To Alabama youth, Whitley a teacher first, big leaguer second
NEW YORK -- As Chase Whitley walked to the mound in his Yankees uniform for the first time last May, a group of Alabama ballplayers excitedly huddled around a large-screen TV. The world may have seen a nervous rookie making his big league debut, but for these kids, this was just another lesson from a trusted teacher.
For the past six years, Whitley has spent part of his offseason training and teaching at the Excel Baseball Academy in Oxford, Ala., providing one-on-one pitching and hitting instruction to young athletes. The classes started as a way for a mid-level Draft pick to make ends meet on a Minor League salary, but as his career has blossomed, it has grown into much more.
"What's funny is, these kids -- especially the ones that I've seen grow up over the years -- they could care less that I was on national TV," Whitley said, with a laugh. "They still treat me the same. A kid may come in and say, 'Oh my gosh, he played for the Yankees,' and they get wide-eyed for a little. Before you know it, they're messing around, and they don't care who I am."
This winter, Whitley frequently made the 30-minute drive from his tiny hometown of Ranburne, Ala. -- population 409, according to the 2010 Census -- to Excel's 15,000 square foot campus. Starting his days at 3 p.m., the 25-year-old right-hander spent about 5 1/2 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings offering half-hour sessions to players ranging in age from 5-19.
"Seeing him interact with the kids, he's kind of like a rock star," said Matthew Maniscalco, a co-owner at Excel. "Even before he made it to the big leagues, he was a rock star where he was from. You can tell that he's had a lot of interactions with young people, and he has a good personality with the parents. Chase did a great job from day one."
Maniscalco helped found the academy in 2003 while playing professionally, making it to Triple-A with the Rays in '07. When Whitley's name started appearing frequently in local newspapers following his 15th-round selection by the Yankees, a mutual friend sent along an invitation for an instructor position.
At the time, Whitley was attempting to make ends meet on a Minor League salary, even posting advertisements on Facebook and telling people at his church about his availability for lessons. He jumped at the opportunity and said that he might pocket about $100 for a full night's work during the offseason, which provided supplemental income while his wife, Brooklyn, worked as a registered nurse.
"In the four months we'd be home, we'd make more money than we made during the season," Whitley said. "Now, I wanted to keep doing it because these guys gave me an opportunity when I was in the Minor Leagues. I enjoy the relationships that I've made with the parents and the kids."
That was evident on the evening of May 15, 2014, when Whitley walked to the mound at Citi Field to make his big league debut. On that Subway Series stage, he worked 4 2/3 innings of scoreless, two-hit ball, and perhaps he gained some confidence from a collection of about 30 video messages that were shipped to New York from his students in Alabama.
"In the days leading up to his start, we would video the kids sending him messages," Maniscalco said. "It was pretty funny; not all of them were, 'Hey, good luck, Chase.' A lot of them were like, 'David Wright is going to hit a bomb off your changeup,' talking trash. We just tried to keep it light because we knew he was going to be nervous."
Even with his big league duty under his belt, Whitley's second job as a baseball instructor will continue. He said that he recently converted a barn on his family's property into a baseball facility, moving out the cows and agricultural equipment in favor of cages and pitching lanes. In all, Whitley estimated that he was able to see about 40 players each week this past offseason.
"It's crazy, because the kids will come, and they'll hit or pitch, and they're in a barn," Whitley said. "I'm telling you, man, it's as redneck as you can get -- but it's awesome."
Whitley made 24 appearances (12 starts) last season in New York, going 4-3 with a 5.23 ERA, and is throwing side sessions in Tampa, Fla., as he prepares to compete for a spot on Joe Girardi's staff. One of the main themes Whitley preaches to his students back home in Alabama is consistency, something he will now try to show by example.
"I think you look at my first few starts, I proved that I can pitch there and do a lot of things," Whitley said. "I also proved that I had some success and battled through adversity as well as I could. My goal would be to know whenever Joe comes to get me -- whether it be as a starter or a reliever -- he knows what he's going to get. That's something that I'm always going to strive for."