'Phantom ballplayer' no more, Maggi a big leaguer after 13 years

April 27th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- Drew Maggi had waited more than a decade for this moment.

After 13 seasons, 1,154 games and 4,494 plate appearances in the Minor Leagues, Maggi was finally going to have his opportunity to step into a Major League batter’s box to enjoy his first at-bat, to take his first swing. He had envisioned how this would play out on countless occasions, but as the fans at PNC Park rose to honor the journeyman, Maggi found himself unsure how to proceed.

“I didn’t even know what to do when [the fans] started chanting my name,” Maggi said after the Pirates’ 8-1 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday night. “I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take off my helmet. … I was trying to focus on the at-bat but also trying to really enjoy the moment, too. There was a lot going on in my mind. It was the coolest thing I could ever imagine. It was the coolest thing that's ever happened to me."

On a day that had already seen Bryan Reynolds sign the largest deal in franchise history, Maggi, at long last, entered his first game and logged his first plate appearance. He may have been sent down swinging on four pitches, but the result comes secondary to the fact that Maggi finally played in a Major League game.

“I've never been more happy for a strikeout in my life,” Maggi smiled.

“Anybody else get emotional? Because it was emotional in our dugout, man," said manager Derek Shelton with tears in his eyes. "That was cool. That was really cool. As long as I’ve known him, to be able to be the person that was telling him, yeah, it was really cool."

Maggi didn’t play in his first two games with the team due to the close nature of both games -- a 2-0 win against the Reds on Sunday and an 8-7 loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday. During those days, several players asked Shelton, who spent time with Maggi with the Twins, when Maggi would play. Shelton was even solicited from people in his own household.

“Hell, my wife texted me and was like, ‘When’s the Italian kid going to play?’” Shelton said.

With the help of a five-run seventh inning, a hit parade that extended the lead to eight runs, Shelton found his spot. As the runs piled up, Shelton felt the presence of his coaching staff, knowing what they wanted him to do. When ’s spot was set to come up in the eighth inning, McCutchen made the decision for him.

“When I went down to tell Cutch, I don’t think Cutch was moving,” Shelton said. “I don’t think Cutch was taking his sweatshirt off. And I think if I wouldn’t have told Cutch, Cutch probably would have told me.”

As Maggi walked to the plate, those in attendance immediately understood the significance of the moment, rising to their feet and showering him with a round of applause. Dodgers catcher Austin Wynns and home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson temporarily evacuated the batter’s box, allowing Maggi his opportunity to soak it all in.

Maggi may not have known how to handle the reception, but he did know what he was going to do once he stepped into the box: swing at the very first pitch. He got a fastball from the Dodgers’ Alex Vesia -- his pitch, as he called it -- and ripped the ball 270 feet into territory down the left-field line.

“I would have regretted it, but I [also] would have gotten a lot of heat from a lot of different people over the years and years,” Maggi said. “You talk about that first at-bat and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m swinging first pitch.' I’ve been telling everyone that for a long time.”

“[Hitting coach Andy Haines] said to me, ‘You think he’ll take one?' I was like, ‘Did you watch him all Spring Training? He didn’t take a pitch all Spring Training,’” Shelton recalled.

Maggi fell behind in the count, 0-2, when he got dinged by a pitch clock violation -- “There’s no comment there,” Maggi laughed -- then fouled off Vesia’s second offering, a middle-middle fastball. As the at-bat went on, just about everyone in attendance started chanting his name. He worked the count to 1-2 but went down swinging on a slider that skidded in the dirt. Just about everyone not wearing Dodger blue would’ve loved for Maggi to record his first hit, too, but he felt the love anyhow as he returned to the dugout.

“This was the right situation, being back in [Pittsburgh] and with how everything was going,” Maggi said.

The entire moment was a full-circle experience for Maggi, who was drafted by Pittsburgh in the 15th round of the 2010 MLB Draft and spent the first six years of his career in the Bucs' system before departing. When Maggi’s contract was selected on Sunday, however, it wasn’t his first callup.

In 2021, Maggi, a member of the Twins, was promoted to the big league club when an injury opened up a roster spot. He had been waiting for the moment for more than a decade. All that was left was to take the field, to step into the batter’s box and play.

He never got the chance.

He spent his first game with Minnesota on the bench and rode the pine in his second game, too. On Sept. 20, the Twins optioned Maggi to Triple-A St. Paul, where he spent the remainder of the season.

When Maggi got promoted without playing a game, he became what’s known as a “phantom ballplayer,” someone who has been on a roster but did not have an opportunity to actually play. He’s worn that title for a year-and-a-half. On Wednesday, he shed that title for good.

Following the game, Maggi was showered with love from family members who made the trip. He said that he saw his father, Craig, crying, something he can’t recall seeing. There were doubts that this day would come. Those doubts are gone. Maggi waited 13 years for this magic moment, and no one can take it away from him.

“Over the years, I've thought about what I would say to my parents,” Maggi said. “I really wanted this for them because they’d been right there with me. They’ve seen some hard times as well. So just hearing those words made it all worth it.”