Andrew Miller expected to be chasing his baseball dream this month in a distant minor-league town, building on the promise he felt last summer in his left arm, when throwing a baseball no longer brought pain.
The 23-year-old from South Jersey had Tommy John surgery after his sophomore year of college and passed on his final two years of eligibility to sign in 2018 with the Marlins after being a 40th-round pick. This season — a campaign likely spent in places such as Clinton, Iowa, and Beloit, Wis. — would have been vital for Miller’s development.
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But instead of a baseball field, Miller found himself last Monday in the parking lot of a country club in Mount Laurel, wearing protective gloves and a face covering while checking golfers in for tee times. His baseball dream is still alive, but his career — like those of all minor-league players — has been paused by the coronavirus.
“It’s definitely been a turn of events,” said Miller, who starred in high school at Sterling.
Miller is riding out baseball’s shutdown by working at Ramblewood Country Club, welcoming golfers as they arrive to the recently reopened course.
Ramblewood, just like other courses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, was cleared to reopen last weekend as long as golfers adhered to social distancing and other restrictions. It is the minor-leaguer’s job to outline those rules.
Parked in a golf cart out front, Miller greets customers as they arrive and stays six feet from their cars. He uses an iPad to check golfers in for tee times they scheduled online, since each customer must now book times and pay fees before arriving.
Miller tells them to stay in their cars until 10 minutes before their start time, with groups staggered 15 minutes apart. Only two golfers are allowed at a time on a tee box and all golfers must rent their own carts, unless they show Miller proof that they live together.
“Everyone has been following the rules,” Miller said. “Everyone has been wearing face masks to the course. Once they get on the course, it’s on their discretion. Golfers are happy. They’re happy to be out of the house and playing golf.”
Miller started working at Ramblewood, a public course owned by Ron Jaworski, last year after finishing his first full minor-league season.
The Marlins drafted him in June 2018 even though he had not thrown off a mound for a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery the previous June. Miller never expected to sign, assuming he would spend the summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League before returning for his final two seasons at Kentucky, where he transferred after two years at Maryland.
But he pitched two innings in the Cape on June 24, 2018, returning to the mound exactly one year after the elbow surgery, and that was enough for the Marlins to sign him. They gave him a sizable bonus — $150,000 for a 40th-round pick — and lured him away from his final two years of college.
Miller spent the rest of 2018 at the Marlins’ complex in Jupiter, Fla., building arm strength after the team wanted to move him from the bullpen to the starting rotation. He spent last season in Batavia, N.Y., with Miami’s short-season single-A affiliate in the New York-Penn League. Miller started 15 games, posting a 3.76 ERA in 67 innings.
“What I tell everyone is, it was the first time in a while that I picked up a baseball and my arm wasn’t hurting after 60 feet,” Miller said.
When he’s not at Ramblewood, Miller conditions his arm by following a plan outlined by the Marlins. He keeps in touch with the team’s medical staff and sends a weekly message to the pitching coaches, keeping them updated on his progress. There is growing confidence for a major-league season in 2020, but a traditional minor-league season would be unlikely without fans in the ballpark.
“Their message is just to stay ready,” Miller said. “We don’t know when things will break. We don’t know what’s going on yet. But they just tell us to stay ready. That’s the only thing we can do at this point.”
Miller had been in Florida for just 10 days for spring training with the Marlins when the baseball season was delayed. He returned home to South Jersey and was taken aback by the signs that covered Camden County, thanking the frontline workers for their work against the virus that was costing him his season. Miller’s future might be uncertain, but he said that reminded him who the heroes were.
His baseball career could have faded when surgery kept him off the mound for an entire year. But Miller completed a rigorous rehabilitation and kept his dream on track. Less than two years later, his career is paused again.
Miller planned to be testing his left arm this month against minor-league hitters. Instead, he’s using a walkie-talkie to tell coworkers that golfers are leaving their cars and headed for the course.
Instead of toeing a mound in a small town, he’s sitting in a golf cart in South Jersey. And if he needs something to pass the time until baseball returns, Miller can always think about the major-league dream that he hopes to keep chasing whenever his career can resume.
“I envision that every day,” Miller said. “Having a moment like that, with what I’ve gone through with Tommy John and working my way back up there and being a 40th-round pick.