Dare to dream: Meszaros always believed, now the Astros do too
Even though he had been out of baseball for several years, Johnny Meszaros of Anchorage still loved the game and badly wanted to pitch again.
He set up a pitching net in his backyard and prepared mentally and physically like it was Game 7 of the World Series. That might sound funny and some people thought he was crazy, but he didn’t care. This was his dream.
Meszaros had always wanted to pitch at the professional ranks. And to him, nothing was more important than spending his summer evenings in his backyard working to make that dream come true.
“You can’t give up on yourself,” he said. “I go by the beat of my own drum and I really don’t care what people think. I always thought that was I was doing was better than what everybody else was doing.”
A MLB draft pick out of high school who opted to go to college and then saw his career derailed by elbow injuries, Meszaros was now 26 years old, his window closing
Returning to the field at an elite level for him seemed unlikely. Yet Meszaros stuck to his guns.
He was determined to be a pro pitcher.
The Houston Astros organization agreed and offered the 6-foot-3, 240-pound rocket right-hander a minor-league deal for the 2021 season. He will officially sign the contract when he reports to camp.
“I was told to expect to be ready by the end of March,” he said.
Seven years after getting drafted in the 39th round by the Tampa Bay Rays, Meszaros will get a second chance to play pro ball thanks to the Houston Astros.
“I always knew this day would come,” he said. “I’ve literally pictured this situation so many times in my head that I’ve already been here, if that make sense.”
When the Astros front-office personnel manager called him to officially offer a contract, Meszaros was one cool customer.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I congratulated him,” Meszaros said. “Not trying to be some bad ass or anything, I’m just being honest. I’m ready to roll.”
Meszaros hasn’t pitched in an official game since 2017, but he has stayed in shape and thrown the ball on a regular basis. He also coached and worked local clinics to be around the game.
His life changed one day three years ago when he watched a YouTube video of a pro prospect peppering 90-mph fastballs into a net in an effort to draw the attention of pro teams.
“I did what he did,” Meszaros said. “I made a video.”
In 2019, he made a video that showcased his world-class fastball clocked at 98 mph on a radar gun. He also displayed a vanishing slider with crazy movement.
Rather than post it on social media, though, he waited for Houston Astros pitching coach Brent Strom to come back to Anchorage for his annual November youth camp. That’s when he showed the video to Strom.
“His reaction was so amazing,” Meszaros said with a laugh. “He was shocked. He was like, ‘Give me your contact information.’”
That video got the ball rolling. Fast forward to March 2020 and Meszaros was in Florida, where he pitched in front of Strom and other team officials with the Astros.
Then COVID hit and everything came to a halt. Then MLB reorganized its minor league system and 40 teams were eliminated. Fewer teams, fewer players, thus making it harder than ever to play pro ball.
It didn’t matter. Nothing was going to derail his dream. He threw indoors during the winter and in his backyard during the summer.
“I knew that if kept getting better I’d make it,” Meszaros said.
Meanwhile, Meszaros stayed in touch with Strom and sent a couple more videos.
“He’s done this himself,” said Strom, who has been involved with the MLB for nearly 50 years. “He’s worked himself into a guy a team would be interested in, so it wasn’t hard to convince some people to take a chance on him.”
A few weeks ago, Meszaros was in North Carolina, where he pitched in front of a 3D Doppler radar system that measured the trajectory and spin rate of his pitches.
“His stat data is exemplary,” Strom said.
For example, the average spin rate of a MLB slider is around 2,500. Meszaros snaps off his slider at 3,000.
The burly Alaskan already has a pro body and blew away the Astros with his strength and conditioning.
“His work in the weight room was unbelievable,” Strom said. “He’s at the top of the charts.”
Meszaros is grateful for his connection with Strom, who has a long history with Alaska. He played with the Fairbanks Goldpanners in the 1960s and has headlined his youth camp in Anchorage since 2010.
Strom supported Meszaros throughout the years and put him in position to showcase his electric stuff in front of the Astros.
“Once I got the approval of Brent Strom, that’s all I needed,” Meszaros said. “It’s funny, because when I thanked him, he goes ‘Why? You think I did this because you’re a nice guy.’”
Baseball is a business for Strom, although he could still appreciate the persistence and patience of Meszaros.
“I’m really happy for him to get a chance because he put in a lot of time,” Strom said. “He’s not the first to sign at 26. People come at different times and he just wasn’t noticed. I just really hope he comes in really relaxed and let his natural ability take over. I think he’s got a great chance to do well with how hard he works on everything.”