Meet Jantzen Witte, one player who needs this baseball season more than most

Rob Bradford
April 06, 2020 - 10:38 pm
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Jantzen Witte talked while sprawled out on his floor in his Las Colinas, Texas apartment, trying to do what he could in a time none of us can do much.

It had been three weeks and one day from the moment he took advantage of his fiance's job as a flight attendant to hop a plane out of Southwest Florida International Airport, leaving town in such a hurry that his truck stayed behind in Fort Myers (where it remains). Back then it was all a blur. On Thursday, March 12, the tall Texan was spending another day as a non-roster invitee to Red Sox big league spring training. Friday he got word games had stopped, but workouts at JetBlue Park were an option. Sunday came the email that sent Witte packing.

What had been the 30-year-old's dream spring training -- one which he played just about as well as any player in a Red Sox uniform for three weeks of Grapefruit League games -- had morphed into long hours of uncertainty and uneasiness.

After a six-year minor-league career that never paid him more than $12,000 in any one of those years, he may have been finally landed on the doorstep to the major league dream. That's how good Witte looked for most of March. Now he is left trying to figure out if baseball as a profession will still be an option after that stipend of $1,600-a-month runs out on May 31.

"I guess you have a couple of choices," Witte said by phone Monday. "You can look at it and be kind of frustrated and say it's bad luck and bad timing. Or I could go about my day and do whatever I can while being here in the apartment or around here, trying to stretch and stay fit. I'm actually on the floor trying to stretch right now because we're constantly sitting on the couch."

The story of Witte is a microcosm of how quickly life has changed.

Understand where the infielder was coming from. When Witte walked off the field in Charlotte Sports Park at the conclusion of that last spring training game -- the night coronavirus first truly flooded the news he was hitting .375 with a .912 OPS, excelling in the field at third base, to boot. Of the Red Sox, only Jackie Bradley Jr. had played in more games while totaling better offensive numbers. It hadn't gone unnoticed.

Exactly one week before boarding is flight out of town, Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke had singled out the guy who entered this world of professional baseball as a 24th-round pick who settled for a $1,000 signing bonus after five years at TCU.

"Yes, he is," Roenicke said with a smile when told Witte is having quite a camp. "I know (bench coach) Jerry Narron ... That’s his guy right now. He loves to see when he’s in there defensively and then he comes up with big hits. He’s just one of those guys you have to like. He works his tail off and he gets in there and he’s a gamer."

In mid-stretch, the memory brought a smile to Witte's face. It was all news to him. He didn't know about the quote and he had no idea Narron, the former manager of Witte's hometown Texas Rangers, felt that way.

"That's the first time I heard that,"  he said with a chuckle. "That's really awesome to hear. I was on the shelf at the start of spring training with a little back issue so when Jerry actually signed on and came to spring training I was pretty much in the training room the whole time so I didn't get a chance to meet him. One day I walked up and shook his hand but he certainly didn't see me do anything.

"When everybody else was saying how great a guy he was I was jealous I wasn't able to make a first impression. My first impression was that I was the guy in the training room. I'm a Texas Rangers fan. I grew up going to the games so I've known who he is for a long time. So that's pretty cool to hear."

Reminders of what he calls "Spring Training No. 1" go a long way these days.

"Whatever I did a few weeks ago, I don't think the coaches are going to forget about it," Witte said. "I think if I made a good impression on some of these guys that will hold true for whenever the season starts. I hope I positioned myself to turn some heads and get that opportunity to get to the big leagues and help out that team. I'm 30 years old now and been in this organization for a long time. You know how the minor league salaries work and all of that. I'm at the point where I'm hoping to start a family. I'm supposed to get married this November. Playing in the Show for the Boston Red Sox not only would be a dream come true but it could also be a life-changing thing just finally being able to make some money and start a family because right now I'm a little bit behind the eight-ball."

If it doesn't seem fair it's because it isn't. 

Having signed back with the Red Sox this season as a minor-league free agent Witte was due to make more than he ever had, even without the ticket to the majors. Then came the chance to live life in the big-league camp. ("It didn't feel like I was playing something out of the ordinary. I was doing my normal thing. I was just fortunate that I had more eyes on me," he noted.) And then there was the performance and production. And now? 

Witte is left balancing the safety of his apartment with an occasional trip to a friend's nearby warehouse where he can hit off a tee in isolation. "It's trying to find that balance," he said. "My fiancé wants to be as safe as possible and the safest thing to do is stay here in the apartment. But I don't feel like I can stay in as good a shape as I want to. There is a chance I will fall behind depending on what other people are doing."

There is also the matter of trying to make ends meet. As he points out the current two-month payment will, "will keep you afloat and buy groceries but not a whole lot else. I'm 30, hoping to start a family but I can't do that on $1,600 a month."

So Witte has taken matters into his own hands and started carving out another revenue stream ... literally.

He has started a side business of carving designs into wood, displaying some of his work on the Instagram page, "Witteswood" with the tagline: "The wood that makes the good." 

The gruesome twosome

A post shared by Witte’s Wood (@witteswood) on

Witte, like the rest of us, can't predict the future. But that doesn't mean he is going to spinning his wheels in seclusion.

There is still a very real path to him getting his shot, particularly if rosters expand to 29 players as some reports suggest. That's why he will still be at the ready. And if there isn't that shot ... That's not for now. Remember, just 22 days ago he left Florida as one of the best players in the Red Sox' 2020 spring training.

"I'm older and I didn't have a big signing bonus. There are a lot of things that are kind of a knock on me as far as my financial situation but I'm super lucky I have a great family and a fiancé who are willing to support me if I need it. But being 30, I'm ready to start making my own way," he said. "I just kind of think of it's time to start becoming an adult. I was really looking forward to this season for the financial aspect if mot anything else. But there's nothing I can do about it. That's all on hold. This is the first year and this is my seventh year but for some reason we're making the same amount of money, which seems strange to me. There are so many layers I can't sit here and act like I have it figured out.

"There are a lot of moving parts and I have a lot of downtime to figure out how to get creative. There are a lot of questions up in the air and I'm trying to figure it out. It's a time where you can get lazy and fall behind or you can get creative."

Jantzen Witte
Courtesy photo