Feb. 25, 2013
By Sean Tenaglia `16
"Did you ever consider giving up baseball for good?"
"Absolutely. Right after that conversation with Coach, I didn't want to even think about baseball. I couldn't believe what had happened."
Ricky Palmer is a senior catcher on the Notre Dame baseball team. He doesn't get much playing time - in fact he only has nine career at-bats - but he doesn't let this fact bother him. Ricky considers his role on the team as important as that of an everyday starter.
"I see myself as no different than the other seniors," Palmer says. "I still assume a leadership role even though I'm not getting the at-bats. I know a lot about the game and many of the younger guys come to me for help."
Ricky's teammates love having him around in the clubhouse. The words they use to describe Ricky (whom they affectionately call "Rocco") speak volumes about his character and impact on the team.
"Ricky is loyal, genuine, dedicated and my best friend," senior co-captain Charlie Markson says.
Junior relief pitcher Dan Slania describes Palmer as someone who is always there to help out when the team needs it.
"Ricky brings the team together," Slania says. "You can always trust him. He will tell you what he thinks, and won't sugarcoat it for you."
This might seem high praise for a walk-on bullpen catcher. For Ricky Palmer, it barely scratches the surface of his character.
Palmer, who grew up in Orland Park, Ill., attended Brother Rice High School in Chicago. As a sophomore, he made the varsity baseball team and helped lead the Crusaders to the state tournament. Palmer also played on a summer travel team throughout high school and was able to showcase his talents on a larger stage.
"Travel ball is really competitive now, and how you get a lot of your looks for college," the senior catcher says. "During my senior year, my team made the national tournament and played in the Connie Mack World Series. The top eight travel teams in the country played in the World Series, so it was a really big deal for all of us. That was probably my best experience prior to college."
Palmer received interest from Division I schools including Central Michigan and Creighton. However, having grown up just two hours from South Bend, he always had a place reserved for Notre Dame as No. 1 in his heart.
"When I got in, I knew I couldn't turn it down," Palmer says. "I figured I would try to walk-on my freshman year, and if I didn't make it, I would still be a student at Notre Dame. Making the team would just be a plus."
After working out with the team all fall, Palmer sat down with then Irish head coach Dave Schrage, who informed Palmer that the team unfortunately did not have an open roster spot for him for that season. However, Schrage said that he could continue to practice and work out with the team through winter training.
"Coach said that next year they would have a spot for me, and I was good to go," Palmer says.
All seemed right with the world. However, as Palmer soon would find out, sometimes there are bumps along the road.
"It turns out that after my freshman year, coach Schrage was let go and we had a whole new coaching staff. When coach Aoki and his staff came in, I had to start the process all over again."
Palmer did not let this setback prevent him from achieving his goal of making the Irish baseball team. After months of hard work and dedication, Palmer had earned a spot on the squad. Fans familiar with the lore of Notre Dame football may find it difficult not to draw comparisons between the stories of "Rocco" and "Rudy".
Instead of acknowledging his own accomplishment, however, Palmer recognizes the impact that others had on him throughout the process.
"The older guys were great. I had a lot of guidance from the seniors," Palmer says as he describes walking-on to the team. "It was a little nerve-wracking because it's an adjustment and you aren't really sure how you stand with the team, but the older guys really helped me along the way."
During his sophomore season, Palmer played in nine games with a total of nine at-bats. He had one hit in those nine plate appearances - a double in his first career at-bat as a member of the squad.
Things were looking bright for Palmer. In making the team and earning playing time, he had conquered the toughest challenge of his baseball career. Everything would be smooth sailing from here.
Or so Palmer thought.
After the annual intrasquad Blue-Gold Fall World Series in October 2011, Palmer was called into coach Aoki's office. What followed was unexpected and shocked Palmer.
"Coach Aoki told me that he didn't see me getting much playing time, but that he wanted to keep me on as a clubhouse presence," the senior says about the difficult conversation. "He knew I got along with the guys, and my role essentially would be catching in the bullpen and helping out the coaching staff with whatever they needed."
This news had come out of left field for Palmer.
"I was stunned. I couldn't believe what had happened," Palmer says of his immediate reaction following the conversation. "I had continued to improve during the offseason, and I was going into the season thinking I was going to get some playing time. I just didn't know how to take it."
The situation was incredibly difficult for the man who had to make the ultimate decision to cut Palmer: Aoki.
"As a coach, cutting a kid and effectively ending his baseball career is one of the most difficult aspects of the job," Aoki says of the decision. "Unfortunately, it does come with the job, and cutting Ricky was especially tough because he's a guy who cares enormously about the Notre Dame baseball program."
At this point, Palmer faced a few dark moments when he considered giving up baseball for good. Then, with the influence of his family, he discovered a new perspective on the situation.
"My family was devastated for me, but they helped me see the situation clearly," the Orland Park native says. "I was reacting emotionally to the situation, while they were reacting more rationally. They definitely made me see the bigger picture of what coach was offering.
"I viewed it as a slight towards me, as if they didn't want me playing, but my family made me see it clearer as a testament to my character that coach wanted me around the clubhouse."
After clearing his head about the situation, Palmer chose to return to the team as the bullpen catcher. He referred to his decision as a "no-brainer."
"I just missed being around the guys and around the game. I am really glad that I made the right choice."
Palmer's teammates and coaches were even happier that "Rocco" chose to return to the team. Despite the fact that he didn't play in a game throughout his junior campaign, Palmer's impact on the team was invaluable.
"Beyond being really helpful in facilitating practice, he's just such a good and positive guy," Aoki says of the walk-on catcher. "He has a great sense of humor, and he's fun to be around. He also does a great job with Chuck Ristano (Notre Dame's pitching coach) in particular, giving him feedback on each of the pitchers."
"Ricky is always there to say `this is how you should get loose,' or `this is how many pitches you should throw,'" Markson says of his teammate. "You can see his impact in how our pitchers come out to the mound every game, confident and ready to throw."
Markson stated that Palmer's influence was even more noticeable on Opening Day of the 2013 season, when freshman relief pitchers Zak Katsulis and Nick McCarty each made their collegiate debuts on the mound.
"All throughout the winter `Rocco' is catching bullpens literally for three straight hours. Anytime you see someone go in there and work fast and pound the strike zone, particularly freshmen, you know Ricky got him ready. It's something I never question anymore, I know it's going to happen."
Will Hudgins, a former Irish pitcher and 2012 graduate of Notre Dame, was a 22nd round draft pick of the Washington in the `12 MLB Draft. Hudgins, who currently plays in the Nationals minor league system, considers Palmer as one of his greatest friends.
"I did almost all of my practice work with Ricky, and I don't think I have ever heard him complain once," Hudgins says of Palmer. "He's one of those guys that you can count on no matter what. He catches bullpen after bullpen without any negativity, and always has a calming effect on the team because he is such a steady presence."
Palmer's incredible attention to detail and preparation played a role in his securing of an internship with USA Baseball this past summer. Through the internship, Palmer was able to work with the Collegiate National Team.
"It was a great experience to be around coaches at the top of the game and to be able to pick their brains," the senior catcher says of his time with the Collegiate National Team. "The guys on the team just play the game how it should be played, and it was a pleasure to be around them."
Palmer also was granted an opportunity to work at the Tournament of Stars at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary, N.C. After a week of games, an original roster of the top 150 18-and-under players from across the country is reduced to the final 40-man roster. Palmer had a unique experience in being able to contribute to the choosing of 18-and-under National Team.
"I gained a lot of really good experience evaluating players. I sat in on all the team meetings, contributed to the roster cuts and met a lot of great people in the business."
The senior walk-on catcher hopes that his experience with Team USA is simply the first step in a long career in baseball, with the ultimate destination being part of a front office of a Major League Baseball team. Palmer understands that the road to the big leagues is no smooth ride, but he is no stranger to overcoming adversity.
He also entertains the idea of possibly becoming a coach at some point in his life.
"I love working with kids and talking the game with people," Palmer says. "I've been around the game a long time, and I feel that I know the game well enough to help kids out, so I could definitely see myself coaching."
Based on his experiences with the team over the past few years, Palmer's teammates and coaches would certainly agree that he could make an impact in any facet of the game.
"He has a steady personality and he definitely knows the game well," Aoki says. "He's a really bright and highly motivated kid, so I think he could coach, work in the front office and even at some point run a Major League Baseball club as a general manager."
Palmer's time at Notre Dame will come to a close after his graduation this spring and the completion of the baseball season. His road has been rocky, with unexpected obstacles at every turn. Yet, Palmer has never allowed these problems to trip him up. In fact, he considers them to be blessings.
Instead of taking the easy road out and quitting the team after getting cut, Palmer chose the road less traveled and took the opportunity to redefine his role on the team and become a more vocal leader in the clubhouse and the bullpen.
If this incident were any indication of his outstanding character and work ethic, it would come as no surprise to see Ricky Palmer make a name for himself in the years to come.