Rocket Man

By IAN WILSON

He bears little resemblance to Roger Clemens, but you can go ahead and call David Reiniger “Rocket Man.”

While he won’t blow anyone away with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball, Reiniger has something much faster at his fingertips. He literally has rockets at his disposal.

For most people, it isn’t rocket science, as the saying goes. In Reiniger’s case, however, it really is rocket science – that’s what has consumed his working life as an aerospace engineer.

That wasn’t always the case for the 30-year-old, who was the first-ever recruit at the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball in 2006. When he arrived in the southern Alberta town of 1,100 people, dreams of a professional baseball career were still orbiting his headspace.

“It’s day one and you’re meeting your coaches and meeting the staff at the school and moving into a new place, because we didn’t have dorms at that time. We were in billet houses. I was living out on a farm … city boy lived out on a farm for a year,” recalled Reiniger, who moved 240 kilometres southeast of his Calgary home to join coach Les McTavish’s program.

“My billet parents, Murray and Dani Brown, were fantastic. Day two they made me get in the tractor and taught me how to drive the tractor and go feed the cows.”

Much like Reiniger’s baseball aspirations, the academy itself was a dream in those days. A decline in enrollment at the town’s high school over the years prompted school staff to get creative and implement a baseball program that offered something rare and attractive to student athletes from across the country. Vauxhall Academy of Baseball was the result.

“It was great. It was a new school, new students, new teammates, but at the end of the day we went to school until two or three o’clock and then we were out on the field and we were working hard and we were playing ball,” Reiniger told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“Thinking back on it and how new it was, it’s incredible how smooth it went.”

NEXT LEVEL

Reiniger played second base in Vauxhall, but when he advanced to the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a Gulf South Conference team in Division 2 of the NCAA, he split time in the outfield and as a designated hitter.

“The skill level was really high. I went down there, I played for four years, had ups and downs in college for sure,” said Reiniger.

He was a decent baseball player, but Reiniger’s time in Vauxhall – away from the bright lights of the big city – gave him a chance to gaze at the stars and focus on things beyond baseball.

“When I was a junior in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started just going down the list of all the degrees you can possibly do … aerospace engineering was really the only one that clicked for me and stood out. At that time, I thought about airplanes and I wanted to work on airplanes and do all that kind of stuff,” said Reiniger, who was recently inducted to Vauxhall Baseball Academy’s Wall of Excellence.

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Award presented to Reiniger, recognizing his place on Vauxhall Baseball Academy’s Wall of Excellence … photo courtesy Reiniger family

“I probably knew when I made the decision of where I was going to school that I probably wasn’t going to go play pro ball and that I needed to go have a good career. If I wanted to go and do baseball one hundred percent and play pro ball I probably would’ve went to junior college or I would’ve tried to go to a division one school and go that direction,” added Reiniger.

“I chose school for school and I could also play baseball there. So I think I knew that early on. I was an okay player in college. I think that reinforced that I had to work pretty hard in school and that baseball probably wasn’t going to be the forward path for me.”

In choosing to go to school in Huntsville, nicknamed “The Rocket City” for its ties to space missions, the Calgarian set himself on a different path.

“I fell in love with the rocket propulsion space industry side of things. It was very interesting to me and when I graduated I got an internship with Boeing as a prime contractor on a brand new NASA contract, which is incredibly lucky. That was a little bit of a stroke of luck, but that reinforced it further,” said Reiniger, who has remained in the aerospace industry ever since.

“I’ve always loved what I do. Work, in general, has its ups and downs but I have no issues getting up and going to the office every day.”

REACHING NEW HEIGHTS

Now working with Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Reiniger is a propulsion module director for the New Shepard project. He leads four teams in design, production, maintenance and operations.

“Blue Origin, first of all, the company’s overall goal is to create the infrastructure so that we can reduce the cost of going to space, so for future entrepreneurs they can do great things and expand civilization in space,” said Reiniger.

“Our program is kind of the very beginnings of that. I work on a rocket called New Shepard and it’s sub-orbital. It kind of goes up just to the edge of space. It’s meant to fly people up there and you get to float around. It’s tourism essentially. You get to float around for two or three minutes and then you come back down.”

Blue Origin hopes to launch test flights with human passengers later this year.

While a baseball academy may seem like an odd breeding ground for an aerospace engineer, Reiniger said many of the lessons he learned in Vauxhall are still applicable to him.

“There’s a time management piece. Baseball, by its nature, if you’re a position player you fail 70 percent of the time. You have to be able to take it. You have to be able to take a coach chewing your butt every once in a while and come back from it. You learn teamwork. You learn communication. You learn leadership. There’s all kinds of qualities that are great in the workplace,” noted Reiniger.

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David Reiniger tees up a pitch for Vauxhall in 2007 … photo courtesy Reiniger family

“In my line of work, engineers are introverted and maybe don’t have some of those qualities by nature a lot of times. There are some of those qualities that you learn through sport and they do a great job of fostering that here at Vauxhall. At Vauxhall they really add the community piece, too. Caring about other people, getting out in the community. It’s such a small, tight-knit group.”

Reiniger was excited to return to Vauxhall as an alumnus that had achieved success outside of baseball. He felt it was important to share messages about careers away from diamonds and dugouts.

“I think that was the most special part … they chose me for this award and there’s lots of kids that have been drafted and went on to play pro ball and played Division 1 baseball and had all kinds of athletic accolades, that I didn’t necessarily have. I don’t even necessarily think I have a bunch of career accolades at this point. It’s still pretty fresh,” said Reiniger.

“There is another path. Working hard and learning those lessons that you learn through baseball and through being at the academy opened up many more doors than just going to play baseball. I don’t think when you’re doing it you realize it, so I’m not necessarily sure the kids realize it yet, but it was nice to be able to talk to them a little bit.¬† Hopefully they understand that there’s multiple options out there.”

CUB OPTION

Joining Reiniger on the Wall of Excellence this year is pitcher Josh Burgmann, the highest drafted Vauxhall Jets player in the program’s history. Burgmann was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school, but opted to play for the Washington Huskies instead. That turned out to be a smart decision, as the Chicago Cubs made the Nanaimo native a 5th-round selection in the 2019 Major League Baseball (MLB) draft.

Burgmann was unable to attend the banquet ceremony because he was participating in Spring Training activities with the Cubs, but his girlfriend Taylor Holst took to the podium to read his prepared speech.

“When I came Vauxhall, my goals were to become a better baseball player, put myself in a position to receive a scholarship and possibly give myself a chance to play professional baseball,” said Holst on Burgmann’s behalf.

“What I didn’t expect was the way I embraced the town, school and community of Vauxhall. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the girl of my dreams here, but I did. And I really didn’t think I would come back and live here, but I did. This town holds such a special place in my heart.”

Burgmann ended his speech with a message for those students who are currently enrolled in the Vauxhall Baseball Academy program.

“Commit yourself to this place. Allow yourself the chance to have Vauxhall make an impact on your life the way it has on mine. Take advantage of how truly special this place is.”

MULLIN’ IT OVER¬†

The featured speaker at the fundraising event was Rance Mulliniks, a former MLB player who gained fame with the Toronto Blue Jays as a utility infielder and a highly effective pinch hitter.

Mulliniks met with the students at Vauxhall Academy before taking the stage for a Q&A session for the audience.

“I shared a couple of baseball stories, but I just wanted to emphasize to them the importance of accountability. Hold yourself accountable. If you make a mistake, own it. And always have the willingness to learn and to get better. If you do that, even if you don’t become a major league baseball player you can most certainly be a success,” the 64-year-old told Alberta Dugout Stories.

Mulliniks had been to Alberta previously as a baseball instructor at youth clinics in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary and Edmonton, but Vauxhall provided his first opportunity to speak at a more formal event in the province.

“Who would’ve thought that in a small town like Vauxhall that you would have this type of facility and program? It is tremendous. I’ve been through the facilities. They go to school, they get to play baseball, and it’s a great setup. Very, very impressive,” observed the Californian.

In discussing his time at the plate during his 16 MLB seasons, Mulliniks shared his insights on pinch hitting.

“One of the most important things is you have to accept the role from a mental standpoint and just make sure that you’re prepared well in advance for a pinch hit situation and then be committed to what you’re trying to do. If you have the right mental approach to it and the right attitude about it, it’s not as difficult as it might seem,” said the third-round draft pick of the California Angels in the 1974 MLB draft.

“If you’re committed and you have a plan and you stay with it, you can thrive in that situation. That’s all I really tried to do was just make sure I was well prepared, well in advance before the situation ever came up.”

He also discussed the recent passing of beloved shortstop Tony Fernandez, who spent 12 of his 19 MLB seasons with the Blue Jays.

“I have a lot of great memories about Tony, but when I heard that Tony had passed away, the first thought that I had and the first thing that I would always think about when I think of Tony was his devotion to his family and to his faith,” said Mulliniks.

“He was a man of great character and of very strong faith and he lived it, every day. Most certainly, he was a great baseball player and I had the good fortune to play right next to him for probably seven years or so. Tony was the total package.”

For more information about the banquet, as well as the scholarship and award winners follow this link.

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