Agent Matthew Gaeta contacted every team in baseball last winter, trying to find a job for pitcher Spenser Watkins before the right-hander changed professions. Before baseball became a teaching position.
Twenty-nine showed no interest at first, Gaeta said, and only the Orioles stayed in contact with Gaeta. Mike Snyder, the director of pro scouting, checked video of Watkins and moved the process forward.
Where it took Watkins has become one of the more enjoyable stories of the 2021 season. His major league debut in Anaheim at 28, three batters faced and retired, followed by Tuesday night’s start against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards and his first victory. Tears shed, a celebration shared.
“A lot of the teams said once we go through the high-profile minor league free agents, we’ll trickle down to the mid-tier and lower level and circle back with you. And there was a limit on how many roster spots were available for spring training, whether it was big league camp or camp reserves, and Baltimore was the only team that circled back around,” said Gaeta, who sat in the stands for Watkins’ start and returned the next night.
“Mike Snyder reached out to me and expressed a high level of interest. There were a few other teams that were interested, but Baltimore was the first to offer. And it was one of those things where, Spenser pitches well and does his thing, there would be an opportunity, like (Tuesday), that pretty much came about.”
Watkins allowed a run only three batters into the game and nothing else through the fifth, the decision breaking a club-record streak of 24 games in a row without a win from a starter.
“His cutter was on, and honestly he just competes,” Gaeta said. “As his manager (Brandon Hyde) said, he was fearless against that lineup. That lineup is All-Star after All-Star and Spenser looked completely unfazed. And that’s what he’s going to do each and every outing is he’s going to compete and he eats innings and he gives his team a chance to win going five to six innings, allowing the bullpen to do their thing in the latter half. And he just competes. Not blow-by-me stuff, but locates and just competes hard.
“Initially, what I told him was, ‘Just pitch your game. Don’t pitch to strike anybody out, don’t pitch for a perfect game. Do what you do each and every outing, which is just compete and give your team a chance to win and go five or six innings.’ And he pitched to contact, to his credit. It was from the get-go like Mike Snyder said when he provided Spenser the opportunity, if you compete and perform and the opportunity is there, they’ll keep on coming. And if Spenser keeps doing what he’s doing and there’s a need in the rotation or the bullpen, he’ll be in a pretty good spot.”
To really appreciate how far Watkins has come, it’s imperative that we go back to his status as a 30th-round draft pick of the Tigers in 2014, the backsliding after reaching Double-A and Triple-A, and finally, a willingness to walk away from his dream. Small steps that began to increase in size and pace.
How close did Watkins come to retiring from baseball and working with the freshman team at Paradise Valley High in Phoenix?
“He already had a practice or two,” Gaeta said.
“It was, cleats were hung up. If a team like Baltimore came about, he was still staying in shape to be ready for a call, but truthfully we didn’t sense anything was immediate. If anything, it would be a minor league invitation to spring training, which, spring training didn’t start for minor leaguers until April and he was already conducting practices with his freshman team. Then Baltimore came about in late January/early February, and to his credit, he stayed in shape, he kept pitching, he kept working out and he was ready for when Baltimore called.”
Gaeta didn’t try to talk Watkins out of leaving. Support was available however he chose to live his professional life. And Gaeta understood the reasoning, with family coming first.
“Truthfully, with all my clients, I say I’ll always do what’s in your best interest. I don’t push them one way or the other,” said Gaeta, who also represents Single-A Aberdeen pitcher Jake Prizina. “Their heart has to be in it and there were decisions for his family with his wife (Brittany), that he thought there would be a monetary safety net in terms of going for that coaching job, but I never said, ‘Don’t do it, do it.’
“I always believed he was a big leaguer and he had it in him, he just needed an affiliated opportunity to prove his worth and I think Detroit was a great six-year warm-up for an organization like Baltimore to really reap the rewards of what Spenser has to offer.”
Spenser and Brittany weighed the pros and cons of fleeing the minor league grind. So many factors to consider beyond his happiness.
“I remember when the Tigers released him, he’s always had these offseason coaching lessons that he’s done, so we discussed making that bigger for him, evolving that and putting his heart and soul into it because he loved it. He loved every moment of coaching kids and seeing them develop and taking a real interest in them when he struggled a few times in the Tigers organization with people actually giving him that kind of attention and care,” Brittany said.
“We discussed if this is what he wants to put his heart and soul into now, then we can do that. But we always left the door open if anyone did want to sign him, if something ever happened we could actually do that. It just got a little scary because we moved out, we were living with our in-laws, they were helping us while we were saving money to get our own place. Obviously, his contract before did not pay all the bills, so we both had to work.
“Then we got the call and, what should we do? They want to sign him. It’s like, ‘OK, we’ll make it work.’ I’m like, ‘Well, we’ll do whatever it takes,’ because I know he wasn’t ready to give it up. I said, ‘You’re not ready and this is a great opportunity.’ So once we discussed it more, we figured we could actually make it work. He got a better salary that they agreed on, which was great, so we were able to keep the house. Of course, I don’t travel with him, I don’t go with him, and that’s what we’ve always done the last six years. I just stay home with the dogs.”
Jobs as a bartender and restaurant manager ended during COVID-19, along with all the moving from city to city within the Tigers organization. They chose a long-distance relationship with Brittany working from home as tech support for Square, Inc.
“It all ended up as something that seemed horrible when he got released,” she said, “to being probably the best blessing he could have ever had.”
Brittany was in Anaheim for her husband’s debut and watched his start from home on a big screen television, her office setup in the living room and job communicating online rather than by phone proving ideal.
“He started at 4 and I get off at 5,” she said, working on West Coast time. “I was able to watch and scream at the same time so nobody could hear me. I still had to work, unfortunately, for that hour, but my boss was incredible about it. I said, ‘Hey, my full attention currently may not be here, but I’m not going to call out, I’m going to be here and work my job, but I have something kind of really big going on. They totally understood and were like, ‘Oh, absolutely.’”
Watkins’ parents also were relegated to television viewing because they couldn’t get to Baltimore.
“It killed us to not get there. There’s very few things we’ve missed for him,” said Karen Watkins.
“I’ve always said this and I’ve said it to him, it’s like a job interview for him every time he plays. So you want to do your very best so that you’re able to continue the dream. I knew he had to come out and do something at that level in order to stay because they’re moving guys around, which I understand this year, and to have him have another shot is amazing and it’s because of his performance. His father (Dave) and I have supported him since Day One. Whatever he needed to do to chase the dream. And that he caught it has been unbelievable.
“He’s like a phoenix and he has a tattoo that’s a phoenix. He’s able to just, I call it pull up your boot straps and do something that blows my mind. He’s done it over and over.”
“I was coaching him through the early years,” Dave said, “and I knew from the start that he just had something. He just does. And the opportunity with the Orioles just seemed right. He was ready. You weren’t sure he might have been ready three years ago if he had been thrown in there, but he was ready, so it was just extremely exciting and couldn’t be more proud of how he is and how he plays and how he pays attention to the game.”
One particular moment frozen on Zoom, not to be forgotten, easily churning emotions, is Watkins fighting back tears as he talks about the Orioles selecting his contract from Triple-A Norfolk. Twice over the course of the interview, Watkins heard his voice crack and had to pause.
“Honestly, I cried, as well,” Gaeta said. “I know how much he’s been through. In Detroit’s system he literally threw a one-hitter in Erie and two days later called me and said, ‘I’m getting demoted to High-A.’ It’s not been an easy road for Spenser at all. He’s been the 30th-round non-prospect who just patiently waited for his opportunity and there were a lot of emotional moments such as that that led up to this point, a lot of sacrifice between him, Brittany, his mom Karen, his dad Dave and ultimately culminated into that emotional moment that’s even a tear-jerker for me.”
“We all cried together,” Dave said.
What flowed after his victory was part of the usual clubhouse celebration for a first-timer, “traditional stuff they put me through,” he said with a smile.
“He said it felt surreal,” Gaeta recalled. “After logging close to 600-plus minor league innings, your big league debut is out of the bullpen in Los Angeles, which was an electric crowd, especially with players like Shohei Ohtani, and then not even 72 hours later making your first big league start at an historic ballpark like Camden against an All-Star lineup like Toronto. But ultimately he pitches to the batter, not the name, and he competes.”
And then he puts it aside, no matter how much he wants to keep embracing and reliving it, and focuses on his next assignment. A Sunday afternoon start against the first-place White Sox in the final game before the All-Star break.
“He did his thing and he’s excited for Chicago,” Gaeta said. “He literally said to me right after, ‘That was surreal, that was awesome, but on to the next one. I want to stay here.’”
Wherever his feet are planted, the people closest to him will think about his journey and those tears will come back. Brittany, too, had to pause and collect herself, apologizing later for emotions that wouldn’t stay below the surface.
“Just sitting here thinking about it gets me all choked up,” she said. “It’s so surreal, just watching the last six years with him and seeing how much he struggled, how much they moved him around. Getting called up to Triple-A with the Tigers one week and I had a flight booked to go see him and we were all excited, we thought he’d be there longer, and all of a sudden they sent him back down to Double-A. Changing flights, sometimes the flights I couldn’t change because my work schedule couldn’t work around where he was going to be on the road.
“It’s indescribable to see how much he struggled. He had a lot of trials. But he also had a lot of great accomplishments with the Tigers. Just how many times he moved around and how many innings he had to fight through while he was hurt because they didn’t have any other arms and he wasn’t their main prospect. And to see someone in an organization now that’s been so interested in him as a person and as a player, he’s developed already so much, his pitching is completely changed and he’s just, it’s incredible.
“There’s just no better feeling than when your best friend’s dreams finally come true after everything he’s gone through and seeing him being so down so many times. He’s just the greatest man I’ve ever known and he deserves every second of this and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”