One month ago, Daniel Winkler was on the mound at ONEOK Field in Tulsa and pitching for the Tulsa Drillers, the Colorado Rockies' Double-A affiliate.
Now, you'll see him on a different field, wearing a uniform he hasn't worn in 5 years, doing something he's never done before. The Effingham native is an assistant coach for the St. Anthony baseball team, for which he played until he graduated in 2008.
The Drillers' season ended on Sept. 6, the same day St. Anthony dismissed former head coach Kenny Miller and promoted assistant coach Kenny Koenig to the vacant post.
Winkler, planning to return to Effingham in the offseason, said he received a call from Koenig soon after the Tulsa season was over. During their phone conversation, Koenig said he was the new head coach and asked if the 2008 St. Anthony graduate wanted to help.
He went from simply helping out the team to the assistant coach position quickly, Winkler said, which is something he'd always thought about doing, but figured it may come after a 15-year Major League Baseball career.
“It's definitely different,” said Winkler, who will return to the Rockies' minor league team when the season starts. “Three weeks ago, I was the kid in the dugout getting talked to by the pitching coach.”
He's the one doing the talking now and he said he hopes he can teach the players a thing or two, while he has the chance — still planning a future that involves playing professional baseball for a long time.
Maybe, he said, he can help the players stay patient and responsible during an important time in their baseball-playing lives.
“I hope I can help these kids gain some insight into some things I wish I knew when I was in high school,” Winkler said. “There were some times, when I was in high school, that I wish I'd been more responsible with homework and things like that.”
Winkler said it's important to learn responsibility at a young age because you're on your own in college, relying solely on yourself, and if you can't be responsible, “you don't go anywhere,” he said.
The Bulldogs stand at 14-7 overall in the fall and 3-2 in the National Trail Conference as of Monday, with games left against Windsor/Stew-Stras and Altamont.
Having worked his way up to the Double-A level, and hoping to be invited to Colorado's spring training next year, Winkler's young career is an example of patience and responsibility.
Winkler played baseball at Parkland College for two years after graduating from high school and was drafted in the 43rd round of the First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs.
He decided professional baseball could wait and transferred to the University of Central Florida, where he increased his draft stock by 23 rounds.
In 2011, the Colorado Rockies selected him in the 20th round, but even then he said he knew there were a lot of players taken before him.
“That's a late round,” Winkler said. “There's other guys who get picked in the 15th or 10th round and those guys get looks before you do. I've had a lot of luck, but it's all about patience.”
For a high school player, patience means performing to the best of your ability every game because, Winkler said, “you never know who's watching.”
Winkler said he has learned about a different kind of patience during his time as an assistant coach, giving him a new perspective on the game.
“A lot of times, players get caught up in thinking coaches should know everything,” Winkler said. “It's all about patience and realizing that the coaches are there trying to do their best. Baseball is a game of failure. You fail seven out of 10 times and you're in the Hall of Fame.”
Winkler pitched in 26-1/3 innings for the Drillers after he was called up from Colorado's High-A affiliate and went 1-2 with a 3.04 ERA. Before being called up, Winkler was an All-Star in the California League and one of the most efficient pitchers in any level of professional baseball.
He made 22 starts with the Modesto Nuts, compiling a 12-5 record with a 2.97 ERA, keeping his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) below one at 0.928 and striking out 152 batters in 130.1 innings, a rate of 10.5 batters per nine innings.
He said he's looking forward to a better season next year, after being in awe of the experience for much of his time in Tulsa.
“I tell people that I felt like a professional baseball player for once,” Winkler said. “You walk into that stadium in Tulsa and down a tunnel. It's a big league tunnel. There's 10,000 to 15,000 fans there on a weekend.”
Before standing on the mound in Tulsa again, Winkler said he hopes he gets a chance to impress Colorado's front office at spring training in February.
No matter where he ends up – whether it's back in Tulsa, in the big leagues or with the Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs – the 20th round draft choice from Effingham will be working hard trying to turn that 15-year major league career into a reality.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.