Cal notes: 'Hot Rod Will' is face of The Hangar

Joyous JetHawks fan has become ballpark staple, fan favorite

"Hot Rod Will" comes to JetHawks games in a rotation of hats given to him by veterans of each branch of the military. (Josh Jackson/MiLB.com)

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | July 31, 2017 10:00 AM ET

LANCASTER, California -- Everybody at The Hangar wants a piece of William Martin, and he's happy to give.

Better known as "Hot Rod Will," the 28-year-old Palmdale resident attends nearly every JetHawks home game. He's easily recognizable as the guy zooming around the park in a motorized wheelchair with exhaust pipes on the back, spreading joy one fist bump or hug at a time. He also may be familiar from the Hot Rod Will T-shirts sold at the team store and worn everywhere from Lancaster to New Orleans.

"He's really the face of this whole stadium," JetHawks supporter Dave Hopps said. "Everybody knows him. If you don't know him, you will very shortly."

Before the national anthem, Martin meets and greets regulars and ballpark first-timers alike on the concourse behind home plate. But no matter who else says hello, he always gets in one pregame ritual with fellow fan Kevin Zarley -- slapping the JetHawks tattoos on both of Zarley's arms.

"And it's not gentle," said Shirley Harbeson, Martin's mother.

"We do what it takes to get the team a win," Zarley said. "I figure we've had about 400 games together. We met here in 2012, kind of liked each other, then became brothers. Every year, I've had the privilege of walking him out there to throw the first pitch. That's one of the highlights of the whole season -- walking out there with this guy."

Martin threw his fifth first pitch at The Hangar on Sunday, an annual tradition that started after the Lancaster front office heard that he'd done so for a Los Angeles Police Department baseball game against the L.A. County Sheriff Department's team.

"He has a walker and it's really hard for him, but he does it," JetHawks general manager Will Thornhill said. "He'll be in a full JetHawks uniform and he'll walk himself out there and throw his first pitch. He's just awesome."

Walking is difficult for Martin because of cerebral palsy, an effect in his case of being born prematurely.

"Normal pregnancy is 40 weeks. He was a 24-week baby and he weighed one pound, 11 ounces. His lungs were not developed at all," Harbeson said. "The trach [breathing tube] is because he was on a ventilator to do the breathing for him, and it caused scar tissue in his throat."

William "Hot Rod Will" Martin has a high five or fist bump for every fan who crosses his way at The Hangar.

He's "super smart," his mother said, with a strong memory. And he obviously has no shortage of charisma.

"He's an awesome dude. His personality is infectious," said Brandon Capelo, who works in the team store. "You can be in the worst mood and you meet Will for five minutes and your whole world gets right-ended."

Manager of marketing and community relations Juliana Clyne, who walks from one end of the stadium to the other alongside Martin each game, has experienced that boost many times since moving to Southern California from New York in February.

"There have been days when it's absolutely miserable living across the country from my whole family," she said, "and every single time you walk into the stadium, he comes flying up and gives you the biggest hug and he doesn't let go, and he squeezes you with all his might and he shows you how big his muscles are. It's just hard not to absolutely love that human more than anything."

With that irrepressible friendliness, Martin has "become a part of the JetHawks experience," Thornhill said, which is reflected in how he got his nickname. Four seasons ago, Hopps and his wife, Judy, befriended Martin, Harbeson and Jon Hammer -- Martin's stepfather who's been a major figure in his life since he was 2. The Hopps made a "Hot Rod Will" license plate for Martin's wheelchair.

"We decided we wanted to do that," Hopps said, "since he was speeding all around here, talking to everybody. He's like a hot rod. We said, 'Hot Rod Will,' that's his name."

The T-shirts, which have been shipped to former JetHawks players across the nation, were conceived when Harbeson and Hammer learned about the JetHawks Baseball Foundation, an initiative created in 2016 to fund a league -- from equipment to transportation to food -- for area kids who couldn't otherwise afford to participate in youth baseball.

"Hot Rod's family said, 'Hey, we want to help. What if we did something with a partnership where we help you raise money?'" Thornhill recalled. "So our team president, Andy Dunn, and our vice president, Tom [Backemeyer], we came up with this idea of, 'What if we did a Hot Rod Will T-shirt?'"

The proceeds from sales are split 50-50 between the JetHawks Baseball Foundation and Saddle Up Therapeutic Riding Stables, an Antelope Valley nonprofit organization that provides developmental-oriented horseback lessons for physically or mentally challenged individuals.

"We put the Hot Rod Will shirts up on the website and, boom, we sold through them three times," Thornhill said.

Through his status with the club, Martin also has made it easy for others with disabilities to see that they're welcome at the ballpark.

"We have more and more fans who can't communicate [orally] or are in wheelchairs, but they feel like they're home here," Thornhill said. "We want to make sure the community knows we accept everyone. Open arms. Please! We enjoy that and we have room for you here, and you belong here. You're not going to be an outsider."

He also serves as "an ambassador for people with disabilities," his mother believes. She pointed out that one of the kids who now hugs Martin was afraid of him three seasons ago, but he's learned that people with disabilities "are just like everybody else, just in a different body."

Clyne has seen Martin have that impact, too. 

"I watch a lot of kids who are uncomfortable with disabled people, but because he goes around and is fist-bumping everybody, he breaks down that barrier," she said. "He doesn't give you the chance to feel uncomfortable. Every kid who sees him wants a fist bump, too."

But as much as Lancaster has gotten from Martin, Martin and his family are sure it's a mutually beneficial relationship.

"He's totally himself here," Harbeson said. "With his disability, there's certain things that come with it, but everybody accepts him as he is."

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During the offseason, Martin passes the time with guitar lessons, riding at Saddle Up or trips to the movies, but "nothing replaces what he gets here," Hammer said.

"Every day," Harbeson said, "it's, 'When does baseball start?'"

"I think we're all like that," Hammer said.

In brief

The next big thing? Top Mariners prospect Kyle Lewis, out off-and-on for more than a year with a knee injury, has been the Cal League player to watch since his return to Modesto on July 20. He homered three times in his first three games back and reached safely in each of his first eight.

Yer outta here: Stockton right-hander Norge Ruiz was ejected and hit with a 10-game suspension after umpires caught the No. 20 A's prospect with a foreign substance on his arm during the third inning of his July 24 start against Visalia, which the Ports lost, 5-1.

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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