By: Julia Stumbaugh
It was getting late on the third night of the draft, and Tom Sox batter Michael Wielansky was starting to feel the pressure.
“It was definitely a nerve-racking time,” said Wielansky. “There was a lot of talk that I couldn’t have gotten drafted. So as the rounds kept going and my name didn’t get called, it started getting a little more stressful.”
But finally, in the eighteenth round, the announcement came: Wielansky had been selected by defending World Series champions, the Houston Astros, 552nd overall in the 2018 MLB Draft. As his family and girlfriend screamed and hugged, Wielansky was floored.
“Finding out that I got selected was insane,” said Wielansky. “It was awesome. So many emotions were running through my head at once.”
The news that Wielansky decided to sign with the Astros and won’t be returning to Charlottesville will spark a similar mix of emotions in any Tom Sox fan that watched the team’s 2017 championship run. Fans will miss seeing the star hitter play this summer, but will undoubtedly want to cheer him on as he takes the next step in a storied career that started in Missouri, travelled him to the College of Wooster in Ohio, and then eventually— with a little help from pitcher Sean McCracken— brought Wielansky all the way to Virginia and the Valley Baseball League.
McCracken, fellow Missourian and Wielansky’s teammate in the St. Louis Metro League, was the one to recommend the batter to the Tom Sox after signing his own contract for the summer of 2017. His endorsement put the Division III hitter on Charlottesville’s radar, and after months of scouting, onto the roster as well. When Wielansky put up a stellar spring season at Wooster, improving from a .374 batting percentage his freshman year to a .425 his second time around and notching a nineteen-game hitting streak, Tom Sox Vice President Jeff Burton thought he might have found a “diamond in the rough.”
That guess would look like a good one when Wielansky opened his summer season with a 14-game long hitting streak in which he connected for 29 hits.
“Most ball players, after both hot or cold starts, will ultimately revert back to a mean performance,” said Burton. “As we saw by the end of summer 2017, Michael’s performance saw no such reversion.”
Wielansky was thrown a lot of curveballs, metaphorically and literally, with his entrance into the league. The ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove-winning shortstop was tossed into a brand-new position at second base. On offense, he had to adjust to using a wooden bat and taking harder pitches than he was used to.
“It’s definitely a different game when pitchers are throwing harder,” said Wielansky, “which I don’t necessarily see all the time at a DIII level.”
But for all the adjustments he had to make, Wielansky’s long hitting streak to start the season was no fluke. In fact, he only went without a hit in eight of the 37 games he played for the Tom Sox in the regular season. Instead of setting him back, the challenges he faced in the VBL made him a better player.
“It helped a lot with different things, like my approach to the plate and just me being a player in general,” said Wielansky. “Hitting more helped me recognize pitches earlier and stay back on the ball a little bit better.”
He would end up finishing out the season with 67 hits on 155 at-bats, making his .432 batting percentage the best in 56 years of VBL history. Leading the league in hits, runs and doubles, he was an unsurprising pick for VBL Player of the Year.
And as if the Tom Sox needed any more proof that Wielansky wasn’t just a flash in the pan, he continued to bat above .400 in the playoffs, connecting for 13 hits, one home run and six RBI in the postseason, including the game-winner in Charlottesville’s title game against the Strasburg Express.
“Winning it all, with the dog pile and everything at the end,” said Wielansky, “that was awesome.”
The championship capped off a run with a team that had become a tight-knit group, within which Wielansky had reached what Burton described as an “almost mythical status.” One of his Wooster jerseys had somehow found its way into the dugout, where different players would trade it around to wear during batting practice.
“We were all super close, which always helps, and there was a good mix between DI and DIII guys,” said Wielansky. “Everyone performed, and everyone supported each other, so it worked out and was a lot of fun.”
A good relationship with DIII programs is something that the Tom Sox have sought to establish since the beginning of the program in 2015. The enduring legend of Wielansky will ensure that connection lasts. He joins a list of names that includes Rick Spiers, Cole Migliorini, Joe Burris and Preston Betz, as well as current Tom Sox McCracken, Nick Roth and Jack Barry, as Charlottesville’s DIII success stories.
“We have a goal in our player recruitment to find a handful of DIII players who are, or are on the fringe of becoming, All-American players,” said Burton. “We want to show our fan base that those guys can compete with anyone in the country. Michael, along with other guys, has collectively proved that.”
After his successful summer with the Tom Sox, Wielansky returned to Wooster for 2018, where he was voted an All-American player and led DIII scoring for the second year in a row. He put up an on-base percentage of over .500 and helped Wooster lead all division schools in runs as well as fielding percentage. The batter and shortstop would finish out his third year on the team with 231 total hits, batting a career .400. Back in Charlottesville, the organization was watching his junior year with anticipation; Wielansky had signed on to play with the Tom Sox once again for the summer of 2018.
“I had success there in the past, so I figured I could go back,” said Wielansky. “I knew a lot of the other guys were going back also, so it would have been a really fun summer again.”
But even as the Tom Sox looked forward to his return, they knew it came with a condition: the MLB Draft loomed in the early days of June. Wielansky was draft eligible, and if he was selected, then all bets were off. The announcement of his name that summer evening was the end of one story— he will leave the Tom Sox holding nearly every franchise batting record, with a total of 82 hits and 40 RBI from that single summer— but also the beginning of an even bigger one.
“While we were excited at the prospect of Michael coming back to Charlottesville this summer, we couldn’t be more excited that he is not coming back,” said Burton. “He is living his dream, and we are honored to have been a chapter in the journey of Michael Wielansky.”
With his decision to sign with the Astros, Wielansky traded Charlottesville this summer for Troy, New York, where he is playing short-season ball for the New York-Penn League. From now until September, he’ll be competing almost every day as he embarks on his pro career.
“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am right now without the support and without everything that Charlottesville gave me,” said Wielansky. “I’m going to miss it, but I’m excited to start my new journey.”
Julia Stumbaugh is a college student at the College of William & Mary and is interning with the Tom Sox this summer.
Follow her on Twitter @julia_stumbaugh