From Waynesburg to the draft
By Joe Smeltzer
With the 97th pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, the Oakland A’s selected Mason Miller of North Carolina’s Gardner-Webb Bulldogs.
For Bay Area residents who have seen some of what the A’s third-round pick can do, the clips they’ve seen likely feature Miller pitching for the Bulldogs, either against a Big South Conference school or in a non-conference game, perhaps against the University of Georgia. Or maybe A’s fans have seen footage from Miller’s showing at MLB’s first-ever draft combine, in which he bested all pitchers by throwing 99 miles per hour.
In that respect, Waynesburg University may get lost in the shuffle.
But it was at Waynesburg where Miller arrived in the fall of 2016 as a teenager slightly taller than Abraham Lincoln with a physical build that earned him the nickname “Fungo bat.”
It was at Waynesburg where Miller struggled as a freshman, where Type-1 diabetes sickened him as a sophomore, where he danced with dominance as a junior and where a global pandemic wiped out his senior season.
Miller doesn’t like to reflect. Yet, the 22-year-old acknowledges what he’s been through from sitting in a hospital bed as a recently diagnosed diabetic in April of 2018 to today.
“It’s pretty remarkable what’s happened in these three years of my life,” Miller said.
A native son of Bethel Park, Miller could always throw hard. But his control often channeled Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn.
“He definitely struggled with his command, in high school especially,” Chris Lee, who caught Miller both at Bethel Park and Waynesburg, said.
In his freshman season at Waynesburg, Miller continued to struggle with command, posting a 7.03 ERA in 13 appearances (nine in relief). The next year was, in Miller’s words, “life-changing.”
As a sophomore, Miller didn’t take the next step like he wanted, ending the year with a 5.57 ERA.
“He was down on himself,” John Przybylinski, Miller’s classmate, catcher and close friend, said. “We had high expectations for him sophomore year that he didn’t put on himself; we kind of put them on him. He wasn’t performing to that level.”
The summer after that sophomore season, Lee saw things changing for his high school chum.
As the two played for the Pittsburgh Rebels of the McKeesport Daily News League– Lee catching and Miller pitching– Miller was throwing harder, walking fewer and striking out more.
“He pitched lights out. Like, really, really good,” Lee said. “I actually went to our coaches, and I said, ‘This is going to be a really good year for him.’
Lee was right. Miller ended 2019 with a conference-leading 1.86 ERA and also led the PAC strikeouts.
And his fastball only got faster.
Lee may have broken his hand because of it in Waynesburg’s 2019 season opener in Florida. He still doesn’t know for sure, but he does know that it hurt.
“My hand was like twice the size (of normal),” Lee said. “It was shaking.”
That would be the only time Lee caught Miller in 2019. Przybylinski caught in eight of Miller’s 11 starts, so he was in the kitchen often. He loved the heat.
“It’s almost surreal, just the level of confidence that everybody feels when he’s on the mound,” Przybylinski said. “You’re just like, ‘Oh, we have Mason on the mound, we’re going to win this game.'”
As a senior, Miller’s fastball was hitting 96 mph. In the team’s spring trip to Florida, the kid who struggled against DIII hitters less than two years prior was being watched in person by scouts from the New York Yankees, among other clubs.
It was around this time that Miller started to believe he could pitch for a paycheck one day. Perry Cunningham, Miller’s pitching coach for all four years at Waynesburg and recently appointed head coach, realized the possibility the year before when he received a call from the Kansas City Royals.
“I think that’s when I began to understand that it was going to happen at some point, barring an unforeseen injury or something like that,” Cunningham said.
Something like a global pandemic.
A week after Miller struck out 13 Mount Union Raiders in his last start of the Florida trip, the world ground to a halt. COVID-19 wiped out the rest of Miller’s senior season, and Major League Baseball condensing its draft from 40 to five rounds took away any realistic hope he had of getting drafted in 2020. Could a DIII pitcher get drafted in the 12th round?
In the fifth? Forget it.
Now Miller likely would have been on his way without baseball. He graduated college with a 3.9 GPA and had a job lined up in a financial efficiency position for Allegheny Health Network, hoping to jumpstart a career in finance.
In April, the NCAA granted all spring athletes an extra year of eligibility. Miller knew he wanted to keep playing and knew he wanted to do it at a higher level.
Enter, Jim Chester.
Through connections such as Waynesburg athletic director Adam Jack, Chester, a McKeesport native, found out about Miller and figured a guy who could throw in the upper 90s might be nice to have.
“It’s not like this thing where we found him under a rock and he was throwing 98,” Chester said. “We knew he was good.”
Miller didn’t let his new school down. In 15 appearances- all but one as a starter- he went 8-1 with a 3.30 ERA and 121 strikeouts over 92.2 innings.
Although the pandemic ended his Waynesburg career, Miller realizes that it created a chance to pitch at the highest level of college baseball.
“If I had gotten drafted out of Waynesburg, I would have skipped that (extra year), and maybe my progress might have been a little stunted,” Miller said. “I think with the situation that I ended up going through with being able to go to Gardner-Webb for a year, it’s almost prepared me even more.”
Przybylinski couldn’t watch his friend’s big moment live.
A coordinator for National Tank & Equipment, he went through a typical Monday when Miller texted him the good news.
“He just made his dream a reality, man,” Przybylinski said. “Every kid in little league when they’re asked, you know, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Everyone says they want to be a baseball player… Monday, he made that dream come true, which is awesome.”
Miller hasn’t reached the mecca yet. First, he has to sign his first contract, which he’s hoping to do in the coming days. Not every draftee makes it to “The Show”, but those who know Miller are confident that he’ll be one who does.
“I’ve had pretty much anybody that I’ve played baseball with or been around the game with, plus family and friends reaching out,” Miller said. “So, it’s been awesome to see everybody that’s taken notice of the accomplishment I’ve been able to make, showing their support and their continued support.”
Coaches and friends are proud of Miller for what he can do on the mound and who he is off the field.
“His high character moral makeup is as good as any player I’ve ever coached,” Chester said.
“It couldn’t happen to a better person,” Cunningham said
“Plain and simple, he’s a good guy,” Lee said. “Somebody who should be modeled after.”
“When I have kids, I want them to grow up and be just like him,” Przybylinski said.