New Rays prospect rediscovered love for baseball in a most unusual way | Commentary

ST. PETERSBURG — Like any retired ballplayer, the game still pulled at Andrew Lindsey.

Not the crowds or accomplishments, but the sandlot showdowns with the boys from the neighborhood. Nine innings in the morning, home for a quick lunch, and then back outside for another game in the afternoon.

Those carefree days were long gone, but he would still finish his shift at the public works department in Waverly, Tenn., and drive by the old ballfield from his youth. Was it nostalgia that drew him, or was it regret? And are the pangs any sharper when you choose to walk away at age 22?

Meet the latest unconventional prospect in the Rays’ farm system. A right-handed pitcher acquired from the Marlins in the offseason in a deal that included Vidal Brujan and Calvin Faucher, Lindsey’s path to pro baseball looks more like a maze than a map.

“So many different experiences, so many different lessons learned from different people under different circumstances along the way,” Lindsey said. “There are moments I had with people that I maybe only spent a few days with, but I learned very valuable lessons from, on and off the field.”

So where does his story begin? Any year you choose is as unlikely as the next.

There was his lone season at UNC Charlotte where he led the team in innings pitched and went 6-2, but felt isolated and homesick with the world still dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic in 2021. He politely declines to go into details, but acknowledges there were disagreements with the philosophies of the coaching staff.

“I wasn’t really enjoying the game, and there was a lot of things that needed to be taken care of back home with family,” he said. “Stepping away wasn’t just something I was going to do for a year and come back. It was a permanent retirement from the game at that point.”

Maybe a better place to start is in Waverly, a town of about 4,300 that’s 90 minutes outside of Nashville. In August 2021, a storm described by meteorologists as a once-in-a-thousand-years event hit the town and dropped more than 20 inches of rain in a single day. Houses and businesses were flooded and 20 people died.

With a massive reclamation project underway, Lindsey went to work for the city on a temporary government grant. He moved in with his dad and spent his days cleaning up debris, digging ditches and silently surveying the destruction of homes he had driven past hundreds of times before.

It wasn’t a career and it often wasn’t pleasant, but it felt right at the moment. It gave Lindsey a chance to reconnect with his dad with late-night games and early-morning breakfasts, and rediscover the man he wanted to be.

Baseball seemed like a distant memory until a coworker asked Lindsey if he would coach his teenage son’s travel ball team. He recruited some parents to help him run practices, and soon found himself throwing batting practice after nearly a year away from the game.

They lost every game they played in their first two tournaments, and then took home a trophy in the third.

“It was incredible watching these kids grow and get better and enjoy the game,” Lindsey said. “It took me straight back to when I was their age. Playing with my friends and enjoying the game and not thinking about how many strikeouts I got.”

The weeks he spent with the travel ball team convinced Lindsey to try out for the Appalachian League, a summer league for college underclassmen. He showed up on July 15, was in a game on July 16 and was turning heads with his fastball sitting in the 94- to 96-mph range.

One of the Appalachian League coaches had a friend with the University of Tennessee baseball program, and he sent a text suggesting the Vols send a coach to Lindsey’s next game. Two months later, Lindsey was enrolled at Tennessee and, by season’s end, was their top starter.

His repertoire had not changed drastically from his time at Charlotte — or Walters State Community College before that — but Lindsey was throwing with more ease and confidence than he ever had before.

Barely a year after throwing batting practice to a bunch of travel ball kids, he was drafted by the Marlins in the fifth round and offered a $340,000 signing bonus. All for a kid who wasn’t drafted out of high school and didn’t have a lot of Division I scholarship offers.

“The part of him that we love is that he is so humble,” said his father, Mark. “He’s never looked at himself as the kind of guy who could be this special, but we could all see it, his family and friends. We saw the potential he had to do special things.”

The odds are probably still not in his favor. He’s already 24 and threw only four innings of pro ball before the Marlins shut him down last summer because his arm was weary after a full college season. He’s touched 98 mph on the radar gun and has an upper-80s cutter with swing-and-miss potential.

Beyond that, there is a maturity to Lindsey that you cannot acquire in dugouts or on mounds. The lessons of hardships and tragedies. Of seeing your dreams disappearing and working 9-to-5.

“That job I had was not glamorous in any way,” Lindsey said. “Some of the guys I was working with had been doing it for years. And even though it wasn’t in the spotlight and didn’t come with a lot of thank yous, those guys would come in to work every day cracking jokes, enjoying life and being grateful for everything they had.

“That was something that I tried to carry over into baseball.”