Back to high school: Dobnak's offseason

Righty spent winter throwing to 17-year-old catcher in West Virginia

March 30th, 2021

might have had a tougher time earning his recent five-year extension if he'd actually killed a high school kid.

Fortunately, Aidan Milton is no worse for the wear.

Milton was being a little lackadaisical with his glove one day while playing catch on the field with Dobnak. One of the Major League pitcher's throws hit Milton's glove, rolled out of the pocket and hit the Hedgesville High School catcher smack in the face, popping a lens out of his glasses. Milton cried out -- but in laughter, not pain.

"Randy pointed at me, just started running over here, thought he just busted me in the face," Milton said with a hearty laugh. "I didn't hurt or anything, but the ball rolled out hitting the glasses, and it looked like he hit the face. Of course, I scared him to death because he thought he'd just killed a 17-year-old."

In hindsight, it's actually kind of concerning that Dobnak didn't immediately remember the incident.

"I completely almost forgot about that," Dobnak said. "I think his dad came the next day just to watch or whatever. I was like, 'Yeah, hopefully he catches the ball today!'"

Most people know at this point that very, very little about Dobnak's baseball career has been anything close to conventional, so it probably wasn't as surprising as it should have been when Dobnak casually mentioned after he was named to the Opening Day roster last week that much of his offseason work on his sinker happened in partnership with a 17-year-old high school catcher. That's not the kind of thing that stands out in Dobnak-world.

"Really, anything that Randy does, regardless of what it is, I'm not really surprised by it," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "If he can get his work in throwing to a 17-year-old catcher or throwing to a 71-year-old catcher or throwing by himself, maybe, even in a cage to a net, I think that he would find a way to get some productive work in either way."

But, well, for the 17-year-old in question, that's kind of a really big deal -- and Milton was more than happy to share his experiences on the phone Sunday.

"It spread like wildfire, especially through here," Milton said. "Everyone just talked about it. Everyone was sitting there wanting to have a conversation with me like I was the one in the big leagues and Randy's the one catching me. I was a celebrity at the town."

Keep in mind: This isn't Los Angeles or Tampa or New York, where high school kids can expect to be in the same zip code as big leaguers. Milton lives in Hedgesville, W.Va., population 299, nestled in the sparsely populated part of the state's eastern panhandle near the winding Potomac River about 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.

Fortunately for him, that's where Dobnak just bought a house.

Even while living in the middle of rural West Virginia, Dobnak still needed to play catch and throw bullpen sessions. Until recently, he was just trying to make the team, after all. His old catcher was too busy with work, so Dobnak, naturally, reached out to the coach at Hedgesville High School to see if there were any backstops he could work with.

A few of the students got called out to a field to just play catch with the big leaguer one day. Milton was 16 at the time. Two or three months later, he got a text from Dobnak, out of the blue, asking if he could catch a bullpen session.

"It was the coolest thing in the world that a Major League baseball player actually just texted me and wants to go play catch," Milton said.

Before they started, Dobnak offered a word of warning.

"This ball is probably going to move a lot more than you've seen," he told Milton.

Unsurprisingly, the first pitch jammed Milton's thumb pretty well.

"That was my first time ever seeing, like, an actual real-life sinker," Milton said. "It's still coming 90 mph. I'd only caught 90 about one time before that."

He soldiered through -- and impressed Dobnak enough that he kept coming back. It probably took around six or seven bullpen sessions for Milton to get used to the movement, but he eventually got good at sticking it.

"He can catch the ball and it doesn't break his thumb," Dobnak said. "He has a pretty decent arm, too. That doesn't hurt."

Milton caught Dobnak during the COVID-19 shutdown before the 2020 regular season, and they reconvened last offseason, starting in mid-November. They played catch every day at the local fields, and Dobnak threw a bullpen session every weekend. Dobnak credited those sessions with helping him refine the sinker that often moved too much in 2020, and he showed much more consistency in that pitch this spring with Milton's help.

Dobnak helped Milton out, too, with videos of some of the Twins' catching techniques to help the young backstop with both receiving and framing at the bottom of the zone, working down to up through the ball in a way that Milton hadn't done before. Dobnak showed him some videos of Mitch Garver's receiving skills, and Ben Rortvedt had some Instagram footage up, too.

"I've always been used to dropping and blocking all the time, people getting wild, but Randy's sinker wouldn't miss maybe more than four or five inches," Milton said. "It helped me actually really learn how to like, stick pitches and make them look better in the strike zone."

Milton has been playing baseball since he was 4 or 5 years old and starting off at shortstop, every kid's dream. When he was 9, his coach asked him to catch one day -- and he stuck at the position for good. Once Dobnak started introducing pro techniques into his game, Milton started going down the rabbit hole himself.

And word gets around when a high schooler establishes himself as a Major Leaguer's personal catcher.

West Virginia Wesleyan College heard about these sessions and actually called Milton for a visit to the campus. He's now committed to WVU Potomac State College, and it helped that head coach Doug Little was quite impressed with the experience Milton had already accumulated.

"It's definitely a big deal when you actually see good pitching and can actually handle it in high velocity, instead of somebody just throwing 75 down the middle to you and you stick it," Milton said.

It should help in his career, too, that he can call a big league pitcher his friend. He and Dobnak play "Call of Duty" together at times -- "He's definitely the one carrying that squad," Milton said -- and Dobnak had Milton and his girlfriend over at his house for the Super Bowl, where Milton actually bested him in ping pong.

"Some people on my team don't believe that I actually play with him on PlayStation or anything like that," Milton said. "They don't think I actually do it. But then they actually started seeing videos of it."

Dobnak wouldn't have gotten to this point in his own career if people hadn't looked out for him and taken chances on him. His only collegiate offer was from Division II Alderson-Broaddus. Jim Essian, his coach in the independent United Shore Professional Baseball League, gave him a shot at pro ball. Billy Milos of the Twins scouted Dobnak off YouTube and gave him a $500 signing bonus.

Why not pass forward opportunities like this to local kids in his community when possible?

"He gets more work out of it, I get my work done out of it, and I can just kind of mentor the younger kid and help him with his future, whether it's in college or not even baseball-related," Dobnak said. "So it's cool to be able to help a kid like that, especially a local kid."

Dobnak hopes to keep working with Milton when the catcher heads to college this fall. And beyond that? Maybe this could get Milton on pro radar, too.

"I had a few guys come up to me," Dobnak said. "[Advance scout] Franklie [Padulo] was one of them. He's like, 'Who's this Aidan guy? Is this a guy we need to look at?' I was like, 'You might want to give him a look. He's pretty good.'"

"He's a really good kid and I think he has a bright future ahead of him," Dobnak added. "Hopefully he can grow a little bit, though. We'll get there."