Five months ago, Austin Wahl felt like he was clinging onto something he should probably let go—his goal of getting drafted and playing professional baseball. At the time, Wahl was enrolled at Cal State University Monterey Bay, contemplating whether to use up his final year of athletic eligibility after graduating from Cornell the previous year.
“I was on vacation with my family and felt like I was holding on too much to the dream and that I should let it go,” he said. “I told (CSUMB) coach (Walt) White and coach (Robert) Fabing (Wahl’s former Little League coach) that, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, but I’ve decided not to play this year. I don’t feel right about it and I don’t want to be a cancer on the team.’ They respected my decision.”
With a caveat. The 24-year-old Wahl relayed the conversation he had with coach White afterward.
“He told me, ‘Hey look, you don’t have to make a decision until Jan. 22. How about you come out for a few practices, see how you like the team and make a decision after that,'” said Wahl, who was raised in Hollister and graduated from Palma in 2013.
Wahl agreed to do just that, and it was the best decision he’s ever made. Wahl didn’t just have a solid season at CSUMB; rather, by simply showing up and working hard, he put himself out there to get noticed by Major League Baseball scouts. That led to the Oakland A’s selecting Wahl in the 23rd round of the MLB Draft in early June. Wahl signed with the A’s within a couple of days, and is currently in Arizona for mini camp with all of the other team’s draftees. It’s a weeklong process where the A’s evaluate all of the players—through physicals, bloodwork and a few batting practices and bullpens—before the players get placed within the organization.
“Most likely I’ll be playing rookie ball in Arizona, but there’s a slight chance I’ll be in Vermont or one of their other affiliates,” he said.
For a variety of reasons, one could describe Wahl’s odyssey to pro baseball as unexpected. For one, Wahl only played two years of high school baseball at Palma before being recruited to play football at Cornell. After serving on the scout team in 2013, Wahl didn’t suit up in pads again. He switched to baseball for the 2016 and 2018 seasons and graduated in May 2018 before Fabing told him he still had athletic eligibility remaining.
Physically, the 6-foot-4, 197-pound Wahl certainly looks the part. But teams don’t draft on looks alone, and Wahl showed enough stuff—he has a low 90 mph fastball and sharp slider—to become the highest draft choice in CSUMB history (at pick No. 704).
“I’m still considered a baseball lifer with substantial chunks throughout (my life in) which I didn’t play, and I think that helped my draft stock because my arm is so well preserved,” he said. “My velocity surely helped, and I’m really skinny with a lot of room of muscle to put on (my frame). It also helped that in the later half of my final seasons at Cornell and CSUMB, I started finding myself and getting dialed in.”
Even though he was just 1-2 with a 4.44 ERA at CSUMB, Wahl saved his best for last. In his final six outings, Wahl allowed just one run over 12 innings with 11 strikeouts. He obviously showed something where the A’s would select him in the 23rd round. On the day Wahl got selected, he was in a tizzy and essentially had no idea where he stood.
All Wahl knew was even if he didn’t get drafted, he was confident he could sign a free agent offer with a team. Wahl had contact with A’s scout Kevin Mello along with several other scouts midway through the season, but he didn’t really know what to make of those encounters.
“Once the scouts contact you, they run evaluations and they kind of shelf you and you don’t hear from them for a while,” he said. “I was hopeful to get drafted but not entirely sure I would. I was pleasantly surprised where I went. If anything, I was thinking if I got drafted, it would be maybe in the 30s rounds.”
About 30 to 45 minutes before Wahl got selected, Mello told Wahl it was likely the A’s would take him. But Wahl simply couldn’t watch the draft tracker.
“It was too agonizing,” he said. “So I set the phone down and was madly pacing around the house before I took my dogs for a walk to try to keep my mind off it.”
It was only when former Balers standout and CSUMB teammate Connor Fabing’s name appeared on his phone when Wahl had a suspicion he had just been drafted.
“Connor calling me, I knew it was impending,” he said. “I was freaking out when he told me. I don’t even remember the conversation—it was probably a mixture of histrionics and excitement. You’re almost delusional because this is something I had strived for my entire life and to have it actually happen was very zany… My phone was blowing up. It was definitely north of 50 (text messages). A lot of those numbers I didn’t even have on my phone. It was pretty incredible and exhausting, and definitely the best day of my life—bar none.”
Wahl’s mom, Christine, is a teacher at San Benito High. Wahl was a substitute teacher at the school during the 2018 fall semester, as he contemplated whether to use up his final year of college athletic eligibility. Wahl found out he still had one season of play remaining courtesy of Fabing, and for that, Wahl is eternally grateful.
“If not for Robert having noticed that (my athletic eligibility) and still looking out for his Little League boys, I wouldn’t be here today,” Wahl said. “I played with him for three years on the Yankees, and he’s so passionate and came to every one of our games this year at CSUMB. To have guys like him and coach White, who are good people, you say thank you and appreciate everything they’ve done.”
Going forward, Wahl has tunnel vision, knowing what needs to be done to one day make a MLB roster.
“The high (of getting drafted) hasn’t necessarily dissipated; it’s just been replaced with a different aim,” he said. “Now I’m here with a different goal, like I almost have to be drafted again to get to the show. If anything, I’m more elated now because the shock of it all has worn off.”