El Paso, TX-Nick Yohanek grew up watching Ozzie Smith backflip his way out to his position in between second and third base. Nick followed in Ozzie's footsteps, not so much the performing backflips part, but by playing shortstop as a kid and all through high school. Like most kids who grew up playing the national pastime, Nick always dreamt about one day making his debut as a professional ball player, and at Southwest University Park this past weekend, Nick finally got his chance.
The Topps Company's 'Make Your Pro Debut' contest provides one lucky card-collecting baseball fan the opportunity to make their professional Minor League Baseball debut, and this spring Nick Yohanek of Wisconsin won the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make his debut with the El Paso Chihuahuas.
On Friday afternoon, Nick, his wife, and his three children were flown out from Whitewater, Wisc. to El Paso where they were picked up at the airport in a team car. They watched Friday night's contest at Southwest University Park between the Chihuahuas and the Las Vegas 51s alongside more than 8,000 other cheering fans. When Nick returned to the ballpark on Saturday morning however, it was not as a fan, but to be signed as a player.
After a tour of the ballpark Saturday morning, Nick's wife, his daughter, and his two sons filed into the manager's office alongside various members of the media to witness Nick and Chihuahuas manager Rod Barajas sign his one-day contract. After the signing ceremony, Nick went into the team clubhouse and sat down at the corner locker with the "YOHANEK" nameplate over it. Nick donned his official Chihuahuas uniform (No. 37) and walked down the tunnel out onto the warning track in front of what would be his home dugout later that night.
When asked about the Topps Company's 'Make Your Pro Debut' contest, Nick explained that after finding a winning code in a pack of Topps cards, there was a five-question survey that he had to answer. "One of the questions was: 'If you're chosen, what's the one thing you look forward to the most?' I said wearing a uniform, coming on the field, and looking at my kids in the stands and having the sense of satisfaction as a father that 'Dad gets to be a ballplayer for a day'…it's just a cool feeling." When asked if we would see a backflip on the field that night, Nick laughed and said: "Maybe a somersault."
After his first-ever on-field interview as a pro, Nick strapped on his spikes and grabbed his bat and his glove and joined the team for batting practice and warm-ups. At 6-1, 195 pounds, Nick was indistinguishable from his teammates on the field. Later that evening, after throwing out a ceremonial first pitch and being recognized by a ballpark full of fans, No. 37 walked out to home plate along with Barajas to present the Chihuahuas lineup to the umpires and the 51s manager.
Throughout much of El Paso's 7-0 victory that night Nick could be seen hanging over the dugout railing, laughing and chatting with his fellow teammates. He also joined the Chihuahuas on-air broadcaster in the radio booth for an interview during the game. After the game concluded, sitting at his locker in the clubhouse, Nick fielded questions from the media as eloquently as any seasoned veteran might. One interviewer asked: "What can you say about Topps and this great opportunity to make your pro debut in El Paso?"
"From the bottom of my heart, what an amazing thing that this is offered to people, I mean the chance to put yourself in a position to go somewhere and do something that money can't buy," Nick replied. "Our family is so indebted to Topps and everybody that's involved. This is one of the greatest memories of my life."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.