It is an old baseball tale, a fable that's periodically realized into truth. A young dreamer develops his game at a backwater outpost, one where his talent far exceeds his surroundings. He plays on torn-up grass fields or cracked asphalt, in a land where outsiders may not understand the local customs, language, and dress; he hopes that one day he'll get his shot, but he knows the odds are long. There is no walking off Long Island, after all, and when was the last time a pro scout came to Brooklyn to watch a game between the bar-sponsored softball teams of Williamsburg.
"I remember early on, I was playing third base, knowing what kind of arm he had," says Jordan Heller, 40, manager of the Turkey's Nest squad since 2000. "A ball was hit to the deepest part of right field. He tracked it down, spun, and threw a perfect strike to nail the runner tagged up from second by a couple of feet. The guy looked up at me like, 'You have got to be kidding.' Nobody ran on him again."
He, the legend in right field, is Bo Schultz, 29, believed to be the only player to ever rise from McCarren Park Softball to Major League Baseball.
"I'll say, first, only, and forever," says Heller.
Schultz grew up in Dallas, played high school and summer league baseball—although he never pitched—before heading off to Northwestern to study journalism at Medill. He walked-on to the baseball team his freshman year, but due to roster limitations, was only allowed to practice. In Schultz's sophomore season, he decided to give the game a rest and pursue a career as a writer. In 2006, thanks to school connections, and an uncle who knew people at Wenner Media, he did the sort of thing that young journalism students do. He took a summer internship with Men's Journal magazine.
"I'd covered Cotton Bowls in high school for a local newspaper and that was the path I decided to follow," says Schultz. "This was pre-Twitter and Instagram, back when Facebook still required a .edu domain. I wanted to write for digital and print because magazines were only a slow decline then, not in freefall like today."
At Men's Journal, he met research director Mike Gollust, 39, who was more than a little intrigued that Schultz had played college baseball. Gollust asked him to play for the Turkey's Nest.
"I played some baseball at Brown and consider myself a good softball player, which is where a fair number of guys in the league were at," says Gollust. "Schultz was this goofy beanpole of a kid, but he clearly had supernatural ability, explosive muscular power to whip the bat through the zone. He was a superior physical specimen. Schultz had never even really played softball, so it wasn't like he hit 400-foot homers every time up, but when he made contact it was a thunderclap."
At that time, the Sunday league was on to what Gollust called the "second-wave" of young folks who made Williamsburg home. Initially, the league was comprised of skinny, tattooed artist types; each team was named for the bar where they went for post-game beers. The Turkey's Nest, on the corner directly across from McCarren Park, was famous for their large to-go styrofoam-y cups of suds.
Image courtesy of Jordan Heller.
There had been a gentlemen's agreement that all players had to reside in the 'hood. As Williamsburg became more popular—condominiums and luxury rentals sprouted around the edge of McCarren Park, and the once-shaggy neighborhood became notably better-groomed—the league brought in more talent, and the agreement was bent, then shattered like a maple bat.
"The Turkey's Nest wasn't the first team to recruit outsiders, but, sure, people would ask us about Schultz. I'd say, 'No, he's a good friend of ours,'" says Gollust. "They would usually reply, 'Umm, he's 10 years younger than everyone else on your team.'" Gollust notes that by the time he left a couple of years later, guys were being brought in from all over New York City.
Rules break, and so Schultz suited up and more or less dominated. "If our catchers could catch Bo's rockets from the outfield, he would have thrown out guys at the plate every time," says Gollust, currently the research editor at Health, who added that Schultz wasn't simply a jock wasting his editorial time. "At Men's Journal, Schultz came with a professional demeanor, he was serious about getting experience in the magazine industry. There isn't a whole lot of interesting work for interns, but I think I gave him some fact-checking and he did some interviewing, which are basically the most important jobs interns can do."
Schultz didn't play in the championship that year (and the Turkey's Nest didn't win), but he did return that fall to intern at Outdoor Life and then later at ESPN Radio, preparing stats for hosts Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith. Media is probably where he would have ended up, if not for an injury to a Northwestern pitcher.
"My junior year a roster spot opened up and another player asked if I wanted to give pitching a shot. Why not? It was a good excuse to give baseball one last try," says Schultz. "I was by no means a flamethrower, but I could bring it at 92, and in 40-degree Big Ten weather, that was hard enough. I spent the next two years basically learning how to pitch."
His senior year numbers weren't great, a 3-8 record with a 9.23 ERA, but the team wasn't that good, either, and finished 14-18. Schultz admits to being burned out during the second half of the season, but he had enough juice to warrant a bit of attention from scouts. The A's signed him as an undrafted free agent and sent him to rookie ball in Arizona. After an unremarkable first season, the big club took a different approach to his career. In 2008, Oakland's Brad Ziegler, a right-handed submariner, had set the record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched to start a career. The A's confirmed that they took the unusual step of asking Schultz to come back to Spring Training as a sidearm pitcher.
"It was a little weird, definitely not an easy transition, learning to pitch submarine," Schultz says. "At first, you feel like your hand is touching the ground. I started with a high three-quarter delivery and I had to rope it in and bring it all the way down. It was a long learning process, but I'm grateful they asked me to do it." The results were instant, and promising—Schultz cut his walk rate, struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings, and sawed his ERA nearly in half. "If I had said 'No thanks,' the A's might have told me to go home," he says. "It was a great opportunity."
Over the next couple of seasons, Schultz, in typical minor-league fashion, bounced around—Phoenix, Vancouver, Kane County, west of Chicago—until he was released in 2011. He went back home and played in an independent league in Texas for the Grand Prairie Airhogs, occasionally working out with a younger high school teammate who had gone on to have a bit of major league success himself.
"You know the guy, left-handed pitcher, worth $250-million," says Schultz with a laugh, adding. "Clayton Kershaw and I are friendly, when he won the the Cy Young and MVP I texted him, 'Dude, Congrats, you kick ass at life.' But he's not a big-league mentor or anything like that."
Schultz was preparing himself to get on with his real life journalism career, but a few weeks later, the Arizona Diamondbacks signed him. He spent more time in the minors with the Triple-A Reno Aces. As the baseball gods would have it, Schultz was now throwing harder than ever before, and throwing over-the-top. He went from 91-95 mph in 2011, up to 99 in 2012, and touched 100 a couple times in 2013. On March 23, 2014, Schultz made his major league debut, although he only found out that he'd made the team when they posted the pre-game roster.
The Diamondbacks took on the Dodgers in Australia and the teams were allowed to bring extra players in case of injury. Schultz and three other pitchers thought they were just along for the ride, but he ended up throwing a scoreless eighth, retiring Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier, and A.J. Ellis in a 7-5 loss.
All this and he also understands the difference between Chicago and AP Style. — Photo by Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
"Australia was amazing, the fans were really into it," says Schultz. "It was funny, they're used to cricket where any ball out of play scores, so the stadium erupted for long foul balls. But the crowd was into it for both teams. It was awesome to put on a jersey and do intros on the player line."
Schultz got sent back to Triple A shortly thereafter, although he returned to the majors to throw seven more innings, including a disastrous August outing in which he gave up six hits and five runs to the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I had my embarrassing welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment earlier in my career than I wanted, but these things happen," says Schultz. "Learn from it and move on."
Last off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays claimed Schultz off waivers. This was a moment in which his softball years may have actually prolonged his career. As both Gollust and Heller noted, Schultz was skinny when he banged 'em out in Billyburg, but today he's a baseball-sized 6'3", 220. More importantly, for him and the Blue Jays, Schultz doesn't have the wear-and-tear on his arm that the average 29-year-old pitcher would. Schultz estimates he has thrown maybe 600 innings tops, even after working largely as a starter in the minors since 2013; Schultz guessed Kershaw has 2,500. Knocking around in Brooklyn, taking time off in college, playing independent ball—all of these detours enabled Schultz to get stronger as he learned to pitch away from big-league diamonds.
"A lot of our older prospects need more innings or more at-bats, but what we're looking for is a player with one particular strength that can make him successful in the majors," says Andrew Tinnish, assistant GM of the Blue Jays. "What Schultz does very well is get ground ball outs, which we need at the Skydome where the ball really carries. He didn't have a glowing ERA or a high strikeout rate in Reno, but beyond the surface he has lots of velocity and, in a hitter-friendly park, he had a ground-ball ratio of above 50 percent. From a pitching perspective, Bo is a young guy. I can't wait to get my eyes on him in Spring Training."
Schultz heads to spring training in Dunedin, Florida this week, ready for whatever role is available. His off-season mentality has been to train as a starter. Schultz says he can live with not being good enough, or preferably making the majors and having his career end naturally, but he can't abide by not being physically ready to go. Being healthy is the one thing in his control, and as for the rest, "If I'm a starter, cool. A long reliever, I got it. A bridge guy, no problem. A short reliever, great. I just want to pitch."
As an older player, Schultz is more mature in other ways. Last year he married Neha, a fellow Northwestern graduate who spent a couple of years working for Oprah Winfrey's production company Harpo. In 2014, she decided to go the freelance route so she could travel with her new husband. Neha was in Australia, will be in Florida, and hopefully Toronto as well. "Neha made a huge decision to leave Harpo and come with me," says Schultz. "As much as a country song as it sounds, it's awesome packing up the truck with my wife, dog, and baseball glove."
Schultz has been through enough to know that baseball isn't forever, and while he hopes it won't begin until 10 years from now, a journalism career is still in his plans. After his playing days end, he aims to work in sports media, offering the rare perspective of a major-leaguer who also studied at one of the top journalism schools in the country. He admires Doug Glanville, the Penn grad who played in the majors from 1996-2004 and now does commentary for ESPN, pens op-eds for the New York Times, and wrote the well-received book The Game From Where I Stand.
And, even when his big league days are over, there's one league where Schultz will be able to get his fix whenever he wants it.
"I'm not going to take all the credit, but it's cool I got to manage a Major League Baseball player," says Heller, now the editor-in-chief of the United Airlines magazine Hemispheres and Rhapsody. "Bo, you're welcome back on the Turkey's Nest anytime."
Schultz has a busier schedule these days, but remembers his softball period fondly.
"I was all over Central Park, McCarren Park, even on the asphalt fields where some guys put cardboard in their pants so they could slide on the concrete. I didn't do that, but loved playing with actors, models, writers, musicians, construction workers, cops, the whole New York City gambit," he says. "Beer league softball is a hell of a lot of fun."
Times change though, Williamsburg ain't what it used to be. Schultz will have to get used to drinking inside the tavern that (didn't really, but go with it) started it all.
"You can't take cups to-go anymore?" Schultz says. "That's too bad."