While the North Side weather forecasters argue over whether Chicago will see “some snow” or “ducal assloads of snow”, the sun is shining and the air is warm and baseball is being played in Mesa, Arizona. Some will be quick to point out this isn’t “real baseball”, as though all the games played before Opening Day are fielded by Keebler Elves with peppermint stick bats and the balls are made of caramel popcorn.
Those people are wrong. Baseball is back, my dear readers, and I’m so very here for it.
The Cubs have rolled out their new slogan for the year. Not to be confused with the fan-ordained slogan first uttered by Kris Bryant (#StrapItOn), #WhereStoriesPlay evokes a movie-theatre-esque theme to the year. Instead of being Lovable Losers, begging the boys to Try Not to Suck, or demanding that Everyone be In, we may finally be encouraging all fans to do as I’ve always done: Fall in love with the character stories behind the guys at the plate and on the bump.
Everyone has a story, and we know the big ones. Anthony Rizzo, the cancer survivor turned philanthropist who’s raised millions for pediatric cancer research and has what might be the cutest dog to ever grace Instagram. Kyle Schwarber, who died in the second game of 2016 and clawed his way back to life to help us win the World Series on one leg. Yu Darvish, who’s seen so much professional struggle but somehow has a totally bonkers ten (10? 10!) pitches and should absolutely be awarded the keys to Twitter.
But in Spring Training, we get New Guys. Those 40-man roster names that sort of tickle your memory but you definitely can’t picture a face. The non-roster invitees you’ve never heard of. Maybe an American League catcher who was non-tendered right before Christmas and somehow ended up at camp.
Josh Phegley has a story that will play.
He’s a local boy – from Terre Haute, Indiana (which for the record is blacked out of an absolutely ridiculous FOUR teams – including the Cubs. Fix your shit, MLB) he was a two-sport high school athlete for Terre Haute North, playing both pitcher/catcher and tailback/safety for the football team. In the summer of 2006, he was named Indiana’s Mr Baseball by Hoosier Diamond magazine in 2006.
Phegley then kicked a bunch of ass in college ball and picked up some JUCO cred in the Cape Cod league playing for the Wareham Gatemen in 2007. He was selected to play in the Cape Cod league all-star game, but missed the game after breaking his hand against a dugout wall that was never taught how to dodge a punch from a cranky catcher. Still hoping to join his team on the field at Fenway to be honored as All Stars two weeks later, on the way to the ballpark he suffered sudden and serious pain, and had to be whisked away for emergency appendectomy. What luck.
His college career at IU Bloomington from 07-09 garnered him a positively ridiculous number of honors, as well as an impressive list of hitting accomplishments. He was picked in the first round (38th overall) of the 2009 draft by the White Sox, and carted off to Kannapolis.
From there he worked his way up the minor league system, missing a significant amount of the 2010 season due to complications with an autoimmune disorder called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (or immune thrombocytopenia): a condition which drastically reduces one’s blood platelet count preventing normal blood clotting. He underwent treatment in November of 2010, having his spleen removed.
Phegley rejoined AA Birmingham for the 2011 season, being promoted to AAA Charlotte for the final month of the season. He’d remain there until his debut against the Rays on July 5, 2013, where he wasted absolutely no time hitting a 2 run double off of Jeremy Hellickson. His first dinger came two days later off of David Price, and his first major league grand slam came off of Anibal Sanchez on July 11th. Boy’s ready to play some baseball.
In the 2014 offseason, Phegley was the PTBNL in the trade that sent Marcus Semien and Chris Bassitt to the A’s in exchange for Jeff Samarzija. In 2015, after playing 73 games and putting up a slash line of .249/.300/.449, bad luck struck once again, sending Billy Butler’s wayward bat into his head during BP and gifting him with a concussion. His fortunes didn’t improve in 2016; he played in 25 games, landing on the IL and having surgery in July to correct a cyst in the cruciate ligament in his right knee. Not to do anything by half measures, in August, right before he was supposed to start a rehab assignment, Phegley landed in the hospital with synovitis in that knee.
Since then, he fell into a role as backup catcher, playing 57 games in 2017, and splitting his 2018 between the majors and minors. During the Mother’s Day game in 2018 he dusted off his high school hurling arm, pitching ⅔ of an inning and getting his first career strikeout in the bottom of the 8th in a losing blowout against Baltimore. His career pitching ERA is 0.00
2019 saw him through his fullest season yet: 106 games for Oakland in which he put up a .239 average and a .693 OPS. He caught Mike Fiers’ second career no-hitter on May 7th, but was nontendered by the A’s organization on December 2nd.
On January 17th of 2020, the Cubs organization made the (in this writer’s mind) brilliant decision to tender a minor league contract to this delightful human whose Player’s Weekend name is PTBNL, who walks out to The Pina Colada song, and who celebrates his home runs with a “meat tent” made of his own beefy arms.
Phegley seems to like playing in Cubbie Blue, too. In his second Spring Training appearance on Monday, February 24th, he put on an impressive hitter’s clinic, going 3 for 3 with a towering home run to dead center as well as a double and a single.
With rosters expanding to 26 men this year, and our manager Grandpa Bossy’s probable willingness to carry a third catcher, there’s a chance if Phegley keeps hitting the way he has, we could be enjoying pina coladas and sheltering from the rain in a meat tent of our own at Wrigley Field this summer. Perhaps this is where his luck improves, for good.