Catawba catcher makes mark in Cape Cod League
SALISBURY — Catawba catcher T.J. Wharton looks forward to receiving the package that will contain his Cape Cod Baseball League championship ring.
“That’s something not everyone has,” Wharton said. “I’m looking forward to walking around with that on my finger.”
It’ll be a daily reminder of a special summer in Massachusetts.
“The Cape would’ve been a great experience no matter what,” Wharton said. “But winning a championship made it something special. You get close when you’re on a championship team. I’m still talking to those guys every day, and we’ll probably be friends the rest of our lives.”
A Florida native, Wharton arrived at Catawba after a stint at Guilford Technical Community College. His Catawba career started with an 0-for-21 slump in 2013. But Wharton is a ferocious hitter who can adjust to any level. He finished his season with team highs of 10 homers and 57 RBIs (in 51 games) and batted a respectable .298.
“T.J. has great bat speed,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “Just really unusual bat speed.”
Wharton signed up to play summer ball for the Kernersville Bulldogs in the Carolina-Virginia Collegiate League and was productive in a wood-bat, pitcher-dominated league. In 25 games, he batted .299 with three homers and 15 RBIs.
His time in Kernersville was cut short by a phone call from Gantt.
“Coach called out of the blue and told me not to get excited, but there was a chance I might get to go to the Cape League,” Wharton said. “Then I got that call. The next morning I’m catching a plane at 7 a.m., and then I’m playing in the Cape League that same night.”
Not many Division II players get a chance in the Cape Cod Baseball League. It’s recognized as the elite summer wood bat league for college players, the best of the best.
But the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox were in dire need of a catcher. Atlanta Braves scout Billy Best had recommended Wharton, and Best’s opinion carries weight.
The Y-D Red Sox have history. Chris Sale, Buster Posey, Craig Biggio and Michael Bourn wore their uniform. The Sox play in the town of South Yarmouth at a high school field.
“Honestly, the fields weren’t all that great, but everything else was exactly what everyone says about the Cape,” Wharton said. “The fans, the scouts, the atmosphere. It’s all just amazing and the level of competition is outstanding. The guys throwing 90s didn’t worry you because you knew they’d make a mistake. But those guys throwing upper 80s, you knew they were going to be perfect. They were going to dot it up every time.”
Wharton said there were 20-40 scouts in the stands each day. That was just for batting practice.
The Catawba senior held his own. He caught once a week, but often his bat got him in the lineup as the DH. He went 9 for 29 (.310), hit a home run and knocked in eight runs.
Wharton had the opportunity to participate in a Scout Day at Fenway Park. He was amazed at how small the park looked. When he heard the announcement that there were 71 pro scouts on hand in Fenway he made up his mind to cross whacking a homer over the towering Green Monster in left field off his bucket list.
“I hit a lot of balls on a line, put a few dents in the Monster,” Wharton said with a laugh. “But I never hit one over it. I did finally hit one out there to center field.”
Wharton was joined in the Cape by Catawba teammate Shaefer Shepard, who pitched for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks. Gantt said they were the first players he’s ever had in the Cape. Their teams played against each other, but Wharton didn’t face Shepard.
Wharton helped Yarmouth-Dennis win the league championship and developed a reputation along the way as a guy who, in his own words, “swings out of his shoes a lot.”
“One of the D-I guys told me he’d never seen a guy swing as hard as I did,” Wharton said. “That was cool. I took that comment as a compliment.”
Wharton got seen by a host of pro scouts. That enhances his draft prospects next June.
“It kind of takes a lot of pressure off me,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a fantastic season at Catawba, and there’s a lot less stress on me now. I found out in the Cape I can compete with anyone.”