Game's The Thing, No Matter What Glove, For Austin Knight
By Keith Mills
The game had been finished for 15 minutes when Austin Knight packed the rest of his catcher's gear into his Orioles equipment bag and was asked how long he had been catching.
"What day is it, Wednesday?" he said. "Today is a week and a day."
Knight grew up in the Reisterstown area of Baltimore County, pitching and playing shortstop on virtually every little league and amateur summer team he was on.
At Boys' Latin, where he played for Orioles Hall of Famer Mike Bordick, Knight did the same, helping the Lakers win the 2008 MIAA B Conference championship.
At Palm Beach State College, he played both shortstop and second base, and the same with the Aberdeen IronBirds during his first two years of professional baseball with the Orioles' Single-A affiliate in Harford County.
But when he arrived at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla., last month for his second spring training in the Orioles' farm system, he was told he was going to be a catcher.
"It was definitely a big surprise when I got down here," Knight said. "Obviously, I'm all for it if it helps my career. They said it would, so I strapped it up and got back there."
Knight caught four innings as the Delmarva Shorebirds minor league team played a group of Boston Red Sox minor league prospects. Now, he'll likely start the season back in Aberdeen, as both a catcher and outfielder.
Knight said he didn't care. He just wants to play and continue a dream of playing for the hometown Birds.
"Dream come true," Knight said, "that's the easiest way to say it. Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been playing baseball and watching the Orioles. Ever since I was a kid, playing professional baseball was my dream, and playing for the Orioles was that dream, and it's come true."
Drafted out of Palm Beach two years ago in the 37th round by scout John Martin, Knight began his pro career with Calvert Hall's Joe Vellegia, then a senior catcher from Old Dominion, who was drafted three rounds after Knight.
They are both now part of a handful of local players in the Orioles farm system. Like Knight, Vellegia, who helped Calvert Hall go a perfect 33-0 in 2006, played last summer in Aberdeen after beginning his pro career in 2010 in Bluefield, W.Va.
Dulaney's Steven Bumbry is beginning his fourth year in the Orioles farm system, though he is starting this year on the disabled list because of a sore wrist. Glynn Davis of Northeast High also played last year in Aberdeen after signing in August 2010, and he is now the Shorebirds' starting center fielder.
"I kept in touch with all the Baltimore guys in the offseason," said Knight, whose family members are regulars at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. "We're all trying to do the best we can down here and carry the Baltimore flag with a lot of pride."
Like Davis, Bumbry and Vellegia, Knight grew up watching the hometown Orioles while he played summer ball on the Baltimore sandlots. Unlike that trio, he grew up in the same neighborhood as B.J. Surhoff and Cal Ripken Jr.
It offered him some pretty cool perks, such as being the Orioles' batboy during some spring training games in 2001 and '02, while learning at the lap of some of the greatest Orioles.
"B.J., Cal, Mike Bordick, Brady Anderson," Knight said, "I was very fortunate growing up close to the Surhoffs, to the Ripkens. To be around those big league guys, you just try and soak up as much information as you can, because there can never be too much.
"It doesn't matter if it's batting practice, the weight room, wherever it might be. If you just keep your eyes and mind open, you can always grasp the kind of information that can make you better. The ultimate goal is to get better every day."
Knight played summer ball for the Maryland Monarchs and enrolled at St. Paul's as a freshman. One year later, he transferred to Boys' Latin, where, before long, Bordick was named the school's baseball coach.
"When we heard we were getting Mike Bordick, we couldn't have been happier," Knight said. "We were able to catch a little bit of his career and see what kind of player he was. He taught us the right way to play baseball. We knew he was giving his best to us, and we were trying to do the same for him.
"I can't tell you how many things I learned from Mike Bordick. It's endless -- his approach to the game, his knowledge of the game. You tie up your cleats and you go out there every day and you give it your best. That's the biggest thing I took from him, how to come from the park ready to play every day."
"It was a lot of fun coaching Austin," Bordick said. "First of all, he was a very talented high school player. He pitched and played a very good shortstop, with good range and a strong arm. He's a passionate player and it's a great tribute to him that he is with the Orioles today."
In May 2008, Knight capped his outstanding career at Boys' Latin, joining Kevin Daley, Devon Jerrard and Hunter Mitchell in leading the Lakers to the B Conference championship, with a 3-2 win against Park, the Lakers' third conference championship and their first since 1993.
One year later, he was playing second base at Palm Beach State College and playing in the infield and outfield for the prestigious Youse's Maryland Orioles Collegiate powerhouse. Among his teammates for Youse's were Vellegia and his former Calvert Hall teammate Pat Blair; Andrew Parker of Cardinal Gibbons, now a junior catcher at Towson University; Tyler Hibbs of Arundel; and Kevin Brady, the former all-state pitcher from Gaithersburg High in Montgomery County.
After finishing his second year at Palm Beach, Knight was drafted by the Orioles in June 2010, although he said he hadn't been sure his hometown team would actually select him.
"I talked to the Orioles," Knight said, "but I didn't know if they were really interested. As the draft drew near, I was obviously trying to keep my mind clear. But there was definitely that little thing in the back of my mind that said, 'Please Orioles, please Orioles, please Orioles,' and it worked out, so I was happy."
Getting drafted is obviously the first part of any young player's journey into professional baseball. The second part is staying there and playing well enough to advance through the system.
The Orioles farm system received a facelift this year when Dan Duquette took over as the team's general manager, though Buck Showalter has had more of an impact on the minor league players.
"They keep pounding us that Buck cares about us and wants us to do well," Knight said. "When I signed, it was Buck's first year. As minor leaguers, everything starts down here at the lower levels. We work our way through the system and ultimately make the big league team. Buck wants his players coming through our system, and you can definitely tell now they're working toward that."
One of the ironic twists to Knight's tenure with the Orioles is that Bordick, his former high school coach, is now the team's minor league special assignment instructor.
"He made plays that separated him from the other players," Bordick said. "He switch hit and had power from both sides, very smart baseball player, had really good instincts for the game and was well ahead of the other players in that category, could have played anywhere on the field and been our best player."
"Not many people can say they play a game for a living," Knight said. "There are so many people out there who don't have the opportunity to achieve their dream. I'm one of the lucky few. I'm honored and proud and couldn't be happier."
Issue 172: April 2012