There is no audible applause as the public address announcer calls Max MacNabb’s name. The lefthander tosses a ball to his catcher in left field during pregame warmups, preparing to pitch in front of fewer than 3,000 fans. It’s a humid, Midwest summer day, and the heat radiating from the turf field feels like a stovetop.
Before stepping on the visitors’ bullpen mound, MacNabb wipes his head with a towel and chats with fellow pitchers for the Gateway Grizzlies, an independent league baseball team in Sauget.
MacNabb has played for teams on three continents and is probably the most-traveled player in the Frontier League. The 25-year-old has had a taste of the minor leagues. He’s working to get back.
“Independent ball is an absolute grind,” he said. “But you’re doing it because you’re chasing a dream.”
The Frontier League does not offer a glamorous life. It is a place for aging prospects chasing elusive dreams, for summer camp field trips and gimmicky promotions.
But it’s still a chance to play. And, no matter the level, the sound of fastball hitting glove still has the same pop.
On this day, MacNabb allows only one run in 6 1/3 innings. When a few baserunners reach in the seventh, he mutters to himself and slaps his glove in frustration. He must treat each game as a major-league tryout. He has no idea when or where – or if – a team might see him, might decide he’s worth a contract. MacNabb knows this well: Just 18 months ago, he was pitching 9,000 miles away.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand features three active volcanoes. Emerald lakes stand out against gray stone, and visitors hike through the steep peaks. The temperature drops when you get above the tree line, and vegetation disappears. It’s like being on the moon, but with a blue sky.
MacNabb and his father, Shawn, went on a seven-hour trek through the crossing in March 2017. MacNabb had finished his season in the Australian Baseball League earlier that month. He couldn’t believe where baseball had taken him.
The level of play in the ABL is comparable to higher level Class A minor league baseball, and MacNabb boasted a 2.76 ERA with the Adelaide Bite. He struck out Ronald Acuna, currently the top prospect in baseball, and pitched in the league’s All-Star Game.
After MacNabb had a standout career at the University of San Diego, his hometown school, the Padres drafted him in the 18th round of the 2014 draft. The franchise cut him a year later, but one of his college coaches told him about a way to keep playing: a website called Baseball Jobs Overseas.
“It’s basically, if you can imagine, a LinkedIn type set-up but for international baseball players,” MacNabb said.
MacNabb grew up traveling to Central America and had always hoped to visit Australia. He found a club league in Wollongong, a city on the country’s east coast. A few weeks later, the pitcher hopped on a 15-hour flight. He said it’s the best decision he ever made.
He spent the next two years roaming the globe, chasing summer. He bounced from Wollongong to France to Adelaide to the Czech Republic, playing baseball and exploring the world along the way.
The majors seemed doubtful, but he was content. He coached a women’s baseball team in Australia and posed for pictures with kangaroos. He sipped pivo, an Eastern European beer, on a man-made Czech lake the size of a baseball field.
“Maybe you’re not going to have the ultimate dream of making the big leagues,” he said. “But you can see the world and do so much with baseball.”
The pay varied from team to team, and he said he probably broke even over his time abroad. An Australian vocational school gave him part-time work in marketing, and he found other odd jobs to help cover expenses.
“At the end of the day, after two years of traveling, if I was positive in dollars, I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I wouldn’t really care.”
Overseas baseball rarely leads to interest from major league organizations, but it did for MacNabb. Orioles scout Justin Prinstein saw the lefthander dominating ABL hitters. Then 24 years old, MacNabb wasn’t young by prospect standards, but he peppered the strike zone. His pitches danced. And he was lefthanded.
For the first time in his career, Prinstein deemed a non-amateur playing overseas worthy of a contract offer. MacNabb’s velocity sat in the high 80s, occasionally reaching the low 90s, and his pitch arsenal featured a slider, curve and changeup.
“I saw a major leaguer on the field,” the scout said.
The Orioles did not sign MacNabb immediately, so the pitcher flew to Europe and joined a team in the Czech Republic.
Then his season received an exciting interruption.
In July 2017, MacNabb sat in the Prague airport. He was about to fly to Paris to visit former teammates when his phone rang. The Orioles had space in their minor league system, and they wanted MacNabb.
He never made the trip to France. Two days later, he was on a flight to the Orioles’ facility in Sarasota, Fla.
The choice to continue
Amy Good, MacNabb’s mother, sat on her boat, enjoying the Southern California water when her phone rang this spring. MacNabb was with the Orioles’ spring training camp after posting a 4.85 ERA in three Class A starts in 2017.
Good and her son text frequently, but calls from MacNabb are rare. They mean there’s news. When her son’s name popped up on caller ID, Good had a sinking feeling.
The pitcher told his mom that the Orioles had released him. He was coming back to California.
Good remembers standing in the doorway of her son’s bedroom a few days later. She could tell how much MacNabb was hurting. The pitcher faced a cruel reality: He may never have another chance at his lifelong goal.
When the Padres cut MacNabb 2 1/2 years earlier, the decision to keep playing was easy. This one wasn’t.
MacNabb’s father suggested he give baseball one more go. MacNabb has a business marketing degree from San Diego, and his dad told him he could use that to get a job after his playing days.
MacNabb decided to play independent league baseball, and he signed with the Grizzlies. He plays his home games seven miles from Busch Stadium and lives with a host family and three other players.
Major league teams occasionally pick up players from independent leagues: Former Grizzlies pitcher Trevor Richards made his MLB debut with the Marlins this season. It’s uncommon, but possible enough to keep MacNabb’s dream alive.
“You hear stories all the times: Guys that get called up and the next year they’re in the big leagues,” MacNabb said. “It takes things going right, it takes performance, it takes a little bit of luck, but it’s the dream.”
MacNabb has pitched decently in 2018. With a hitter-friendly home stadium, the pitcher has a 3.68 ERA and is second in the league in strikeouts.
Prinstein is hopeful a team will give MacNabb another shot. The scout didn’t have a say in the Orioles’ decision to cut him, and he thinks MacNabb could currently pitch effectively in high levels of the minor leagues.
“At minimum, you’re going to get a guy in AA or AAA who is going to compete and not walk guys,” Prinstein said. “The maximum value there is you’re going to get a big leaguer.”
MacNabb constantly fields questions about his future. His friends overseas want to know if he’ll make the major leagues. That’s the goal, he tells them. That’s the plan.
Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant can’t believe a club hasn’t given the lefty a chance. He and MacNabb were teammates in college, and he smiles talking about the pitcher’s fearless approach to pitching and constant chatter from the dugout.
Even though MacNabb is not playing in the majors, Bryant, one of baseball’s young stars, said he can glean lessons from the pitcher. Big leaguers can get bogged down in a long season. Baseball can become less fun and more like a job.
“Then you look at stuff like his experience and what he got from (baseball),” Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP, said. “The time of his life and stories that he’ll be able to tell forever. That’s something I can totally learn from, and it’s cool to see a friend of mine doing that.”
MacNabb does not want to leave any what-ifs on the table. If it turns out he isn’t good enough, he’ll be OK. But he knows there’s still a chance, and he refuses to let it pass.
The big leagues are closer than they sometimes seem, he says. He feels he’ll know when to move on, but his gut tells him to keep going. It just takes one adjustment, one scout seeing you on the right day.
So he waits. He’s a phone call away.