BRADENTON, Fla. – So many things had to go right for John Bormann to make his MLB debut with his first at-bat this past Sunday. The Pirates needed a catcher in a pinch, and he was fortunate that they happened to be a few hours away, and too far from any other team, making Bradenton the only option for a short-term solution. He needed the game to be in a meaningless situation at the end to get an at-bat, which was accomplished by the Pirates getting blown out by the Marlins.
But the string of good fortune went well beyond that. Bormann and Bradenton coach Adam Godwin hit the road immediately after receiving the call. The first inning lasted 45 minutes, which bought them some time. They bought some extra time by speeding through Alligator Alley on the drive down to Miami. But then they barely made it, with the tank running on empty as they were approaching the stadium, and both phone batteries dying.
“We were running out of phone battery. We were running out of gas,” Bormann said. “Traffic started picking up a little bit. A lot of things had to go right for me to get that chance and get there. It’s pretty incredible.”
They pulled up to the stadium, and Bormann hopped out of the car, saying that he didn’t even know if they parked the car. He rushed inside and was met by Greg Johnson, the team’s Traveling Secretary. Johnson had a contract for him to sign to make Bormann an official MLB player. He was also met by Scott Bonnett (“Bones”), the team’s clubhouse manager, who had his uniform waiting for him.
“I’m starting to change, and I’m trying to sign these contracts,” Bormann described the rush of the experience. “It was cool. It was a whirlwind experience. I got Bones there helping me out, trying to see if everything fits, and get everything I need to get down there. I think from the time I walked in the clubhouse to the time I was in the dugout was about three or four minutes. I got down there as quick as I could. Faster than I ever had before.”
From there, it was history. The Pirates allowed ten runs, putting them in a situation in the top of the ninth where they could call on Bormann to make the day even more special. But there was plenty more that made Bormann’s debut a special one, and I caught up with him this week back in Bradenton to recap the entire day, after the dust had settled.
Prior to the at-bat, opposing catcher A.J. Ellis went to the mound for a visit. Bormann and Godwin both expressed that they felt this was Ellis being professional by extending the moment for the rookie. While Ellis was at the mound, Bormann was announced as making his MLB debut.
Bormann worked a 2-2 count, fouling off two pitches before eventually striking out. It wasn’t the Hollywood ending that you’d hope for in this situation, but the fact that an A-ball hitter made contact on two MLB pitches and didn’t go down easy was pretty impressive.
“I didn’t get the result that I wanted,” Bormann said. ‘To be honest with you, I was okay with anything. Sure, I would have loved to get a hit. I really wanted to run to first base. I really wanted to just bust it down the line. I didn’t get that chance. Maybe I will some other time. I’ll for sure do my best to put the ball in play next time, and hustle down there.”
It took Bormann a few seconds to get over the fact that he struck out, and realize what had just happened.
“When you strike out, you’re down on yourself,” Bormann said. “The first couple of steps out of the box I was wishing I wouldn’t have chased. But then I realized where I was at, and the opportunity I had. Taking my batting gloves off, putting my helmet up, and Gift standing right there pats me. Mercer comes up and gives me a big hug. And then Freese and Nova came up and gave me a high five. It’s just awesome stuff.”
After the post-game media session with Clint Hurdle, there was a big media scrum around Bormann’s locker. Whether it was reporters from the Marlins, national reporters, or local reporters, none of them knew John Bormann was a member of the organization just four hours earlier. Now, he was the story of the day.
Toward the end of the media session, Gerrit Cole commented to a few of his teammates how great the situation was. Then, as the reporters stepped away, Cole asked Bormann if he had anything to eat. After responding that he hadn’t, Cole suggested he get some of the “big league spread.”
“Cole grabbed me and took me into the food room and cracks open a beer for me, handed it to me, and I went down the line of the big league spread,” Bormann said. “It was pretty incredible. I got to sit with David Freese and Tony Watson and Phil Gosselin, and got to spend time with them having a little conversation.”
The team had to leave earlier than Bormann. The Pirates were heading to Cincinnati for a four game series. He and Godwin were headed back to Bradenton, where they would tell the story to the Marauders roster following an 8-3 win the next night. Bormann started packing his stuff, and things started to slow down a bit. He had over 100 messages on his phone, and spent the entire return trip getting in touch with people who had reached out to congratulate him.
Bormann’s message to reporters after the game was that he always heard “Anything can happen” and never thought he would be the “Anything can happen.” Telling the High-A players about the experience certainly drove home that “Anything can happen” message, not just to the expected future MLB players on the roster, but to every player on the team. But there’s an additional message that Bradenton manager Gera Alvarez felt the minor leaguers could take away from the experience.
“I think the message is that if we can trust somebody, and they are hard workers, their work ethic is good, they’re good teammates, that’s sometimes more important than what is going on, number-wise,” Alvarez said. “In Pittsburgh, we need players that we can trust. We need players that will give you their all, day-in and day-out. Selfless players, teammates. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Bormann got a few things to take home to make the day even more memorable. He was presented the jersey and hat that he wore, along with a game ball. He also got two lineup cards. One was signed by Don Mattingly, and the other was signed by Clint Hurdle, with the message “Next man up, Congrats!”
“Just to have that come from the big league skipper is awesome,” Bormann said.
But then the individual players chipped in some gifts of their own. Cole and Trevor Williams each gave Bormann some celebratory cigars to commemorate the moment. Bormann was especially taken by the gesture from Williams, who had just given up a run and took the loss in the game.
“It’s a credit to him,” Bormann said. “He didn’t have the outing he wanted, but he was able to take a step back and be in the moment with me, and I thought that was really an incredible thing.”
Bormann’s at-bat came as a result of him pinch-hitting for Josh Harrison. Several of the veteran players were pulling for Bormann to get in the game in the end, and Bormann believes that Harrison offered up his spot to make that happen. After the game, Harrison gave him a couple of bats. Bormann was so caught up in the moment that he didn’t even get the chance to ask for an autograph.
“I should have got him to sign them for me. It didn’t even cross my mind,” Bormann said. As to whether he will use the bats or keep them as a collector’s item: “I’m at least saving one. Hopefully I can run into him next year and get him to sign it for me. I don’t know what’s in the plans for me. The big man upstairs has that going. If I never make it back, I have no regrets about it. I got my swings in. I gave it everything I had.”
The Atmosphere in the Organization
One of the things I’ve noticed about the Pirates’ organization — from top to bottom — is that they focus on good character guys. Coaches and front office members always talk about “developing the man” in addition to developing the tools, and I don’t think it’s cliché when you see the results all around.
The expectation is that a rookie comes up and is treated like a rookie. He isn’t embraced by the veterans, and is a guy who needs to pay his dues. That wasn’t the case with Bormann, and hasn’t been the case with other rookies. Bormann went into the game aiming to be respectful of the game and the clubhouse — only being a short-term solution — but the team embraced him like he belonged in the majors.
“They’re first class guys, especially at the big league level,” Bormann said. “From top to bottom, the Pirates organization has stand up guys. That’s a credit to the Pirates for developing the man and not just the player. I walked in there, those guys knew my name when I got there. They were excited for me. A couple of them said they would have been really upset if I didn’t get in there. It’s just a credit to the Pirates for developing the man. I’m really excited I got the opportunity, and I can’t say thank you enough to the Pirates, the guys, and Clint Hurdle for giving me a chance and working for me to get me in there.”
Bormann was drafted in 2015, so he didn’t know many people in the clubhouse. He got called over to big league camp as a backup in a few games, and had small conversations with Jordy Mercer and David Freese. He also knew Gift Ngoepe from their time at Pirate City. He’s caught bullpens from Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and a few other guys. But he had never had any real conversations with those players.
“It’s pretty incredible to walk into a place — I didn’t go to big league camp, I got to back up several games — but just to have Jordy Mercer give me a hug, and to see Freese, and get to see Gift again,” Bormann said. “It was awesome to see them invested in me and what I was doing.”
The one guy Bormann is really looking forward to seeing again is Harrison.
“I felt a really strong need to say thank you to J-Hay,” Bormann said. “Whether or not he gave up his spot, he’s just a real stand up guy. I don’t know him really at all, but I know he’s got my back. I know he cares about me. … I wish I could shake his hand and give him a big hug. All of those guys, really. Just to take a step back and really open my heart up to them and tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart. Because they’ve been there, and they know what I was feeling. For them to take me in and make it an easy process is really cool.”
I’ve covered a lot of MLB debuts, and in almost every case you knew the player would get a shot eventually. This one was by far the best debut I’ve covered, just because of how unexpected it was, and how special it was for the player. Bormann may never make it back to the big leagues ever again. That’s not guaranteed for any prospect, and while his defense behind the plate could give him a shot at a return someday, the lack of offense will make those chances a low probability. That really drives home how special this moment was, and how great it was that the Pirates’ players had the awareness to recognize the moment. Even if he doesn’t make it back, he’ll have a great story to tell for the rest of his life — along with all of the SWAG to prove it.