By Isabel Pulgarin
William “Willie” Escala has long been the last baseball player at the batting cages. The one to practice the most. The one who worked out enough to play from either right or left. Born and bred in Miami to a Cuban father and a Czech mother, Escala is becoming the professional he always knew he had to work hard to be by not only being a pro baseballer but being a mentor to those who aspire to be where he is by the young age of 24.
As a man who took a 101 MPH fastball to the knee like a champ to only continue to play against Japan during the World Baseball Classics in March, his advice if you hadn’t had anything bad happen to you while rising the ranks: “good luck.”
After five years of college at three different universities, he developed the perseverance that pushed him to nurture his talent in baseball.
As a freshman at the University of Miami, he knew being on the lineup for the Miami Hurricanes would be a privilege to physically work hard for.
“I had a lot of doubts because I knew that's what the expectation was. That I wasn't gonna start, I wasn't gonna be the guy. And it fueled me; it fueled the fire for me to outwork everybody,” he said. “And I was always the last one in the cages. I was always the first one in every single sprint we ran that year. So, it gave me fuel to the fire.”
By his sophomore year, while finishing his sport and fitness administration and management associate’s degree, frustration hit harder as he still wasn’t playing much.
“If he writes my name in there, I can't control that. But what I can control is how I go practice, how much work I put in…,” said Escala. “I kind of had to accept that at first. Don’t get me wrong, the first half of the season I was pissed off.”
But after the COVID-19 pandemic struck halfway through his bachelor’s degree at Barry University to extend his sports studies, the reality of the draft kicked in. He moved to Ohio to attend Miami University after graduating in 2021 to obtain a graduate certificate in sport psychology.
“Once I got to my fifth year of college, pro baseball was in my mind. I wanted to go play, of course. But I wasn't so much fearful of not making it. It was more, ‘Do I have enough talent? I think I do,’” said Escala. “But I knew it was also a matter of being a little bit lucky sometimes, you know, people seeing you on the right day with you doing the right things.”
And this luck ran true when he networked his way to join the Sussex County Miners based out of New Jersey last August. Here, Escala was emersed in the big mix of independent baseball to practice his craft for the big leagues after graduating and taking a few months off. The mix is of “ultra-competitive” men who want to go pro and those who simply want to continue playing apart from their 9-to-5s.
“If I never got that opportunity with Sussex, I don't know if I [would have ever gotten] linked up with the Czech national team,” he said.
After only a month of dirtying jerseys, Escala’s Sussex Coach Simon Walters referred him to the Czech national team during friendlies when he went off to coach the German national team at the WBC last year. It was the career goal of a lifetime when he joined the Czechians in Japan for the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March.
“You gotta have connections in this game,” he said.
When they reached out and a Czech coach took time from his November holiday in West Palm Beach last year, he did a little workout and hit the tryout out the ballpark. By February, he stayed with family in the Czech Republic and was in training camp with the team, quickly assimilating in their one-of-a-kind sportsmanship.
“If you ever get a chance to watch this story, it's called, ‘Small Country Big Dreams,’… it's a
super cool story about how together this team is. 'Cause all of them played when they were together, as little kids growing up and they all play in the same [Czech Baseball Extraliga],” said Escala. “It's a real, like Brotherhood, which I don't think many countries have in terms of baseball.”
The league is made up of amateur underdogs who are hustling day jobs to play at night and on weekends. Much like Escala who is working two jobs during this offseason.
In April, he earned his Czech citizenship and honors for putting in his blood, sweat, and tears during the WBC.
Escala has a few decades of athleticism left in him, but an even longer legacy of mentorship. In his tight schedule, he finds the time to visit his alma mater and mentor Barry baseball players during college baseball season alongside the involved coaching staff. It has been one of the most important atmospheres that taught him the importance of networking. The one that feels most like home.
“Being someone that is from Barry going into this career into professional baseball, he provides a lot of wisdom for the guys that are still going through what he’s already been through. And it also gives you almost a beacon of hope,” said Escala mentee Matthew Menendez, a senior catcher majoring in communications. “Being someone that’s older, being someone that’s awesome at his craft, you look up to him as a player.”
Having taken the privilege of traveling the country and the world, his experience is priceless.
“It helps when there’s somebody that’s closer to their age to be able to give them that information—that’s doing it right now,” said Barry baseball coach DJ Price who has been mentoring for 20 years and played overseas for Australia. “Guys can kind of pick his brain, kind of like I was doing when I was playing overseas, where you can just be like, ‘Hey, how’d you do it? What works really well?’”
Escala simply wants to be remembered for being a cool dude. And having dabbled in sports psychology, he wants to be the voice of clarity for Barry players that he rarely heard when in doubt.
“If I can make any impact on the players that I'm around when I coach, or let's say just people that I meet every day, that for me is like the coolest thing. You know, I don't really care if I'm ever a hall of famer,” he said. “I'd love to make it to the big leagues and be that guy. But the biggest thing I could do for me is coming out to my alumni, my high school, and just being able to make an impact on the players.”