Max Walla’s first game as a professional baseball player is in the books.
Starting in right field for the Milwaukee Brewers’ affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League on Sunday, the recent Albuquerque Academy grad and second-round draft pick went 1 for 5 with a walk, three strikeouts and two dazzling plays in the outfield in his team’s extra-innings win over the AZL Giants.
He likely saved the game when he threw out the Giants’ Rafael Rodriguez at the plate in the 10th inning, then added a diving catch in the 12th. All in all, not a bad start.
“I was pretty nervous but after a while the baseball instincts kick in and you sort of go from there,” Walla said by phone on Monday morning.
One of Walla’s teammates is former University of New Mexico second baseman Mike Brownstein. A 14th-round pick, Brownstein went 3 for 5 with a triple, a pair of walks, a run batted in and two scored.
Other local players on AZL rosters are former UNM outfielder Cameron Monger and New Mexico Junior College pitcher Eric Diaz. Monger had a hit in five at-bats for the Padres in his debut while Diaz did not see action with the Royals.
Of the six UNM players taken in this month’s draft, four have signed. That includes Brian Cavazos-Galvez and Cole White. Cavazos-Galvez, a Manzano High grad, will likely be assigned to the Dodgers’ low-A affiliate in Ogden, Utah, this week.
Getting acclimated to the pro game isn’t easy. A contingent of Albuquerque-area residents have expertise in that regard, having played pro ball in the past. Among them is Kevin Andersh, Walla’s former coach at Academy and the current head man at Volcano Vista.
Andersh is one of UNM’s highest draft choices ever, going to the Pirates with the 15th pick in the 1984 draft. On the flip side are a host of other mid- to late-round picks, such as Rio Grande High coach Orlando Griego. He went in the 24th round in 1990 to the Brewers.
“Those high-pick guys; all I can say is they have it nice,” Griego said. “The more money they give you the more patient they’re going to be. You’re an investment to them. Slumps or injuries, they’ll give you time to get it right.”
“There’s some truth to what Orlando’s saying,” Andersh said. “For the most part high-round guys like Max, the younger guys, are given more instructional league and winter ball time because teams develop what they’ve got. Me, my first exposure was at a press conference at Three Rivers Stadium, then straight to (Class A) where I’m playing games immediately. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
Griego’s career lasted one season. He said he was actually a better pitcher after he was cut loose.
Andersh reached double-A and played until ’90, but a nickel-sized hole in his rotator cuff certainly didn’t help matters. When he takes a look at Walla, he sees the intangibles that may eventually land Walla in a big league park.
“If I had the chance to tell Max one thing — and I have — it’s don’t change a thing,” Andersh said. “He’s right where he needs to be. It’s difficult at first, but Max is the kind of kid who’s not going to get flustered. … I think some day we’ll see him playing on TV.”
If given the chance to pass advice to a player weighing pro ball versus a college scholarship, Griego chooses the latter.
“There are a lot of variables that have to be in right place at right time,” he said. “You have all that talent around you (in pro ball) and sooner or later you run into gridlock; there’s nowhere to go but up or out of the game. Once a kid signs, he has a 1 in 14 chance of making it the major leagues. You decrease your odds of making it significantly once you sign, so I say go to college unless you get the money.”
Walla hasn’t disclosed how much his contract is worth. The Brewers’ top pick, Indiana pitcher Eric Arnett, signed for $1.2 million.
“The money is a lot different these days,” said Andersh, whose draft class included Mark McGwire, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Ken Caminiti. “You were lucky to get six figures the year I went.”