Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
The bus pulled up to Calfee Park in Pulaski, Virginia, and Sam Ryan got off the bus, ready to make his professional debut against the Pulaski Yankees. What he didn’t expect was to see a packed stadium in Southwest Virginia.
Ryan, who was drafted in the 12th round by the Toronto Blue Jays this year, was expecting to see a small crowd in the stands — something that the Appalachian League is accustomed to.
“At first it was like ‘holy crap’ because my first couple games in the Appalachian League there wasn’t anybody sitting in the stands, 500 fans or so,” Ryan said, “Then we pull up to the Yankees’ home field and there was 5,000, and they’re heckling the crap out of you.”
There were actually 3,312 people in attendance that night, but that was the biggest crowd he had seen in the minors.
“But at the end of the day, it’s baseball,” Ryan said. “I threw my first pitch as hard as I could, and it worked out. I was like ‘ah, it’s the same game.’”
That night the Bluefield Blue Jays’ defense was not behind Ryan, who allowed five runs, of which only one was earned. The right-hander gave up five hits, walked two batters and logged the first two strikeouts of his professional career.
Ryan knew he could be selected in the MLB Draft, but didn’t want to sit around waiting for his phone to ring. So, the junior went to the weight room to take his mind off things.
The 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher was in the middle of lifting with Tim Kontos, VCU Athletics’ director of sports performance, when Kontos noticed Ryan’s phone blowing up.
— VCU Baseball (@VCUBaseball) June 5, 2019
“I was in the middle of a set and I had my phone on me because I’d gotten calls the day before saying be ready during this round and this round tomorrow,” Ryan said. “I looked at my phone and I had gotten drafted. A couple other guys from VCU were in there with me, and we all started going crazy.”
Ryan had two days to get home, pack up his stuff and head to Florida to report to the Blue Jays facility. So after he was done celebrating with his VCU teammates, Ryan drove back to Northern Virginia.
Small Town Living
In the minor leagues there are six levels, starting with rookie ball all the way up to Triple A — the final step to the major leagues.
Most draft picks start at the lowest level, rookie ball. That’s where Ryan was sent after Florida, to Bluefield, West Virginia.
The population of Bluefield rounds out to just under 10,000. Ryan’s new teammates shared their opinions of the small town before he arrived, and he stuck those in the back of his mind. But they “undersold” Bluefield, Ryan said.
“They made it sound like there was nothing, but I mean it’s kind of cool,” Ryan said. “It’s in the country, it has a different culture, almost. All there is, is an Applebee’s and a Bob Evans. It’s a nice town, it’s a lot of fun.”
The Fairfax, Virginia, native grew up about 20 miles outside of Washington, with a population of more than a million. Just a little bigger than the town of Bluefield.
Ryan enjoys Bluefield, “I’ve always loved being outside. There’s all sorts of places to hike and fish. I’m a big fan of all that.”
The small town provides an escape from playing baseball every day, whether that’s by hiking or playing basketball with his teammates.
Baseball is “America’s Pastime,” but has evolved into a worldwide sport. In the Appalachian League about 42% of players are natives of Latin American countries.
The Bluefield Blue Jays are no different; of the 36 players on the active roster, 20 of them hail from Latin America. Ryan noticed the diversity of the team and wanted to bridge the language barrier.
“There’s a big difference between a guy that grew up right outside D.C. and a guy that grew up in the Dominican,” Ryan said. “Now, we exchange stories, I’m learning Spanish and teaching them English.”
One story Ryan heard while playing for Bluefield was that “Some of these guys never got to take a hot shower before they came to the States and that’s mind boggling to me.”
Ryan and some of his Latin American teammates are teaching each other both Spanish and English to try to mitigate the language barrier.
“Me and a couple of the guys have a deal where they can only talk in English to me, and I can speak in Spanish to them,” Ryan said.
On His Own
At the college level, everything is regimented, from practice routines to lifting. When players move on to the professional level, they are on their own. Ryan has to design his own workout plan and throwing program, an adjustment from having “everything laid out for you,” he said.
Ryan said routines are very important for baseball players, especially pitchers.
“You have to have a routine, so your arm is not tired when you throw,” Ryan said. “So before you throw you have to warm it up. [You] have a routine during your throwing so you can work on what you need to work on that day.”
He credited VCU pitching coach Mike McRae with turning around his collegiate career by implementing new routines.
Ryan tossed 53.1 innings for the Rams in his final season wearing the black and gold, recording 61 strikeouts and only 19 walks.
“I went from a guy that didn’t really throw that hard, just like an average bullpen arm, to being a starter a majority of my sophomore year to being one of our big bullpen arms my junior year,” Ryan said. “He taught me the importance of routines, and I’ve just stuck with what he taught me.”
Ryan has appeared in nine games for the Bluefield Blue Jays, starting seven times. He has logged 31 1/3 innings, recording 24 strikeouts and walking seven with an ERA of 6.61.