The moment Luke Schiltz had been anticipating for more than half a year was finally nearing. Six-plus months after finishing the final appearance of his first professional baseball season, the Cartersville resident was going to get to step on the mound again.
Sure, the stakes wouldn’t be as high this time around for the Texas Rangers minor leaguer, as Schiltz was scheduled to take the hill for his first spring training bullpen session. Whereas, his previous outing featured 1 2/3 scoreless innings Aug. 25 against the Arizona League Royals.
Nevertheless, Schiltz was stoked.
“I was so fired up,” he said. “… I was so ready.”
But the bullpen session never came for the 2019 24th-round pick. Instead, Schiltz found himself on a 26-hour car ride from Arizona back to Georgia with teammate Gavin Collyer, who was also drafted by the Rangers last year out of Mountain View High in Lawrenceville. Both players were left to contemplate how their worlds could have been turned upside down so quickly.
Then again, every professional baseball player in America was forced to come to grips with MLB's mid-March decision to shut down spring training and push back the start of the regular season indefinitely in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s weird to think that this is the first time in history that all sports have been canceled for the time being, and I was sitting in the locker room for it,” Schiltz said. “When I heard what had happened, it didn’t feel real. I told my mom, and she was like, ‘They’re sending you back?’ It honestly did not feel real.
“I mean who would have thought the entire major league system has been shut down over something that happened just like that. But I understand why they do it, because obviously, we have to protect the players and protect the fans and everyone else.”
Having been back in Cartersville for nearly two months, Schiltz wants baseball decision-makers to take their time before rushing into anything. And not just to keep him from having to make any unnecessary cross-country trips.
“Now that we are here, I don’t want to rush things and try to jump back in,” Schiltz said. “We might as well make sure we’re good now and not jump the gun, and then have to wait even longer to start the season.
“Now, I’m just preparing every day, doing what I can and just trying to be patient.”
However, that last part has been easier said than done.
“That’s the hard part, waiting and waiting” Schiltz said. “We have coaches calling every other day, checking in and making sure everybody is on their stuff. They've been giving us a little motivation, so that’s been good.
“I’ve been sticking to it, and I’ve been working hard. It’s a little different than being on the field, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.”
Schiltz, who will turn 20 in July, has been enlisting the help of his cousin and brother to keep up with the workouts the Rangers are asking of their players. He admitted he had reservations about the situation but believes the organization has done an admirable job given the circumstances.
“They’ve got us on a specific throwing program right now,” Schiltz said. “We’re staying steady where we were when we left but not overdoing it. I was a little nervous about that, too, at first, but I think the plan they have set up right now is going to work really well. …
“They told us we were going to hear something May 31. That’s coming up, so hopefully, they’ll have some more news for us as far as that. Right now, [the goal is] just trying to maintain rather than gain too much ground, focus on little things while I can. When we get back out there, I’m sure, they’re going to give us a little time to start pushing it a little bit to get back to where we need to be.”
As with almost any subsection of workers, minor leaguers have been affected monetarily by the pandemic. The players, who are not paid during the offseason, are set to receive $400 a week from MLB through the end of this month. If the minor league season hasn’t started at that point, which seems almost certain to be the case, those checks could stop coming.
While that possibility still exists for Schiltz, he is still better off than some of his peers.
That’s because Texas outfielder Shin-Soo Choo decided to give $1,000 to each of the nearly 200 players who make up the minor league system of the Rangers. The money represents a relatively small amount for Choo — who is entering the final season of a seven-year, $130 million deal — but it doesn’t take away from the generous (and pretty much unprecedented) nature of the gift.
“For him to do that is awesome,” Schiltz said, adding that he has already received his portion of the money. “That’s something I would want to do when I get to the big leagues is be able to help those who need help, especially in a time like this. Just the fact he’s thinking about us when he is where he is in life, it’s awesome knowing people still have that heart. …
“I’m really thankful about it, can’t thank him enough.”
There’s still plenty of hurdles for Schiltz to clear on his path to the majors. He did prove to be more than capable in his debut season at the professional level. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound right hander had a 1-0 record, 1.16 WHIP and .216 batting average against. His 4.30 ERA and 3:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio were likely more a byproduct of small sample size (14 2/3 innings) than anything else.
Schiltz was probably a little amped up his first appearance, allowing his only home run of the season. After that, he turned in seven scoreless performances over his final 10 games.
“It was unreal,” Schiltz said of the season. “It was a feeling that I can’t even explain. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid, so to go out there and actually play, it was crazy. … I didn't even believe it, and I was standing there.”
It’s too early to say where Schiltz’s baseball journey will ultimately lead him, but just getting this far is quite the accomplishment.
He admitted it’s been a “wild” ride to this point. Following his junior year, Schiltz transferred from Cartersville High to Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. He left behind his parents and nearly all of his family to head to the place where America’s deadliest high school shooting ever took place less than a year prior.
The decision paid off in a major way, as Texas selected him with the 715th pick in last June’s draft.
“It was all God’s work,” Schiltz said. “He helped me big time with that, getting in front of the right eyes and giving me the right opportunity. I took advantage of it. …
“It all comes down to, I could not have done it without the help of my family. I give all the credit to them, because they pushed me more than anybody. There were times when I almost quit, and I didn’t think I would get the opportunity. God came through my last year of high school, gave me the chance and I got to show out a little bit.”
Now, Schiltz is just awaiting the next opportunity to put his talents on display.
He understands fans are eagerly awaiting the resumption of baseball. Bringing back the national pastime, even if it means playing without fans in the stands, would symbolize a step towards normalcy. Even still, Schiltz asks for understanding and patience — the same virtues he and his fellow players have been asked to display.
“We’re all wanting to play just as bad as you all are wanting to watch us play,” he said. "We've got to play it smart, though. We don't want to rush anything."
There still exists a very real possibility that Schiltz doesn’t get to play in a game at all this year. Even if the MLB season eventually gets underway, which is also a big question mark, there’s no guarantee minor league teams will be able to hold games, especially at the lower levels.
Regardless, Schiltz will remain focused on preparing for his next chance to toe the rubber from 60 feet, 6 inches.
“We’re probably going to cross that bridge if it comes to that,” he said of not playing games at all in 2020. “If that were the case, I’m sure they have some type of plan on throwing.
“It would definitely be a very weird and a very long year waiting to get back into a game. I’m already at my wits end, itching to get back on the mound. … Right now, I’m just doing what I can to prepare for that moment — whenever it may be.”