It began with a call from Pittsburgh’s Senior Director of Minor League Operations, Larry Broadway, and ended at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati just over a week later. But for former Tribe pitcher Brandon Waddell, his 2020 journey to the big leagues was longer than just seven whirlwind days.
There are many beginnings to this story. You could start at just that, the beginning, when he was selected by Pittsburgh in the fifth round of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft. There’s his journey through the minor leagues, from his professional debut with Short-Season A West Virginia to landing in Indianapolis in 2018, and all the ups and downs in between.
You could start toward the end, when Waddell turned things around in 2019 after being bumped from Triple-A to Double-A in hopes of trading in his reliever status for that of what he was drafted as originally – a starting pitcher. Or when he was left off the non-roster invitee list in early 2020 despite a trip to big-league camp the February before.
But this year is different, and as all Major League Baseball narratives of the pandemic age do, this story really begins when spring training operations were shut down on March 12 due to the novel coronavirus.
“I was a nomad for a little bit. When we first shut down in Florida, I actually stayed out there…” Waddell said, his journey taking him to the homes of two former teammates and current professional ballplayers. “At the time, we thought it was going to be about two weeks or so.”
When it was clear the timeline would be longer than two weeks – it ended up being three days shy of five months for Waddell – the southpaw returned to his home in Houston, Texas. Despite the lengthy delay and an extended offseason that left questions of if a season would be played at all, the narrative from March 12 on stayed the same: be ready for when a call does come.
He had worked out with the athletes he was around in Florida, and not much changed in Texas. With the help of one of his workout partners from the offseason and a gym that was open strictly for pro athletes in the area, Waddell had access to what he needed to stay ready.
On June 28, Pittsburgh announced its 60-man roster for Summer Camp and the fast-approaching 60-game MLB season, and Waddell wasn’t on the list. That meant the pitching lessons he gave in his free time would continue, as well as his creative, independent workouts, at least for a little while longer.
The MLB season began on July 23, and Waddell remained in Houston. But as pitcher after pitcher fell to injury within the first two weeks, an opportunity for a reliable lefty arose in Pittsburgh, and suddenly Waddell’s summer wasn’t so quiet anymore.
“I was called by Larry Broadway… and he basically said, ‘Hey, we’re most likely going to add you to the alternate site, wanted to give you a heads up so you could pack a bag, jump in the car and drive up here,’ which, coming from Houston is a little bit of a drive,” Waddell said. “So, I ended up flying up there on Wednesday morning, got tested, was in quarantine until the results came back, so until about Friday afternoon.”
When he was officially cleared to join his teammates, Waddell went to PNG Field in Altoona, Pa. where alternate site workouts were being held. He threw on Friday, tossed a bullpen on Saturday, and that was that.
“We were actually sitting outside in Altoona. We were in the apartments that were kind of together in a group, it was almost like our own little bubble,” Waddell said. “We were all out there eating [Saturday night], actually watching the Pirates game, and then Brian Esposito got a call that I was going up. He got off the phone and came up to me and kind of started a conversation, then told me I was going up. It was pretty cool.”
First pitch at PNC Park was at 1:37 p.m. on Sunday, and Waddell was in the bullpen. Pittsburgh lost 2-1 in a game that was knotted until Detroit scored one in the eighth inning. Waddell wouldn’t pitch until five days later.
Rather than just getting his debut over with, the opportunity to take in the sights and smells of the ballpark while slowing down from the chaos of the previous four days helped him in the long run.
“Just being on that field is something that [I’ve] envisioned for [my] whole career, really before [I was] drafted into pro baseball,” Waddell said. “Just to see all that, look at everything, see how they do the sounds and how the game flows, just trying to be really aware of all that so when the time came that I was getting ready to pitch, I could just focus on pitching.”
But pitching was what Waddell was in Pittsburgh to do, and with the reality of being a big leaguer already settled, he was ready to work.
“I think it’s kind of a balance,” Waddell said. “You don’t want to sit there too long and mentally get ready for every game and then not get in, because it’s really nice when you get that first one under your belt and get that experience.”
After three days off – Pittsburgh’s games at St. Louis were postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak among the Cardinals – Waddell traveled to Cincinnati where he would have the chance to pitch.
In the eighth inning on Aug. 14, exactly one week after rejoining organized workouts, Waddell took the mound. He went 1.1 innings and allowed one run on two hits with a pair of strikeouts.
“I just focused on pitching,” Waddell said. “I had enough time to take everything in, see everything, so it was nice to just be able to focus on ‘Okay, what’s the scouting report? How am I going to attack these guys? Let’s get after it.’ It was nice to be able to make things simple, just go out there, attack the strike zone and see what they can do.”
Waddell appeared in one more game for the Pirates – a hitless 2.0-inning outing on Aug. 20 – before he returned to the alternate site for the rest of the season.
Despite the odd nature of a major league debut in an empty stadium and Waddell now being a Minnesota Twin – he was claimed off waivers from the Pirates on Oct. 30 – the experiences from this summer push the lefty into the next stage of his career.
“Just being [in the major leagues] and having a chance to compete at the highest level is more fuel to get back and stay there,” Waddell said. “It’s nice to get there and nice to say you’ve been there, but at the end of the day the goal is to stay there as long as you can.”