Reynolds finds baseball home playing with Bucs

September 24th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- On the night of April 19, turned up the volume on his cellphone -- just in case -- before going to sleep at his apartment in Indianapolis. The call came later that night from Indianapolis manager Brian Esposito. After only 13 games in Triple-A, Reynolds was going to the big leagues the next morning.

He packed one bag and didn’t completely clear out his locker at Victory Field. He took only what he thought he’d need for a trip of 10 days or so. He left his apartment as it was and he kept paying rent for another month and a half.

“I just figured I was going to be up there until people were healthy then go back,” Reynolds said, “and I’d need somewhere to live.”

Earlier this summer, his wife went and packed it up. Reynolds has never been back.

The rookie earned a permanent place in the Pirates' outfield by batting .318 with an .891 OPS and a team-leading 4.2 Wins Above Replacement entering the final week of an otherwise disappointing season for the Bucs. He’s gone about it the same way he always has: dependably and quietly, without drawing too much attention to himself.

“That didn’t ever cross my mind, to be up here this early,” Reynolds said while sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Wrigley Field last weekend. “But it worked out, and here we are.”

Background story

When you see where Reynolds is now, it’s hard to imagine him being undrafted and only lightly recruited out of high school. But there wasn’t a ton of interest as he played through a shoulder injury, which kept him from playing defense as a senior, and he didn’t market himself on the showcase circuit. 

He received two college scholarship offers, he said, both close to home in Nashville: one from Lipscomb University, a private Christian college, and one from Vanderbilt University.

“I think nationally he was hidden,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He was one of those guys that just kind of was in the background a little bit.”

Reynolds grew up as a Tennessee football fan, but he often attended Vanderbilt baseball games with his father, Greg. They made the trip from Brentwood, Tenn., to watch David Price pitch and see future big leaguers like Florida’s Mike Zunino play at Hawkins Field.

Reynolds attended a hitting camp at Vanderbilt, played well and caught the attention of assistant coaches Josh Holliday and Larry Day. Eventually, Corbin offered Reynolds a scholarship. To cover his bases, Reynolds emailed some other Southeastern Conference programs to see if they were also interested. Nobody else replied.

“It’s the best school in the country for baseball,” he said. “I was just grateful that they gave me a chance when nobody else would.”

Even now, Corbin admits they didn’t immediately know what they had in Reynolds. He pinch-hit during his first collegiate game at Long Beach State, delivered a single to right-center and never came out of the lineup after that, Corbin said.

“Started every game, except I was sick one game,” Reynolds added, “but then came in to pinch-hit anyway after throwing up all night.”

Reynolds starred at Vanderbilt, hitting .329 over three seasons while winning the 2014 College World Series and falling just short of a second title in ‘15. The next year, the Giants selected him in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft. He was no longer hidden.

“He was a fixture,” Corbin said. “He is one of the most, if not the most consistent player we’ve had in our program from start to finish. ... I always felt like this kid was a treasure.”

Traded for an icon

Reynolds’ first year in the Pirates' organization didn’t go as planned. Four games into the season with Double-A Altoona, he fractured the hamate bone in his left hand. That came after he went just 1-for-21 in Spring Training.

No matter the return, trading Andrew McCutchen wasn’t going to be popular in Pittsburgh. Being traded for a franchise icon wasn’t always easy, either. Former Altoona manaager Michael Ryan said he could tell the transition was an “eye-opening” experience for Reynolds.

“Getting traded for McCutchen, I guess I tried to put a little pressure on myself early,” Reynolds said. “Once I let that go, it was fine after that.”

Sure enough, Reynolds finished last season with a .302 average, as close as he’s ever come to batting below .300. He’s at his best, he said, when he’s not worried about trying to impress people.

After a better showing this spring, Reynolds reported to Triple-A and he set out to bat .300 with more home runs than last year, when his injury sapped some of his power. And like anybody else in Triple-A, he wanted to get called up.

“I just wanted to hit well, play well,” Reynolds said on Sept. 15, “and hopefully get called up a week ago.”

This season obviously didn’t play out like Reynolds or the Pirates planned, either.

By April 20, Pittsburgh’s top four outfielders were injured. Reynolds figured he’d be sent back to Indianapolis when Starling Marte returned, considering Marte’s collision with Erik Gonzalez led to Reynolds’ callup. His play gave management no choice but to keep him up. 

“It’s always cool when a guy comes up and just forces their hand, like, ‘All right, I’m not going anywhere,’” Pirates third baseman Colin Moran said. “It’s hard not to be impressed when somebody does that.”

Reynolds commands attention in a different way than his fellow rookies. He doesn’t have the home run power or big-market media attention of 2019 National League Rookie of the Year Award front-runner Pete Alonso. He doesn’t have the speed or bloodlines of Fernando Tatis Jr. Unlike Mike Soroka, Reynolds wasn’t an All-Star and he’s not playing for a first-place team.

“It’s one of the best acknowledgements you can give a guy, but it’s not used much anymore: He’s a ballplayer,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s a ballplayer that quietly does his job and has tremendous pride in doing his job with dependability. 

“It’s hard to argue with a man’s best ability being his dependability, to this day, in any facet. That’s what I’ve seen from Bryan Reynolds from the first day he showed up.”

His peers have noticed, too. Last week, Moran said, he approached Reynolds and rookie shortstop Kevin Newman to deliver a sincere message: “It’s been pretty damn impressive to be able to watch what you guys are doing.”

“It was kind of awkward,” Moran added, grinning. “I told them I don’t like giving compliments. I usually just give them crap all the time.”

Funny man act

Spend enough time around Reynolds and you’ll find that he has a sneaky sense of humor, too.

“He’s dry funny, that’s what he is,” Corbin agreed. “He’s sarcastic.”

When Moran’s brother, Brian, took the mound for the Marlins on Sept. 5, Reynolds was due up with Moran on deck. He knew he’d get grief from Moran if he struck out, and he wanted to let the brothers enjoy their historically rare matchup. Reynolds swung at the first pitch, grounded out and got out of the way.

“I was just being courteous,” he quipped.

One morning, Newman was doing an interview in front of his locker about his weight, nutrition and how much better he feels now than a year ago. It’s well-trodden territory for Newman, so his locker mate has also heard all the questions and answers before. When the interview ended and a reporter greeted Reynolds, the rookie leaned back in his chair, glanced at Newman and deadpanned, in his low Southern drawl, “Just trying to keep my weight up.”

His Vanderbilt baseball bio page is full of unusual information about his family. It says his sister, Amanda, is an avid free climber; his father, Greg, is an aspiring professional bass fisher; his mother, Michelle, is an outdoor enthusiast; and his uncle, Chuck, is a semi-pro deep sea snorkeler. 

It would be interesting, if any of it was true.

“I made all of that up,” Reynolds said. 

He and his dad do like to fish, though. And Chipper Jones, another switch-hitting No. 10, really was his favorite player.

Private life

Many professional athletes use social media to build a personal brand and interact with fans. Some, like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster, can make it a profitable extension of their personality.

Reynolds’ Twitter account is private. So is his Instagram. So, to a certain extent, is Reynolds.

“He’s quiet, but in a good way,” Moran said. “I think he’s gotten more comfortable as the season has gone on. It’s hard not to be, with how he’s doing.”

Reynolds was able to make a smooth, subtle transition to the Majors in part because he initially shared the experience with Cole Tucker, the irrepressibly friendly former first-round pick who hit a game-winning homer the day he and Reynolds debuted against the Giants on April 20.

Tucker is chatty and ebullient, a fan favorite everywhere he’s played and a natural in front of the camera. Reynolds is friendly but understated, like his Johnny Cash walk-up song. While the media gravitated toward Tucker, Reynolds kept plugging along at the plate.

“I thought it was great. I didn’t have to deal with that much,” Reynolds said. “I got to slip under the radar, which is fine with me.”

On June 19, Reynolds hit a three-run homer to cap the Pirates’ six-run comeback in an 8-7 win over the Tigers at PNC Park. Afterward, Trevor Williams declared “it’s time for the national media to pay attention to what Bryan Reynolds is doing.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds got dressed in the clubhouse and went home before the local media even arrived at his locker. He wasn’t trying to ignore anybody or skip out on an obligation. He just wasn’t seeking the spotlight. He never is.

His performance speaks for itself.

“I don’t care about getting attention. I want to go out there, get hits, have good at-bats and play well,” Reynolds said. “I’ve never really cared about getting the recognition, because it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. I just want to try to play my best.”