The first time Gary Collins saw Jake Watters throw a baseball in a Bland County High School uniform in the spring of 2016, the head coach had just one thought:
“What do I do now?”
The big right-handed kid was barely 15 years old and already hitting the mid-85 mph range on radar guns with his fastball.
So Collins, who played Division III college baseball at Emory & Henry, called one of his old coaches at Carroll County High School in Hillsville and received the following advice:
“He said, ‘Go over on the bench. Sit down and shut up, and don’t screw him up.’ “
Six years later, Watters has begun a career in professional baseball.
After pitching for three seasons at West Virginia University, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Watters was selected by the Oakland Athletics in the fourth round of the 2022 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft on July 18 as the 124th overall pick.
The boy whose first baseball memory is of swinging a red, white and blue bat as a 4-year-old in a t-ball league across the state line in Hurricane, West Virginia flew Wednesday to Oakland’s minor league training facility in Arizona after agreeing to what he said was a signing bonus of $491,750.
Watters began to dream the dream as a Little Leaguer watching his favorite local minor league team — the Princeton Devil Rays — on summer nights in the Appalachian League.
Now it’s reality.
“As a little kid … I would picture myself wearing a Rays jersey and Rays hat,” Watters said before reporting to Arizona. “I’d wear that jersey or hat to the field to watch them play. I definitely envisioned myself playing [pro baseball] one day, but I never thought it would be real.”
Forget a pro career. Merely earning a spot on an NCAA Division I roster might have seemed like a pipe dream for someone from a tiny Southwest Virginia school where the baseball team won just 15 games and lost 60 during Watters’ four years competing in the Mountain Empire District against the likes of Auburn, Fort Chiswell, Galax, George Wythe and Grayson County.
The 2019 Bland County graduate certainly had his doubts.
“It didn’t really get serious for baseball, for college at least, until late in my junior year into my senior year of high school,” he said. “You know, we’re going 3 and 17 every year in baseball. I’m not really having fun. It’s little Bland County and we’re getting beat up and all that. You never really think you have a chance of playing college baseball whenever you’re losing every game.”
Watters had a few aces up his right sleeve. He was born with baseball genes.
His cousin, Florida native Jason Michaels, played for four Major League teams over 11 seasons from 2001-11.
His father, Barry Watters, is a former player at nearby Division II Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. The elder Watters had the road map to get his son into college baseball.
It meant suiting up in the summer for a travel team based in Beckley, West Virginia and trekking out of state for individual showcase events.
Watters struck gold in the summer of 2018 at a camp at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Indiana State offered him a chance to join the Sycamores’ program as a walk-on, but ISU wanted him to first attend a junior college.
Similarly impressed, West Virginia offered a walk-on position with no strings attached.
Watters’ decision came with the speed of one of his fastballs that once registered 100 mph in high school.
“I didn’t really want to go the JUCO route, especially somewhere that was 12 hours away from the house,” he said. “I grew up a WVU fan anyway, so it was a no-brainer for me to go there. It was always a dream school.”
Watters spent his first two seasons in Morgantown in the WVU bullpen. He appeared in just five games as a freshman before hitting his stride in his second year at the Big 12 Conference school.
He posted a 4-1 record with a team-high four saves and a 3.33 earned run average while holding opponents to a .165 batting average in 19 games. He made his first career start against No. 1 Texas in a Big 12 elimination game, striking out eight in three innings against the top-seeded Longhorns.
Watters began the 2022 season as WVU’s closer, but the Mountaineers found themselves short of starting pitchers so he was moved into the rotation. He finished his third year with a 3-7 record in 18 appearances, striking out 75 and giving up 85 hits and walking 41 in 59 1/3 innings.
WVU head coach Randy Mazey, who doubles as the Mountaineers’ pitching coach, said Watters’ experience as a starter and closer should help with the transition to professional baseball.
“We did it out of necessity, but now that he’s done both it’s not going to be foreign to him,” Mazey said. “He was all about the adjustment. He wanted to do whatever he could do to help the team win.”
Such a skill sometimes can be learned.
Chris Jackson replaced Collins as Bland County’s head coach in 2018, inheriting the talented junior pitcher. However, Jackson coached Watters in youth leagues and knew what made the big kid tick.
As losses piled up for Bland County and Watters’ competitive nature occasionally boiled over, the coach sounded the alarm.
“There were times when he was younger he’d get frustrated with his teammates,” Jackson said. “When I took over his junior year, we sat down and had a talk, a pretty long talk, and that stopped. Almost immediately that stopped. He came to practice the next day with the attitude of trying to be more of a leader instead of someone trying to just bark orders at people.”
Despite Bland County’s overall struggles, Watters compiled some impressive highlights.
As a senior he pitched a five-inning perfect game against Mount View (W.Va.) and a no-hitter against Rural Retreat.
He hit the ground running as a freshman by striking out 19 batters with his whistling fastball in a victory over Northwood High of Saltville.
“When he was 12 years old, I’d say he was throwing in the mid-70s,” Jackson said. “Every year he just got faster and faster. His senior year he’d start the game maybe 84, 85 and the more he pitched, the faster he got. If he pitched the whole game and he relied on his fastball, you could tell it gassed him but it was something to watch.”
Watters wasn’t just a baseball star in high school.
He was the Mountain Empire District boys basketball player of the year as a senior. He was the starting quarterback on Bland County’s football team and could have had a Division I future in that sport.
“If he could have been in a situation where he could have been successful, he probably could have played some football,” Collins said. “He had the stature. He had the arm. And he had pretty good feet back then too.”
Bland County’s football team made the 2017 Virginia High School League playoffs, but the season ended with five blowout losses including 75-7 and 62-13 debacles against Galax.
With college baseball coaches showing interest in his talents, Watters threw in the towel after throwing his last football pass as a junior QB.
“I made the decision to give myself the best opportunity to be seen on the weekends and not get hurt in football,” he said. “I can’t go play football on Friday night and get beat up and then go out on Saturday and try to perform in a baseball game.
“I caught some grief for it from friends, but I think now they see why I made the sacrifice.”
Many of those friends were on the guest list for a viewing party Watters hosted at his grandfather’s house on the first day of the baseball draft July 17.
Even though Watters played briefly this summer in the amateur Cape Cod League and spent most of the rest of his time in Morgantown, returning to his home in the Dry Fork Section of Rocky Gap was important to the Southwest Virginia native.
“It’s not very often you see somebody from such a small town get out of there in such a way,” Watters explained. “It means so much more to me that I was able to come from Bland County. They were all so much prouder of me than I could ever imagine.
“It meant a lot to them, along with meaning a lot to me. It had to be done that way.”
Watters’ roots and loyalties do run deep.
Bland County Messenger sports editor Jerry Scott has covered the exploits of local athletes in the Bland/Rocky Gap area for decades.
Scott’s wife, Glenda, died in July 2020 and Watters’ mother called her son, who had just left a workout in Morgantown, to give him the bad news.
“After their call, he pulled over to the side of the road and prayed for us,” Scott said. “Makes my eyes leak every time I think of that.”
What else would a guy who toiled in WVU’s bullpen do but provide some relief?
“Jerry’s done a lot for Bland County itself, but not only that, he was always the sweetest person to me and still is,” Watters explained. “He’s just genuinely a good person. He means well with all that he does.
“The way he supported me and always had my back, it just showed what a great person he is and how deserving of the love a support back that he should get. He definitely needed that.”
Watters could have stayed in West Virginia for his senior year and even for an extra NCAA-approved “COVID season.” While he and his agent, Henri Stanley of the Dallas-based Ballengee Group had that to use as leverage in obtaining a larger signing bonus, Watters left little doubt immediately following the draft that he was anxious to begin his pro career.
“If everything would have gone right this season and certain things wouldn’t have happened, it was predicted for me to go, possible second round, definite third round,” he said.
“If I [waited], I don’t think I would go any higher. If I’d had a better season [at WVU] this year I definitely would have gone higher. Since the [COVID] backup, there’s so much talent in college baseball right now, waiting one more year at this point would kind of put me back in the same spot anyway.”
West Virginia’s program has produced current MLB pitchers Alex Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays and John Means of the Baltimore Orioles.
The road from draft day to a major league debut is a long one. Watters’ college coach will be tracking the 21-year-old’s progress.
“He’s obviously got the body for it and the makeup for it,” Mazey said. “He has a really strong arm, and he throws an overhand curveball that not many people in the world can throw.
“If he sticks with and stays committed to it and gets around some good people I think he’s got a chance. As a fourth-round pick, he’ll get a pretty good opportunity to show what he can do. He’s got elite stuff. You’re talking about some of the best stuff in all of college baseball.”
The A’s have teams in Las Vegas (Class AAA), Midland, Texas (Double-A), Lansing, Michigan (High-A), Stockton, California (Single-A) and Phoenix (Rookie, Arizona Complex League).
Watters expects initially to train in Arizona with Athletics personnel, throwing off a mound and eventually facing live hitters. He could begin his career with one of Oakland’s minor league affiliates or spend the rest of the summer in simulated games in Phoenix.
Watters plans to return to Morgantown in the fall, this time as professional with a businesslike approach.
Oakland drafted 10 pitchers with its 21 picks in this year’s draft, but Watters was the first arm the A’s chose. The ball will be in his hand. Watters’ signing bonus was $8,250 more than the $483,500 figure slotted on the MLB scale for Oakland’s fourth-round pick.
“It’s a career now,” he said. “It’s you taking care of yourself. There’s nobody checking in on you to make sure you’re doing everything right. It’s your responsibility.”
There are 750 active players on Major League Baseball rosters at any given time.
The odds of reaching the ultimate level are slim, but reaching the highest mound is not impossible for a country boy from Western Virginia.
One county to the West of Bland, Billy Wagner came out of the small community of Tannersville and Tazewell High School to be a seven-time All-Star with the highest ratio of strikeouts per nine innings (11.9) of any pitcher in MLB history with more than 800 innings.
From Bland’s adjacent county to the east, Giles County native Mike Williams pitched for four MLB teams across 12 seasons, making two All-Star teams.
Hailing from just to the southeast, Patrick County native Brad Clontz helped the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series and led the National League with 81 appearances in 1996.
“Kids like that from small towns that are looking for opportunities, from a blue-collar work-ethic environment, those are the kids that really make a lot of jumps when they get around good players and great resources and good coaching,” Mazey said. “Guys like that seem to improve a lot more.”
Watters carries the hopes of many of the approximately 6,300 residents in Virginia’s fourth-smallest county.
If he never advances another step up the baseball ladder, his achievement as a fourth-round draft choice already is significant.
“We’ve never really had anybody that’s advanced or had the potential to advance as far as he does,” Collins said. “It catches kids’ attention and shows the kids that, hey, you can get an opportunity.”
Collins never ventured to Morgantown to watch Watters pitch in person at WVU. However, the former high school coach tracked him the same way folks followed baseball from far away almost from the beginning — on the radio.
“I had my phone turned on to WVU baseball, and I listened every time he pitched,” Collins said.
All Major League players had to start somewhere. Before Billy Wagner attended Ferrum College and became an MLB workhorse, he was a wild, untamed kid hurling baseballs at the side of a barn in Tazewell County.
Watters first got baseball in his blood in that t-ball league in a town called Hurricane, wielding a bat painted like an American Flag that is now about the size of his right arm.
Now he has a signing bonus for nearly half a million dollars, a uniform and a chance.
“It hits me now and then, like, ‘Wow dude, you’re … a professional baseball player,” he said. “It’s just so exciting, nerve-wracking, everything. It’s awesome.”