Former Knight Phegley finally gets the call

jfeldman@charlotteobserver.comJuly 28, 2013 

Catcher Josh Phegley spent much of his Fourth of July traveling through a Georgia rainstorm. His team, the Charlotte Knights, finally got to Coolray Field in Gwinnett at 5 p.m., just two hours before it faced the Braves.

But Phegley didn’t play in that game. As soon as he arrived at the stadium, he was called into manager Joel Skinner’s office.

Head to the airport, Skinner said, you’re going to the major leagues.

The rest of the story is a blur.

Phegley has traveled to Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Philadelphia, tallying three home runs and 10 RBIs in three weeks with the White Sox. His name has caught fire in fantasy baseball circles, his baseball card has become a valuable eBay commodity, and his Twitter following has exploded. Even his hometown mayor has had to answer questions about him.

Making the jump

In a cab on his way to the airport on the Fourth of July, Phegley tried to call his wife and father to share the news. Neither picked up at first. His dad said he didn’t have a missed call from Phegley; he thinks the 25-year-old nervously dialed the wrong number.

Phegley eventually reached both of them before taking off to meet the White Sox in Tampa Bay.

He arrived in Florida at 10 p.m. and reported to an MLB field for the first time at 1 p.m. the following day. His family joined him later.

His father and brother had packed a Fourth of July cookout the moment they got word from Phegley and somehow found a last-minute flight from Denver. Phegley’s wife, Jessica, and sister, Jennifer, came from Indiana, but only after Jennifer dropped her daughter off with Phegley’s grandfather. Carl Phegley stayed home with the two-year-old, though he said he managed to catch most of his grandson’s debut on television.

By the first pitch, Josh’s father, who says he doesn’t get nervous, had knots in his stomach. His son looked similarly rattled on the field.

The first pitch that made it to Phegley’s glove popped out and rolled away. Phegley dropped another pitch in the next at-bat.

The rookie’s early mistakes can’t be blamed on unfamiliarity with pitcher Dylan Axelrod – the two had worked together for years. Phegley has been catching Axelrod since they were both in single-A Kannapolis in 2009, back when Phegley was hitting .224.

They were also teammates in Winston-Salem in 2010 when Phegley’s career was halted by a diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura.

After he recovered, Phegley and Axelrod climbed the organizational ladder together, making it to Class-AA Birmingham in 2010 and Class-AAA Charlotte in 2011. That is, until Axelrod made Chicago’s Opening Day roster this year while Phegley was sent back to Charlotte.

Phegley also struggled in his first major-league at-bat. He struck out swinging.

But then Phegley settled in, both behind, and at, the plate. He got his first MLB hit in his next at-bat and finished the game with two RBIs.

Phegley said he didn’t get to relish the moment until he reached the team hotel after an 8-3 loss.

“You are so nervous trying to get the gameplan ready and everything you don’t have time to sit back,” Phegley said. “I could enjoy it a little more after it was over.”

Phegley didn’t play in the second game of the series on Saturday but scored Chicago’s only run with his first major-league home run on Sunday. The homer came on the first pitch of an at-bat against reigning-AL Cy Young Award winner David Price after Phegley recorded a long flyout in his previous plate appearance.

Phegley followed that up the next day with a first-pitch home run in his home debut against the Chicago Cubs. He became the first White Sox player ever to homer on the first pitch in his first game at U.S. Cellular Field as he hit his second home run in his third major league game.

The following day, Phegley was the most-added catcher in Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball as 2025 owners swooped him up. A catcher with potential to hit for average and power is somewhat of a rarity.

Later that week, Phegley hit his first grand slam in his third at-bat against the Tigers after coming close to a home run each of his first two times up.

Through 13 games, Phegley has 3 home runs, 10 RBIs and is batting .261. He was hitting .316 with 15 home runs in Charlotte at the time of his call-up.

“There has been so much high-fiving and marching around my house,” Josh’s father said. “It’s definitely Phegley-mania around here.”

On ‘Phire’

Terre Haute, Ind., mayor Duke Bennett was leading Fourth of July festivities when he got a text telling him that the town’s native son had been called up. Terre Haute, a town of 60,000, is just 180 miles south of Chicago.

The next week, Bennett was asked about the town’s first major leaguer since 1996 during his monthly Q & A session on local TV.

“Josh has really kind of made a splash,” Bennett said. “Each day he did something else that kind of get people excited here. It wasn’t just like, ‘OK, he made it,’ and then a downslide of interest. It was ‘What did he do today?’”

Fans from across the country wondering about Phegley’s daily performances have flocked to his Twitter page since his call-up.

“Had 12 followers just a few days ago,” Phegley tweeted on July 13. “This has been crazy.”

Now, @JoshPhegley has over 3,100 followers. He’s still trying to get verified by Twitter.

The catcher’s autographed Donruss Elite rookie card that was sold for $2.80 on June 27 on Ebay has recently gone for $14.00 and $16.01, and even went for $29.99 after his hot first week.

He also has remained near the top of the list of most-added catchers in Fantasy baseball.

White Sox Vice President of Player Development Buddy Bell said Phegley is here to stay after making himself at home in the majors.

“Phegley is well enough along that he’s going to be able to develop in the big leagues,” Bell said. “This is the place for him to be.”

Phegley said his aggressive nature at the plate has helped him in MLB, where pitchers throw more strikes. But he expects they will eventually learn to throw more pitches off the plate.

Fellow catcher Tyler Flowers has helped Phegley adjust to the majors. The two are constantly together as they strategize for upcoming opponents or stand at their lockers, which are close together. Phegley said he hasn’t seen any animosity from Flowers towards the new backstop in town.

“He’s really offered anything that I’ve needed and answered any questions,” Phegley said. “He’s been there to offer advice. That’s helped ease the transition.”

Phegley said life in the major leagues continues to be a blur, but he is having the time of his life.

“This is the funnest baseball I’ve ever played,” he said.

Feldman: (704)358-5384; Twitter: @jacobfeldman4

Fort Mill Times is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service