Just as Brandon Bantz was getting ready to face a major league pitch for the first time, Seattle Mariners fans threw him a curve.
Informed by the video board of Bantz’s baptismal at-bat Saturday, the Safeco Field crowd greeted him with a standing ovation that almost certainly set a baseball record for Longest Applause Given to an Obscure Minor Leaguer.
“It brought chills to my body,” said the catcher, whose longtime fantasy of a big league debut never broached the possibility he would be embraced by a standing ovation.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Bantz said. “I remember thinking: Do I wait? Do I just let ’em keep going? Do I step in?”
Home plate umpire Laz Diaz took charge.
“Laz looked at me,” Bantz continued, “and he said, ‘You’re not stepping in the box until you give a wave.’ ”
A wave? What was the ump talking about?
Diaz repeated the order, and this time Bantz understood, taking off his batting helmet and extending it to the crowd in a gesture of appreciation.
The 26-year-old rookie can be forgiven his unfamiliarity with baseball protocol. Since the Mariners selected the Dallas Baptist University graduate in the 30th round of the 2009 draft, he has been a backup at every level of the farm system. His most productive year was at Double-A Jackson in 2011, when he hit .216.
A few days ago, Bantz had no reasonable expectations of grabbing a major league roster spot, much less gripping a bat in
an actual game. But when Jesus Montero was sidelined by a torn meniscus, and Jesus Sucre hurt his hand on a batter’s backswing, the search for a reserve catcher behind Kelly Shoppach came down to either Bantz or the Rainiers’ Mike Zunino.
Because Zunino still has miles to go – he has been playing pro ball for less than a year – Bantz got the call. The gig figured to be brief, probably no longer than a week, and his chances of experiencing an at-bat lingered between slim and no friggin’ way.
But Sucre’s injury turned out to be more substantial than a mere bruise, and Shoppach wasn’t going to catch all the time. Enter Bantz, who learned of his start when the lineup for the Yankees game was posted in the clubhouse hallway.
“I kind of got butterflies,” he said, “but, luckily, I was able to calm down a little bit.”
Teammates offered advice.
“They told me, ‘Just do what you do,’ ” Bantz said. “They said, ‘You’re in the big leagues for a reason. If you weren’t good enough to be here, you wouldn’t be here.’ Hearing that, knowing they were behind me, was comforting.”
Starting pitcher Joe Saunders was among those who assured Bantz he belonged. Suspecting Saturday might loom as a rest day for Shoppach, Saunders discussed the Yankees’ hitting tendencies with Bantz.
“It was pretty much a crash course, if you will, for two days,” said Saunders. “I thought he did a great job for his first game. There were a couple of times where we both got a little mixed up, but we fixed it quick. I thought he caught a great game.”
So did manager Eric Wedge, whose team’s 3-1 defeat had everything to do with an inability to string hits against Andy Pettitte, the Yankees’ veteran left-hander, and nothing to do with a hastily assembled Seattle battery.
As for Bantz’s milestone appearance in the batter’s box, he didn’t look shy. A first-pitch foul was followed by a ground ball to deep short. If the ball had been hit another foot or two to the right of Jayson Nix, Bantz might’ve reached on a single.
Then again, this is big league baseball, where “ifs” and “mights” don’t carry much weight.
Bantz finished 0-for-2, striking out in his second at-bat on a sinker that appeared to approach him waist high. He was calm. He was dialed in. He took a swing at a Pettitte pitch presumably delivered into the right-handed hitter’s wheelhouse.
“And the pitch almost hit me in the foot,” said Bantz, whose crash-course introduction to the bigs gave the career outsider an insider’s perspective.
“It’s baseball,” he said. “It’s 60 feet and 6 inches from the mound to the plate. You’ve still got to hit it, you’ve still got to pitch it. Everything’s the same. It’s just a little bigger stage up here.”
Whatever else happens to Brandon Bantz, he’ll be able to look up his name in the Baseball Encyclopedia – sandwiched between Brooklyn pitcher Jack Banta and Minnesota pitcher Travis Baptist – and regale about the afternoon he took orders from an umpire on how to acknowledge a standing ovation.
Bantz will laugh about the brain freeze, and smile, with pride and joy, about the chills he felt everywhere firstname.lastname@example.org