Just four months ago, Jamie Westbrook was on the brink of making the major leagues.
The 25-year-old outfielder received a Spring Training invitation from the San Francisco Giants at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz. He spent the previous six seasons in the Diamondbacks’ minor league system and sensed his time in the big leagues was on the horizon.
“Everything was looking up at that moment,” he said. “I was feeling good about making it to that next level,. But then everything just got out of control.”
Just as things were coming together, Westbrook’s future was turned upside down. Covid-19 reached Arizona and Major League Baseball canceled Spring Training on March 12. The 2020 MLB season was delayed days later with little hope for a MiLB season, putting the livelihoods of hundreds of minor leaguers at stake.
Westbrook is one of the victims of an unprecedented pandemic. He was released by the Giants on June 25, putting his MLB career in jeopardy.
“I was pretty numb when I found out. It didn’t really feel real,” he said. “It still doesn’t feel real to me at times. But all I can do is keep playing and hopefully be ready for the next opportunity.”
Even in the midst of Covid-19, Westbrook found a second chance at professional baseball this season. The former Triple-A Reno Ace now plays for the Sugar Land Lightning Sloths of the Independent Professional Baseball League.
The Lightning Sloths are one of four teams within the Constellation Energy League in Sugar Land, Texas. It opened the season on July 10 with fans in attendance under strict safety guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control.
Independent baseball leagues aren’t affiliated with Major or Minor League Baseball, giving players who don’t make or join an MLB organization a chance to play professionally.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to get back out there on the field,” Westbrook said. “There is a waiting list to get here. I’m fortunate enough that my body of work throughout my career earned me a spot to be able to play.”
Westbrook is making the most of his second opportunity in Sugar Land. He’s batting .353 with two RBIs and a team-best three doubles in five games this season.
At 5-foot-9 and 193 pounds, Westbrook fits the profile of a contact-first outfielder, but he’s looking to wreak havoc at the plate. He developed a low leg kick in his right-handed swing to generate more power, which translated to 35 homers over the past two minor league seasons.
“I’m trying to do damage,” he said. “It’s all about finding pitches to drive and I try to do that as often as possible, let my ability speak for itself.”
Dozens of players from different leagues and countries have gathered in the independent leagues. Westbrook has reunited with his former Dbacks teammates, including former Ace Zach Borenstein.
“It’s kind of like a reunion tour,” Westbrook said. “You may see a few of these guys at a wedding or something. But them being here is a bit refreshing to think back on some of the times we had playing together.”
A Chandler, Ariz. native, Westbrook suited up for his hometown team when the Dbacks drafted him in the fifth round of the 2013 MLB Draft out of Basha High School. He spent the 2019 season with Double-A Jackson and Triple-A Reno.
Westbrook finished the season with a .281/.358/.451 slash line with 16 home runs, 26 doubles and 77 RBIs in 128 games. He launched two home runs in his second career game with the Aces in 2018.
“I think I matured a lot and it was nice to get my feet wet in Triple-A,” he said. “I just wanted to show I was capable of playing against the highest competition to that point and I was able to. … I know I’m capable of playing in the major leagues.”
Westbrook didn’t make his MLB debut in Arizona. He elected for free agency this offseason and signed a minor-league contract with San Francisco. The slugging outfielder was on the brink of the big leagues before Covid-19 forced him to focus on other destinations.
Despite the obstacles in place, he was appreciative of his time with the Dbacks organization.
“The time I had there was awesome,” Westbrook said. “I would have loved to make it to the major leagues, but my experience there was unforgettable and I’ll take that to the next organization I join.”
Westbrook is playing independent baseball for now, but his eyes are set on making it to the majors. If Minor League Baseball returns next season, expect him to come back stronger and focused.
“That’s my goal right now,” he said. “I just want to show teams I’m still capable of playing at a high level and ultimately make the major leagues. As long as I’m playing, I believe I have a shot. At this time, it’s more true than ever.”