Aug. 26, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Most of us spend at least part of our lives chasing dreams … really, really chasing rather than just dreaming and hoping.
And since Wally Crancer is in so many ways like many of us, and because he has returned to Georgia Tech as a volunteer assistant baseball coach in pursuit of a dream, there is value in the tale of his chase.
You will find this value considerable if the method of measure is intrigue. Promise.
Crancer, a California-born and raised power-hitting outfielder for the Yellow Jackets in 2006-07, has surrendered a large dream painfully with mitigation.
On the plus side, he made it to the Major Leagues alongside mega-watt stars. That happened after he walked away from the game, briefly, a little more than a year ago.
And now, here he is, back on The Flats.
Trying to piece together a time line in your head?
Sting Daily readers will find the drill here to be familiar; you know the score: back stories, people, back stories incubate reality.
For a baseline, consider this much: Crancer’s future was somehow cast.
Coaching, “was always something I wanted to do,” he said. “I thought about it even after my senior season, but then when I got drafted I wanted to pursue that and see where it took me.”
Beating the bushes
Before he would seek a career in coaching, Crancer’s minor league travels would take him through a corner of purgatory in the three years after he was drafted in the 12th round by the Orioles in ’07.
Baltimore officials were fascinated by the combination of Crancer’s strong arm, power numbers, and the fact he hit from the left side of the plate.
So they began converting him to be a catcher, although that didn’t begin until `08.
The hitting worked out. The catching was, eh.
In ’09, most everything improved as Crancer was moved up to high Class A Frederick, Md. He batted .302 with eight home runs, 34 RBI, a slugging percentage of .470 and an OPS of .812.
But he appeared in just 18 games as a catcher in ’09 after appearing in 38 in ’08. He played in 19 fewer games overall than the season before, and also appeared once in right field, once in left and three times at first base. More time was spent as a designated hitter or as a pinch hitter. Some truths were becoming evident.
Major League designated hitters typically put up massive offensive numbers in the minors. Crancer was putting up nice numbers, but not so great that his defense could be over-looked.
By the time spring training rolled around in ’10, there was a plan; if he didn’t see rising evidence of a future in professional baseball, Crancer wouldn’t beat the bushes much longer. His wife and two young boys were on the other side of the country, back in California, and waiting.
That spring, spent mostly with AA, AAA and Major League players, seemed to go well. Then came a cold slap of reality. There was a crappy ride across Sarasota, Fla., from one side of pro ball’s tracks to the other, to make it worse.
“When they released the rosters two or three days before we broke camp, I was back on the high A roster. I had to get in a van and drive over from one place to the other,” he said. “Everyone I … out-performed or thought I’d out-performed, stayed up. I was also 25, and turning 26 halfway through the season.”
There are times to voice displeasure, and times to keep quiet. Crancer felt inclined to speak up. He let Orioles officials know.
“I said, `I don’t have any value here. I’m a catcher, but you don’t catch me.’ I wanted to catch, that was my value … as a left-handed hitting catcher,” he recalls. “I was going back to high A to be a third catcher. I was getting my at-bats, but I wasn’t getting my time behind the plate. I was confused, mainly.”
The phone calls home were nearly crippling. His sons, now 5 and 3, were missing Dad. His wife suffered suffered from afar with her husband’s torment.
“I had told her when I stop moving up, I’ll hang `em up. I’m not going to keep treading water. My priorities have changed a lot. I was 21 years old when I had my first son,” he said. “I said I’d let a month go by, and if I’m not in AA I’ve got to hang `em up.”
That month was miserable. Crancer hit just .225 in 12 games, with no home runs, playing behind the plate in seven games. He retired in early May.
“I was pretty much cashed out,” he said. “Mentally, I wasn’t in it because I knew it was getting down toward the end.”
On a bus, the book closed for good.
“It was hard on my wife knowing I was going back to where I was before,” he said. “I remember we were going from Myrtle Beach to Fredrick [when he decided once and for all], and the next day I talked to my hitting coordinator. He totally agreed with me, and from there I went in and told the manager.”
The boss tried to talk Crancer out of it only to be told, “I didn’t make this decision in 10 minutes and, `There’s nothing you can really tell me to change my mind. I can move on to different things, still be in the game, be with my kids.’ “
In a few weeks, Crancer made it to the big leagues.
An unusual path? Of course, but not really new in that regard.
Crancer had already moved from three-sport high school standout in Riverside, Calif., to a redshirt year at UC-Riverside (where he met his future wife), to two outstanding seasons at Riverside Community College to Tech.
As a Jacket, he batted .345 in two seasons with 14 home runs, 82 RBI and a .516 slugging percentage.
As a senior, he’d been elected a co-captain at Tech.
Now, it was time to sulk. Or not.
Back in California, late in the late spring of `10, there was little if any moping about a pro career ended.
“I stayed busy; it wasn’t like I was sitting around. I’d been thinking about it for a while. I was working at home a little bit, and then I came back to school (landing a management degree from Tech last December),” Crancer explained.
“The only thing that was weird was when the turn of the year came. That’s when you usually fire it up and get going with spring training and all. It was weird not preparing for that. I told some of the guys, `I’ll throw you batting practice, but …”
Here Crancer grinned a goofy grin.
Under the bright lights
How, exactly, did he stay busy back in California in that brief window before he and his family moved to Atlanta to finish his degree last year?
“I got lucky. I was in a movie, so I was doing that,” he said. “It was, `Moneyball,’ which is coming out in about a month.”
If you haven’t read Moneyball, which is a fantastic book, it is about the unusual way Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane builds his revenue-challenged teams by over-relying on certain statistics (sabermetrics) not typically used to assemble MLB teams.
Crancer’s break? His best friend back home has a brother in the motion picture industry. He learned of Wally heading home upon his retirement.
Next thing you know, he was suited up and playing baseball — a very competitive brand with several former professionals, he said. — in Oakland’s Coliseum in the wee post-midnight hours of the summer of 2010.
Never mind that he was cast as Brent Mayne, a California-born, left-handed catcher who played in the Major Leagues from 1990-’04, with bright lights burning and cameras rolling, Crancer was in the Bigs!
“We’ll see if I get any face time,” he said. “It was on and off for like a month and a half. It was fun; I made some money; it kept me really busy. I tried to speak, and they’d cut and ask me if I wanted to get fired. I kept talking . . . they got to pay you a lot more money if you speak.
“You’re looking at Brad Pitt (and Philip Seymour Hoffman) sitting next to you and all the other guys in there, and it was kind of crazy that it happened so quick. I don’t know if I would do it again, but it was fun.”
Now, onto another dream …
While still in school at Tech, Crancer told head coach Danny Hall that he could see himself in Hall’s shoes.
So he’s here now, with a Tech degree in the bank, because, “I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I’d love to say I’m still playing, but I’m glad I got to decide for myself … not have someone take the jersey off my back. I don’t regret anything. I loved playing. Now we’re here, and it’s worked out perfect.”
Sometimes, when a dream dies, another is born to chase. So it is with Wally Crancer, a great guy. What about this story, huh? Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.