If you like underdog stories, never-give-up tales, here’s one for you.
With a Baltimore twist.
On Thursday night, Tampa Bay Rays’ 28-year-old left-hander Adam Kolarek made his major league debut in Pittsburgh after parts of eight seasons – and 320 appearances — in the minors. He threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings (we’ll get to more on his strange debut later) against the Pirates.
Then, the guy who grew up in Catonsville flew with his new team to Baltimore, and Friday afternoon he was hanging out in the Camden Yards’ visiting clubhouse, the dugout and later the bullpen as the Rays faced the Orioles. (He warmed up Friday, but didn’t pitch.)
One night debuting in the majors; the next afternoon suiting up as a big leaguer in the place you grew up watching baseball.
That’s a pretty good 15-hour period.
“I’ve been coming to games here my whole life,” said Kolarek, a 2007 Catonsville High grad. “When my minor league seasons end the last eight years, I’m usually home by mid-September the latest, so I usually catch a game here. This is kind of like a second home for me in a sense. This is where my dad and I would go to games, and have a lot of fun here. So, to have an opportunity to pitch here in a big league game, it’s just going to be awesome.”
Kolarek was drafted in the 11th round by the New York Mets in 2010 out of the University of Maryland. He reached as high as Triple-A for the Mets, but never made the big leagues.
The Orioles signed the lefty with a quirky delivery as a minor league free agent in October 2015, but he was with the organization for such a blip that he didn’t even get any gear from the team.
Kolarek was selected away from the Orioles by the Rays in that December’s minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. He spent a season in the Rays’ minors, went to 2017 spring training with the Atlanta Braves, but ended up back with the Rays this March.
And he excelled at Triple-A Durham this season, posting a 1.36 ERA in 31 games there before being promoted to the Rays on Wednesday.
When he received the news that he was finally going to the majors, Kolarek immediately called his father, who knows a little about baseball. Frank Kolarek spent four seasons as a minor league catcher in the Oakland A’s organization in the 1970s. He’s known around Baltimore for founding the non-profit “League of Dreams,” which provides baseball and softball opportunities for special needs individuals.
Kolarek called his dad first – even before he contacted his fiancée. Dad and Mom Kolarek had shared all those up-and-down moments in his career.
“It was the best. We could barely get the words out on the phone,” Kolarek said about the conversation with his father. “I talk to him after every outing. I have throughout my minor league career. To share that moment with him just meant the world. I heard my mom screaming in the background. It was exactly what I was hoping for.”
Kolarek’s actual debut Thursday was a bit unusual. He entered to face John Jaso with two outs and two runners on in the seventh in Pittsburgh. Kolarek threw a strike to Jaso, and Rays catcher Jesus Sucre then nabbed Andrew McCutchen attempting to steal third.
“It was kind of a crazy scenario. That’s never happened to me at any level, throw one pitch and have the runner get thrown out,” Kolarek said. “I think if anything it was actually kind of a blessing, because I got into the dugout and I was able to digest what had happened and regroup even more so and then go back out for the second inning.”
Kolarek pitched a scoreless eighth in the 4-0 loss. He allowed a single to Jaso, but picked up two groundouts and struck out Jordy Mercer.
“I think now that the first one is out of the way, I feel like each time out I’ll feel more comfortable and confident,” he said. “And now that I have one out of the way that went well, I know I can definitely get the job done.”
Sure, it would have been nice for Kolarek to make his big league debut in Baltimore. But given the perseverance it took, never giving up on his dream despite bouncing around the minors, the location was obviously secondary.
And his second big league outing should come at Camden Yards. Based on the texts he has received, most of his family and a large chunk of Catonsville and the University of Maryland will be in attendance. To cheer on a pretty cool story about a local boy who kept pushing ahead.
“My journey through pro ball has had its ups and downs. I’ve always felt like I always continued to progress with my pitching. I definitely feel like I’m ready now that the opportunity is here,” Kolarek said. “And to do it with my first weekend back in Baltimore, all my friends and family will be out there. Just the excitement and love and support I’ve been getting from them the last two days, it’s just the best kind of overwhelming feeling.
“It’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I’m really ready for it.”