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LeVon Washington: A dream deferred

The former Indians prospect has found himself in between baseball worlds, unable to find a clear path to fulfilling his dreams

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In a perfect world, we would all fulfill the dreams we had as kids.

Well, maybe not all of them — a world made of ice cream or the ability to shoot lasers out of our eyes might be detrimental to society. But as far as becoming the people we hoped we’d be when were were small, it might make for a much happier world. There’d be way less actuaries and accountants maybe, and probably an oversupply of firemen.

Of course, the baseball pipeline would be chock full. As it is, few people chase that dream past childhood, and fewer still get to achieve being a professional baseball player at all. Such is the life of LeVon Washington.

The endless potential of a top prospect

In December I wrote about his ever more winding path in baseball, his pursuit of that dream. It caught his eye, and we talked last week about where he’s found himself. Once mere steps from Major League Baseball, the former top prospect finds himself trapped in baseball purgatory.

For a few years, Washington was pure electricity on the Indians farm. Rated as the top athlete in the system, the former second-round pick was consistently intriguing with his combination of athleticism and talent, along with is unique presence on social media. But even with all he showed on the field, the player climbing the prospect rankings was a shadow of his true self.

”Most of my time with the Indians I was battling an injury. I don’t think at any point I was 100 percent healthy. I was always either playing hurt, playing through an injury, or needing surgery on something,” Washington said. “My entire time there i was just trying to find myself and get healthy, and having to compete at the same time, so it was hard for me, being the number two prospect, number seven prospect every year, I didn’t really have a chance to show what I could do because I was always hurt.”

Problems with both hips — each requiring labral surgery — sapped Washington of his greatest gifts, and despite that, he hovered at the top of the Indians’ prospect rankings. It frustrated the young player, but it plainly didn’t dissuade him or completely restrict his raw talent.

In 2012, across three levels, he posted a .333/.439/.353 line; in 2013 he hit .348/.444/.552 in 61 games, and in 2014 over 70 games he slashed .294/.402/.393. He was never a big power guy, still growing, but the average and the on-base rates were both excellent. As Washington tells it, the 2016 season was the first time since joining the Indians that he’d even had a chance for a full offseason. And he took full advantage of it.

”I went home I was 180 pounds, I came into Spring Training 210 pounds ready to compete and make the team.”

After five years in the Indians’ system, it was time for Washington to make some noise, and take that next step in his development.

The second game into spring training, Washington was feeling good, wanting to show everyone how good he was, and what a spark plug he could be. While going all-out down the line and diving into first base, fate betrayed him. He hurt his thumb too badly to hold a bat and ended up back on the shelf.

Trapped in extended rehab, all he could think was, “Here we go again”.

He still felt great, and there were no signs of a change in attitude from the front office. He had to assume it was just another bout with the disabled list. Once he got back healthy and reported to play, a call from the Indians brass carried those terrible words. Washington had been released.

But the one thing about Washington that even injury couldn’t damage, his unflagging belief in himself that any great athlete needs, told him that he should continue. The Indians had suggested he try independent ball as a route back to the bigs, a tried and well trodden path that many men had followed before. He didn’t receive any calls from other big league teams, which he called “weird”, since here was a 24-year-old former top prospect in the best shape of his life, finally healthy. You’d think someone would want to kick the tires. But a friend of his, Derek Robinson (onetime Reds prospect, played last season with the York Revolution in the Atlantic League) let him know about opportunities in Sioux City with the Explorers of the American Association.

A couple days later, Washington found himself in North Dakota, far from the big leagues and starting on what he hoped would be a new path back to his dream.

Journey through the independent leagues

It was certainly a change of pace. For years he’d been under the microscope with the Indians. As a top prospect, his growth was closely watched and charted. Independent baseball is a world different from that life. It’s raw, distilled, bare-bones baseball.

“I respect those guys,” said Washington, “you don’t get days off like in affiliated ball. It’s 100 games, you play in every single game. There’s no trainers there to help you, you’re pretty much on your own to go out there and compete.”

A far cry from the supportive, player development-centric world of affiliated minor league ball, but also a chance for Washington to prove himself anew. And prove he did. He played in every game the rest of the year as outfield and DH, hitting .339 with a .797 OPS in 48 games. He split time with Robinson in left, giving the Explorers a sense of what he could do in the field.

“(The manager) expressed to me what I have to do to get back to affiliated baseball,” said Washington, “you gotta steal bases, show you’re healthy, come out here play the outfield, come out and compete, you’ll be back in affiliated’.”

He did all that, and with Robinson moving on after the season, Washington knew he’d get his shot as a full-time player, and find himself quickly back on track to fulfill his goals. Unfortunately for him, that’s where things went sour.

Coming into 2017 spring training, Washington was all set to take over left field full-time.

“In my head, I’m thinking I got left field. I was there last year, so I should play every day in left.”

Considering his numbers and history as a center fielder, his assumption didn’t seem too wild. Except for the fact the Explorers had signed Jayce Ray to play outfield. In Washington’s eyes, it’s like the decision was predetermined.

“I come in to spring training” Washington remembers, “and right away I’m already the designated hitter on the team. I don’t even get to touch the field.”

This held true all season. He appeared in the outfield in 28 games according to Baseball Reference, but mostly late in games or as an injury replacement. Instead, he played the professional and DH’d faithfully, posting an excellent .293/.373/.454 line and demonstrating previously unseen power. His OPS was third highest on the team and he was tied for the team lead in home runs with 12. He would be hard-pressed to do anything more at the plate to prove his value as a player, but that may have actually worked against him. In independent ball, to get players on your team sometimes you have to make promises of play time. Washington didn’t insist on this, and it’s possible he was shunted aside in favor of Ray in left.

Ray left the team after 2017, and Washington looked at 2018 as his chance to finally get his shot to prove himself as an all-around player. Then in January, a call from Sioux City pitching coach Bobby Post threw Washington for a loop. In a voicemail Post let Washington know they’d be happy to have him back and “compete” for a starting job. He also mentioned that Washington had been put on waivers. Understandably shocking, but more so is what happened next.

Washington was excellent offensively, so if a player of his caliber shows up on waivers, it makes sense other teams would jump at the chance. He received no calls inquiring of his services, and so he made the move himself, calling the Lincoln Saltdogs seeing if they needed an outfielder. As Washington put it, they were shocked he called.

“I called the Lincoln coach (Bobby Brown) and he immediately tells me ‘Is this LeVon Washington from Sioux City, whose been killing us for the last two years?’ He said he didn’t know if he could talk to me.”

The Saltdogs didn’t even know Washington had been placed on waivers. No team did. Only one other team, the Lakewood Blue Claws in the Atlantic League, even showed interest, and it would have been at a reduced rate and he’d still have to compete for an outfield spot.

What lies ahead

Washington didn’t sign, and still hasn’t signed for the 2018 season. The Explorers hold his rights, and unless his contract is purchased by some other league like Mexico, he is stuck either playing and DH’ing in Sioux City or sitting out the whole season. Either way, another year lost.

“I can’t get back to affiliated or play in Mexico if I’m DH’ing,” he said, “it benefits me none to go back to Sioux CIty and DH 100 games. I did that last year and didn’t get any interest from any teams doing that.”

If the goal is to fulfill a dream, become the player he envisioned he’d be as a small boy, and the route to that is playing both offense and defense at a regular clip, then Washington is having that dream taken away. Life, of course, isn’t fair. The Explorers have little beyond winning games on their mind, and if they can get one or two players a year back on track, that’s a success to them. So Washington would be useful to them in teh lineup, but getting former major leaguers and fulfilling promises to them helps as well.

Washington and his father have reached out to the office of American Association Commissioner Miles Wolfe, trying to get answers about the supposed waiver wire situation, the lack of communication from the Explorers, and really any answers at all. Until then, Washington twists in the wind, caught in limbo as he fights to continue his pursuit of a life goal. He’s still young, still skilled and still hungry. And yet, each day he can’t fully prove himself is another day he fades into anonymity, another day the summit of his life’s work grows more distant. Without sure answers who knows how this will all end.

For a guy who has followed his heart this long, this shouldn’t be how it all ends, that’s for sure.

[Update: April 10, 2018]: Managing an independent baseball team is no easy task, as Sioux City Explorers manager Steve Montgomery can attest. For four years now he’s guided the the Explorers to 50 games over .500, a couple playoff berths and perhaps just as important, his team has sent more players back to the majors than any other American Association franchise.

“If we move players, we’ll have a lifeline in baseball,” says Montgomery. And that is the vital point to what’s happened with his DH and part-time outfielder for the last two seasons, LeVon Washington. As Washington has tried to ride the best route back to his dream of playing major league baseball, Montgomery has tried to help, but has a whole team that wants exactly the same thing.

“It’s about the kids,” he said, “That’s how I’ve built my team. It’s all about getting them back to the majors,”

So as Washington has fought to get a spot in the outfield and get noticed, Montgomery has tried to handle his requests along with the needs of the team and the goals of other players.

“We don’t want to seem like we’re holding Levon back from anything,” Montgomery said. And to be sure, they’ve made efforts. He had playing time in over 20 games in the outfield, but the problem with Sioux City is the park itself.

““We play in a big ball park. It’s 330 down each line. You gotta have deer in the outfield.”

As much speed as LeVon showed as a young player, the injuries that hounded him continued to hold him back. The Explorers played him in back-to-back games, but it caused discomfort, according to Montgomery. The manager did note that Washington had made an effort to slim down and gain more speed in the offseason, but even so, the needs of the team are paramount. This year, last year, and every year.

“Coming into 2017 there was never a promise made that Wash would play primarily outfield,” said Montgomery. “(Coming in to 2018) I said to him, he’s got to come in and compete, I can’t promise you I can or can’t give you the job.”

Thus Washington was put in a tough position, the one he finds himself in today.

“I love Wash, he’s a great dude,” said Montgomery. “His family is wonderful. He’s very professional, just a nice kid. We love having him on the team.” Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. The team has reached out to Washington in the last few days, and tried to fulfill his requests to be traded to the independent teams in St. Paul, Minnesota and Lincoln, Nebraska. Neither wanted Washington.

So, through a bad twist of fate and that old injury curse, a once high flying prospect must hunt for his chance, and hope for one more break.