Sports

Getting in the Game

Once overlooked on the diamond, Kalispell’s Ryan Wardinsky now spends his days searching for baseball’s next big thing

There was nothing special, really, about the way Ryan Wardinsky played in the 1998 Montana-Alberta Class AA American Legion state baseball tournament in Whitefish.

He was special, sure, but not in any way that was markedly different from the way he had been special on the diamond for much of his life — smacking baseballs all over the park, gobbling up grounders from the middle of the infield and even tossing a few innings on the mound.

The athletic Wardinsky had few peers in Montana baseball but that itself was part of the problem. Having been blessedly cursed by being born and raised in Northwest Montana, Wardinsky dominated the competition he faced but drew the attention of pretty much no one else. The teenager would spend his days researching college baseball programs, dreaming of one day playing in front of thousands of rabid fans against the world’s toughest competition, while his coach spent his days begging for someone, anyone, to take a look at the understated star he had in his midst.

They finally did late in his senior season.

“We had a tough time getting him recruited just because of the nature of baseball in Montana,” Randy Shipman, the Lakers’ AA coach from 1995-98, said. “Then coach (Ken) Johnson came and watched the state tournament for five minutes and said, ‘I need to sign that kid,’ and I said, ‘Yeah you do.’”

Johnson would sign Wardinsky to join his program at Walla Walla (Washington) Community College and send the infielder on a years-long journey in baseball that continues today as Wardinsky enters his 14th season as an area scout for the Miami Marlins.

It’s a journey through the sport unlike many others in Montana history, and it’s part of what brings Wardinsky back to the state every summer to put on clinics to teach the next generation of Treasure State ballplayers about the game and, perhaps, keep a dream alive for a young star just waiting to be seen.

“(Wardinsky)’s a great example of what we have,” Shipman, who coached for 24 years in Montana, said. “Some of them can play at a really high level.”

On a warm summer morning this July, Wardinsky, 38, is sitting in the Lakers dugout at Griffin Field and reminiscing about the worst injury of his athletic career.

It was here in the summer after his junior year of high school — his second-to-last year with the Lakers — that Wardinsky had raced into the outfield to chase after a popup. So too had his teammates, both the center fielder and second baseman, and as gravity brought the ball tumbling to the earth at precisely the wrong moment in precisely the wrong spot, Wardinsky and the two other Lakers crashed together violently.

“I got hit hard by somebody,” he said, still a little foggy on the details of the actual collision. “When I got to the emergency room they thought I was in a car wreck.”

Wardinsky ruptured his spleen, among other ailments, and spent days in the hospital. He missed most of that baseball season, costing himself a chance to make headway in scouting circles among both college and professional recruiters.

But while scouts may not have been paying attention to him, Wardinsky was paying attention to the larger baseball world and trying to map out a future by himself.

“My last year or two of high school I did quite a bit of research on various Division I programs around the country,” he said. “I narrowed it down to, if I could choose one place, it would be Texas A&M.”

One year later, Wardinsky got on a hot streak the second half of his final season of legion baseball and carried that into what would be a sensational state tournament. When he talked to Ken Johnson, then the head coach at Walla Walla Community College, Johnson, now smitten with the young shortstop, let it slip that he just so happened to have connections at his dream school, Texas A&M.

“(Johnson) told me, ‘If you come play for me for one year, I’ll get you into any program in the country you want,’” Wardinsky recalled. “And for some reason I trusted him and believed him, and I’m glad I did because it worked out just like he said it would.”

Before committing to Walla Walla, Wardinsky was picked by the Colorado Rockies in the 37th round of the 1998 draft as a draft-and-follow prospect, meaning the Rockies would retain his rights and could offer to sign him up until the next year’s draft. After one season at Walla Walla, though, Wardinsky discovered that Texas A&M needed a middle infielder and the decision — whether to sign with the Rockies, remain at Walla Walla or transfer to join the Aggies — was an easy one.

“It’s one of those programs where baseball really mattered,” Wardinsky said. “There’s not a ton of places where college baseball really is a major draw, and at A&M it was and continues to be. I’m biased now, looking back, but I think A&M’s probably the best place in America to play college baseball.”

Wardinsky played three years for the Aggies and their devoted fans, piling up 138 hits in 143 games and batting .304 with a .413 on-base average as a senior. Following that season, another baseball dream would come true: Wardinsky was once again drafted, this time by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 30th round, and signed his first professional contract.

But while Wardinsky once carried dreams of being an MLB star, by the time he turned pro he had spent three years competing in one of the nation’s toughest conferences and had made an uncommonly candid self-assessment.

“I think a lot of players get into pro ball and maybe aren’t totally realistic with their abilities or where they fit in the scheme of things relative to getting to the big leagues,” he said. “And I don’t think I was ever in that category.”

After two years of grinding away in the minor leagues, Wardinsky retired as a player and returned to Texas A&M having fallen in love with the school and the state during his playing days. There he earned a Master’s degree in sports management, unsure of what his next job would be, while his wife, Jodi, had a little more clarity.

“I knew going into it that baseball was Ryan’s love,” she said. “There was never a question of whether he was going to stay in baseball or not.”

Not long after completing his post-graduate degree, Wardinsky attended Major League Baseball Scout School, an invitation-only seminar the league hosts for training up-and-coming observers of the sport, and was fortunate enough to quickly land a job working for the Marlins.

In the 14 years since then, the Kalispell native has moved his family first to the Oklahoma City area and now a suburb of Houston, The Woodlands, where Jodi teaches at a local elementary school and the pair raises their young daughters, ages 6 and 8.

Jodi and Ryan met in the second grade and started dating 21 years ago when both were star athletes at Flathead High School. Then Jodi Hagestad, Ryan’s future wife would go on to play volleyball at Carroll College and the pair was married after graduation, just before Ryan needed to report to the Phillies.

“Our honeymoon was driving down to Florida for spring training,” Jodi recalled with a laugh.

The scouting life keeps Ryan on the road quite a bit, although as the area scout for a fairly condensed south Texas region, he spends considerably more nights at home than when he was covering a handful of Midwestern states. Still, the unglamorous world of scouting does have its downsides.

“There’s certain challenges,” he said. “The travel, being away from home, all that stuff can be difficult … It’s tough on your family when you’re gone so much and you miss things at home.”

For her part, Jodi said her teaching job helps make co-parenting easier and she even occasionally takes their daughters along to help dad scout. She added that while the sport may be her husband’s first love, it’s not his top priority.

“He’s a good husband and just a really good dad, and that’s what’s important,” she said. “Even though I know baseball’s his first love, I know he always puts his family ahead of that.”

Ryan’s baseball life has taken him around the country to see or play the game, and his scouting prowess has produced a trio of MLB players thus far, including the hard-hitting Logan Morrison (now with the Minnesota Twins) and Marlins pitcher Dillon Peters.

Even with some success, however, Wardinsky knows his future in the game is far from a guarantee. Professional sports teams are famously fickle and rarely hesitate to make personnel changes, especially when a new administration takes over. The Marlins, under new ownership since 2017, fired their scouting director just weeks ago, and while Wardinsky said he was recently reassured his job was safe, that’s no guarantee in the short or long term.

“I know that it’s an unstable industry by nature, but hopefully I can stay in the game as long as I can,” he said. “You just try to focus on the things you can control.”

So for now Wardinsky will return to the road, scouring the ball fields of south Texas for the next superstar, after he finishes holding the dual baseball clinics — one in Kalispell and one in Butte — that he has put on for the last six years. For Wardinsky it’s a way to give a little back to his home state and provide hope and guidance for the next Montana ballplayer dreaming of making it big.

“He got a lot out of the game and now he’s able to give some of it back, and it’s awesome for him to do that,” Shipman said. “For the kids that are playing now, he’s a tremendous role model … ‘There’s a guy that came from Kalispell, Montana and made it pretty big time, and I can do it, too.’”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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