'What a great story': How Tyler Jay resurrected his baseball career

April 11th, 2024
Tyler Jay pitching with the Joliet Slammers of the Frontier League.(Joliet Slammers)

ATLANTA -- By the time arrived at Joliet, Ill., in the early summer of 2022, he was ready for anything that looked like a fresh start. The sixth overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, Jay never quite found his footing as a starting pitcher in professional baseball. His mechanics no longer resembled the ones that made him such a heralded prospect in the first place. The Twins, the organization that drafted Jay, eventually moved on from him.

In 2019, Jay began struggling with a medical condition that prevented him from swallowing properly. He lost weight. It would be some time before doctors would diagnose him with eosinophilic esophagitis (EOE), an allergic condition that inflames the esophagus and complicates the digestive process.

At that point, Jay wasn’t necessarily focused on making it to the Major Leagues. He simply wanted to live a normal life.

But Jay kept throwing, stayed in shape. Even without an employer, he continued to do what would be necessary if he ever hoped to resurrect his career. An Illinois native, Jay eventually asked for a tryout with the Joliet Slammers, an independent Frontier League team whose general manager was friendly with his dad. There, he found a sympathetic figure in manager Daniel Schlereth, another former first-round pick who never quite achieved the career that others expected of him.

“Can I throw for you guys?” Schlereth recalls Jay asking him.

“Yeah, of course,” came the response. “Anybody can.”

And so on a lonely turf field an hour outside of Chicago, Jay pitched. Schlereth watched.

What happened next was, in Schlereth’s words, “a movie-type story.” Less than two years after signing with Joliet, Jay received a call that the Mets were adding him to their active roster. Sitting in his apartment late Tuesday evening in Syracuse, N.Y., he strained to hear Triple-A manager Dick Scott speak through a lapse in cell service. Eventually, Jay got the message.

“I couldn’t talk,” he said. “I was speechless.”

One week shy of his 30th birthday, Jay now has a chance to fulfill the potential the Twins first saw all those years ago. Although Jay never gave up on his big league dream, his primary focus was on controlling the EOE that was affecting every part of his life. The idea of traveling around the country for a Minor League affiliate was no longer realistic by the time the Reds cut him in 2020. Pitching for the Joliet Slammers a half hour from his house, in a league consisting mostly of Midwest teams based around Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, seemed more reasonable.

At first, Jay thought he could serve as a veteran presence for younger players looking to sign with affiliated teams. But then he started pitching well. Under Schlereth’s tutelage, he simplified his mechanics to resemble how they looked in college, when he was a standout reliever for Illinois. The goalposts moved. Suddenly, scouts were looking in his direction, curious about the former first-round lefty throwing in the mid-90s. One of them, Jaymie Bane, recommended the Mets sign him.

“I think he wanted to come back, first of all, to prove that he could do it,” Schlereth said. “And second of all, I think he wanted a better taste, if he was going to be done with the game, that he left it on his terms and on a high note.”

Jay made it into six games at the end of last season with Syracuse, giving up four earned runs but striking out more than a batter per inning. He followed that up with a notable performance in Spring Training, coming over from the Minor League side to strike out seven batters over five shutout innings.

This week, with a spate of rainouts and extra-inning games wreaking havoc on their bullpen, the Mets found themselves needing an extra arm. Several obvious candidates were ineligible for callups because they had recently been optioned to the Minors. Jay, who was not on the 40-man roster, was pitching well at the exact right time.

“What a great story,” Mets manager Carlos Mendoza said. “It’s another example that nothing is easy in life.”

When Jay hung up the phone with Scott on Tuesday night, he immediately called his wife, who was home with the couple’s four-month-old twins. Wednesday’s rainout afforded Jay a chance to catch his breath and enjoy time with several family members who traveled to Atlanta to see his debut. As Jay stood in the dugout tunnel at Truist Park telling his story, Mets shortstop noticed him and stopped to shake his hand.

Lindor, once a Top 10 Draft pick himself, took the shorter, more traditional road for a top prospect to the Majors. Jay traveled the longer, winding one -- the one that doesn’t always have a clear destination, but that doesn’t have an obvious end, either.

“I’m glad it’s working out,” Schlereth said. “I hope it works out for a while. You never know with these things -- they can be up and designated [for assignment], or up and released, or whatever. But it’s just a really, really neat story. Just so deserved.”