Pirates’ Shea Spitzbarth outlines ‘impossible’ journey from Molloy College to the majors

As Published in the Pittsburgh Gazette
by Mike Persak

MILWAUKEE — Shea Spitzbarth gave himself an ultimatum in 2020.

At the time, he was in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, a 25-year-old right-hander who had pitched with their Class AA and AAA affiliates in 2019, but was not invited to their alternate training site during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Instead, Spitzbarth was staying ready by pitching in the Mid-Island Men’s League in Staten Island, N.Y., for a team called Butchy’s Heat. His teammates and opponents were plumbers, firefighters, policemen, garbage men and local college players, he says.

He played to stay fresh, but he also recognized how ridiculous this setting was. So he told himself that if he didn’t make it to the majors in 2021, or 2022 at the latest, that would be the end of his baseball career.

Then, in December of 2020, the Pirates selected Spitzbarth in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. It didn’t come with any promises, and Spitzbarth still didn’t intend to toil in the minor leagues for years on end just because of a change of scenery, but it did give him some hope. At least now, he knew, an organization wanted him for one reason or another.

“New scenery with them taking me in the Rule 5 Draft, it just gave me a whole new jolt,” Spitzbarth said Tuesday. “Just going somewhere else and going to a team that wants me and I told myself I'll give it one more year and maybe one more year after that and that's it. I told myself I'm going to make it the best effort possible, and I think I did what they wanted to do.”

Spitzbarth made his MLB debut, just a couple months short of his 27th birthday, on Monday night. He threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Brewers in front of a horde of his family members who came in from Staten Island.

This really is an underdog story. He attended small Molloy College in Rockville Centre, a town on Long Island. At the time, Spitzbarth said he had pretty conventional mechanics, but he slowly started to change them. In his mind, he thought that if he could get his release point way up in the air he could continue to throw harder and get different break on his pitches. Watching him now, he looks sort of herky-jerky with a release point approaching 12:00 on an imaginary clock.

Spitzbarth went undrafted out of Molloy, but he was invited to two separate fall instructional leagues. He turned down the offers to finish his education. After that, the Dodgers showed interest, so he signed on and headed to the Arizona Fall League.

All the while, though, he had backup plans. Both Spitzbarth’s father and uncle are firemen, and in 2017, Spitzbarth intended to take the fireman’s exam to become one himself. But he was still in Arizona at the time, with about two days left in the season, he said.

“I don't know why I didn't leave the fall league to go take it,” Spitzbarth said. “It was the last two days, and I just didn't leave. My uncle and my dad called their chiefs and said, 'Hey, can he take it at a court somewhere in Arizona?' They said no, it won't work, so I missed it unfortunately.”

Spitzbarth continued working through the Dodgers’ system, but always had a backup plan in mind. Even when he came to the Pirates last offseason, he had other avenues for his life kept as possibilities. In fact, this past Saturday, Spitzbarth says he was denied from the Port Authority police department in New York City. The next day, he was notified by Class AAA Indianapolis manager Brian Esposito that he’d be going to join the Pirates and making his MLB debut.

The Pirates' Gregory Polanco (#25) breaks up a combined no-hitter with a single in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field in Milwaukee on Aug. 3, 2021.

Then he hit the mound Monday for the first time with two outs in the seventh inning. He allowed a single to the first batter he faced, then walked the next one before inducing a flyout to get out of it. He came back out for the eighth and pitched a 1-2-3 frame.

After it was all over he went and met his family who had flown out to see him play in the majors for the first time. They were all congregated next to the Pirates’ dugout, and he says they were even more speechless than he is.

It’s a journey that is tough to describe. Who knows? It could still end sometime soon. Even if it does, Spitzbarth has become the first Molloy alumnus to make it to MLB. He might be the first Mid-Island Men’s League player to make it too. It’s a good thing he didn’t take the firefighter’s exam or get accepted into the Port Authority.

“I shouldn't be here. This is impossible,” Spitzbarth said. “It's just a lot of hard work and dedication, and it's not just me. It's family, it's friends, it's coaches, it's teammates who helped me along the way, trainers along the way. It's unbelievable. Hard work, that's all I can say about it.”

First Published August 3, 2021, 6:40pm