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Pirate
Time
Machine
No. 10

With Ron Cherubini
©2002 Bonesville.net

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Pat Watkins:
Keeping Life in Perspective

When 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 leagues.

Again, a hush…

“The first round, mom… I was the 32nd pick,” he said.

Again, the room erupted in jubilation.

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 meaningful context.

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 high.

“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 there.”

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 shortstop.’

“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 (at short).”

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 round pick.”

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 often.

“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 round.’”

As the season wound down his junior year, the professional activities picked up pace. At times, it bordered on the ridiculous.

“Scouting directors 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 the details.

“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 anymore.”

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.”

After a 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.

“He 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 smiled.”

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 Indianapolis clubhouse.

“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 ESPN.

“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.

Most exciting 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.

Their engagement 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 couple’s life.

“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 ECU.”

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 about.

“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.

Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.

Click here to dig into Ron Cherubini's Bonesville archives.
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PAT WATKINS BIO BOX
Name:

Pat Watkins

(Photo from MLB.com)

Age:

29
.

Sport:

Baseball
.

Years at ECU:

1990-93
.

Position/Jersey No.

Outfielder/ No. 22
.

Hometown:

Garner, NC
.

Currently Resides:

Raleigh, NC
.

Occupation:

Major League Baseball Player, Free Agent

Kansas City Royals, 2001

Detroit Tigers, 2000

Colorado Rockies, 1999

Cincinnati Reds, 1993-98

Degree(s)
  • Pursuing BS, Exercise & Sports Science

Marital Status:

Married
.

Significant Other:

Anna
.

Children:

None
.

Quotable: 

“I remember ‘the Jungle.’ 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 there.”
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TEN QUESTIONS

1. Who is your favorite current Pirate and Why?

“Will Brinson. It’s funny because when I played, he was the batboy. I remember one time, he got hit in the face while standing on-deck and got a bunch of his teeth knocked out. He was a tough bad boy. And now, he’s one of their best pitchers.”
.
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2. What do you miss most about ECU?

“I just miss the college life, the teammates, all of those things. You don’t realize how much you have it made when you are in school.”
.

3. Where is your favorite spot on the ECU campus?

“Probably, ummm, the Student Store… where we all used to hang out.”
.

4. What was your dorm room and favorite dorm story?

“302-C Belk Dorm. Me and my buddy, Bill Upchurch (outfielder), made a whole rap album and a video at the dorm. We showed it to anybody who would watch it. Seriously, one time we were on a trip to play at South Carolina my freshman year and went to a Karaoke bar and everyone sounded horrible. So, we started rapping this whole album in front of the bar. A guy came up and said he was from Def Jam radio and asked us if we would sign a deal right there. He actually called us a few times and wanted us to send them some lyrics. It was a real video that we tried to be all serious about. At the time, I had broken my hand right before my freshman season, the video was about a gang fight and I had this cast on my hand. We had all the players’ names in video.”
.

5. Greatest Moment as a Pirate baseball player?

“I’d have to say, my whole junior year. I had a good year, got drafted in the first round. That year was the first year that I knew I had to devote myself full time. I couldn’t just dabble in it and be real good at it. I was always younger than everyone else, started school at 17, but that season, everything came together. My body caught up with my skills.”
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6. Most disliked opponent?

“Old Dominion had a pitcher, Wayne Gomes (later was a closer for Philly), he was the fifth pick overall the year I got drafted. I only faced him once in college. He struck out five in a row in front of me and I lined out to center, so I felt better. I faced him in the big leagues, couple of times in minors and couple of times in majors, don’t remember really if I got a hit. But, I did get my first big league hit off of Philly and my first homer off of Philly and it felt good to know that at least he was there watching.”
.

7. Athletic Influences?

“My parents, Bill & JoAnn, they both believed in me and always wanted me to not settle for being ordinary. ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ They never let me settle for being an ordinary person or player.”
.
.

8. Favorite coach?

“Roger Williams, he was the pitching coach at ECU my junior year. He had played professionally and he really helped me turn the corner my junior year. He helped me see what I needed to do to get there.”
.
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9. Best Lockerroom Story

“One time, my freshman year. Coach (Gary) Overton really liked to make an example out of people. He had got wind that seven or eight of us were planning to drive home for a high school football game after a Friday practice. We had practice Saturday morning as well and Coach Overton really didn’t like (the players going home). We were all jacked up to get going. He called us in to take a knee like we always do to break practice. He purposely held us there. He talked to us for 2½ hours because he knew we were going to go. I thought I was going to be crippled. It got to be a joke; he wanted to teach us a lesson. That’s kind of how he worked.”
.

10. Best Emerald City hangout?

“The library… you’re gonna get me in trouble here. We were banned from downtown my junior year. So, we found this little bar called Hard Times and we transformed that bar into the hottest bar in Greenville. We should have got some stock in that place… we really turned that place into something good.”
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02/23/2007 02:08:30 PM

 

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