The sting of their Class AA season ending prematurely hadn’t completely left their system when Arkansas Travelers manager Cesar Nicolas called a team meeting.
Some players were getting ready to shower, others were still in sweat-soaked uniforms, not wanting to let a magical season end. But they gathered one last time, in the visitors’ clubhouse at ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Okla., before heading separate ways in the offseason. Their season ended with a disappointing 5-1 loss to the Tulsa Drillers in Game 5 of their first-round series of the Texas League playoffs.
Nicolas wanted to thank them for their effort and their commitment, particularly since he wasn’t their manager at the start of the season.
“These guys were invested into this team and the playoffs,” he said. “You could see the disappointment.”
At some point, he would be telling four of them that their big-league dreams were about to come true, but that would wait. There was still team stuff left to address.
“I honestly wasn’t prepared to say anything, because I never thought we were going to lose that game and the season would be over,” he said.
After Nicolas spoke and each of his coaches said a few words, he looked around at his players and asked if anyone had anything to say. After a few players spoke, Donnie Walton — the team’s shortstop and unquestioned leader of this collection of touted prospects and baseball grinders like himself — stepped forward and his emotions poured out.
“He said, ‘I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without this team. This team has meant so much to me,’ ” said pitcher Art Warren.
At that moment, Nicolas knew it was time. He interrupted Walton’s speech.
“Donnie, let me ask you something, do you want to keep playing?” Nicolas said, as players stared at him. “You want to play for two more weeks?”
“I was like, ‘Yeah, but what are you talking about?’ ” Walton recalled.
Nicolas stared at him, “Let me ask you this: Could you do it in Seattle?”
The clubhouse erupted in cheers. They knew he’d been called up to the big leagues. Walton fell to his knees, tears filling his eyes. His stellar season where he hit .300, while playing with the level and commitment expected from a coach’s son, had been rewarded.
“When he said Seattle, I just dropped to the ground and everyone went crazy,” he said. “It was probably one of the best moments of my life.”
But Nicolas wasn’t done. There were more call-ups coming, and he was going to do this one at a time.
Moments after Walton had a few more words to his teammates about the great news, Nicolas interrupted him and said his call-up might get a little overshadowed, because Kyle Lewis was going to the big leagues with him.
Lewis was the Mariners’ first-round pick — 11th overall — in 2016. He had just finished his 127th game of the season — the most in his minor-league career — showing that his surgically repaired knee was healthy and his status as prospect and part of the Mariners’ future had returned. Once considered by scouts to be too damaged, he returned to the stadium where he took batting practice as the team’s first-round pick.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Lewis said. “It seems like 24 hours ago I was sitting in Tulsa after a tough loss, and now I’m up here. It means a lot. As a child, you are dreaming about it and working toward it every day.”
Pete Woodworth, the Travelers’ pitching coach, then took over in the fun.
“We’ve got our two position players — now we need our starting pitcher,” Woodworth told the euphoric players.
His eyes went directly to Justin Dunn, a prospect they all expected to earn such an opportunity. As the No. 1 pitcher on staff, Dunn had a 9-5 record with a 3.55 ERA in 25 starts. He was regarded as one of the top prospects in the system, and now he was going to the big leagues.
“It means everything,” Dunn said. “I really still haven’t figured out how to put this into words, other than my childhood dream has come through.”
Before the season, Dunn sat down with Woodworth and then Arkansas manager Mitch Canham. He set three personal goals — be an All-Star in the Texas League, pitch in the Futures Game and get to the big leagues. All three have now been accomplished.
“To be able to say I achieved all my goals that I set out for the year is pretty cool,” he said.
He immediately called his parents in New York.
“My mom started crying, I started crying,” he said. “It was cool to share with my dad for all the long nights we spent fighting and arguing with each other about this and to say that it’s finally paid off.”
Dunn is scheduled to pitch on Thursday. He will likely be the opener in front of Tommy Milone and be limited to a handful of innings each outing.
While the Travelers had their turn mobbing and cheering Dunn, Nicolas grabbed Woodworth. He said let’s wait on the fourth player.
“We always try to play a little joke or have a little fun with players when they get promoted to any level,” Nicolas said. “So we saved Art for last and set him up a little bit.”
Nicolas and Woodworth walked away to the coaches’ office, letting players believe that the Mariners were calling up just those three players.
Warren was admittedly disappointed but didn’t say anything or let on about his feelings. Perhaps his recent stint on the injured list with a groin strain had ruined his chances and overshadowed his 15 saves and 1.71 ERA. He went about the business of getting ready to leave, heading for the shower.
Nicolas came back into the room and said had one more quick announcement. But Warren was still in the shower, so he walked in and told his closer, “Hey, we’ve got one more promotion and I don’t think you are going to want to miss this one.”
Woodworth had told the team about Warren’s call-up. So when he emerged from the shower, his teammates were all waiting for him and exploded with more cheers.
“They all just started going crazy for me,” Warren said as the edges of his eyes filled with tears thinking about the moment. “I knew I was pretty excited about that. I just started crying right away. After the groin injury, I thought this was pretty much out of the question. My name was the last I expected.”
A 23rd-round pick in the 2016 draft out of Ashland University, Warren has dealt with shoulder issues and has had minimal prospect hype despite a high-90s fastball and solid slider. But he was a vocal leader on that team and one of the most well-liked players in the organization.
“You are so happy for guys like Art and what he’s been through the last few seasons,” Nicolas said. “He wasn’t a high draft pick, and he’s made it.”
When Canham left to take the head-coaching job at his alma mater, Oregon State, in mid-June, the organization asked Nicolas, whose primary job was Latin America developmental coordinator, to take over as manager. Little did he know he’d be sharing in such a seminal moment in a players’ life.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was one of the cooler things I’ve ever done or been a part of.”