Austin Wates was looking for an outlet a few years ago.
Then while playing at Corpus Christi in the Class AA Texas League, the outfielder found it in the form of music, picking up a guitar and expanding on the love of music he’s shared with his family as long as he can remember.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Wates said. “It helps me take my mind off baseball. If it’s personal-life issues or whatever it is, that’s something I can always fall back on.”
Wates fits the mold of a prototypical minor league story. During his long journey, he’s taught himself how to play the guitar he takes on road trips while with the Oklahoma City RedHawks trying to earn a spot with the rebuilding Houston Astros.
Now, he’s just waiting to catch his break.
‘NATURE OF THE BEAST’
Wates was a third-round pick in the 2010 draft by the Houston Astros out of Virginia Tech, but his career has not gone as he had hoped.
Injuries have been the main deterrent, limiting him to 38 games last season and 55 thus far this season. They haven’t been normal injuries, either.
Last season, he missed a significant chunk of time after suffering a fractured forearm when he was hit by a pitch.
This season, he missed around three weeks after injuring his groin on a throw from the outfield. Two games after his return, he lost a fly ball in the sun and it hit him in the face, fracturing his orbital bone.
“Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately he’s been hit every year,” RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “He’s always trying to play catch up.”
Wates is healthy now and hitting .300 with 22 stolen bases, numbers right on par with his previous seasons. He’s battling for a spot in an organization crowded with young, talented outfielders.
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” Wates said. “A lot of guys talk about it being crowded, but at the same time how much more crowded is it in the Yankees’ minor league system with all of the great big leaguers they have in the big leagues, or the Angels or whoever it might be?
“We don’t have a ton of established players in the big leagues right now, so it’s guys down here fighting for jobs up there. It’s one of those things you’ve got to keep grinding it out and get an opportunity.”
Wates finds solace in music.
His parents, Tawyna and Luther, raised him on music, with Luther playing upwards of five instruments.
But Austin never really took it that far growing up in Seattle and then Virginia, though he did play the piano and taught himself off an electric piano the family owned.
“I never actually learned how to read music,” he said. “It was too kind of tedious for me to learn something I didn’t think was important.”
When he turned to the guitar a few years ago, things changed.
It was a grueling process learning using various YouTube videos. So much so, that he said it took some time before he fell in love with the instrument.
“Guitar was something that I knew I could travel around with, so I kind of fell in love with it pretty slowly actually because it’s pretty frustrating when you first start out,” Wates said. “I taught myself, so that made it three or four times more frustrating for me.”
Now, his guitar is a regular travel accessory.
He often plays in the comfort of his hotel room, and sometimes for teammates who make requests.
He loves playing John Mayer, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and more.
“He’s pretty impressive on the guitar and obviously he’s pretty serious if he brings it on the road,” RedHawks first baseman Marc Krauss said. “I’ve tried to test him and put up some different songs. He’s impressive. He can play a lot of different stuff.”
Wates said he plans one day to put some songs on YouTube, though right now he plans to limit performances to a very small group of teammates.
That’s still a nice break for Wates from the daily grind of baseball.
“You try to find things that help you move forward,” Wates said. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people in my life that want me to move forward. It’s been great.”