WILMINGTON, N.C. — Ashton McGee was excited as he drove through Goldsboro’s streets late that March evening. His bags were packed, and his plane ticket was set for him to leave for Glendale, Arizona, the next day for baseball spring training.
But his excitement was tempered by concern about the news reports saying the COVID-19 virus was spreading faster and infecting more people across the country.
The 18th-round draft pick for the Milwaukee Brewers organization worried about what that might mean for his first season in minor league baseball. Another major professional sports league, the NBA, had just suspended its season the day before. And state and local governments were beginning to issue social distancing orders.
He was right to be worried.
Before completing his drive, he received a call from the Brewers organization informing him that training would be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. McGee’s dreams were put on hold.
The Wolf You Feed
Five months later, Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” blares through the Wilmington gym as McGee warms up, preparing for a workout with his trainer, Hudson Rose. The season is canceled, but McGee wants to be sure he is ready when minor league baseball begins again.
Jerseys from other athletes Rose trained fill one wall of the practically empty facility, and the inspirational line, “The wolf you feed is the wolf who wins,” hangs above them in large, black letters. The only people in the gym are McGee, Rose and one other athlete.
McGee and Rose are here together three days a week for just over an hour. Rose and the other athlete keep up an almost constant chatter as they talk sports. McGee focuses on what he is doing, only occasionally chiming in.
Workout over, he grabs a quick lunch from Chick-fil-A and heads to Coastal Athletics in Wilmington for batting practice. McGee bats there for free because he found work at Coastal Athletics coaching 9-year-olds. He ended up in Wilmington after following his longtime girlfriend, Ivey Wade, to town, where she attends UNC-Wilmington.
“Some people don’t even have cages to hit at,” McGee says. “I’m just lucky I have somewhere to hit.”
Temperatures approach the low 90s, and the indoor building is cooled only by industrial fans. McGee pays no attention. He scrunches his face up and sticks his tongue out in concentration every time he is about to hit the ball.
He wants to slow down his movements when he’s batting, so he can really feel each motion. McGee analyzes everything, so he can continue to improve. He wants to be better than he was when the season was canceled.
Neon-Orange Hunting Hat
McGee began playing baseball at 4 years old, taking after his older brothers. As he got older, he began to play football too, and his years were split between the two sports he loved. That changed when he was 13.
He was in his hometown of Goldsboro when McGee and his best friend, Bryce, went riding on Bryce’s four-wheeler. McGee sat in front of the handlebars, as Bryce drove them through the neighborhood. The road was typical for the North Carolina town, with houses on both sides of the streets and a ditch that ran parallel to the road.
In a moment, the neon-orange hunting hat McGee was wearing flew off his head. He made a grab for it, lost his balance and fell off the four-wheeler.
He broke his foot, got a concussion, and his knee, foot and head needed stitches.
“I was scarred up from head to toe,” McGee said. “Even with my broken leg, I couldn’t really move.”
He spent most of his time in recovery in bed and playing "Call of Duty." The sudden immobility was hard on him.
When his cast was removed, McGee only had a week to recover before the middle school football season began. He decided to take that football season off and make sure his body had recovered. During the time, he realized injuries like that were more likely to happen in football and decided baseball would be his sole sport.
The dream is starting to take shape
June 5, 2019. The third day of the Major League Baseball draft.
McGee was at practice for the UNC-Chapel Hill baseball team. Many players were either waiting to hear good news, or still reeling from their own excitement.
The practice ended around noon, and he grabbed something to eat and went home. The longer the day dragged on, the more nervous McGee began to feel about his own prospects. He understood that the MLB was a business and anything could happen depending on what type of player teams wanted to invest in.
McGee had a .285 career batting average. That season he’d had six home runs and driven in 41 runs. He’s been credited with giving the Tar Heels a strong defense, and in 2017 he was voted the ACC Freshman of the Year. Now that it was time for the draft, he could only hope that he had done enough.
At about 4 p.m., he got the call.
“Hey, will you take this certain amount of money?” McGee remembers the area scout for the Brewers asking him while he stood shocked.
He agreed and hung up after a short conversation, still uncertain if that meant he was being drafted. The scout only told him that the organization would get back with him.
A few minutes later he received another call letting him know that he would be the 18th-round pick for the Brewers. When McGee went into the living room, where his roommates and a couple of teammates were waiting to celebrate with him, he couldn’t stop smiling.
McGee had worked his entire life for this one moment, but he knew he had more work to do to get to the major leagues.
Dream on Hold
McGee knew he needed to find a job and a way to stay in shape during the pandemic, hence the coaching job in Wilmington. He remembers the things his family has done for him that allowed him to play the game that he loves. He feels that he owes it to them to continue to do his best.
“If that day does come, I think about the amount of joy it would bring to my family to make it to the major leagues,” McGee says.
McGee knows the odds are against him. According to a study by Baseball America, only one in five players drafted gets to the major leagues, and the success rate among those drafted is less than 20 percent.
He stays optimistic and continues to work. And he knows even if he doesn’t play in the major leagues, his destiny is to be involved in baseball — whether that is as a player or a coach on the professional, college or high school level.
“I feel like, as long as a team still wants me to play in their organization, I’m going to give it all I’ve got,” McGee says.
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