Players in Major League Baseball come from many different backgrounds. They arrive from far and wide and, in honor of Veterans’ Day, Brandon Magee looks at JT Watkins and his unique path to professional baseball.
There is no easy path to becoming a major league baseball player. Whether signed as a sixteen-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, as an eighteen year old high school student, or as a twenty-one-year old from the college ranks, the road through the minor leagues is difficult. However, some players take a detour from the difficult path and head onto the expert trails – trails that few dare to attempt.
J.T. Watkins, son of Red Sox area scout Danny Watkins, was drafted in the 10th round of the 2012 first-year player draft. A four year starter at catcher, Watkins batted .316/.390/.481 in his senior season, where he was named to the All-Patriot League team, the American Baseball Coaches Association All-Northeast Region team and the Eastern College Athletic Conference all-star second team. He was also commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Watkins did not just go to any college – he went to West Point.
Going to a service academy can be a very rewarding experience, but is not generally conducive to becoming a professional athlete. After all, graduating from Army brings with it a five year active service commitment and an additional three years in the Army reserve. In 2005, the Army implemented a policy for professional athletes – an alternative service option. It allowed for players who signed professional contracts to play immediately after graduation with the hopes that the armed service would gain a public relations coup. This alternative service option allowed Nick Hill, a seventh round draft pick in 2007 to jump to AA baseball in 2008. The option, however, was modified in 2009, rescinding the clause that allowed those with professional contracts to play immediately, but continued to allow for a modified active service commitment of two years, with the final three years changed to reserve duty (for a total of six years in the reserves).
Watkins signed a contract with the Red Sox and began his professional career with the Lowell Spinners in 2012, playing in 17 games (.200/.294/.289) before his active service commitment began. Watkins was not upset, however, that his professional dreams were put on hold. As he told Spencer Fordin of MLB.com:
“I’m glad I made the decision I made. I have so much respect for this place and what it means and what it stands for and what it does to people. Coming into this place, you’re expected to have good ethics and morals. They don’t just accept anyone. It’s not a factory. It’s a place that reaffirms what you know and reinforces your good habits.”
With his two year active service commitment completed, J.T. Watkins played his first full season in 2015. In 39 games between the Greenville Drive and the Salem Red Sox, Watkins hit .204/.224/.263 with six extra base hits. Watkins primarily caught, putting in 33 appearances behind the plate where he threw out 31% of runners attempting to steal. Watkins also pitched a perfect inning of relief on July 27, throwing eleven pitches in the 15th inning of the Drive – Charleston Riverdogs contest and picked up a save.
Traversing the minor league path is tough; doing so after missing two seasons is even more difficult. However, catchers are a special breed of baseball player and military officers are exceptional people conditioned to withstand hard situations. J.T. Watkins, both an officer and a catcher, is ready for his next assignment… making it to the majors.