Life has changed dramatically for Reign Letkeman since he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015.
In what felt like the blink of an eye, the Red Deer product went from traveling on buses in the minor leagues to becoming a coach with his alma mater at Big Bend Community College, while also becoming a husband and a father.
And Letkeman wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It was a good run and I have no regrets,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
“Maybe I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to do, but I’ve put it all in where I can put my head down easy at night and know that I left it all on the table.”
His journey also included an operating table, and he’s hopeful that his story will help guide and inspire future generations of baseball players in Alberta and beyond.
BIG BEND, BIG CURVE
The middle child in an athletic family, Letkeman’s rise up the baseball ranks even took him by surprise.
Playing hockey in the winter and football in the fall, he and many others he grew up with saw baseball as a bit of a hobby to pass the time.
As the years went on, Letkeman started racking up accolades and achievements, including being a three-time ‘AAA’ provincial champion with Red Deer Minor Baseball and representing Alberta at the Canada Summer Games in 2011.
His pitching arsenal caught the attention of Big Bend Community College, who recruited him to join them in 2013.
Lauded for his curveball, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound hurler posted a 2.61 earned-run average and 50 strikeouts during his freshman season with the Vikings. He followed that up with an even better 1.58 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 34 innings during his injury-shortened sophomore season.
Letkeman admits it was hard to gauge just how good he was while he was in his home province, and really started to take the idea of playing professional baseball seriously once he started having success stateside.
“There wasn’t a whole of expectation on where I could take it,” he said. “Going down without a bunch of pressure, I was pretty open-minded about this new experience, and the world changed a lot from what I saw myself doing before going there to where I ended up at.”
After committing to Old Dominion University, Letkeman was chosen in the 23rd round of the 2015 draft by the Rays, and he decided to take a shot at the pro dream.
RISE AND FALL
Letkeman’s first stop was with the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Rays that summer, where he posted a 1-3 record and a 7.01 ERA in nine appearances, striking out 19 while walking five in 25-plus innings.
He followed that up with another 1-3 campaign in 2016 with the Appalachian League’s Princeton Rays, picking up a 5.19 ERA with 21 strikeouts and 12 walks in 26 innings.
During extended spring training in 2017, he was feeling good until he suffered a freak injury.
“It was just another day, taking a comebacker during a pitchers fielding practice session,” he recalled. “I got it and did a regular sidearm flip to second to turn a double-play.”
“It felt like when you chip a tooth or something like that – just that break off – and it just never felt the same after that.”
Letkeman tried to gut it out, and managed to get in two games for the Low-A Hudson Valley Renegades, but struggled with his velocity and command, leading to his eventual release.
“It was almost a relief because then I was like, ‘Now I can go get it fixed,’” he said.
GOING OUT ON HIS TERMS
While most Tommy John surgeries last an hour, Letkeman says he was under the knife for about three hours while doctors “cleaned up the mess” in his arm.
That led to a lengthy and mentally exhausting rehabilitation program, which took about a year to complete.
“A lot of it was one step forward, two steps back,” Letkeman said.
He returned to professional baseball in 2019 with the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies, where he put up a respectable 4-5 record with a 3.74 ERA, striking out 62 batters in 65 innings of work.
Letkeman admits he didn’t go into it thinking he was going to get back to the minor leagues or that he might end up in the majors.
He wanted to prove to himself that he could still perform at a professional level, and go out on his own terms as he was finishing up his schooling and was about to get married.
“Just where I was at life-wise, it was more just the cherry on top of, ‘I can do this, I put in the work, I lasted a season, I got it done, and just being able to hang the hat on my career and say now it’s on to the next thing,” Letkeman said.
He also admits he over-did it with Gateway, throwing more than 100 innings total a year after his surgery, and knew by the end of the season that his arm “still wasn’t right.”
IMPARTING HIS WISDOM
Instead of being angry or mulling over what could have been, Letkeman is thankful for the experience and the opportunity to hopefully impart some of his wisdom on younger players going through the same grind he did.
“Just understand that if you play this game long enough and you play this game hard enough, you’re going to get hurt,” he said.
“From where I’m at now in my coaching role, it has definitely helped me there, but being 22 and having no idea of what to expect or what to do, it was definitely challenging.”
He’s also extremely happy being at Big Bend and giving back to the baseball community there, saying that he’s a product of what he’s now preaching, and he hopes to bring a winning culture to the team.
Moreover, Letkeman is also able to give back to the baseball community in his home province.
The Vikings roster features a pair of Red Deer products in Heath Hachkowski and Kyle Belich, who are also both graduates of St. Joseph’s Academy, run by Sylvan Lake Gulls coach Jason Chatwood.
“Not only am I able to get guys from my hometown and keep that connection and make it a full circle, but they can come in and contribute,” Letkeman said.
“It’s not just having Red Deer guys sitting on the bench, but they’re going to come in and they’re going to see some serious innings, at-bats and that kind of stuff.”
Compared with when he was growing up, he says the game in Alberta and across Canada has grown exponentially, as former pros and high-level college players like Chatwood are coming back to show the new generation how to get to the next level.
“I’ve definitely tried to recruit a lot more Canadians than I used to, just because the talent level is definitely on the rise,” Letkeman said. “It’s not just Red Deer, but I think it’s Canada as a whole, where we’re seeing a lot more baseball talent come out of it because you’ve had guys blaze a trail and pass it on.”
And he is among the latest to bring his knowledge and experiences to do just that.