentally because I mean baseball is what I love and baseball is what I go to. If I need to clear my mind, I would just go to the cage and hit, or just do something. So having to sit around and not having that kind of outlet for me was ... it was hard. But I just tried to make my rehab my job, which it was. I was doing that every day. Go in, try to put on a happy face and just go grind through it. It's tough. I have a great support system too though. My family's amazing. They came down to visit a couple of times while I was down here. My girlfriend was here too. She was staying with me for her summer break, and just having those people surrounding me was ... If I ever need to talk to anybody or if I just wanted to get my mind off it, they're always there for me.
Jeff: That's excellent. I've got to say, just talking with you, you have a really good head on your shoulders. You really seem like you just want to get out on that field and do what you're meant to do, which is to play baseball. And you seem very even keeled about that. And I think, not to really go too far into that, but I think that's where some of the greats of this sport reside. Like you look at like, to go to the evil Yankees, but you look at somebody like Derek Jeter, that was always his mentality. At the end of the day, regardless of superstardom, regardless of whatever, he just wanted to get out there and play ball and do a good job doing that.
Jeff: And I feel just from talking to you that you have that same kind of mentality. Where does that come from? Has that always been a part of you? Do you think it's upbringing? Do you think it's your support system? Where do you think that comes from?
Garrett: Yeah, I think it's a combination of all of that. I was always pretty even keeled, my temperament wise and all that. It's just like I said, my support system has always been amazing. They've always been there if I get down. They alL hype me up when I'm doing good, just anything that I need, they're always there. My Dad is the same way as I am I guess, with that kind of like ... He's excited when things are good, but he never gets like too crazy high and he never gets too low. I always admire that and wanted it to be like that.
Jeff: That's awesome. That's really awesome. On the baseball side of things, MLB has changed a lot, even in the last five, six years as a sport, as the way that they push it out, and the rules and regulations in there. What do you think is the future of baseball? Do you think we're on the path to more people wanting to play this sport? Or do you think it's diminishing?
Garrett: I hope it's more people man. Because I'll tell you what, I still love this just as much as the first day that I played. I think it's a great sport. Obviously you do see some things with ... You're talking about like attendance being down in that sort of thing? I don't really know much about any of that. I don't know why people aren't interested because I'm still interested, and I think we're still putting a great product out there. Obviously home runs are exciting and strike outs are not so exciting. So there's all that going on. I really don't see any reason why it shouldn't continue to go up, because I still think the sport's amazing.
Jeff: Yeah. It's always thrown around as 'America's Pastime' and that kind of thing, but at the end of the day, I think that it's one of the most entertaining sports out there, because so many sports are quick, and a lot of people will say that as a detriment to baseball. It takes a while for the game to happen, but I think that's where the nuance happens with the game because everybody has their part to play. It's all about that team making sure that that win is going to happen. From a fan, I really hope that attendance comes up on that.
Jeff: What would you say is the hardest thing to get used to being a professional ball player? Have you taste taken to it like a fish like water? Or is there anything that's been a little harder to kind of get used to?
Garrett: I would say probably just the everyday grind of it. Like we were talking about before, you used to play a couple games a week, and you practice for an hour or two. So like the days that you didn't and stuff, but here it's eight, 10 hours a day. You're playing baseball every day. You gotta take care of your body well. That was something that I had to really learn. To have better nutrition and learn how to have good recovery for my muscles and that sort of thing, so that I was ready to go out and play every day. That was probably the biggest thing.
Jeff: Yeah. Through it all, you're young, you're hungry, you're going to be in this sport for a while. I can just tell. From the path that you started on as a kid, just loving the game, to now being a professional ballplayer, what fuels you to want to keep getting up every day and keep doing it?
Garrett: I love it.
Jeff: Just love it.
Garrett: There's nothing else that I want to do. I'm competitive too, and I want to be the best that I can be. Now every day I want to go out and be the best player on the field, be the best player that I can be and beat that other team that's out there, with my boys. It's what I love. That's what I love to do.
Jeff: That's awesome. That's awesome. What would you say would be good advice to the younger generation wanting to pursue becoming a professional baseball player?
Garrett: I would just say always keep working. That's what I always say when anybody asked that question. To me it wasn't work, because to me I just loved hitting and I love throwing, and picking up balls and stuff. I know that there's lots of kids out there who feel the same way that I did when I was growing up and just enjoy it. Love what you do and do it a lot and just really pursue it, you know?
Jeff: Yeah. That's good. Like I said, it's inspiring to talk to someone like you because, so often, especially in the media with athletes, so often it's like the idea of fame, the idea of superstardom, the idea of joining the sport to be the next Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter, whoever you know, is weighed upon everybody. It's refreshing to hear someone like you who's really in it for the love of the sport. I think that's why this sport breeds superstars, and I really believe one day that you're going to be with that echelon of players.
Garrett: Thank you. I really hope so.
Jeff: Yeah. Well I can't wait to continue to follow you on your journey through the sport. For our listeners and watchers, is there a way to follow you outside of following the ball club itself? Do you social media at all? Do you chronicle your journey at all?
Garrett: Yeah, I have Twitter and Instagram. I like Instagram better. I don't really tweet that much to be honest with you, but I have them both. It's [@realgwit 00:22:16] on both of them.
Jeff: Excellent. I'll put those right in the show as well. So all of our listeners and watchers can follow your journey as well because it's going to be an exciting one. Like you said spring training's in full swing right now, and season's about to start. It's the most exciting time of the year.
Garrett: Yeah, it is. I can't wait.
Jeff: That's awesome. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me on the show today. It was a lot of fun.