It seemed to come naturally.
Stone Crabs outfielder Garrett Whitley has a penchant for playing baseball, a passion that was nurtured at a young age for a player who grew up in Schenectady County, N.Y.
“I was always into it,” said Whitley. “When I was really young, about 2-years-old, my dad was throwing me balls in the backyard. I played other sports, but baseball was the one I always gravitated toward.”
It was the passion for the sport that played a critical role in his success, and although he demonstrated talent and potential in other sports, having stopped playing football after his freshman year of high school, and leaving the hardwood behind, where he played in a church basketball league for fun into his sophomore year, so he could concentrate solely on baseball.
It was while at Niskayuna High School that Whitley began to capture the attention of colleges and Major League Baseball organizations, with his stellar play resonating far beyond upstate New York.
He committed to go to Wake Forest after his sophomore year of high school.
“I knew I was going to play top quality baseball,” said Whitley.”But to be honest, I didn’t realize that professional baseball straight out of high school was an option before my senior year.”
A deep volume of scouts would come to see Whitley play, but the outfielder took it in stride, not allowing the scrutiny to cause additional pressure and stress.
“It was fun,” said Whitley. “I didn’t think about it too much. A lot of them (scouts) became my friends, and some of them I still keep in touch with. They were just friendly guys. While we were going through the process, they were helpful. So, I wasn’t feeling a ton of pressure. I knew they were there to watch me, and I was going to have a chance to impress some people.”
Whitley’s love for the game and the fact that he was succeeding academically, and having already committed to Wake Forest, allowed him to enjoy the process.
“I knew if I had gone to school, I was going to play top quality college baseball,” said Whitley. “I knew I was going to be able to handle college. I wasn’t worried. I could’ve gone to college and that’s what I had always planned to do until going into August of my senior year, it kind of all blew up. Before that, I hadn’t even realized it (playing baseball professionally) was an option. It happened so quickly, going into the draft.”
However, it was the celerity associated with the events leading up to his being selected 13th overall in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft that made the experience seem surreal, said Whitley.
“The whole thing was like eight months; to me I thought I was going to have to go to three years of school, and hope that I would perform in school, go through the process and get drafted,” said Whitley. “I had a chance to do it right out of high school. I wasn’t astonished because I knew I was good.
“When I got the invite to go to the draft (at the MLB studios in Secaucus, N.J.), I knew I was going to get selected in the first round.”
Whitley is no stranger to Charlotte County or the Charlotte Sports Park, having played on Field no. five as a member of the Gulf Coast Rays during his initial professional season.
His familiarity with the area has allowed him to transition seamlessly to life as a Stone Crab.
“Having been around, I know where to eat, the places to live, the house that I’m staying in now, I’ve been staying in since January,” said Whitley. “Once the season started, I didn’t have to find a new house. Every year you come back, the more comfortable you get with the routine of things.”
As a professional athlete, Whitley had to make a series of adjustments as he ascended up the levels, but his disciplined approach and steady demeanor has allowed him to succeed.
“In the Gulf Coast League, I was just coming down here and trying to get used to everything,” said Whitley. “It’s different because it’s a day game every day. Hudson Valley was really the first opportunity where I felt like I was playing professional baseball, going on road trips, night games and playing before crowds. It was fun up there. They had a really great atmosphere. Every year you work to improve your whole game.”
The opportunity to turn professional proved to be an invaluable resource, allowing him to refine his game.
“That was something that I had to learn because I had never played corner outfield in high school,” said Whitley. “And then I came down here, and I didn’t play corner until I got to the second half of the season in Hudson Valley, during my second year. Learning the reads out there is different, learning the positioning, how to move for particular hitters. Honestly, I think getting your reads in the corners is more difficult then it is in center because there’s more slice or hook on the balls. It took a while. It took a lot of shagging in batting practice. But now I feel comfortable in all three.”
This past spring training was his fourth with the Rays organization, with the 2018 season not turning out the way he anticipated, a torn labrum would put a premature end to what he looked toward with great expectations.
Whitley demonstrated his character by working hard to return to form while rehabilitating from the setback, with the injury coming at the most inopportune time, right before camp broke.
“Knowing I was going to lose my whole season was really hard at first,” said Whitley. “I tried not to look at it as a whole. You look at it one day at a time. I know that’s cliche, but I really had to. I had to spend the first four weeks in a sling. The next four weeks, I couldn’t raise my arm past a certain level. My goal was to be ready for this year’s spring training (2019). And while that was the goal, I had to make sure I was looking at things one step at a time.”
Whitley was cleared the Sunday spring training started in 2019. He was officially a regular player, and no longer considered a rehab, he said.
“I wasn’t going to be on a special schedule or anything like that,” said Whitley. “That was just a relief, and even with the 11 months that I had, it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to be ready for the season. Once I got to the point where my arm felt good, where I was comfortable with everything, where I could dive again, without worrying about what happened that time, it was a relief, and it was really exciting.”