The Toledo Mud Hens had just left the field after a 6-1 loss to the visiting Durham Bulls last week, when Casper Wells Jr. got called into the manager’s office.
The 25-year-old Schenectady High School baseball standout had finished a good game in the outfield, getting two hits in three at-bats and scoring the Detroit Tigers’ affiliate’s only run. But his batting average was hovering around .200, rendering the impressive spring training he lodged with the parent club in March a distant memory.
Wells, a late-round draft pick of the Tigers and long-shot to make the majors, assumed he was being dispatched back to Detroit’s Double A club in Erie, Pa.
On the same night, an unusual phone call from his son had prompted Casper Wells Sr. to wonder the same thing.
“He doesn’t call when he doesn’t do well,” the father said from the family’s Schenectady home Wednesday.
But the minute he heard his son’s excited voice on the other end, Wells could sense the call was different from some he had grown accustomed to during Casper’s five-year toil through minor league ball. Still, he could hardly believe what his son was relaying: Casper Wells Jr. was on his way to Detroit to make his first appearance in the major leagues.
“I didn’t sleep that whole night,” his father said.
Wells Sr. thought about the days he’d bring his son to the city’s Central Park to practice and the trips to Troy for off-season baseball camps. He recalled his son’s tenacity toward baseball and his domination of it in high school. He remembered his time at Towson University and the day he was drafted by the Tigers.
Wells Sr. also thought about his son’s first camp with Detroit and his banishment to the grinding Gulf Coast League in Florida. He remembers the angst his son used to have playing early afternoon games in Florida’s 110-degree heat, day in and day out.
To see a video of Casper Wells hitting a home run in the Arizona Fall League in October 2009, click HERE.
“I used to go ‘wow, how’s he going to get there,’ ” he said.
That all changed when Wells took left field against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park in Detroit on Saturday. His father’s amazement and disbelief quickly turned into immense pride.
“It really has been an unbelievable story,” his father said. “He was on the lowest rung you can be at and he just battled through.”
Wednesday night in Oakland, Wells recorded a pair of milestones. His first big league hit, a single, came in the third inning off A's starter Dallas Braden. Later in the seventh, Wells ripped a two-run double to deep center field for his first runs batted in, giving the Tigers a 4-0 lead. They went on to beat the A's, 5-1.
The rookie’s first major league start wasn’t the smoothest — he struck out twice and grounded out twice. And there was a sense that his promotion might be fleeting, with the organization poised to call up a starting pitcher.
Yet Wells took advantage of his moment. With two outs and two runners on in the fourth inning against Boston, Wells tracked down a single by David Ortiz and fired it to home plate, cutting down Dustin Pedroia as he tried to score from second base.
The play, which slowed the tide of Boston’s offensive momentum and allowed the Tigers to mount a comeback, must have caught someone’s attention in Detroit. After the game, Detroit demoted a different pair of players and told Wells to pack an extra set of bags for a trip to the West Coast this week.
“He’s dedicated,” Wells Sr. said of his son, who was penciled into the starting lineup against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday. “He wants to make an impression.”
Area coaches have long considered Wells among the most talented players out of the Capital Region. He joins former Spa Catholic standout Tim Stauffer of the San Diego Padres and Queensbury graduate Brendan Harris of the Minnesota Twins as only three locals now playing at the major league level.
But his ascension to the pro ranks was far more unpredictable. Unlike Stauffer, a first-round draft pick, and Harris, a fifth-round pick, Wells was selected 420th overall in the 14th round, a section of the draft where making the majors is anything but a given.
Still, many of his former coaches didn’t doubt he would one day make the jump. At Schenectady High, coach Jerry Rosen said Wells demonstrated an attitude and poise that set him apart.
“He was a great competitor and worked really hard,” he said of Wells, who helped the team to the state finals his senior year in 2001. “He was a real team player.”
Wells also had the skills to match his attitude, said George Rogers, his coach with the South Troy Dodgers in 2001 and 2002. He threw strikes that hovered into the mid-90 mph range and could crush the ball at the plate; he ran the bases with lightning speed and could field anything hit in his direction.
“We got to see him do a lot of special things,” he said.
Rogers was impressed enough by the young player that he personally recommended Towson University head coach Mike Gottlieb consider him for the program. Gottlieb took Rogers’ word and brought Wells into his Maryland Division I program from 2003 until 2005.
During his stint at Towson, Wells hit 28 home runs and had 115 runs batted in. His last year there, he was named the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year.
“He’s a natural,” said Keith Rogers, who recruited Wells to play for the Saratoga Phillies in 2005. “He really has so much talent.”
But he struggled during his first years in the minors, bouncing between some of the Tigers’ lower affiliates. Then in 2008, Wells began doing what all of his boosters knew he could do: play the game like he did at every other level in his career.
“I always had a feeling he’d get a shot,” Rosen said.