Baseball has been at the center of my life ever since I was old enough to grasp a four seam grip. I played from elementary school to the end of high school. It was a emotional rollercoaster ride throughout many of my years, especially when I was cut from my middle school modified team in back-to-back seasons. But growing up in the Hudson Valley and playing baseball as the leaves grew back on the trees each spring always managed to put a smile on my face better than any other sport could.
During my Senior year, I questioned whether to take my game to the next level. Some of my friends were planning on playing in college after enjoying a great finish to their high school careers. I injured my knee in the third game of that season, so I sat out most of the year and didn't get the scouting attention I could have.
I fully recovered and played my final game, and then decided I would be better off allotting my time to my studies in college, and not baseball. At my best, I may have had just enough talent to sneak into college and minor league ball. After all, I wasn't Joe Panik.
Joe Panik has been a local inspiration for hopeful ballplayers like myself ever since he was chosen by the San Francisco Giants in the 1st round of the 2011 MLB Draft. He graduated from John Jay High School in 2008, which is less than a half hour away from where I grew up. We also both looked up to Derek Jeter growing up because of the way he led the Yankees on and off the field. The Hudson Valley region is littered with celebrities hiding out in private, but rarely grows Major League talent. My friends and I followed his path to the big leagues, hoping that he would offset the trend and become the star we had hoped for.
On June 21st, 2014, none other than Joseph Matthew Panik stepped into the batter's box for the Giants in a pinch hit appearance. He drew a walk in his first plate appearance, and his career was underway. His first major league start came the next day, and he hit his first home run on August 22nd against Nationals pitcher Doug Fister. The second base void was then filled by journeyman middle infielder Marco Scutaro, but his constant injury concerns gave Panik his opportunity to shine. He was added to the playoff roster as the Giants geared up for a chance to win their 3rd World Series title in five years.
In Game 5 of the National League Division Series versus the St. Louis Cardinals, Joe swatted a crucial two run home run to put the Giants ahead.
But his biggest moment came on baseball's biggest stage. It was an 0-1 count in the deciding Game 7 of the World Series. Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer ripped a hard ground ball up the middle of the infield as Lorenzo Cain attempted to advance to second. Instead, Panik had other plans; diving to his right, snatching the ball, and flipping it with his glove to shortstop Brandon Crawford. Crawford fired to first, ending the inning on a double play.
Following the game, Panik spoke about the play to the media: “Crack of the bat, you do whatever you can to stop the ball. Once I got the ball, the way I caught it backhanded, it would’ve been hard for me to turn my glove over, get my hand in there and hook a throw to Brandon. You catch it and try to get rid of it. It’s instinctual. Thankfully, everything worked out.” (Source)
Some have said that they don't believe the Giants would have won the decisive 7th game if it weren't for Panik's play. He celebrated with his teammates, and eventually came back home with the World Series trophy for all of his first fans to cherish. John Jay hosted a welcome home gathering on December 10th; honoring him for his accomplishments.
Dutchess County Executive Mark Molinaro spoke at the event, saying "Dutchess County is exceptionally proud to call Joe Panik one of our favorite sons," he said. "He's a great ballplayer and a real tribute, not only to his family and the Wappingers Central School District, but to the county, as a whole." (Source)
Going into 2015, the second base position was left for Panik after Scutaro had been designated for assignment. He won the job with ease, and batted .308 midway through the season. His performance earned him his 1st All Star appearance. Unfortunately, his season ended early after he was diagnosed with lower back inflammation. It was a short, but sweet year for the young star.
This week, pitchers and catchers have been reporting to Spring Training. Joe is already in Arizona working out in full health, and is excited for the chance to prove he's far from a one year wonder to all of his critics.
Sometimes I wish I allowed myself the chance to continue playing through college. But I'm perfectly okay with allowing Joe Panik to represent my hometown. He's done it right, and he's done it well.