The Zoom conference calls have allowed Orioles catcher Austin Wynns to feel more connected to his family, friends and teammates. The club set up a promotion where he could speak with Birdland Members deprived of a season. The images on his screen have been personal in some ways and linked more to his profession on others days. But they touch his heart just the same.
Wynns spent last Friday night talking baseball in a manner he hadn’t experienced. A catcher-turned-lecturer of sorts, the virtual classroom filled with students of the game.
A mutual connection sparked the two-hour session.
Wynns, 29, is represented by Michael Bonanno of Ball Players Agency. Bonanno’s brother-in-law is Jimmy Richardson, the director of operations for the Fieldhouse Pirates Baseball Club, an academy-style program based in Burlington, Ont., about 20 minutes outside Toronto.
“We run teams from 13U to 18U and our guys are with us 12 months of the year,” Richardson said. “We cater to guys who are looking to continue their baseball career post-high school at U.S. colleges and junior colleges. We’ll bring guys in, start them when they’re 13-14 years old, bring them along through our system and ideally when they get to be 17 and 18 years old they’re going to head off to school down in the U.S.
“We play in a league up here against four other programs that are set up similarly to what we do and in a typical summer we would spend four or five weeks down in the U.S. I’m not sure that’s going to happen this year, but in a normal year that’s what we would do.”
In a normal, non-pandemic summer, Wynns would have to Zoom before or after games, if it even existed in the sports world. Perhaps on an off-day. Another break in the schedule was supposed to arrive today prior to the shutdown.
Wynns is living in his Baltimore home in the Locust Point area, working out and taking requests.
“I’m doing my part by just staying inside and staying busy and staying ready,” he said earlier this week in a phone conversation. “It’s wild.”
It also can be rewarding.
About 50 players, most of them catchers, were on the video call. And it just kept going.
“It was a cool experience,” he said. “We were just talking baseball. Talking about life, talking about the situation that’s going on. ‘How can I better you guys indoors?’ And it was cool. Just talking. And it was good talking baseball, without a doubt. I love giving back and trying to educate others because I want them to be successful down the road, as well.
“It’s travel ball, but it’s hard for them to play. I believe they have an indoor facility to train and get some work done, but it’s hard right now. I read something that everything is going to be shut down for six months, seven months, as workout facilities. It’s a hard situation.”
Most of the Zoom call concentrated on the position that Wynns played at Fresno State and throughout the Orioles system after they drafted him in the 10th round in 2013. He was vying for the backup role in spring training prior to the shutdown.
But it wasn’t just about catching.
Infielders and outfielders also watched and fired questions at Wynns. “And we had pitchers jump on,” Richardson said.
“Just for perspective, we have nine teams and we might have two or three catchers on each, so at most we probably have maybe 30 catchers in our organization. We were represented from all of the position groups that came on and talked with Austin.”
Said Wynns: “Mostly it was catching and the mental edge and physically the preparation, routines, just my experiences. It was just cool reflecting on all that and educating them.”
Wynns didn’t have to be coaxed into it.
“We did the Zoom calls with our ticket holders,” he said, “and obviously you Zoom your family and catch up that way, but this is my first time just talking in a chat like that. I was actually excited to do it.”
Infielder Adam Hall, chosen by the Orioles in the second round in 2017 from A.B. Lucas Secondary School in Ontario, played in the same league. The Fieldhouse Pirates faced him for four years.
Brothers Josh and Bo Naylor, first-round picks of the Marlins and Indians, respectively, also are products of the league.
“In the last five years, there have been 40 or 50 draft picks out of our league,” Richardson said. “As far as a competition standpoint, we’re lucky to be able to play at a high level.”
Wynns’ relationship with Bonanno, which grew from a working arrangement into a solid friendship, has allowed the current players to be exposed to the major league experience. Wynns visited with a group of them last summer while the Orioles were taking batting practice before a game against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
“We’re trying to give the guys insight from current professionals, maybe into certain aspects of their baseball journey that they might not get from us as coaches,” Richardson said. “A lot of the times they’re going to hear things from us baseball-related and we’re always there. Our door is always open from a life perspective. But we haven’t walked in the shoes that Austin did.
“We had guys on that call who were 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. They all want to play in the big leagues one day, right? Everybody kind of has this idea in mind of what that journey should look like and it’s graduate from high school, go to a Division I school, get drafted. Or get drafted out of high school and jump into pro ball and make your way up the ladder and get to the big leagues. When in reality it doesn’t really happen like that for everybody.
“We looked around and I had met Austin a couple times just briefly and I know he’s a really well-spoken guy and from a technical aspect behind the plate I knew it would be really beneficial to have him on and talk to our guys about some finer points of catching.”
This is where Wynns’ inviting personality makes him a big draw. He’s naturally friendly and enjoys the interactions that baseball provides, including days when he smiles and fist-bumps reporters inside the clubhouse. One of his favorite greetings.
Wynns appears comfortable in any type of social setting, and that includes the video kind that have become so popular out of necessity.
“It was really refreshing to see a guy at that level of his profession be so open and honest with the information he was sharing,” Richardson said. “He touched on parts of his journey that from the outside looking in you’re not necessarily going to know, and for our guys it was really refreshing to be able to hear that.
“Not every guy who makes it to the big leagues was the best player on every team they ever played on growing up. So Austin was very forthcoming about the struggles he faced coming out of high school and in college ball and how he had to fight and scrap for everything that he’s got at the professional level. And from that perspective, as soon as he started to kind of open up about that, the questions from the guys in the chat on the side kind of shifted from more technical questions about the aspect of receiving or throwing or blocking into the mentality and life experiences and character traits that make successful baseball players and human beings. And they seemed to just kind of gravitate to him as he opened up his personality a little bit more and showed what makes Austin Austin, and it was really cool to see that.
“I get to spend some time around the game through my relationship with Mike and you do what you do for a living and you realize that not all these guys are like that, right? They might let on like they are when the camera is on them and they’re doing interviews, but as soon as that stops they’re totally different, but it was really awesome to get to see Austin just light up and the way that he let the guys in on his journey and his life. And he didn’t hold anything back. He was really honest and open with the guys and that was really cool to see.
“He’s definitely gone far above and beyond what you would expect a guy in his position to do.”
A huge shoutout to @AustinWynns of the @Orioles for jumping on with our catchers for two hours tonight. Very honest and open with the information he shared! Good luck this season we will be cheering you on #FHPride #FHFam pic.twitter.com/vCTCETdc7c-- Fieldhouse Pirates (@FHPirates) May 9, 2020