He fouled the slider off down the right field side and found himself down 0-2 in the count.
It was late, three hours into a game that began at 6 p.m., bottom of the tenth inning, two down, two men on base.
Dutchess Stadium outside of New York City was a comfortable 75 degrees in late August, and the home team Hudson Valley Renegades, an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, trailed the rival Tri-City ValleyCats 6-4. The winning team would go to bed knowing it owned first place in the standings for the New York-Penn League.
“I’m like, ‘Oh crap,’ I was like, ‘You know, if I’m going to be up here in this situation, I’ve got to be able to calm my nerves.’”
He looked down the left-field line and spent a long moment focusing intently on the foul pole. Then he took a deep breath and exhaled before stepping back into the batter’s box.
Pitcher Luis De Paula made the mistake of throwing Malone another slider, down and in.
“You throw a pitch there to me, in my opinion, 80% of the time I’m putting it out,” Malone said, grinning.
The powerful lefty blasted the ball high and deep down the right field line.
“I did not go into that at bat thinking I was going to do anything,” he said. “I wasn’t confident, I wasn’t anything.”
His talent and instincts took over.
“It didn’t even feel like I swung hard,” Malone said. “It felt so good off the bat I didn’t even feel like I hit the ball. I just remember looking up and seeing the ball launching over the fence.”
For Malone, the walkoff bomb was the highlight of an up-and-down rookie season in pro-ball. A couple of weeks later the Renegades narrowly missed out on the New York-Penn League championship, falling to the ValleyCats in a three game series. Had the ‘Gades won, Malone would have earned his second championship of the year, after winning the NAIA crown at Southeastern University.
But Malone won’t forget that homerun for the rest of his life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that excited,” he said. “I was just going nuts, I was throwing my hands all around.”
WHERE NO CAT
HAS GONE BEFORE
It’s exceedingly rare for a Wyomingite to play professional baseball. In a state with a population smaller than Boston, only a handful have ever seen their name penciled into a major league lineup. Look down the list of Equality State pros, and you’ll find a good chunk of them that were born in the state, but grew up elsewhere: True Wyomingites are incredible outliers in the professional ranks. The odds were against Douglas native Marvin Malone, but he never worried about his slim chances of making it to pro-ball. He said the whole improbability of his professional career makes him appreciate it that much more.
“It’s awesome, because it’s definitely been my dream,” Malone said. “Everyone wanted to be cops or a firefighter when they were younger. I was six years old, ‘I want to play baseball the rest of my life.’”
Malone terrorized Wyoming American Legion pitchers during his time as a Cat. He played so well that he earned a place on the Southeastern University team. After a successful collegiate career, the Tampa Bay Rays took him in the 16th round of the 2018 Major League Draft, not near the top where the most heralded prospects are taken, but also far away from the final 40th round.
The Rays didn’t baby him. They sent him straight to the New York-Penn League, a short-season A-level league. Baseball’s minor leagues have several levels, including “rookie” ball, several levels of A-ball, AA and AAA.
After playing 70 games during the college season, Malone didn’t arrive in Hudson Valley especially fresh, but he was more than ready to start playing baseball without having to worry about school.
“It’s definitely a different kind of game,” he said. “Now it’s your job.”
The professional baseball season is a grind. No other professional sport comes close to the number of games professional ballplayers play in a full season. Malone played about 150 games, between college and the Renegades, last year.
“It definitely separates the men from the boys,” Malone said of the long season. “It’s definitely hard to recover and get your body prepared. It really makes you focus on dieting, treating your body well and making sure you’re healthy, which is definitely hard.”
Malone’s rookie season was a mixed bag. He hit .205, with a .325 slugging percentage. The rightfielder drew his fair share of free passes, and had a healthy .338 on base percentage (he got hit by pitches an impressive nine times). He showed some pop too, with three home runs, three doubles and a triple in his 37 games. The speed was there also: He stole five bases.
The main lesson Malone learned during his first professional season was that he has to be more aggressive at the plate.
“In college, I got away with seeing more pitches,” he said. “At that level (the pros) you may get one pitch to hit. Maybe.”
During spring training this winter, Malone’s aggressive approach worked well.
“Coming into spring training I was ready to play,” Malone said. “I felt good . . . I started off really hot, I think the first five spring training games I was 9 for 14. I was just being aggressive, and I was like ‘Wow this is crazy.’”
Unfortunately, Malone will have to wait until next year to turn that spring training success into regular-season results. He is currently out for the 2019 season after suffering a partial tear of his right labrum.
The speedy Malone was chasing down a ball in the gap. He got to the ball, and prepared to show off his strong arm. When he uncorked a throw to the cutoff man, he felt pain in his shoulder and the ball soared out of the field of play. He expected something was wrong, but tried to play through the injury the next couple of days.
“The next game, I did it again, and I was like, ‘OK, there’s definitely something wrong,’” he said. “I continued to try to keep playing through it because I didn’t want to believe that I may be injured.”
Now his shoulder has been surgically repaired, and is on the mend. The plan is to be ready for the 2020 season.
“Surgery kind of sucks, I’ll be honest,” Malone said.
The injury is the first he’s had that has required surgery. The long days of rehab can be draining, but Malone says both his body and mind are handling the situation well.
When he’s healthy again, Malone is confident he’ll be ready to rake. He learned a lot of lessons during his first taste of pro ball.
“You just got to be able to make things look easy,” Malone said. “You’ve got to be good at everything . . . There’s no room for error. You have to execute no matter what.
“At that level, you have to trust your ability to play the game. If you don’t, you’re going to get eaten up.”
BACK IN DOUGLAS
Even if he wasn’t wearing a sky blue Tampa Bay Rays jersey, sitting behind a table and signing autographs for fans on his own baseball cards, you’d still know Marvin Malone was a ballplayer. He is 6 foot 3 and built, 205 pounds of muscle. Even clean-shaven, he looks older than his 23 years, and talks to the young kids asking for autographs so comfortably, you’d think he’d been doing it for years.
Back where his baseball career took off, Malone feels many fond memories. He says Nida Field was a centerpiece for “some of the best years of (his) life.”
“Every year we won the Bolln tournament,” he says with pride. “Being able to win it every year was super fun.”
He’s impressed by the recent upgrades.
“It’s awesome,” he says. “It’s not a school sport, so I didn’t think they were going to put a lot of effort into it . . . When I got there I was like, ‘Wow, they really took pride in what they were doing.’”
Malone says he takes pride in being from here.
“I definitely enjoy coming from Douglas, Wyoming, where there is only 5,000 people, and being able to say, ‘I played baseball there. And I made it,’” he says.
Coming back home, Malone hopes that his success will inspire Douglas kids, and remind them that being from a small town in Wyoming won’t hold them back.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in Douglas, Wyoming,” Malone says. “If you want to do something, go do it.”
He also wants kids to know that it isn’t easy to get where you want to go in life.
“If you really want to do something that you love, you’re going to have to get used to making sacrifices,” he says. “Don’t be scared to take a risk.”