Baltimore Orioles pitcher John Means skyrockets from edge of retirement to All-Star
John Means didn’t have a professional headshot to attach to his profile, so he went with a picture of himself in an Orioles jersey and a Bowie Baysox cap.
His work experience was limited — he put “Professional Baseball Player” for his time in the minors and “Substitute Teacher” for the offseason job that taught him he’s not great with kindergartners.
Accepting the possibility that he soon had to begin life after baseball, Means made himself a LinkedIn page.
Back with Double-A Bowie for a third straight season, Means thought he might have peaked. A left-handed pitcher who never threw particularly hard, he faced an uphill battle. Each outing with the Baysox made him further doubt whether he was supposed to play baseball.
“I’ve never felt like that after baseball games before,” Means said, “where you think your career is over, you think you’re going to quit.”
But he thought of the people who supported him. The dad who took him to practice every afternoon. The few coaches who thought he was worthy of a spot on their teams. The fiancée who never stopped believing in him.
So he kept going, and one opportunity led to the next. The latest comes Tuesday, when Means will represent the Orioles in the All-Star Game in Cleveland. The 26-year-old rookie never received such an honor in the minors.
“I’m the last person everybody who has played with me and against me would’ve thought is a major league All-Star,” Means said.
Means said he never considered himself worthy throughout a first half in which his 2.50 ERA ranks second among American League pitchers with at least 80 innings. He was getting ready to book an All-Star break trip home to Kansas to see his family when Orioles manager Brandon Hyde altered his plans with the announcement.
Instead, they’ll come to Cleveland, where he’ll be an All-Star, a year removed from contemplating retirement.
“He has no capability of [BSing] anybody,” said his fiancée, Caroline Stanley. “He doesn't know how to suck up. That's just not who he is. He always just hoped that his play would do the talking.”
Humble beginnings: On June 29, Stanley got a text from a member of the Orioles’ public relations staff asking whether Means had called. Perplexed, she texted him: “Do you have something to tell me?”
Even once Means called, Stanley had to pry out the words “All-Star.”
“It's almost like he didn't want to say it because he didn't even believe it was real,” she said. “Honestly, we just started laughing. We've just been giggling our way through the year.”
Means entered spring training assuming he would be among the Orioles’ first cuts. An offseason figuring out how to use his repertoire and 6-foot-3 frame led to an uptick in fastball velocity and an improved changeup. He broke camp as a reliever, perceived as one of the last players to make the roster, but since permanently joining the rotation in late April, he has pitched at least five innings every start.
Compare that performance with a year ago, when Stanley had just retired from her career as a soccer goalie and Means’ Double-A ERA sat over 4.00 for the third straight season.
“He's such a confident, unwavering guy,” Stanley said, “and I had never seen him like that.”
They met at a New Year’s Eve get-together in 2015. Despite both being professional athletes from the Kansas City area — Means from Kansas and Stanley from Missouri — she had never heard of him, and Means’ quiet nature made him seem uninterested.
First impressions aren’t among Means’ strengths. Standing 5-foot-4 as an Olathe East High School freshman, he spent that season on the “D” team, two levels below junior varsity.
“If he wasn't the last kid picked, he was probably the second last,” said his father, Alan.
His fall coach, Jerald Van Rheen, asked during Means’ junior year whether he expected to make varsity. When Means flatly said no, Van Rheen offered an alternative: play for him at Gardner-Edgerton as the starting first baseman, No. 3 hitter and second starter behind Bubba Starling, eventually the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
That night, Van Rheen got a call from Means’ father.
“Thank you,” Alan told him, “because he couldn't get that smile through the front door when he got home, thinking that somebody thought he was good."
Alan and Jill Means already planned to move, making it an easy decision. Alan, who started work at a trucking company at midnight so he could take Means to practice, and Jill, a marketing manager, had invested too much into Means’ dreams to let the opportunity pass.
With Starling as a teammate, Means played in front of scouts regularly. The Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 46th round after he graduated.
“The ones that are really good are confident, and they tell people that they're good,” Van Rheen said. “John would never tell anybody what he was going to do. He would just go out and do it."
"He proved everybody wrong:" Means refers to the Braves’ selection as a “courtesy pick,” the result of them seeing him because of Starling. The 46th round, he is well aware, no longer exists.
But at Fort Scott Community College, it made him stand out as “the draft pick.” He struggled his freshman fall and opened the season throwing in the Greyhounds’ midweek games, facing the JV teams of even smaller schools.
“I didn’t have any other offers,” Means said. “Division I, Division II, Division III — you name it, I didn’t have it.”
After a teammate butted heads with coaches and got suspended, Means was pushed into Fort Scott’s weekend rotation. His first conference start came against Cowley County, a perennial junior college contender.
In the Greyhounds’ only victory of a four-game series, Means struck out 10 in a two-hit shutout.
“You could’ve sworn that we just qualified for the World Series,” Fort Scott coach John Hill III recalled. “They all go to John, and John just smiles, gives that deep baritone chuckle, gives his guys high-fives, and then jogs on down the line for the team meeting for the second game of a doubleheader.”
Means pitched in upstate New York that summer, when new West Virginia University pitching coach Derek Matlock saw him while evaluating a player the Mountaineers’ previous staff signed. For once, Means, with his tall frame and broad shoulders, stood out.
“I was like, ‘Holy cow, this guy’s a dude,’ ” said Matlock, now the head coach at Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
He asked Means whether he would rather return to Fort Scott or pitch in the Big 12. Hill believed Means could develop into a major leaguer, but he expressed concerns about Means’ readiness for Division I. No programs besides West Virginia had reached out, seemingly in agreement.
“We tell our kids, ‘Accept the role you have. Work for the role you want,’ ” Hill said. "He just kept working, and when his time came, obviously, he never looked back.
“He proved everybody, including me, wrong.”
An extra push: When rain cost West Virginia a 2014 game against Marshall, North Carolina reached out to schedule a matchup.
Means demanded the ball from Matlock, then allowed one run on three hits in a complete game against the Tar Heels, the previous season’s top seed in the College World Series.
“I knew he was going to be special right then because he wanted that big moment," Matlock said. “The bigger the moment Johnny was in, the better."
The Orioles drafted him in the 11th round that June. He threw a no-hitter with Low-A Delmarva in 2015, casually walking off the mound after its completion.
After spending most of 2016 with Bowie, Means got that substitute-teaching job in De Soto, Kan., a county over from Olathe. He figured it would be an easy way to cover rent for the apartment he was living in, but quickly discovered it was the wrong fit.
“I’m going to throw a movie on and sit back,” Means remembered thinking. “That wasn’t how it went.”
Even that proved less of a challenge than the one he faced amid his third go at Bowie. The LinkedIn page represented a way to jump start the next phase of his life.
“To be honest,” Matlock said, “I was thinking I was going to get a call any minute that he was done with baseball.”
Means leaned on Stanley to get through the depression. Even as he doubted whether he should keep playing, she never did.
“Something was affirming inside of me to just tell him, 'Keep going. This is still your path,’ ” she said.
A need for a starter at Triple-A Norfolk finally opened a window for Means, who never surrendered more than three earned runs in his final 19 appearances there. The Orioles called him up in September for his major league debut against the Boston Red Sox.
Without Stanley, Means might’ve been in a classroom instead of Fenway Park. They’ll get married in November in Kansas City.
“She got me through it,” Means said. “She’s been the rock.”
Chance of a lifetime: Means beat Starling to the majors, becoming the first Gardner-Edgerton product to reach baseball’s highest level. He’s the first All-Star that West Virginia’s baseball program produced. An Orioles rookie hadn’t made the All-Star team since 1966.
Even as Means entered Hyde’s office the day of All-Star announcements, he hadn’t considered this midseason honor a possibility.
“All I thought was maybe there’s a change up in the rotation,” Means said. “It didn’t even cross my mind.”
Stanley, Means’ parents and his brother, Jake, will be at the All-Star Game. The Kansas City Royals drafted Jake, a Cowley County and Indiana State product, with their 22nd-round pick last month, and he’ll be able to step away from their short-season affiliate in Burlington, N.C., to watch his big brother.
Means is happy to get his first All-Star nod and will be even if it’s the last. But if he takes the mound Tuesday night in Cleveland, he’ll be out to make a better impression than he ever could with a LinkedIn page.
He doesn’t plan to need that profile anytime soon.