A week ago, Michael Fairchild got on an airplane and flew to Arizona, realizing he was about to start a journey he’s dreamed of since childhood.
He’s been to the Peoria Sports Complex before, to watch the Seattle Mariners at spring training, and once to play in the Arizona Fall Classic as a high school senior. This time, he’s there as a professional baseball player.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Fairchild said last week, shortly after his arrival in Peoria. “Part of it is still surreal to me.”
Fairchild, a 2013 Olympia High School graduate, signed with the Mariners organization on June 26, and was assigned to the active roster for their Arizona Rookie League team. The 22-year-old right-hander pitched two innings in his first game on Saturday.
“Just having the chance to play baseball for a job, I couldn’t be more blessed,” Fairchild said. “This has been my dream since I was 3 years old. There are a lot of emotions right now.”
Perhaps even more for Fairchild who, earlier this year, thought his baseball career might end. Following four productive seasons pitching at Azusa Pacific University in California, he went undrafted in June.
“After the year I had, and from what I heard, I was expecting to go,” he said. “When I didn’t get drafted, it was a huge disappointment.”
Fairchild said he’d made contact with as many as 10 major league teams, including the Mariners, during his senior season at APU. He posted an 8-2 record with a 2.22 earned run average, leading the Cougars to a PacWest Conference title and NCAA Division II regional appearance.
He was named a first-team all-conference and all-region player, and earned an All-American honorable mention nod. But the draft came and went, and Fairchild remained a free agent.
“The draft can be fickle for some guys,” APU coach Paul Svagdis said. “As much as I believe a guy is ready to go, and he has the skill set and aptitude to be a professional pitcher and baseball player, (scouts) don’t always see what I see.”
Fairchild, who was an academic All-American, graduated in the spring with a degree in Applied Exercise Science. He returned to Olympia, and considered joining the workforce, with his future in baseball unclear.
He spoke with Svagdis, who encouraged him to continue pitching. Milwaukee Brewers catcher Stephen Vogt, a Tumwater resident who has mentored Fairchild for nearly a decade, said the same thing.
“We talked right after the draft,” Vogt said. “He was obviously disappointed, and I was disappointed for him. The hard part is, only 1,200 guys get drafted.
“I told Michael, ‘People know what you’ve done ... you need to keep throwing.’”
Fairchild’s relationship with Vogt has helped propel his baseball career forward. Vogt, a two-time Major League Baseball All Star, worked with Fairchild during Christmas breaks from school, and connected Fairchild with his own alma mater, APU.
“He’s got the make-up of a pitcher that plays in the big leagues,” Vogt said, “and he’s got the tenacity and drive to want it.”
Fairchild contacted Kyle Boddy, the owner of Driveline Baseball and one of his former trainers, when he returned home, and started pitching at the Driveline facility in Kent in early July.
“I think that speaks to his ability,” Svagdis said. “It’s going to hurt for a while when someone’s telling you you’re not good enough. I know he got back up pretty quickly.”
Boddy, who does some work as a consultant for MLB teams, sent some data on Fairchild to the Mariners. Boddy said Fairchild — who is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and known for his fastball command — was a favorable candidate for the Mariners, who were looking for pitchers to fill out minor-league rosters.
“He throws a ton of strikes — that’s a big thing,” Boddy said. “The Mariners want strike-throwers. He’s not a guy who’s going to go out there and beat himself. He’s going to compete.”
Boddy said Fairchild is a durable pitcher, comparable to Sam Gaviglio or Andrew Moore, who are both in Triple-A Tacoma. Fairchild’s fastball touches the low-to-mid 90s, he has good command of his change-up and is working on refining his breaking ball.
“I think he could help the Mariners down the line in a couple of years,” Boddy said.
Fairchild threw at Driveline again on July 21, and the Mariners called two days later. Elated, he told his parents, Steve and Paula — who he said have fostered his dream of playing professionally since childhood — and several others the news.
“He’s taking the first steps toward a dream he’s had his whole life,” Vogt said. “He’s doing something right now a very small percentage of people in the world can say they’ve done, and that’s play professional baseball.”
Fairchild said the call meant even more because it came from the Mariners.
“Knowing I could be playing in my backyard where I grew up — that would be unreal,” he said. “Being a Mariner means something to me because they’re my hometown team.”
Boddy said he thinks Fairchild has the potential to rise through the minor-league ranks rapidly if he continues developing and increasing velocity, and could be used as a starter or reliever.
Vogt, in his sixth year in the majors, said he hopes he sticks around long enough to one day face Fairchild in a big-league game.
“I really, truly believe if Michael puts his heart and soul into it, and plays the way he can, he has the chance to pitch at Safeco one day,” Vogt said.