There was a feel-good story tucked inside the Marlins’ dreary loss to the Braves on Tuesday. It came in the top of the ninth when Isaac Galloway — “a guy everybody roots for” in the words of manager Don Mattingly — stepped to the plate as a light drizzle fell at SunTrust Park.
Every player on the Marlins bench, recognizing the significance of the moment, stopped what they were doing and moved to the top step of the dugout to watch. For more than 10 years, the outfielder had toiled relentlessly in the minors without so much as one sniff of the majors, wondering if he would ever get there while dreaming that one day he would.
“Yeah, I thought about it,” Galloway replied later when asked whether he ever thought about calling it quits. “But I’ve loved baseball ever since I was little and this was always my dream. I tried to stick it out for as long as I could. I believe hard work eventually has to pay off.”
Starting in 2008, when the Marlins took the then 18-year-old outfielder from Rancho Cucamonga, California, in the eighth round of the draft, Galloway figured his day would come.
But as the years and seasons passed, it never did.
“When you first get drafted, you feel like you made it,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this long or this hard. But that’s the beauty of baseball. You just really never know.”
Many of his teammates along the way in the minors made it. Christian Yelich did. So did J.T. Realmuto, Marcell Ozuna, Jose Urena and a host of others.
Galloway, though, always remained behind. For 10 years, 947 games and more than 3,400 at bats, he kept hoping, kept riding the busses to small ballparks from the low minors to Triple A.
“I had him a couple of years,” said former Marlins minor-league manager Andy Barkett, who is now the assistant hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox. “We don’t win a [Southern League] championship in 2014 without Isaac Galloway. He played lights out in center field and got some big hits.”
Galloway’s managers, coaches and teammates couldn’t help but like him.
“Tremendous human being,” Barkett said. “First-class kid, the type of kid you’d want to introduce to your daughter.”
Galloway might have played out the rest of his 11th minor-league season at Triple A New Orleans were it not for a series of events that transpired Tuesday.
The Marlins traded veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin to Seattle, and with rookie outfielder Lewis Brinson on the disabled list, the Marlins had an opening to fill on the roster.
As the Maybin trade was going down at 2 p.m., the Marlins sent word to New Orleans to put Galloway on standby. The Baby Cakes were heading off to play in El Paso, but New Orleans manager Arnie Beyeler told him he wasn’t going.
“The manager called me in and said I wasn’t going to fly with the team, just to hang out,” Galloway said. “He told me something about possibly getting traded and to just hang out.”
At 2:30, Galloway received the news he’d been awaiting for 10 years. He was going to Atlanta to join the Marlins.
“I kind of started crying,” Galloway said. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be in the big leagues, just because I’d been through so much in the minors.”
Galloway was late getting to the ballpark. There was a flight delay due to weather. There was an accident that slowed traffic on his drive from the Atlanta airport to the ballpark. But the start of Tuesday’s game was delayed by nearly 90 minutes due to rain, and Galloway finally arrived in about the fifth or sixth inning.
“I don’t remember even getting here, I was so in shock,” he said.
Mattingly sent Galloway out to play left field in the seventh, and in the ninth Galloway — wearing No. 79 — stepped into the batter’s box for the first time.
He took a called strike on the first pitch, then a ball.
Galloway swung at the third pitch, sending a sharp grounder up the middle that appeared bound for center. But Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson made a diving grab, got back on his feet, and threw to first. It would be a close play.
“I just turned to another gear and tried to get there,” Galloway said.
He beat the throw. Safe.
Marlins players hanging by the rail in the dugout erupted in applause. The ball representing Galloway’s first major league hit was thrown back to the dugout for safekeeping and later put in his locker, smudged with infield dirt.
“It goes to my grandma,” Galloway said. “She just meant everything to me, taught me right from wrong.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Galloway played the most minor-league games before making his Marlins debut since Brian Daubach finally reached the majors in 1998 after 965 games in the minors.
Mattingly and others couldn’t contain their joy.
Former Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler, who was Galloway’s teammate in 2009 at Single A Greensboro and is now with the Dodgers, said he couldn’t have been happier.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Koehler, who followed Galloway’s debut from afar. “Very rarely do you see a guy stick with one organization that long, so it’s great to see his hard work and loyalty rewarded.”
Said Mattingly: “This is a kid who battled his way through. Obviously, he loves playing because you don’t do that for 11 years if you don’t love playing this game. Guys who work so hard, they represent to me what’s great about the game.”
For Galloway, it was a beginning, not an end.
“I worked a long time for this,” he said. “It’s worth it. Definitely, definitely worth it.”