By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Saying ‘no’ to Tony Gywnn can’t be easy, but Nolan Gannon did just that.
After all, his future in the major leagues is in his right arm, not his bat.
“I always dreamed of playing professional baseball and getting my opportunity to make it to the big leagues,” Gannon said. “I think that is what all the kids dream so I decided to sign out of high school instead of going to college.”
That was bad news for Gywnn, the Hall of Fame slugger with the San Diego Padres, who is now the head coach at San Diego State. He had expected Gannon to pitch for the Aztecs.
“It was definitely what hard to turn down,” said Gannon, who is name for former major league pitcher Nolan Ryan. “He is a hometown hero.”
A fourth round draft choice last June by the Tampa Bay Rays, Gannon made the difficult decision to pursue his professional goals.
“As a pitcher you only have so many bullets in your arm,” said the 6-foot-5, 195 pound Gannon. “I wanted to get the earliest start I could on my career as a professional baseball player.”
The 19-year-old Gannon will make his third start of the season for the Princeton Rays tonight when the Mercer Cup series begins with Bluefield at Hunnicutt Field.
“It is going to be exciting,” he said. “I hear the Mercer Cup is pretty exciting around here so I am excited to pitch the first game.”
Gannon first opened eyes as a freshman at Sante Fe Christian School in Solana Beach, and then decided to focus exclusively on baseball and leave other sports behind.
“I played football and basketball my freshman year, and then after I that I just decided to just focus on baseball,” he said.
Call that a good choice.
From that freshman season until his senior campaign, Gannon learned to compete against the best, and posted a 9-1 record and 0.82 ERA as a senior, striking out 127 batters in 77 innings. He also batted .301 with five home runs.
“It definitely got me some attention, but mostly it was my confidence that I could play the bigger boys and compete as a freshman against seniors and stuff like that.” Gannon said.
He had planned to attend San Diego State, but when the Rays came calling, Gannon began packing for Florida, the Gulf Coast League and adjusting to being so far away from home.
“It took me a while to get used to the culture and living on my own and just being away from home and having to focus on baseball every day instead of going to school most of the day and then having an hour, hour and a half or two hours of baseball out there,” he said.
Gannon worked in 11 games in Florida last summer, compiling a 2-2 record and a 3.00 ERA. The right-handed hurler fanned 29 and walked just 13 in 27 innings on the mound.
“I played in the GCL last year, piggybacked some innings and got my work in,” he said. “I got used to professional baseball and mostly living on my own.”
He has had mixed results since arriving in Princeton. Gannon worked five innings of one-hit baseball, striking out four and walking none in his debut at Danville on June 21. Six days later, Gannon struggled at Elizabethton, allowing four runs in five innings against the Twins.
Gannon is 0-1 with a 3.60 ERA, having struck out eight and walked none in 10 innings on the mound.
“I throw a fastball, curveball and a change-up,” Gannon said. “I have been working on my
change-up a lot here. It has definitely progressed, it is not a hiding pitch, I don’t want to hide it in my repetoire, I want to use it now.
“It has become better so I want to go with my change-up as my out pitch now. A change-up is very useful because it looks like a fastball so it definitely makes it a lot easier.”
Gannon has had to adjust to his summer home in the Appalachian League, but has enjoyed it immensely over last summer in Florida.
“It is night and day compared to the GCL. I love playing at night, we get some fans here which helps the adrenaline, helps the atmosphere,” he said. “It is real baseball, you get to travel, there are no commuter games for every away game like we had in the GCL.
“We stay in different states, hotels and stuff so it has been a fun experience for me.”
His first steps onto West Virginia soil was definitely an eye-opener for him.
“It definitely is a culture shock here, but my initial thought when I arrived on the airplane was this is beautiful country, a lot of green trees, hills,” he said. “I love it here.”
Minor league baseball can be difficult on friendships. Players become the best of friends, but they also know they are competing against each other to get noticed and move toward the major leagues.
“Basically you have to work harder than the guy next to you,” he said. “We are all good friends, you become pretty close with the guys you work out with every day, but it does come down to the wire that you are trying to take their job.”
Gannon does have a baseball hero, and he shares a first name with him. What pitcher doesn’t want to emulate Nolan Ryan?
“I liked watching Trevor Hoffman, he is obviously probably my favorite San Diego pitcher, but my favorite pitcher is probably Nolan Ryan,” Gannon said. “I am named after him. I was born the year he retired.
“I would love to have the opportunity to meet him, but I haven’t gotten the chance yet.”
Ryan reached the pinnacle of baseball success, and Gannon is trying to do the same.
“My goal is every day is just to get a little bit better, a little bit better and catch some eyes and just compete at the level that I am capable of competing at,” Gannon said.
Tonight will be the first of 11 games between Princeton and the Blue Jays. Gannon feels like the Rays — who have won three in a row, improving to 4-7 on the season —are ready to make their mark in the Appalachian League season.
“There is no telling what is going to happen,” Gannon said. “It does seem like we are turning it around. We just have to keep positive attitudes and work as a team instead of individuals.”
The point of playing the game is simple; win. Gannon is confident the Rays will do plenty of that.
“We all have the competitive spirit in us, that is why we play, we love to compete,” Gannon said. “I see this team coming together very nicely and we will give a lot of teams a run for their money and put some more wins on the board.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at email@example.com