Eight minor league seasons. Eight different teams. After more than 2,600 at-bats in over 770 games, hundreds of bus rides and countless nights of bad food, playing in front of dozens and hundreds instead of thousands as in his days at LSU, Austin Nola came to terms with his dream of playing in the major leagues.
Not that he was ready to give up. He could have done that when the New Orleans Baby Cakes sent him down in 2017 to Double-A Jacksonville, for example.
No, it was a case of Nola simply making up his mind to stop chasing after the bright shiny goal that remained perpetually just beyond his grasp for most of a decade.
He decided if it was ever to happen, it was going to come to him.
“I just had to get over trying so hard to get to the bigs and just have fun,” Nola said. “Enjoy the process, get better and learn more, especially about catching. Having a patient approach. It helped me have a new energy for the game.”
It finally happened June 15, that call to go to “The Show.” After playing in the minors literally all over the country, from North Carolina to New York, from Florida to Arizona, from New Orleans back to Arizona and Florida again, when the Seattle Mariners called him up from their Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, just 35 miles away.
“It caught me by surprise,” Nola said Thursday during a phone interview just before batting practice for a home game against Baltimore.
Actually, it was more than a trek up Interstate 5 from Tacoma to Seattle. For all his time waiting, there appropriately was a little more travel involved than that. The Mariners had just traded first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to the New York Yankees on Saturday, and they needed a rapid replacement for their game Sunday down the coast at Oakland. Nola grabbed a quick flight to the Bay Area from Austin, Texas, where the Tacoma Rainiers were playing that weekend.
If eight years in the minors taught Nola something besides patience, it was to make himself as versatile as possible. A virtual Swiss Army knife from his cap to his cleats, Nola went from being a star shortstop at Catholic High and LSU to playing every infield position in his pro career except pitcher.
“Wherever they need me,” Nola said. “I’m just going to go out there and take ground balls and stay loose.”
In his major league debut, Nola was penciled in at first for the just departed Encarnacion. A move of necessity for the Mariners, perhaps, but Nola made the most of it.
His first major league at-bat produced his first major league hit. It came with one out in the top of the third inning, as he smashed a hard grounder off Tanner Anderson past diving A’s second baseman Jurickson Profar into right field.
For the 30,000 or so Oakland fans in attendance, it was another brief moment in the early stages of what eventually was a 6-3 loss to Seattle. But for Nola’s rooting section, a small knot of nine family and friends including his wife and parents (dad A.J. was there, on Fathers Day), it was moment to roar like back in the days at Alex Box when Austin would get a big hit or turn a balletic double play.
“It was phenomenal,” Nola told the Seattle Times. “There were a few Cajuns down there.
“It doesn’t get any better.”
Afterward, Austin spoke to younger brother Aaron, All-Star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who went 17-6 with a superb 2.37 ERA last season and is off to a 6-1 start in 2019. He had a game Sunday at Atlanta and was en route for another series at Washington.
“He was super-pumped,” Austin said. The Nolas are the fourth pair of brothers to play in the majors this season.
Austin started the Mariners’ next game, Monday against Kansas City, again at first base. Again, he got a hit. He then came in as a defensive replacement the next five games, including Tuesday and Saturday at third base.
The Mariners may not find the 29-year old journeyman indispensable, but they have found him useful. His career has made sure of that.
Improved hitting made Nola more of an asset. Thanks to some retooled batting mechanics, being more selective about pitch selection and doing more to get the ball into the air, this has been his best professional season at the plate. He was batting .327 at Tacoma, the only time in his pro career he’s hit over .300.
Now that he’s up, the goal for Nola is to stay. Now that he’s up, you might think he is just the least bit regretful over all the years he spent in the minors.
Nola takes a more philosophical approach.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said.
Perhaps that is because of the lesson he learned. The lesson that says work hard to be in position for when your dream finds you.