Keeping Life in Perspective
the phone rang that day in 1993, Pat Watkins answered it and the room
fell silent. His mother and father, his sister, and close friends all
held their collective breath.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Well…,” his mother JoAnn said.
“Cincinnati… I’m going to
Cincinnati,” Watkins said.
The room erupted to the news that
Watkins had been selected in the 1993 Major League Baseball amateur
draft. It was loud… it was happy.
In the commotion that followed the
announcement, Pat quietly asked if anyone in the room cared to know what
round his selection came in. After all, the round was important in terms
of financial security and likelihood of fast-tracking into the big
Again, a hush…
“The first round, mom… I was the 32nd
pick,” he said.
Again, the room erupted in
It was a good time… and though the
occasion was one he will never forget, it would later take one of life’s worst moments
to help put the profound joy of that snapshot in time into a more
During Christmas of 1999, while with
the Colorado Rockies, Watkins got the news that his mother had been
diagnosed with cancer. He was to be assigned to the Rockies' AAA
affiliate in Colorado, and he requested that if he was to be sent down,
let it be to the AA club in Winston-Salem. The Rockies’ management
understood, and Watkins was able to be near his mother for the final
months of her life.
“You know, I think (me coming back
to NC) prolonged her life. Being able to be home with her that last
year meant everything to me personally,” Watkins said. “My baseball
career has never recuperated from that, but I wouldn’t trade anything in
the world for that time with her.”
Baseball, or rather Major League
Baseball, is not over quite yet for Watkins, who is negotiating
possibilities with the Kansas City Royals – for whom he played last
season – and the Toronto Blue Jays. But, regardless of what pans out,
Watkins has a different view on his future now.
“The baseball lifestyle is not a
good one. Not for me,” he said. “You don’t get to see your family
because you are gone all the time. I never really liked the lifestyle.
If I could just play and then go home, that would be great. I want to be
there for my wife (Anna), for my kids when we have them. You have to
reappraise your priorities.
“My mother was lying there, before
she passed away, and it didn’t matter what kind of money I was making,
that I was a big leaguer… all that mattered was who was in that room. My
dad, my sister, my family. She was a Christian woman and I know that
some day, we will be together. I just want to make sure that I am there
for my family now.”
Watkins shoos away
the birds at a Reds game
(Photo from The Cincinnati Enquirer)
Though life got in the way for
Watkins and perhaps derailed the makings of a big-time big league
career, on that draft day in 1993, it was incredible. And Watkins’ trip to the
big leagues was undeniably an adventure.
His trip to East
Carolina University, itself,
was not the normal path.
As a senior at Garner
High School, Watkins saw his future as a wide receiver on the gridiron, not an
outfielder on the diamond.
“I was going to play football,”
Watkins said. “I wanted to go to Duke because Steve Spurrier was the
coach there and I had been talking to him. But, then he got the Florida
job. The new coach didn’t want me and I wasn’t good enough to play at
Florida. I had opportunities at Appalachian State and
Western Carolina, but I wanted to go
to a big school. And the thought of a Duke education was big.”
Baseball was Plan B for Watkins, but
he was in a bind because it was already late in his senior year.
“I wanted to play baseball if not
big-time football. My football coach, Hal Stewart, called Coach (Gary)
Overton and said. ‘I have an athlete here,’ and Coach Overton had me
come over to meet him. Coach Overton offered me a scholarship without
ever seeing me play. He had that much confidence in Coach Stewart.
“The first day (of practice), I
asked Coach Overton, ‘Where do you want me to go?’ And he said, ‘What
position do you play?’ So I went over with the outfielders.”
Watkins, admittedly, was in awe of
the ECU baseball program. The team was coming off its best season in
1990, when a bunch of ballplayers was drafted. Current assistant coach
Tommy Eason was the pre-eminent player in the Colonial Athletic
Association and expectations for every player on the roster were sky
“I was real quiet and stayed really
low key that first year,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t expecting much.”
But his abilities wouldn’t allow him
the luxury and safety of the dugout. In his first season, Watkins
started more games than any other freshman on the roster, despite having
a late start due to a broken hand early in the year. He played right
field and rewarded his teammates by batting a solid .300 for the season.
It was his teammates and the
ECU campus that helped the young outfielder find comfort.
“I remember the Jungle,” he said. “I
was always in right field, so it wasn’t quite the same (as it was for
the left side of the lineup), but it was no less awesome to be out
With expectations reset for Watkins,
his sophomore year was anything but predictable.
“Sophomore year was weird,” he said.
“I started out in the outfield, but we were terrible that season. We
were barely .500. So Coach Overton, trying to mix things up, had each
one of us try out for a new position. I had played shortstop in high
school, so I ran over there, thinking, ‘I’m going to be the man at
“And the next day, I show up at the
park, and no kidding, I had ‘6’ next to my name. I didn’t even have an
infield glove or a cup. I actually had to borrow a glove and jock.
Straight up. I played shortstop that day and then finished the season
Watkins was moved back to the
outfield because, as he explained, “I was real good at making the
extraordinary play, but not so good at the routine ones.”
After playing in the Shanendoah
Valley League during the off season, the buzz about Watkins began.
“I talked to a few scouts and they
said that I had a chance, if I worked hard, to become a 10-15th
But, things went faster than
expected. What began with a few scouts at a couple of the games early in
his junior season, became a cavalcade of Major League talent evaluators
packing the tiny stands behind home plate.
Due in large part to his scorching
.445 batting average, not to mention Watkins'
exceptional defensive ability in the outfield, the phones began to ring and ring
“I kind of went crazy
there, batting .445, and I think I broke a few (ECU) records,” Watkins
said. “And then, I started hearing things like, ‘first through fourth
As the season wound
down his junior year, the professional activities picked up pace. At
times, it bordered on the ridiculous.
start calling you and they set up personal workouts,” he said. “I
remember one time, there were 10 or so scouting directors who came to
watch me hit and we got rained out, so they ALL stayed overnight just to
see me hit the next day.”
They say it is all in
“It’s weird. They
watch you stretch, how you talk to people, how you carry yourself,” he
said. “I even had a scout call me over the fence to ask me what color
are my eyes because blue eyes are supposed to mean better eyesight.”
For the record,
Watkins has light green eyes.
For Watkins, it was
the first indication of the type of pressure that would lie ahead for
the future big leaguer.
“It really kind of
makes you uncomfortable, but you get used to it after awhile,” he said.
“Teammates started picking on me, calling me bonus baby and I hadn’t even
been drafted yet.”
Of course, as his
teammates already knew, it was a foregone conclusion. Watkins led his
team to the regionals, where they eventually were beaten by Georgia Tech. He
was the star on the CAA championship team and was named an All-America.
There was no reason to stay for his senior season.
“I pretty much had
decided (to go pro),” he said. “I talked to my parents and we settled on
a (dollar) figure. If I could get that, I would go. I didn’t have an
agent; my dad figured all that out.
“I really thought I’d
be in the top three rounds and I would have been disappointed if I had
been selected beyond the third round. If I had to have bet, I would have
bet the second round.”
Cincinnati bet bigger
on Watkins, choosing him in the first round that day.
“It was kind of funny
because the guy who called me (Paul Faulk) used to coach at Garner a
long time ago and he called and said, ‘I got you Pat… with the 32nd
pick,’” Watkins recalled. “Paul came over and we did the negotiating. I
didn’t want to hold out. I think it took like four days.”
With a cool
quarter-million dollars (bonus) and a six-year contract in his pocket,
reality quickly sunk in for the less-than-well-traveled 19-year old.
“It hits you all at
once. When I signed, two days later, I was on a plane to Billings,
Montana,” he said. “It was only the second time I’d ever flown. It was
like in those old movies when the whole family takes the son out to the
bus station and sends him off to start life. It was weird.”
Rookie league was
Watkins’ first stop and he wasted little time making his presence felt,
despite the eyes of the franchise being squarely focused on the now
legitimate “bonus baby.”
“There was a lot of
pressure. I was the first pick and there were a lot of eyes on me,” he
said. “My first at bat, I hit a homer and I remember thinking, ‘this is
easy.’ But then I didn’t get a hit for two weeks. But I really enjoyed
Rookie ball. At the time, it was the coolest thing in the world. Now,
once you’ve seen the big leagues, Rookie ball doesn’t look so cool
Though it didn’t take
long for Watkins to find the fun in pro baseball, it took less time to
for the harsh realities of the business of baseball to present itself.
“It’s difficult. You
make friends, then you move up (in the organization) and they don’t, or
they are released or sent down,” he said. “You learn really quick that
it is a business. It is really complicated (emotionally). You see
friends get released and they have families and what are they going to
do? At the same time, you’re like, ‘Thank God, it wasn’t me.’”
Watkins didn’t stay in
Rookie League very long. He was promoted to A ball in Winston-Salem
where he promptly hit .290 with 27 home runs and 30 stolen bases.
“I went crazy (in A
ball),” he said. “And my family got to see every game. That was fun. But
until you get to AA, the big leagues don’t even pay attention. Mostly,
it is just the minor league coordinators and they report up to the big
club. You don’t really see a lot of guys called up from A ball.”
With his A ball
success, Watkins was ticketed to AA Chattanooga.
“I really struggled
there for a year,” he said. “Honestly, that was the biggest jump – from
A to AA ball is bigger than AAA to the Majors. In AA ball, that is where
you start filtering out the players that will never make it. More of the
players are higher picks. It is a tough league and you always feel the
pressure. You realize that baseball is your job and your job depends on
you hitting a ball coming at you at 90 miles per hour and there are no
guarantees even if you are playing well.”
less-than-stellar first year at Chattanooga, the Reds renewed their
commitment in Watkins, protecting him on the 40-man roster to ensure
that he didn’t become a free agent according to the three-year rule. (A
player must be protected on the 40-man roster at the end of his third
year, or he is granted free agency.)
Watkins didn’t take
long to respond to that confidence, coming out of the gates red hot in
his second season in AA. Hitting in the .350 neighborhood, he got a
midseason ticket to AAA Indianapolis.
“(Indianapolis) was my
favorite place,” he said. “(The call-up) was bittersweet. I had a lot of
friends in Chattanooga, but, like all of them, I was trying to get out
of there and get a step closer to my ultimate goal.
“I got there and I was
playing every day. In AAA ball you start flying to games. You don’t have
to ride buses anymore. I had a strong finish to the season and played
really good defense in centerfield.”
Following a playoff
loss to Buffalo, Watkins was summoned to the manager’s office.
“We had just been
knocked out of the playoffs and I was all mad that we got beat. I was
called to the manager’s office and I figured he just wanted to say,
‘good season, see next year.’ That kind of stuff.
asked me what I was planning on doing now (that the season was over) and
I told him that I was going to pack up and drive home to North Carolina
to see my family. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, there’s been a change
of plans for you. You’re going to Cincinnati… to the Big Leagues.’ I was
trying to hold (the excitement) in because we had just lost the game,
but really, I was about to bust. When I walked out, I just winked at my
buddy Paul Bako (now a backup catcher with the Atlanta Braves), and
Bako’s smile was
little compared to what Watkins was sure were the biggest smiles of all
at the other end of his cellular phone after he walked out of the
“The funnest part was
telling my parents,” he said. “I grabbed my cell phone and called my dad
and said, ‘put mama on the phone.’ I told her that ‘we lost tonight and
that I guess I’ll come home.’ Then I said, ‘I’m probably going to stop
off first in Cincinnati.’
“They were like,
‘What?’ and they knew.”
The ensuing week was
crazy for the Watkins family as he played the role of travel agent
arranging trips for his parents and sister, Paige.
So it was, for his
first game as a big leaguer, Watkins had his family in the park and was
slated for the start in place of a limping Reggie Sanders against
Chicago. A game-time decision put Sanders back in the lineup and Watkins
took his seat in the dugout.
“Reggie was a
last-second go, so I just sat down,” Watkins said. “I looked around the
dugout. In the big league, there is so much free stuff. In the dugout
they have all this free stuff… gum, sunflower seeds, as much as you want.
I had never seen that before. It was only the second big league game I
had ever seen in person, and I was playing in it.
“Anyway, I just kept
taking stuff and I was all blown up on seeds and gum and in the sixth or
seventh inning and I hear, ‘Watkins, you’re going in for Sanders at
centerfield. I was spitting gum and seeds out of my mouth. I didn’t know
where my glove was… it was funny. I ran out to centerfield and saw my
family there and my mom was crying.”
As fate would have it,
the first batter up in the inning blasted a deep fly to center.
“It was the highest
fly ball I ever saw and I was saying to myself, ‘Don’t drop this
one… drop the next one, but not the first one,’” he said.
He caught the ball and
his next one. More importantly, though he didn’t get an at-bat in that
game, he was an official big leaguer, now part of a lineup that included
Sanders, Barry Larkin, Pokey Reese, Kent Mercker, and Hal Morris, just to
name a few.
“It was crazy,” he
recalled of his first season up. “I had a Barry Larkin poster on my wall
in college. They were all really great guys.”
Watkins said that the
differences are amazing in the Majors. From a per diem for dining in
excess of a $110 a day to charter flights to the luxury hotel rooms. It
is all first-class.
And the pranks that
the veterans play on the rookies are only of the utmost quality.
“We were in St. Louis
for a game and they stole all of us new guys’ clothes,” Watkins said.
“We had to fly directly to Montreal for the next game and the only thing
in my locker were my black shoes, black socks and a blue nightie. I had
to fly to Montreal in a blue nightie and then go through customs wearing
it. That was interesting.”
And there was the time
that Reggie Sanders woke him up early in the morning to take him
shopping for an Armani suit, since the rookie Watkins only had one blue
suit. Though Watkins admitted that it is an old rookie trick to only
bring one suit to the big leagues and let the vets see you wearing the
same one each day. Sooner or later a vet will feel compelled to teach
the rookie how to dress like a big leaguer.
Perhaps more memorable
than that first game against Chicago was Watkins’ first highlight on
“After my first homer
(against Philadelphia’s Jerry Spradlin), Dan Patrick said something
like, ‘Pat Watkins hit his first major league home run tonight, the
pressure for number two will be intense.’ And then on Baseball Tonight,
Kenny Mayne said, ‘Pat Watkins hit his first major league home run, he’ll
get his name in the paper.’ That was cool.”
His first at-bat? A
deep, deep fly ball that almost went yard.
His first hit? A
double off of Philly’s Mark Leiter.
Memorable ball game?
Flying his father Bill, a lifetime Dodgers fan, out to Dodger Stadium to
see his son play right field against his favorite team.
experience? Hitting a home run in Cincinnati. “They fire off fireworks
and it felt like I was ‘The Natural.’” [More Below]
Pat Watkins with wife, Anna
The following year,
1998, was a big one in many ways for Watkins. During the all-star break
of his first full season with the Reds, he met his future wife, Anna, in
Raleigh, and the two embarked on what Watkins called “crazy dating” with
the two flying here and meeting there.
coincided to some degree with the news at the end of the season, that
Watkins was being traded to the Florida Marlins for Pedro Minaya. At the
time, Watkins saw it as an opportunity to get out from behind Sanders
and gain a chance for more playing time. Anna, used to the lifestyle,
was flexible with the change. But, on the last day of spring training,
Florida traded Watkins to Colorado, adding yet another complexity to the
“They brought me in to
be a back up,” Watkins said. “Colorado wanted me to be the defensive
outfielder behind Larry Walker, and I was way behind him.”
Watkins’ heart was
never really in it for Colorado. The previous Christmas brought the news
about his mother’s cancer.
“At the time, I really
cared less about baseball,” he said. “I had been sent to AAA in Colorado
Springs and had been there about a week when I found out that my mom was
getting worse. It was the first year that Colorado had a AA team in
Carolina, so I asked to be sent there.”
Today, Watkins has
re-prioritized his life. The lasting impact of his mother’s bout with
cancer has helped him draw a firm line in regards to what he is willing
to do and not do, despite the money. Coming off a strong season in AAA
Omaha for the Kansas City Royals organization, the free agent Watkins
has his agent looking into KC and also talking with Toronto.
“We’re waiting to see
what offers are on the table,” he said. “With all the contraction talk
and the labor agreement out there, things have slowed down. I was
playing well last year, and I think I can still play. Once you get to my
age, it is going to take a lot of luck and a big season to get back to
the big leagues.
“I’m never going to
make enough not to work again. I just have to decide if I want to start
(the rest of his life) now… get it rolling, maybe start a business.
Finishing school is a priority. I would love to finish at ECU, but I
live here (in Raleigh). I’ve already started at night school at Campbell
(University). I just want a degree and I will always consider it from
Either way, Watkins is
content and sees himself always involved in the sport. Maybe coaching
college ball or scouting. He takes solace in the knowledge that his wife
is married to him, not the ballplayer. As Watkins puts it, “I could be
digging ditches and she would be completely happy with me as a person.”
Though, he would be
lying if he didn’t admit that he already sometimes thinks, “What if..?”
“It’s very humbling
when I think about things,” he said. “Three guys in my wedding, Bako,
Aaron Boone (third base with Reds), and Sean Casey (first base with
Reds), are all playing in the majors now. Aaron signed for $2.4 million,
Sean for $4 million, and Paul for $700,000. I came up with them and I’m
very proud of them. But… you know.”
Watkins also sees the
glass as half-full. He has done things that most men can only dream
“I’ve done way more
than I ever dreamed I’d do in this game,” he said. “I have been way
blessed. I’m from Garner, NC, and I played in the Major Leagues.
As it was that day in
1993, when he became a pro ballplayer, Watkins is back where he began… at
home. And he is happy and looking forward to his future.
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