Bobby Wahl says he’s ready to go out and do his best for whichever team drafts him on June 6, the first day of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. But if it turns out to be the Baltimore Orioles, the 2010 West Springfield grad and current right-handed pitcher for the University of Mississippi will be thrilled.
“That poster of Cal Ripken is still up on the wall in his old bedroom,” said Bob Wahl, Bobby’s father. “He loves Cal Ripken.”
Wahl, 21, is rated by Baseball America and MLB.com as one of the top college pitchers available in the draft, and each outlet projects him as a possible late first-round selection. The first day of the draft will include 73 picks, and the Orioles just happen to have the 37th-overall choice this year. (The first 39 picks this year will be considered “first-round.”)
“It doesn’t really matter who picks me, as long as they give me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing professional baseball,” said Wahl by phone from Oxford, Miss., where the Rebels were waiting to hear about their status for the NCAA Division I baseball tournament which begins this weekend. “But I grew up an Orioles fan and I loved going to Camden Yards for games. The Nats came to town when I was in eighth grade, but I’ve always been a huge fan of ‘the Birds.’”
Three years ago, the Wahl family also went through an anxious June. Just a few days before pitching the Spartans to the state championship with a complete game, Bobby was chosen in the 39th round by the Cleveland Indians, even though by that point he was all but packed to head to Oxford to play for the Rebels and coach Mike Bianco. The draft and state championship punctuated a high school career that resulted in overflowing local, regional and state accolades, along with a 28-1 record and 284 strikeouts.
“One of the things he said [when he was younger] was he’s going to win the state championship for baseball. And when they got to the position where, holy cow, he could make it, he was really focused,” Bob Wahl said. “You couldn’t believe it. He worked so hard to get it, and he did it.”
Wahl, at 6-3, 210, with a fastball clocked at over 95 mph, fits the mold of a front-line starting pitcher, and in his Ole Miss career, he’s been just that. He comes into this year’s national tournament with a 9-0 record in 15 appearances with a 1.99 ERA, despite being hampered most of the season by a blister and cracked fingernail on his throwing hand. He hasn’t missed an outing, but the problem resulted in more walks and fewer strikeouts than last year.
“It was a nagging thing throughout the whole year, but it was something I felt like I could still go out and compete and win with,” Wahl said. “I’m not a guy who likes to make excuses. Even if my finger and my nail aren’t 100-percent, I’m going to go out and do it. I think I’ve been successful for the most part. Maybe it hindered my stuff a little bit, but I don’t think it was awful.”
That, combined with the success he’s had pitching out of the bullpen in the past, has some professional teams targeting him as a starter and others as a reliever. (Wahl was an All-Star closer in the prestigious summer Cape Cod League after his freshman year and recorded two saves for a Team USA collegiate team that played a five-game series against the Cuban national team in Cuba last summer.) Some might see that as versatility, but others see it as uncertainty, and it may have caused Wahl’s draft stock to drop slightly.
“Wahl is one of the best big-game pitchers in college baseball. He’s a fierce competitor who proved his toughness once again by pitching through some nasty blister issues this year without missing a beat,” said Aaron Fitt of Baseball America via e-mail. “His stuff is electric and I think he can be a quality middle-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues.”
The masterful high school career didn’t result in a seamless transition to college. Bianco looks back to a rough start at Ole Miss as the moment where Wahl proved he had the desire to be a high-level baseball player.
“A high-profile prospect like that comes out of high school and for the first time in their lives, they step on the field and they’re not the ace,” he said. “He had an OK fall here, but he came down with some tendinitis in his elbow. By the time he came back, the rotation was set and he was going to be in the bullpen. He emerged as one of the better pitchers on our staff and finished his freshman year as the closer.”
And even though Bobby was always a good baseball player, a potential athlete didn’t just appear at Bob and Terry Wahl’s home overnight.
“He worked hard. I can’t stress that enough,” said Bob Wahl. “When all the other kids who really loved baseball were out goofing around with their friends, Bobby was at the gym or doing something to get better at baseball. He’s really worked his butt off.”
The turning point in Wahl’s career came just before entering ninth grade at West Springfield, when he was introduced to Brian Snyder, a Chantilly grad and former major league pitcher who has made a career out of coaching young players and currently runs Snyder Baseball in Haymarket, Va.
“Brian was probably the most instrumental in taking Bobby to the level where he’s at,” Bob Wahl said. “He taught him how to pitch, but in playing catch with him for hours, he taught him how to play the game and all the little nuances that go with it.”
Also instrumental in Wahl’s development as a pitcher, beyond his high school coaches John James (now at Robinson) and Jason Olms, was Lee Banks, who runs the Tidewater Orioles, a competitive travel team for high school players that has produced Major League stars like Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and both B.J. and Justin Upton.
Wahl is trying to tame his expectations for this time next week, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine he will be close to $1 million richer by the time he signs his professional contract later this summer. He’ll be trading the somewhat carefree life of a college baseball player (see the video Wahl shot of himself and his teammates doing basketball trick shots on YouTube for evidence) for that of a professional athlete. So that means early wake-ups, long road trips and small minor-league stadiums without the fervent fans you’d find in the Southeastern Conference. As a result, he’s trying to soak up all that’s left of his college experience in the next few days.
And that probably means one last trip or two to a legendary local place, the Old Taylor Grocery and Restaurant in a small town outside Oxford.
“You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s really a four or five-house town,” he said. “They have the best catfish, chicken, anything you could ever imagine. It’s a really special delicacy that only guys from Ole Miss know about. On the weekends, it gets packed. It’s special to go down there. It’s pretty southern, that’s for sure. You’ve got live music playing, and people are writing all over the tablecloths and the walls. You have to be a part of it. It’s unbelievable.”
While Wahl is most likely talking about the menu at an old country restaurant, according to his father, he could have been describing the experience at Ole Miss these last three years.
“Ole Miss has been great,” Bob said. “It’s been absolutely great for Bobby.”