“All that hard work he put in paid off”

Duke and Kim Higgins were sleeping soundly in the early hours of May 19 when the phone rang.

“Whenever it rings this late at night, you always suspect something is wrong,” Duke recalls.

On the other side was their son, PJ

“Are you awake?” PJ asked.

“I am now,” Duke replied. “What do you need?”

PJ needed nothing more than to tell his parents that after six years in the minor leagues, working painfully at sites ranging from Eugene, Oregon to Myrtle Beach, SC to Knoxville, Tenn. at something called an alternative training site, he was finally promoted to the big leagues.

PJ Higgins was a Chicago Cub. From Wallingford to Wrigley, he had finally made his dream come true.

“We didn’t get much sleep after that,” Kim said.

Indeed, after concluding that PJ was not playing a joke on them, the proud parents spent the rest of the night remembering when their son started playing baseball at the age of 4, remembering all the different jerseys he wore in the Wallingford Little League, the AABC league in Waterbury, the CT Wolves and CT Bombers travel teams, the Lyman Hall high school teams and The Gunnery.

“You lay there at night and pinch yourself when it really starts to hit you, ‘Damn, all the hard work he put in has paid off,” said Duke.

“You see things that no one sees for any of these players who work all year,” Kim added. “It’s pretty neat to see the positive results. Many years of hard work. It gets harder from here, but it’s still very special.

Without a doubt, it gets a lot harder from here. PJ discovered it quickly, in his first big-league game the following night. He replaced Cubs star Kris Bryant at first base in the fourth inning after Bryant moved up to right field. Higgins’ first at bat in the big leagues came against future Hall of Fame member Max Scherzer.

It didn’t last long. Higgins was the proverbial “pair of shoes” – one, two, three knocks, it’s over!

“It was quite revealing,” he recalls. “Of course, it was three lengths. But seeing him on the mound was pretty surreal.

Ironically, Higgins’ very first collegiate stick at Old Dominion ended the same – three throws and a return to the dugout. Things have gone pretty well since then.

The following night, Higgins got his first start on catcher. Every opposing Washington Nationals player gave Higgins a congratulatory bat to the chest when they first entered home plate with the kind of respect and courtesy expected in the major leagues, where every player knows the experience of its beginnings.

When Higgins scored his first big-league hit on June 2 against Austin Adams of San Diego, a line along the left-field line in the eighth inning that shattered a 0-for-15 start in his career, the ball was quickly recovered for him to keep forever. He also received a standing ovation from the crowd at Wrigley Field.

“I wasn’t sure if they were the ones giving me a hard time because I was 0-for-15, or if they actually enjoyed me doing a shot,” Higgins joked. “But I think it was more appreciated that I got my first shot, so it was good.”

Overall, the past few weeks have been a whirlwind of positive emotions for Higgins, who serves as Willson Contreras’ backup receiver.

“It’s been great, a great experience,” he said Friday by phone from the visitors clubhouse at AT&T Park in San Francisco. “I’m still learning a lot. It certainly takes some getting used to. But playing Wrigley in front of all these fans, it’s an amazing atmosphere. It is definitely something that I will always remember. These fans and the atmosphere there, it’s electric. I’ve never played in front of something like this before, so it’s really fun.

Best time so far? Probably when the Cubs ‘closest, Craig Kimbrel, arrived from the reliever box to successfully close Higgins’ first game behind the plate on May 20 against the Nats.

“It was a pretty cool moment, especially being able to catch it,” Higgins recalls. “It was pretty cool to see how the fans were cheering him on.”

YEARS OF HARD PAYING WORK

Duke Higgins was a leading coach in the Wallingford Little League and the CT Wolves and Bombers travel teams until, when PJ was around 14, he thought it was time for his son to hear some news. voice.

“It was time for me to go,” Duke recalls.

Higgins, currently one of Wallingford’s four offspring in professional baseball, played four seasons at Lyman Hall and did a postgraduate year at The Gunnery (now called Frederick Gunn School) before moving to Old Dominion. He hit .335 in three college seasons, playing second, third and wide receiver, and was selected by the Cubs in the 12th round of the 2015 MLB Draft.

Higgins was mainly a catcher his first three years in the Cubs organization, but in 2018 began to play first, third, even some offside to diversify his game.

He hit 0.320 in 20 spring training games last year and was hoping his big-league debut could come sooner, until the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in. Higgins spent all last summer train at the Cubs alternative training site in South Bend, Indiana. He’s played Wrigley a few times in scrimmages, after Cubs opponents had to cancel games due to COVID, but it’s a lot different to catching Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning with music and thousands of fans applause.

It looks like Higgins could break off spring training camp with the Cubs this season. But just before camp was over, the Cubs hired veteran Tony Wolters as Contreras’ replacement, and Higgins was fined for the Iowa Triple-A.

“I mean, it didn’t matter if I was going to be with the opening day roster or in Iowa, I was going to have to play good baseball,” Higgins recalls. “My mindset was, wherever I was you got to be productive, you got to go hitting and playing defense. It was a little disappointing when I heard the news, but I didn’t take it to heart. I knew I just had to keep working no matter where I was. It was kind of my state of mind, so you’re not too high or too low, just the same level of state of mind because you know wherever you are you have to work.

Now PJ Higgins is a Chicago Cub. Duke and Kim, who were in PJ’s first full game at Wrigley, are trying to schedule other visits to see him play – including a series next week (June 14-17) against the Mets at CitiField. Many friends and family from Walllingford and other parts of Connecticut (Higgins’ grandfather lives in Stratford and other relatives are in Milford) are hoping to participate in some of these games. But it’s impossible to know when (or if) Higgins will play.

Either way, he did. From Wallingford to Wrigley and many points in between, PJ Higgins has fulfilled his dream of playing major league baseball.

“It feels good,” he said. “The work I have done has been beneficial where I am now. I am happy.”

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