Bligh Madris’ journey to the highest ranks of minor league baseball – and beyond, perhaps, coming off a campaign of late-season success in Triple-A and his first career non-roster invite to major league spring training – began with a conversation.
The Las Vegas-area product spent his entire childhood running to and from sporting events. In the fall, he played football. Football transitioned into basketball, and the school year would wind to a close each spring as he laced up his spikes and took to the diamond.
Early on, baseball took him everywhere. His talent and opportunities grew as he did, and it wasn’t long before travel ball took him from his home state of Nevada to different corners of the country.
With a plethora of experience already behind him, Madris’ talent was easily recognizable as he entered his teens. During his early years at Foothill High School, head baseball coach, Matt Iglitz, sat him down to talk about his future.
“I was still loving playing different sports like basketball and football, but… my high school coach was like ‘Bligh, you have a legitimate chance and opportunity to use baseball as a tool to get into a really nice school and earn some scholarship money.’
“I was like, ‘No, you’re kidding. That’s crazy, why would any college want me right now?’” Madris recalls. “I just couldn’t believe that was a legitimate possibility.”
So, he hung up the football pads. He played one year of basketball in high school before also stepping off the hardwood for good, opting instead to focus on baseball during the winter months.
The decision to step away from two major sports from his childhood presented an opportunity, one that began to shape the way he now works in the batting cages of LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla., and Victory Field in Indianapolis. In the fall of his sophomore year, with Iglitz as head coach and a few of his baseball teammates alongside him, Madris took to the tennis court.
“I think tennis really helped me with an individual mindset,” he said. “When you’re out there, it’s just you and you need to figure out a way to get yourself back into it mentally if you need to. It’s just you vs. one other person, and it’s just you two out there on the court.
“That helped my mental strength and the mental side of [baseball], and it made me a better competitor. Going into the batter’s box, I kind of take that same mentality. It’s me vs. the pitcher, and I try to take all other variables out of it. I don’t care about the other eight defenders behind him, I just get to focus on the pitcher. It’s me vs. him.”
After making the transition to a more baseball-friendly schedule, Madris’ career began to progress at a quicker pace. During his three varsity seasons, he was a two-time All-State and three-time All-Sunrise Region selection, named a two-time Offensive Player of the Year and the Sunrise Region MVP. His accolades and skill across different positions on the diamond earned him calls and emails from colleges looking to recruit him to their program.
“That’s when I finally realized, wow, baseball is going to open up a lot of doors in my life and create a lot of different opportunities,” Madris said.
As a product of his environment and the opportunities to travel the country playing baseball in his formative years, Madris knew that college would take him away from his home of Henderson, Nev.
His landing spot was Division II baseball at Colorado Mesa University, just over a 500-mile drive away from his hometown through the heart of Utah.
“I wanted to get out of Las Vegas as a whole, and I think that was a big factor for me,” Madris said. “I wanted to experience something new and see what other towns and cities were like. I love traveling and I love going all over the place, so I used baseball and an athletic scholarship to find a way to go somewhere new and see new places. Baseball was that avenue for me.”
His success from high school translated well to the college diamond. In 2015, his first year with Colorado Mesa, he hit .381 with 20 doubles, four home runs, 52 RBI and 23 walks to be named the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.
He led the Mavericks to their second consecutive RMAC Championship during that freshman campaign with two hitless innings on the mound to close out the title game. He was also named the tournament MVP after hitting .421 (8-for-19) with five RBI in five games.
In 2017, he was named a finalist for the Tino Martinez Player of the Year Award while ranking eighth in the nation among Division II players with a .757 slugging percentage and 10th with 67 RBI.
As his growth and performance in high school presented him an opportunity to widen his horizons in college, his standout career as a Maverick formed a path toward professional baseball. With it came the chance to take his game outside the continental United States.
After being selected by Pittsburgh in the ninth round of the 2017 First-Year Player Draft, his college baseball experiences helped move him through the farm system with ease. Through his first three years in the minors, he owned a .255 career batting average (268-for-1052) and showed flashes of power into outfield gaps and over the wall with 84 extra-base hits.
He was an everyday staple of the lineup in each of his stops, from Short-Season A West Virginia in 2017 to Double-A Altoona in ’19. The path was clear to Triple-A in 2020 and into a potential 40-man roster spot soon after.
That was, until the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the 2020 minor league baseball season. Along with a significant number of minor league ballplayers across all 30 major league systems, Madris was out of a baseball job for the first time in a long time.
As the summer dwindled down and winter ball jobs across the world became available, the outfielder turned to Facebook Messenger to look for work. He reached out to owners of teams in the Australian Baseball League, which has a season running from mid-December into early February.
“I didn’t hear much for about two weeks, and I get an offer on Facebook to come play for the Brisbane Bandits in Queensland,” Madris said. “I jumped on the opportunity right away because finding a job in winter ball at that point was so hard, and because so many guys wanted to play, it was so competitive. I had to jump on the first opportunity I could get.”
The individualized mindset Madris adapted to during his days on the tennis court transferred to this sink-or-swim situation. To continue his ascension in affiliated baseball, he had to put in a lot of solo work in Australia.
With the help of a notebook where he chronicled his hitting journey, from hours in the cage during quarantine working through mechanics to transferring them to game-action in Australia, his feel for high production in the box just clicked.
“I had to learn how my body works on my own,” Madris said. “I had a hitting coach and all that stuff, but never really got into the mechanics of things. It was just me, myself and I trying to go through all these different movements and feels on my own and seeing what works.”
The biggest thing he had to work through on his own was how to transfer his hitting cues from the batting cage to game speed. Through that process of speeding up his movements and feelings in the cage to game tempo, he knew to run with what was working and adjust what wasn’t.
That meticulous work paid off in 2021 during his first Triple-A season with the Indians. After returning from Brisbane where he hit .288 (17-for-59) with six extra-base hits and three multi-RBI performances in his final 17 games, Madris brought what he learned back to Pirate City, Fla. at Pittsburgh’s minor league camp.
“Sometimes baseball is opposite for me,” Madris said. “When I’m in the cage, I know I need to work on hard, backspin line drives, right back up the middle, opposite side or right side. Then in the game, when I think that same mentality, that’s when the doubles and the homers come from me. I figured that out halfway through Australia, and that’s what did it for me.
“When I came back for spring training in 2021 and was able to put all those cue points and feels together with a [Pirates] hitting coach in Jon Nunnally, I was really able to take off.”
Madris began the 2021 season back with Altoona, where he spent the 2019 season. After a slow start through the first two weeks of the season – he hit just .192 (5-for-26) with no extra-base hits in 10 games – he was promoted to Indianapolis where he picked up his work with Nunnally.
It didn’t take long after the promotion for Madris to turn his season around. He recorded six two-hit performances in 10 May games to begin his Triple-A career and continued to be a productive bat in the Indians lineup. He ended the season on a 26-game on-base streak from Aug. 27-Oct. 3, during which he hit .320 (32-for-100) with 10 doubles, two home runs, 16 RBI, a .480 slugging percentage and .855 OPS to be named Indy’s Rookie of the Year. He also tied teammate Chris Sharpe for the team lead with 25 doubles, 17 of which came in the second half of the season.
That 2021 campaign solidified Madris as an outfielder or designated hitter – with the addition of the universal DH in the new collective bargaining agreement – in Pittsburgh’s current wave of young talent coming up through the minor leagues.
When Major League Baseball Spring Training officially began on March 13, Madris was on the list. With his skills presented in the highest rung of Pittsburgh’s minor league ladder and potential moving forward, he earned his first non-roster invite to Bradenton entering the 2022 season.
“It’s really cool watching [my friends] play on TV in Pittsburgh, but now I really, really want to play beside them in Pittsburgh,” Madris said. “That’s definitely a goal of mine, is to be able to go out there and play this game I love with a bunch of my friends. And then the ultimate goal is to help the team win in Pittsburgh any way I can. Not only do I just want to get to [the big leagues], but I want to be part of the change in Pittsburgh.
“I want to show everyone that I can play in the big leagues, that I can make it,” Madris said. “That you don’t always need to be a top prospect or you don’t need to go to a big school – you can go to a Division II [program] and make it to the big leagues.”