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Written by Dan Kukla
Carlsbad Current-Argus Sports Editor
The hand signals from behind the batting cage kept coming out the same but no one could believe them. No one, that is, except for the man on the mound and his agent.
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It only took four pitches before every New York Mets scout at the Waco workout dropped what they were doing came over to the cage to take a look at this kid. Sure, Todd Weldon had been invited to the showcase, but they already had their handful of players they had been following all season.
"They were just like where in the heck did this guy come from?" Weldon said. "Every single one of those guys went from looking down at their pads to just eyes on me. I turned a lot of heads and opened a lot of eyes."
After throwing he went off to do his running in preparation for the Cincinnati Reds workout the next day.
He never made it.
Weldon's cell phone showed multiple missed phone calls from a Mets scout. The scouting director wanted him - bad. They also didn't want him at that Reds workout, so they guaranteed to draft him if he skipped.
"That has never happened to me ever in my four years of doing this," Weldon's agent Brian McGinn said. Nothing is ever guaranteed in the MLB draft. Players are told they will be picked in Round 5 and they end up in Round 14. Players are told they will be drafted on Day 1 and never see their name called.
"I've never really heard of a situation like Todd's because really no one can guarantee you a draft spot," McGinn said. "Nothing is guaranteed. It's kind of a crap shoot."
The two decided to take the guarantee and skip the Reds workout. Later the Mets kept their word and took Weldon in Round 27 with the 815th overall pick of the 2010 MLB draft.
Weldon grew up in Carlsbad and played baseball for the Cavemen under both coach Tom Forni and coach Kenny Groves. He earned first-team All-District 4-5A honors in 2005 and 2006 and was selected to the All-State team in 2006. He won Carlsbad's Best Pitcher Award both of those years and posted the team's lowest ERA in 2005. After his senior season he went on to pitch for the South in the 4A-5A All-Star game.
Weldon's spent his first year of college ball at Garden City Community College where he finished 8-2 on the mound as a freshman and met his future wife Devon. His coach had even seen him play but signed him just on the review given by Weldon's summer league coach. He started in the bullpen before earned a starting job three quarters through the season.
The same thing happened at New Mexico Junior College where Weldon went for his sophomore year and finished 2-0. He then threw for Wayland Baptist University for two seasons and set a school record for strikeouts in a season in 2009 with 120. He won 19 of the 30 games in which he started at Wayland, striking out 219 batters in 166-1/3 innings of work and tossed four shutouts.
Weldon met McGinn over the phone during his junior season as a connection from a graduate assistant who used to be one of McGinn's players before failing to get drafted himself. McGinn started putting scouts in the stands. The same scouts that eventually decided they weren't interested in Weldon after his junior season changed their tune the next year when he bumped up his velocity a few miles per hour. Still, he was barely a blip on the radar when walking into the Mets showcase workout in Waco.
It wasn't long, however, until Weldon was lighting up the radar gun and turning heads all around.
"He worked at it, improved and came back for his senior season on a mission," McGinn said. "He pretty much looked like a major league pitcher out there that day. That's how much they liked him."
"That was typical for me," Weldon added. "I knew going in there that I would probably be a bottom of the barrel guy but I knew that I would probably impress some people. It was just a blessing how it all worked out. I knew that God was with me that day. They didn't even care about the rest of the guys that tried out. They stopped what they were doing."
Weldon thought he could be drafted right out of high school. Four years later, even with a guarantee from the Mets, he was still sitting in front of his computer, waiting for his name to pop up on the draft tracker "just hanging on."
After Round 25 he realized he needed to get in his daily workout before it got dark. Devon, then his fiancé, thought she saw his name come up but she needed a double take because it read "Michael Weldon" on the screen even though the man she would marry went by his middle name "Todd".
"She came running outside all pumped up and yelled 'you just got drafted.' I said 'no you're lying' and she said 'no, really.' About two or three minutes later that scout called."
The first game Weldon ever pitched as a professional baseball player came in a closing role for the rookie-level Kingsport Mets. He earned the save against the Johnsonville City Cardinals, "which is pretty awesome," and kept the closer roll for the rest of the season.
Then it was onto the short-season team in Brooklyn where Weldon pitched middle relief since the Cyclones already had their closer established. He finished the season a combined 1-3 with six saves, a 3.99 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 29.1 innings.
"It was cool to get up there and get a taste of what that game is like," Weldon said. "It's head-over-heels different. You go from 100-200 fans in rookie league to about 10,000 in short season. It was pretty cool."
The next year Weldon was kept in extended spring training, a frustrating experience since he felt like he performed well enough to earn a spot on a team right away. He eventually capitalized on a chance to pitch for the Mets High-A team in St. Lucie with a scoreless non-save inning and two days later he was assigned to Savannah Georgia where he pitched middle relief for the Class-A Sand Gnats.
After a road trip he was called into the coach's office for a conversation that left him with very mixed emotions.
"He said 'you're getting promoted, you're going to Brooklyn,'" Weldon said. "I left the next morning at 5 a.m. I had just enough time to go back to my apartment and pack up all my stuff."
Getting promoted is nice but it also meant calling Devon to tell her to cancel her flight to Savannah three days later. They lost the $500 and continued to be apart.
"It had been about three months since I had seen her," Weldon said. "You're away from everybody that you know and love for so long. That's definitely the hardest thing. Getting to play this game is definitely what keeps you going."
Weldon pitched his first night on the team in the bottom of the ninth with a big lead and struck out two of the three batters he faced. With the Cyclones he was instructed by pitching coach Frank Viola, the former Minnesota Twins pitcher who was named World Series MVP in 1987 and won AL Cy-Young Award in 1988. Weldon went 4-1 with six saves for Brooklyn with a 2.56 ERA, good enough to land him on the New York-Penn League All-Star team. He was a late addition to the roster but struck out the final two batters to seal a 7-3 win for the National League.
"You think to yourself 'if I can strike these guys out and they're All-Stars I can get anybody out,'" he said.
Transitioning baseball from a game in high school and college to a job in the minors is tough so Weldon tries not to think of it as a job at all.
"It's fun," he said. "It's a dream that I wanted to live for a long time. I haven't reached my ultimate goal yet of making the major leagues but getting to wake up and go to the field and play baseball every day, as a little kid that's what you always dream of."
"You try not to make it a job. You still try to have fun with it. If you start making it your job that's when lose a little bit of the love. I try to go out there and make it still a game. It's fun to go out there and play every single day and play a game for a living. Yeah, it may not pay that great in the minor leagues but hopefully someday it will."
Weldon learned from coach Forni in his Cavemen days that he doesn't really get days off and that he needs to show up ready to get better every day. And just like he learned as a Cavemen, Weldon still does his long toss every day to improve his arm strength and velocity. The third thing he learned in the Carlsbad baseball program that still sticks with him today is to give back.
"Forni used to tell us 'give back to the game what it's given to you,'" Weldon said. "I feel like baseball has given a lot to me. In college I didn't have to pay a dime of tuition and now it's taking even more care of me. Hopefully it will keep going."
To give back to Carlsbad baseball, Weldon plans on providing individual pitching lessons to local players ages 9 and up (Little League or higher). He will charge an affordable fee to help with the costs of moving Devon down to wherever he ends up next season but he also sees it as a way to help current and future Cavemen follow their own dreams.
"You want to see the people of your town succeed and the program succeed," Weldon said. "People have always called this town a baseball town."
"I would say I'd do hitting lessons but I haven't hit in four or five years so I don't think that would be a good idea."
He also plans to host a baseball camp in the future but those details are not finalized yet. To schedule pitching lessons, contact Weldon directly at 806-292-0984 during the day.
"Minor league baseball players pretty much don't make a whole lot of money," McGinn said. "Most of them usually live off their signing bonus. Most if not all of them have to have a second job in the offseason. This is just a way for Todd to give back to the community and also make some money to help him out. These will be very private and personal and affordable pitching lessons from a current minor league baseball player."
Weldon does not know where he will be playing next season. Much of that depends on spring training in March, which can make or break where a player starts out. He hopes to be up to AA ball at least by the season's end but a rough spring could potentially send him back to Low-A.
During the offseason Weldon is working at Mosaic to earn extra money. He took a month off to let his body recuperate from the season before starting his workouts on November 7; he plans to begin throwing again in December.
"You don't want to jump right into it but you want to give yourself enough time that you know you're ready by the time spring training comes around," Weldon said.
He'll be ready. He always has been. It's whether or not other teams, players and scouts are ready for him that's the real question.
Written by Dan Kukla
Carlsbad Current-Argus Sports Editor