On a gorgeous sunny day in upstate NY, I had an opportunity to sit down for an interview with Howie Brey, ace pitcher for the 2016 Scarlet Knights baseball team who was chosen in the MLB draft by the Houston Astros in mid-May. Following a brief (one appearance as a closer, which he won) appearance with the Astros' rookie squad, he was promoted to their Single A (short season) squad, the Tri-City Valley Cats, which is based in Troy, NY. So, sitting right on the concourse after the game, music blaring through the loudspeakers, Howie and I got a chance to talk out about his transition from the college game to the professional one.
I asked Howie how it felt to be the newest Scarlet Knight in the pros, and his response was that it was pretty great. He seems to be enjoying his time as a member of the Valley Cats. I asked him whether it was different playing in the minor leagues than playing against the power of Big Ten baseball. After all, he did very well as a pitcher in the Big Ten. His response was clear: "Talent-wise, I wouldn’t say there is a huge difference, but there is so much more involved in the games here. In college, you think that you know a lot, that you have it all figured out. But when you get here, you find out there is a whole different side to baseball. It is pretty amazing the technology they have that you never knew about. It’s a whole different world when it comes to that side of things, showing through technology about my pitches."
That was an interesting comment. I wondered how they work differently with pitchers in the minor leagues than in college. Howie was clear: "The mechanics in the way you throw, what kind of pitches you need to develop, how your pitch moves, what kind of spin you have on the ball, all that kind of stuff."
Also, Howie feels that moving beyond the college game was a wake-up call. He suddenly realized what was good in college isn’t as good in the professional game. His take was: "Let’s put it this way: In college, I thought that my change-up was really above average. When I came here, they said, ‘wow, you really need to work on your change-up!’ So, that shows you the difference."
Howie had the opportunity to play under the legendary Rutgers coach Fred Hill as a freshman, and really enjoyed his time with Coach Hill. He thought it was "...pretty cool to see him honored for all he did for Rutgers baseball."
Working with current coach, Joe Litterio wasn’t that much different, according to Howie. As he said, "Honestly, from what Coach Litterio was doing there wasn’t much difference between them because, you know, he played under Coach Hill and he carried on the legacy. Obviously, they are two different people, and the way in which they coach, but they had the same mentality to go out there and play as hard as we can, hard-nosed baseball."
So, what’s it like playing in minor league ball? "It’s great. You know, it’s a great area, a lot to do, the team’s great, I’m doing great. There’s a lot more that goes on with pitching, every day I’m learning more. I pitched yesterday, and then two days before that, just a ground ball double play to end the game, and yesterday I pitched an inning."
Obviously he likes interacting with the fans as well as enjoys being with his teammates, as shown by recent tweets by his club:
How do the coaches in the minor leagues help young players? Howie was clear, at least in his case. Are they helpful? "Oh yeah, they work with you individually, they work with you to emphasize that once you get in there your emotions get into play in the game. There are going to be times you do bad, and times you are going to do really well. When you do bad, you can’t let it get to you and just keep working hard. They’re not going to release you because you aren’t doing well in your first few outings. It just goes with the territory."
But is he feeling good about being there? "Oh, absolutely! I think it was my second, or my third outing, I went three innings and I didn’t get a hit or a run. I was really in a groove, it boosted my confidence. I needed something like that."
When the season ends, most of us assume the players just go home and get a long vacation. According to Howie, that isn’t so, at least for players in the minors. Instead, they go immediately for more assistance. Howie explains it himself: "Well, at the end of the season there is time period they call "Instruct." It is a three-week period where they bring us down to Florida and we work on stuff, it is mostly individual things. But after that you’re really on your own. They give you something that you need to follow for working out, what you need to work on for the pitches, you know what you need to work on. I’ll be working on that from the end of September until the beginning of February.
But earning more money by playing Winter Ball in Central or South America isn’t in the cards, at least for those in his situation. Howie explained it by saying: "Usually, the first year guys don’t play. They know that some guys need to make some money by playing winter ball but most of us, who were just drafted, we kind of need a break."
That of course makes sense. Howie and other college players moving into minor league ball really have not had a break. Two weeks after being drafted by the Astros he was already pitching in the rookie league.
However, he feels good about how things are going and has been able to have visits from family and was happy about being able to have his parents see him at the next level. "Yeah, they came to see me play, my girlfriend came to see me play at Hudson Valley [Renegades, in Fishkill, NY], my parents came to see me the next game, they weren’t at the same game. It was great, it was awesome. They surprised me, actually I didn’t know they were coming. I just saw them in the parking lot when they started waving to me. I miss them of course…"
An important part for current and future Scarlet Knights is knowing whether playing at Rutgers is good preparation for being successful at the next level. When I asked Howie, he was adamant about it: "Absolutely! My pitching coach Casey Gaynor’s been a part of the whole process and played in the minor leagues, so he kinda took me under his wing, told me to go out there and do my thing, everything’s going to work out so…I learned a lot from him."
At heart, Howie is always a Scarlet Knight. His feelings were clearly summed up when he said, "Go Scarlet Knights! I love Rutgers, and love everything about it." Here is a video of Howie as he spoke earlier about life at Rutgers:
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.