Red Wings' Alex Call traveled with pitching machine and drove DoorDash to pursue majors

Alex Call understands perfectly that he was one of the lucky ones.

Unlike the millions of people worldwide who either lost their lives during the pandemic or were gravely ill, the Rochester Red Wings outfielder is alive, healthy and four years hence is still pursuing his dream of reaching, and ultimately staying, in the big leagues.

COVID obviously impacted every aspect of our lives, and it spared no profession. Everyone suffered in some way, but in the narrow world of professional sports, no segment of athletes was affected more negatively than Call and the thousands of minor league baseball players who were unemployed once the 2020 season was canceled and lost a year of development.

Remember, the NBA and NHL seasons were re-started after a few months off in 2020, MLB got back to work in July and played a 60-game schedule, and the NFL barely missed a beat when its season began in September.

But minor league baseball players, most of whom were already making next to nothing monetarily, were shut down completely.

“That was obviously a weird year for everybody in the country, but for baseball people to miss the whole year of development, it hurt a lot of guys,” said Red Wings hitting coach Brian Daubach.

And for Call, the shutdown came at a personally precarious time because he was coming off a difficult and injury-shortened 2019 season at Double-A Akron while in the Cleveland Guardians’ system, and he had to stew on that all the way until 2021.

“I started (2019) on the IL with a flexor strain, then after two months I went to Akron and I had a terrible three months there and then we went right into Covid,” Call said Tuesday, a few hours before he ripped a two-run triple in the sixth inning to help the Red Wings defeat the Buffalo Bisons 7-5.

“I felt like I just had this big cloud over my head. I wanted to improve, get better, show them that I’ve gotten better and get to the big leagues, but I didn’t really have an opportunity to do that because we got to spring training and then we left.”

Rochester’s Alex Call at the plate against Buffalo.
Rochester’s Alex Call at the plate against Buffalo.

Call, a native of River Falls, Wisconsin, didn’t get invited to the Guardians’ alternate site in the summer of 2020 which is where several top minor leaguers in each organization went in case the big league teams had injuries, so he was on his own trying to regain his hitting stroke.

“I tried to find independent ball teams, whatever situation I could to play baseball and kind of feel like I could move that cloud off my head from having a bad season, but there wasn’t really opportunities,” he said.

He and his wife spent the COVID year moving around the country, living with various family members in Arizona, Chicago, Wisconsin and Indiana, and everywhere he went, he toted with him a pitching machine which he had purchased so that he could practice hitting against high velocity upper zone fastballs, his primary weakness during that 2019 season.

“I just hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it all throughout the offseason in ‘19 and then throughout all of ‘20, basically wherever I could find a cage and an outlet,” said Call, who worked for DoorDash to help make ends meet. “It was a crazy year and then actually I had hit so much, I broke my hamate bone in September of 2020. That was kind of good because it actually forced me to take some time off. The season would have been over anyway, so now it’s like ‘Alright, go have a normal offseason, take a little bit of time off and then train to get ready for 2021.’”

When he got back on the field for Akron in 2021 he hit .310 in 43 games and was promoted to Triple-A Columbus where he finished the season. He started 2022 there and was sailing along with a .280 average and a .418 on-base percentage which earned him his first big league chance in Cleveland, a brief 16 plate appearance cup of coffee.

However, shortly after returning to Columbus, the Guardians needed his 40-man roster spot so he was designated for assignment, and the Washington Nationals claimed him.

“I had a great year in 2022 so there was actually a few different teams that were interested in claiming me and the Nationals had the highest order so they got me,” he said.

Alex Call played 128 games for the Nationals in 2023 and he hit eight home runs.
Alex Call played 128 games for the Nationals in 2023 and he hit eight home runs.

Call - who played three years of college ball at Ball State and was originally a 2016 third-round pick of the White Sox - came to Rochester for a week and went 8-for-18 with two homers. That prompted a recall to the Nationals and he finished 2022 there, batting a respectable .245/.330/.441 with five homers and 13 RBI.

In 2023 he spent time in Rochester, but most of the year he was with Washington because outfielders Corey Dickerson and Victor Robles each missed chunks of time and Call wound up playing in 128 games, though he struggled with a .200/.307/.307 slash line.

“I wasn’t at the top of my game, I was working really hard, but the magic that I had in ‘22, even though I felt like I was doing the same thing, it wasn’t there,” the 29-year-old said. “But I played amazing defensively and I was able to stick in the lineup each day because I play the game the right way, played defense really well.”

Daubach, of course, has seen this a lot with young players who struggle at the start of their time in MLB. It happened to him when he first broke in with the Marlins in 1998.

“I went through the same thing,” Daubach said. “I think a lot of times when guys spend that much time in the minor leagues, you go up there and feel like you got a chance and you put a lot of pressure on yourself and maybe don’t perform as well as you would like, or what you’re capable of, but I don’t think that’s abnormal.”

This year, Call has been battling through an injury and is still trying to find his footing. He was in Washington for seven games, but has spent the bulk of 2024 with Rochester and has begun to heat up.

“He’s really prepared,” Daubach said. “One of most prepared players I’ve ever been around whether it’s watching virtual reality with the goggles or his cage routine, watching video of the pitchers. Just a very hard worker, and I don’t know about what happened last year, but since he’s been here, he’s back to where he was.”

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This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Red Wings' Alex Call went from road-tripping with pitching machine to MLB