Unless you followed the Rutgers University Baseball program in the mid-to-late ‘90s, you probably have no idea who Joe Waleck is. Heck, even if you were a fan of the team, he wouldn’t likely be one of the first 15 players from that roster you’d remember. Why would you? He was the team’s third-string catcher, and in 1998, the fifth-year senior finished the season with a grand total of 28 at-bats after appearing in just 19 games. But those who closely watched the school capture its first Big EastConference title that year knew exactly who Joe Waleck was.
And they’re quite familiar with one of the greatest moments in history of Rutgers Baseball that he authored.
On Wednesday, May 13, 1998, our top-seeded Scarlet Knights opened the conference tournament against sixth seeded and in-state rival Seton Hall. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, the tying run on second base and us clinging to a 6-5 lead, a routine ground ball was hit to shortstop, otherwise known as…me. As the classic, good-field, no-hit infielder, most people in the stadium in that moment probably thought the game was over. But alas, they thought wrong. The ball kicked off of my glove for an error and instead of celebration and shaking hands, we were headed for extras.
In the bottom of the 16th, our starting catcher reached base and was lifted for a pinch-runner. With our backup catcher hurt, in came Joe Waleck to catch the top half of the 17th. By the time he came up to hit in the bottom half of the frame, records had already been set for, among others, the longest game in league history. After sitting on the bench for more than five hours that day, Joe Waleck stepped to the plate in his first at bat and proceeded to hit a three-run, walk-off home run that, he would tell you, is the greatest moment of his athletic life.
To this day, I thank him for hitting that home run (and he thanks me for making that error).
It’s hard being a backup. It is a challenge to stay motivated and to feel like a part of the team when the stat sheet suggests otherwise. But the truth is every single player who has a uniform has an opportunity. It may not be the opportunity that you want, but it is an opportunity for you to be ready. The biggest challenge of being a reserve player is simply not knowing when your chance is going to come. It is incredibly tough to be ready for something that doesn’t have a date or time.
Right, wrong, or indifferent, no two opportunities are the same. Some may find their names penciled in the lineup everyday regardless how they perform, while others may only enter the game as a backup for mop-up duty. What is constant between the many vastly different opportunities that exist are players’ ability to take advantage of them.
For role players who rarely see game action, that opportunity comes in the form of batting practice. That’s your game for that day; your opportunity to get better. That’s how you ready yourself for your chance when the lights go on. For the backup who only gets in when the game is out of hand, your lone at-bat when your team is down by seven is your opportunity. It may seem meaningless to everyone else, but to you, it carries meaning. When you take advantage of one opportunity, others generally follow.
During this unprecedented time in our history, in a way, Coronavirus has turned us all into Joe Waleck. Like him, none of us know for sure when our number will be called again. But just like he came off the bench in a key point in the game 21 years ago, it’s up to us to be ready for when our next opportunity comes, whenever that may be.