THERE WAS A time when Austin Nola woke up every morning thinking of somewhere else. He had the schedule memorized: Los Angeles today, Oakland tomorrow, back to Seattle next week. He thought of all those places, better places, big league places, where affirmation blinked in the distance. If he got the call now, right this second, how long would it take him to pack his stuff and get to the airport? Which ballpark would host his major league debut? He allowed his mind to drift from his minor league life to the precisely mown grass, the charter flights, the resort-like clubhouses — a place where years of hard work would be validated.
For seven-and-a-half years, from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Jamestown, New York, to Jupiter, Florida, to New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida, to New Orleans to Jacksonville to Tacoma, Washington, he embodied the folly and torture of believing he could will himself to the big leagues. Projection proved taxing, unfulfilling and perhaps unending. The future of his mental health demanded that he give it up, and the reckoning came on June 11 of last year, a Tuesday. Nola and his wife, Michelle, were sitting in a craft brewery in Austin, Texas, on an off-day for the Tacoma Rainiers, Seattle’s Triple-A team and Nola’s employer. It was 2 p.m.; they both remember the details with a specificity that speaks of untold repetition. They were thinking of those better places and better times when they each, independently, came to a realization:
What’s so bad about this?
Austin was 28 years old and being paid to play baseball for a living. He had long ago earned the lifelong respect of not only managers and coaches and teammates but also trainers and clubhouse workers and bat boys. He was more than two years into a position switch, from shortstop to catcher, that started as an act of desperation but felt like a thrilling and invigorating challenge. Michelle was able to travel with him, and together they explored minor league cities like tourists, hiking and sightseeing and eating in the best restaurants the Pacific Coast League had to offer. From a distance, Nola was able to enjoy the success of his younger brother, Aaron, who skipped all but a year of the minor league preamble and jumped to the Phillies to become one of the game’s best pitchers. Sure, Austin chewed through the gristle of minor league life for more years than he cared to consider, but here he was with his wife, having a beer on the patio on a sunny afternoon, with a ballgame to play the next day and another one the day after that.
How cool is this? Michelle asked him. He knew exactly what she meant. Not the promise of next week or next month or next year. This. Just this. He raised his glass.
We need to stop thinking about the big leagues, he said. No more scenarios. No more looking at the schedule and thinking what if it happens here or here or here.
We need to make this the time of our lives, Michelle agreed.
If we never go the big leagues, he said, we’ll spend 15 years in the minor leagues and enjoy every second of where we are until they tear the jersey off my back.
Together, sitting in that brewery on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the 11th of June, a pact was formed: They would no longer torture themselves with what might lie ahead.
Four days later, at the ballpark in Round Rock, Texas, Rainiers manager Daren Brown called Austin Nola into his office.
He shook his hand.
You’re going to the big leagues, Brown told Nola.
Man plans, according to an old Yiddish proverb, and God laughs.
AUSTIN NOLA IS the starting catcher for the San Diego Padres, and to understand how ludicrous that sounds, you have to go back to the day he was drafted by the Miami Marlins after four years as the starting shortstop at LSU. The scout who signed him, Mark Willoughby, suggested in an offhand manner that he might end up a catcher someday.
Nola recoiled. He’d never clipped on shin guards — hooks to the outside of the legs, always — or turned a helmet around on his head to fit a mask. His little brother, 3 years younger, was a pitcher, and still, he never thought to get down in a squat and catch so much as a bullpen. Austin Nola was a shortstop, good enough as a freshman at LSU to make DJ LeMahieu move to second base, and Willoughby’s words landed as an insult.
“Hell, no,” Nola said. “I’m going to make it to the big leagues as a shortstop.”
He tried to fulfill that promise. Lord knows he tried. For more than five years in the minor leagues, he tried, and then he went home every offseason to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the family property less than 3 miles from the LSU campus, and tried some more. Strength drills, speed drills, agility drills, anything to force his body to comport with the evolving vision of the big league shortstop.
“Eventually, I saw the writing on the wall,” Nola said. “I did so much speed training to improve my middle-infield work, and it never changed. Never. I could tell the position was transitioning to a speed-and-power position. You know, guys stealing bases and hitting homers and making ESPN plays. That wasn’t my style. I’m putting everything I have into improvement, and I’m 27 in Triple-A and seeing all these young prospects passing me up. I was making plans to do something else.”
Something else, such as working in construction in Baton Rouge with his father, A.J., or coaching somewhere or figuring out a post-baseball life that he knew would never compare to the daily competition and camaraderie of the baseball life.
In the fall of 2016, Nola approached Paul Phillips, his hitting coach at Triple-A New Orleans.
“What do I have to do to get to the big leagues?”
“If you’re going to make it as an infielder, you’re going to have to be perfect,” Phillips said. “You don’t bring the tools the scouts like.”
Never more than seven homers in a season. Never more than eight stolen bases. Limited range in the field.
Phillips let it sink in.
“You ever thought about catching?”
“You think they’ll let me?”
“I know they will,” Phillips said.
“Then let’s do it.”
By this time in his career, at 27 years old, Nola had a reputation for being everyone’s favorite teammate. “I embraced the toughness of the minor leagues,” he said. “I remember making a point that I wasn’t going to make any excuses. I wasn’t going to complain. I wasn’t going to blame anybody. I took that to heart as a daily discipline.”
“I can control only what I can control” is usually a cop-out, a way for an athlete to say nothing while sounding like he’s saying something profound. It’s a cliche, yes, but it’s a particular brand of cliche — a verbal shrug that manages to shift blame and deflect responsibility while feigning humility. You can’t control an umpire’s calls or a manager’s decisions or a teammate’s ability to do what he’s supposed to do when he’s supposed to do it. They blew it, you know, so what’s a guy to do?
This idea of control, weirdly, is almost never focused on something an athlete can control — only what he can’t. Nola worked his way through and around the minor leagues, observing an entire world of athletes who had a million complaints of how every negative turn was out of their control, and he decided his career — whatever it was or whatever it might become — would be a testament to something different.
“You know what I can control?” Nola asks. He’s sitting in his room in a five-star hotel in downtown San Francisco before the final regular-season weekend, and the elaborate crown molding on the ceiling is visual proof that at some point along the way, he figured out the answer. “I can control the effort I put forth on the field. And I can control picking up my teammates when they’re down, and I can control the kind of teammate I am every day. I can control how I act, how I treat my teammates, how I show up to the field every day, what kind of energy I bring. I realized I could make a name for myself just by doing that.”
Becoming a catcher at 27, turning and facing the game in a squat for the first time, was like learning an entirely different sport. It was weird and uncomfortable and, frankly, unnatural. Nola had skills that translated: quick feet, good hands, an ingrained habit of short-arming throws from the ear. But he was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of responsibilities. He had to call the game, control the running game, coax and cajole pitcher after pitcher through the course of nine innings. He went from being a shortstop to being a manager, a psychologist and a guy who had to throw his body in front of any ball in the dirt with runners on base.
The first time he caught in a competitive game was in the Arizona Fall League after the 2016 season, when a group of Marlins executives came to town to assess the progress Phillips touted. The first time a runner reached second base, the pitcher looked in for the sign and stepped off. He stepped back on, looked back in and stepped off again, this time calling Nola to the mound.
“You’re giving me one sign with a runner on second,” the pitcher told him.
“Yup,” Nola said. “Now I remember that part.”
Baseball is a slow game, unless you’re responsible for every single pitch. “Oh, God,” Nola says, “the game moved so fast.” He’d spent more than 20 years catching everything with his glove, with plenty of time to react, but he had to learn to block balls in the dirt with his body while keeping his catcher’s mitt — an unwieldy, prehistoric thing — stuck to the ground between his legs to keep the ball from sneaking through to the backstop.
He took a demotion with the Marlins, from Triple-A New Orleans to Double-A Jacksonville, to make it work. He caught guys who threw 100 mph — and Tayron Guerrero, who threw 102 — with little or no regard for where the ball might go. Their 90 mph sliders often landed 4 feet in front of the plate before finding a home in Nola’s flesh. The bruises ran their course from black to purple to yellow, often overlapping on forearms and biceps and thighs, a never-ending spectrum of misery. Nola told Phillips that he felt like he was restricting the potential of some of the Marlins’ best pitching prospects. “These guys are trying to make the big leagues,” Nola said, “and I’m out here without a clue.” More than once, he walked out to the mound during a game and told a pitcher, “I’m sorry, man. I’m just trying to catch the ball.”
More than anything, though, it was exhausting. His legs hurt, his neck hurt, his brain hurt. “I was just so tired, and the soreness was just unreal,” he said. “I’ve never been so sore in all my life, and you get sore because of all the stress that’s going on. My first year of catching, the soreness after the games from the physical and mental stress was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
But he controlled what he could control, which meant he showed up at the park early every day to catch bullpens and learn pitchers. “He kept asking to do all the things catchers hate,” said Phillips, who caught for parts of four season with the Royals. “We had to watch him to slow him down.” Blocking pitches in the dirt is the most miserable part of the job, so naturally, Nola tried to do it every day.
“You can’t block every single day,” Phillips told him. “You’re not going to be able to walk.”
“But I’m no good at it,” Nola said. “How do I get better if I don’t do it every day?”
“Take a day off,” Phillips said. “You get better by giving your brain a rest.”
But time was short. First at Double-A and then at Triple-A, Nola told the team employee responsible for room assignments on the road to make sure he roomed with a different pitcher at every stop. He asked questions. How do you want me to set up? What’s your strongest pitch? What sequence works best for you? Do you work fast or slow? He became a servant of sorts, keeping notes on each pitcher and consulting them like dogma.
“It brought a new life to him,” said his mom, Stacie. “Every year he would say, ‘This is the year I make the big leagues,’ but I think when he became a catcher, it gave him a new appreciation for the game. He loves a challenge.”
In a remarkably short amount of time, Nola’s best qualities as a shortstop became advantages behind the plate. You can see it now: He’s light on his feet, with legs that aren’t fried from decades of squatting, an asset never more obvious than when he’s forced to crab-scrabble to block a ball in the dirt. The Marlins promoted him back to Triple-A New Orleans, and one day in 2018, he found himself forced to catch a day game after a night game, tired and bruised and mentally drained, the Louisiana summer in full bloom, and he resigned himself to whatever fate awaited him.
“I realized I needed to be tired,” he said. “I was less tense. I don’t know how I got through it, but afterward, I remember saying, ‘Wow, that was fun. That’s the way to catch a game.’ I was just reacting. It made me realize I could do this.”
Despite his progress, Nola was removed from the Marlins’ 40-man roster, and he became a free agent at the end of the 2018 season. (“Austin was always so positive that he would get mad at me if I ever said anything bad toward the Marlins organization,” his father said.) He was signed to a minor league deal with the Mariners, and he caught in Triple-A until June 15, when he was called into the manager’s office in Round Rock.
Aaron had been knocked around in a start for the Phillies that day in Atlanta, and he got to the clubhouse to find a text from his mom: “Sorry about your loss. I know it’s tough, but Austin just got called up,” with the number of exclamation points a matter of family dispute.
Birth order defines the relationship between the two: Austin, the needling big brother; Aaron, sensitive to every needle. Different fortunes in a shared profession create possible complications, but father A.J. said, “Austin has never, ever — not for one second — shown any type of jealousy toward Aaron.” And so Aaron, after a couple of fist pumps, called his brother, from one clubhouse to another, and felt a catch in his voice and a tear on his cheek as he congratulated him.
NOW, NOLA IS a Padre, traded from the Mariners at the deadline as one of a series of seemingly random catcher shufflings — Austin Hedges out, Jason Castro and Nola in — that, by last week’s National League Wild Card Series, seem prescient. It’s Game 3, and there are Cardinals runners on first and third, with two outs in the top of the sixth. The Padres lead 1-0. Luis Patino, one of nine pitchers Nola will catch over the course of the deciding game, is pitching, and he has chosen to throw a two-strike slider to Dexter Fowler that travels about 57 feet toward Fowler’s back foot and well into the left-handed batter’s box.
This is a typical 2020 postseason game, which means it will consist of hundreds of pitches, roughly a million strikeouts, dozens of walks and a remarkably small number of moments that actually seem to decide a game. This is one of them, and Nola slaps Patino’s rebellious slider with a backhand jab, like it’s a one-hop smash between third and short. It saves the Padres’ lead. For a split second, Nola is a shortstop again, and because of that momentary reversion, he makes the absolute perfect play in the absolutely wrong way. Because of it, Nola will make history of sorts, becoming the first catcher to guide nine pitchers through a postseason shutout, and the Padres will score three more runs and advance to face the Dodgers in the NLDS (after two of the most exciting games of this year’s playoffs, we should all thank him).
Aaron is back home in Baton Rouge, just down the street from A.J. and Stacie, rooting Austin on, happy to support the brother who always supported him. Michelle is in a hotel across the street from Petco Park, with 6-month-old Vincent, still trying to make sense of the past 15 months. Austin is moving on through this historically weird season, playing every day in a spot that once felt as foreign as the surface of the moon, appreciating where he is without completely understanding how he got there and still concentrating on the most important thing: Where you are right now — this, just this — is really all that matters.