A Return Home: The Rob Whalen Story
Leon Frailey’s phone rang. It was his brother.
On the other end of the line, a somber, anxious voice released into the air personal, powerful worse of release.
“I’m not going.”
“He’s not going?” Leon thought. Like hell he isn’t.
“You gotta go.”
“I’m not going.”
Despite the coach’s best pleas, this crossroad was different. A good, old fashioned Pennsylvania pep talk wouldn’t work this time.
So Rob didn’t go. Instead, at 25 years old, he quit.
The Seattle Mariners went to Spring Training without him in 2019.
Rob Whalen had hung ’em up.
He’d always loved the Mets. Mom and dad came from Queens, leaving him with no choice but to bleed Amazin’ blood.
“My dad worked for UPS in Manhattan for 20 years, commuting from Pennsylvania every week,” Whalen said. “So I stayed at my grandparents a lot.”
While at his grandparents, he’d watch the Mets on MSG and the Brooklyn Cyclones on FoxSports New York.
“Mike Piazza is my favorite player of all time.”
Whalen stood destined for pitching greatness since his teenage years. Growing up in the Poconos, his parents decided to put all of their chips in the middle of the table — moving from Pennsylvania to Florida during his adolescence. The Whalens wanted to start anew and give their son 12 months of pure baseball weather.
He zoomed through opposing lineups at Haines City High School, making a baseball name for himself. That’s when the fast track moved even faster. His college commitment to pitch at Florida International University came and went once his childhood dream came true: The New York Mets drafted Rob Whalen in the 12th round of the 2012 MLB Draft.
Suddenly, the life he watched on TV in his grandfather’s den was starting to manifest. After signing, the Mets gave him a taste of the big city, something they like to do with their young stars, and placed him with the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Unfortunately, Whalen’s experience of Brooklyn never came on a mound. He spent 98 percent of the 2012 summer watching his teammates.
“I went to a small high school so we only had two seniors and a bunch of freshman,” Whalen said. “So as the ace pitcher, I threw way more innings than I anticipated.”
The Mets wanted to protect their asset, resting him for the remainder of the summer. He had to watch the Cyclones experience, but could not participate on the diamond.
“Super interesting and very unique,” Whalen recalled.“Tough for me coming out of high school being a competitor and you can’t pitch.”
Luckily, the Brooklyn experience bore fruit. Whalen, a New York Giants fan, ran out to catch the first pitch from two-time Super Bowl champion David Diehl. He also snagged a signed ball from Mets rehabber Johan Santana, who pitched for the Cyclones against Auburn in August.
“There were so many funny moments hanging out, but it went by really fast.”
After his rookie season, Whalen stormed through Kingsport in 2013 and cut down hitters in the South Atlantic League with the old Savannah Sand Gnats in 2014. His stock began to soar.
But such is life for a minor leaguer with talent and upside. After two and a half amazing seasons with the Mets, another franchise seemed to mirror that affection. In the middle of summer 2015, the Atlanta Braves and Mets made a major transaction, sending Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, and cash to Queens in exchange for Whalen and pitcher John Gant.
Welcome to the Braves organization, Rob.
With Atlanta, Whalen cracked the big leagues, snagging a taste of the show the summer after the trade. His mind, filled with happiness and confidence knowing how well he was performing, stood strong. But things changed in the offseason of 2016. Spending no more than two years on the East Coast with the Braves, he was promptly traded to Seattle.
The West Coast really was the West Coast. The three-hour time change, the isolation, and the start of his thoughts breaking down all added up.
He did not pitch the well, struggling to find his stride. The 6.58 ERA with Triple-A Tacoma in 2017 and the 5.48 ERA throughout 2018 were mathematical manifestations of what was happening mentally.
“It’s hard to explain,” Whalen said. “A lot of it was so much doubt in myself. When I got to the big leagues at 22, the pressure started building. I got star struck.”
The kid from the Poconos was all of a sudden sleepless in Seattle.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he said. “I was having night terrors that I had the yips.”
When he did launch himself out of bed and over to the field, there were afternoons that he couldn’t even play catch. He couldn’t do the simplest things. He couldn’t do the things that brought him to the major leagues, or the things that made Rob, Rob.
So he retired. At the ripe old age of 25.
After Whalen hung up the phone with Leon Frailey in March of 2019, he returned to Pennsylvania seeking the comforts of home. After all, Leon had always considered Rob a brother.
Frailey and his wife let Rob into their home, giving him the family atmosphere he had missed so much.
“Only this time Rob was different,” Frailey said. “I never want to use the word depression, I like to use anxiety. For him it was like everything was caving in, he couldn’t breathe.”
Whalen returned to coaching the baseball camps in town, joining Leon in their years-long effort to make youth baseball in Pennsylvania the best it can be. Days and weeks went by coaching and teaching. Little by little Whalen started coming out of his clouded haze.
“He started helping me coach my high school team,” Frailey said. “I could see his blood starting to boil. I could see that competitiveness.”
Not only that, the reality of life began to make an impression on Rob.
“When he came over we always had a great time,” Frailey said. “But we he starting living with us long term, watching us go to work all day, I could tell he was a little bit like, ‘I don’t know if this blue collar life is for me.’”
At 25 years old, it wasn’t. Whalen spent time around the innocence of youth baseball, feeling the seeds of baseball love regrow within him. He attended nearby minor league games at the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees. He stood at country music festivals in Pennsylvania, helping him realize that there is life outside of baseball. But most importantly, he was still working out and throwing.
“He’s the kind of kid that ‘owns it,’” Frailey said. “He gets back on that horse.”
One moment that jarred Rob came at one of his youth practices. A hometown star, Whalen loves dealing with local players because they look up to him as a role model. He overheard one kid talking to another.
“Yeah, Rob’s retired.”
“No — he quit.”
“When I heard that, I knew I had technically retired, but he was right, I did quit,” Whalen said.
His next move showed his mental strength. Depending on the timing of hearing a remark like that, someone with anxiety may fall victim to the pressures of letting people around them down. Instead of spiraling into his own head, Rob absorbed the remark as a comfortable challenge. He rose up again.
Whalen texted Steve Barningham, a New York Mets scout who worked as a crosschecker for Rob in high school.
“I’m willing to throw if you’re willing to watch.”
Barningham replied, “Can you do it now?”
The text uplifted him. But it was not the response he wanted. He needed a bit more time.
Whalen and Barningham agreed to met again in St. Lucie six weeks later, throwing a bullpen session in front of Tommy Tanous, the Mets Vice President of Scouting.
The now-26-year-old threw like he always knew he could.
They got a deal done. He was home.
“I can go out there now and do this for me,” Whalen said. “Even now I visualize failure and it doesn’t bother me.”
Frailey knew it wouldn’t be long, happy to see his brother depart the Poconos and get back to the big show after sitting out the 2019 campaign.
“I see that 18, 19, 20-year old kid again.”
And he’s ready like never before.