If you would have told Ty Penner in high school or even early in his college baseball career that he would one day sign a contract with a Major League Baseball team, he would have wanted to believe you.
But he admits, he doesn’t know if every bone in his body would have thought it was possible.
Just a few short years later, a life-long dream for the Lethbridge infielder became a reality when he signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“When I finally put pen to paper and put on a jersey that said ‘Phillies’ across the front and had my name on my back, that was a super-surreal feeling,” Penner told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “It’s something I will remember for the rest of my life, for sure.”
The 22-year-old was soon to embark on a whirlwind summer as he learned about the professional baseball lifestyle, setting the stage for what he hopes becomes an unforgettable 2023 and beyond.
AN UNEXPECTED BREAK
Signing on the dotted line with the Phillies turned into a wilder rollercoaster ride than Penner was even expecting.
The Vauxhall Academy of Baseball grad was a highly-touted prospect who had some success with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) as well as his hometown Lethbridge Bulls in 2019.
He was on his way to building on that success early in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world.
As things eased back to “normal,” Penner and his Thunderbird teammates were still left in the dark because of cross-border travel.
“We were really the only team not playing,” he said. “It was tough not being a part of it.”
Instead of moping around and mulling the missed opportunities, Penner took it upon himself to hit the weight room, transforming himself from being 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds to 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds.
Looking back on it, he’s grateful and proud of what he was able to accomplish.
“I needed that time, and I don’t know if I would have gotten that time to transform my body if COVID hadn’t have happened,” Penner admits. “It’s hard at the time because you don’t know if it’s actually going to pay off in a game when you have no opportunity to go show off that strength.”
The Thunderbirds were able to hit the field again in 2022, posting a record of 33-26, while Penner’s game hit another level.
He posted a .340 batting average with 18 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs, 47 runs batted in, 48 runs scored and six stolen bases, all personal bests.
WAITING WITH BAITED BREATH
Getting the chance to play in games on both sides of the border also opened up the possibility of scouts being in attendance for games.
Penner, who was also a guest on Episode #143 of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast, started having a few conversations, and he had a glimmer of hope that he might get chosen in the 2022 MLB Draft.
After UBC’s season came to an end, he suited up in 16 games for the Kamloops NorthPaws of the West Coast League before heading home to train and wait for the draft.
“I knew I had the chance to maybe have my name called from about four or five teams, but I had no idea if and I had no idea when, basically,” said Penner, who had been watching the proceedings at home with his family. “But I was really in the dark going into the draft.”
After not seeing his name on the draft ticker through the first two days, his phone started ringing from those same scouts, saying there was a good chance he would be chosen on the third and final day.
20 rounds and 616 picks later, Ty Penner’s name wasn’t next to any selection.
“I just figured it wasn’t my year – I was ready to go back to UBC and it was what it was,” he recalled.
“I was disappointed but I hadn’t lost hope.”
Little did he know, just as he was getting ready to exhale, things were just about to take an unexpected turn.
After the draft was over, Penner’s parents and family started to disperse from their home.
Just ten minutes after the MLB Draft ended, his phone started to light up again, as the scouts who were interested in him from the beginning started throwing free agent offers at him.
“I hadn’t even really considered free agent signing a possibility, just because I hadn’t really thought about it and I didn’t really know how that whole process worked,” Penner laughed.
In between calls from scouts, he called his family back to the house to help weigh his options.
As each offer came in, he asked for a little time but understood the scouts were ready to move on at any time. Eventually, one offer stood out more than others.
“Honestly, the Philadelphia scout (Dave Dangler) that I had was amazing,” Penner said. “Since the first time he ever saw me, he was always the guy I would communicate with. He was just awesome, a really good guy to talk about baseball and it didn’t feel like the conversations we had were forced or anything.”
Another interesting connection was his former Vauxhall coach, Les McTavish, is a scout with the Phillies.
“I loved him as a coach,” Penner said. “So that was a pretty cool connection to have as well.”
NOT A NO-DOUBTER
The next few days were a blur for the newly-signed Phillie, as he answered the barrage of phone calls and text messages while packing his bags for a trip to Florida to start his professional journey.
Penner also had to get himself back into a baseball mindset, not having played a game in over two weeks.
Once in Clearwater, he also had to quickly become a sponge, learning about his own play as well as how to communicate with players of different backgrounds, including some who didn’t speak English.
He says, for the most part, the new prospects were able to just go out and play.
“For not seeing pitching in 14 days and then getting in the box and it seemed like every guy was throwing 95 miles an hour and 95 felt like 100 to me at the time,” Penner said.
“It was eye-opening but it was awesome and everything I expected it to be at the same time.”
Among the highlights of his ten games in the Florida Complex League was his first professional home run against the FCL Blue Jays on August 15.
He admits he was just trying to hit something hard up the middle when he laced a 2-2 offering from righthander Darwin Cruz to the opposite field.
“To be honest, I thought it was a flyout and then I saw the guy carrying back and back and back, and then he finally hit the wall and it was over the fence,” Penner recalled. “It wasn’t the most no-doubter home run I’ve ever hit, that’s for sure, but it was probably one of the coolest.”
Unfortunately, Penner and his fellow instructional league teammates’ season was cut short by the incoming Hurricane Ian.
He finished his first sojourn in pro ball with a .129 batting average, including four hits (two singles, a double and that home run), three walks, five runs scored and three RBI.
TURNING FLY BALLS INTO HOME RUNS
Coming home early also meant not finishing up the things he had been working on or having exit meetings.
However, Penner left Florida knowing exactly what he wanted to work on so that he can make an impact in Spring Training.
After having spent most of his career as a first baseman, he was moved to third base, so he wants to feel more comfortable there.
“The offseason is definitely a time where you can separate yourself and you don’t want to lose a step at all,” Penner said. “Other than that, I will definitely be in the weight room trying to put on a few pounds so maybe more of those fly balls turn into home runs.”
He also looks forward to being able to visit his old stomping grounds and speaking with young athletes who are just starting their own baseball journeys.
Penner was recognized at a Bulls game shortly after he signed his contract, and was blown away when kids came up to him asking for pictures and autographs.
“It means a lot to me because I was seriously that exact same kid and to have them maybe look at me and say that this could happen or this is possible, it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Penner also hopes sharing his story makes young players realize that if you put in the work, your dreams can come true.
He says he wasn’t the most talented baseball player, he wasn’t chosen for Team Alberta or the Junior National Team, but he kept at it and the fruits of his labour are finally paying off.
“It means the world to be able to go around and wear ‘Alberta’ across my chest, especially in the world of baseball,” Penner said. “Alberta has a pretty rich history of baseball and to be a part of that legacy in some sort of way is unbelievable for me to think about now and it’s something I will have with me for the rest of my life.”