Feb. 10, 2014
By Sean Tenaglia ’16
“She proceeded to blow me off for an entire year. I asked her out at least once a month, and she would just say, ‘No I don’t want to.’ She finally gave me a chance, and we just hit it off.”
David Phelps is able to look back on his time at Notre Dame with great joy and a smile on his face. The former Irish pitcher, who now takes the mound for the New York Yankees, learned a lot about life during his time in South Bend. Most importantly, however, he met his future wife, Maria, during his sophomore year.
“We were in a class together, and we were paired up alphabetically for a simulation in our International Relations class,” Phelps says of his first encounter with Maria.
Phelps faced an uphill battle in convincing Maria to go out on a date. He ultimately succeeded due to the extreme determination that has become characteristic throughout all facets of his life.
The Saint Louis, Mo., native was drafted in the 14th round of the 2008 MLB Draft by the New York Yankees after three productive seasons for the Irish. Over the next three years, he returned during the offseason in pursuit of his degree, ultimately graduating in January 2011 with a double major of political science and computer applications.
“The first three years with my teammates and the next three years when I got to spend time with my wife and her friends were just great,” the Yankee pitcher says. “Notre Dame just has so much to offer. For students and athletes, if you really take the time to enjoy it, it really is an amazing place.
“Between the friends I made and the athletics, I wouldn’t trade my years at Notre Dame for anything.”
Watching Phelps become successful and ascend to the major leagues in such a short period of time, one might assume that his journey has been smooth sailing. Phelps will tell you it was anything but that – at one point, he thought it might not even happen.
“I was actually on my way to play in the Cape Cod Baseball League after my junior year because I didn’t get drafted on the first day,” Phelps recalls. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to go to the Cape to try to pitch a little bit and get some experience.’
“The next thing I knew, the Yankees called me and told me they drafted me, and it ended up working out. It’s definitely been a crazy ride, that’s for sure.”
Phelps started playing in the Yankees minor league system during the summer of 2008 and quickly ascended to the team’s AAA club, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, by 2010. The former Irish pitcher attributes much of his success to the values he was instilled with during his time in South Bend.
“We definitely have a great staff here with the Yankees and I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing people,” Phelps says. “Everything they’ve done has really benefitted me.
“When I look back to my time at Notre Dame, they really drove home that work ethic and that determination you need to be successful. That was the one thing that really helped me as I transitioned to Major League Baseball.”
All that hard work paid off when Phelps made his major league debut April 8, 2012 at Tropicana Field in Tampa, Fla. Phelps came on in relief in the eighth inning, striking out one of the two batters he faced in the Yankees’ 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Although he looked calm on the field, nothing could prepare the rookie for that moment of taking the mound in the big leagues for the first time.
“All I was thinking was, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening,'” Phelps remembers. “Words simply can’t describe it.
“I remember sitting at my locker after the game and they asked, ‘How’d you feel?’ You think about that interview your whole life, and you just draw a blank. All the hard work and all the sacrifices all culminate in one event. It wasn’t just all about me, but also about all the people around me who have made sacrifices for me to get here.”
Phelps made several relief appearances in April 2012 and even started two games for the Yankees in early May. He anticipated a permanent move to the starting rotation when he faced what, at the time, seemed like a major setback: Andy Pettitte, the third-winningest pitcher in Yankees history, came out of retirement to return to the club.
“Our relationship was interesting to say the least because when he [Pettitte] came out of retirement, I was fighting for a spot in the rotation,” Phelps says. “I thought to myself, ‘Are you kidding me? I finally have a chance to make it in the big leagues, and this guy is going to come out of retirement?’
“I didn’t know him at all, and I obviously wasn’t his biggest fan at the time. I was sent down to the minors for a brief period because he came back. So I’m just thinking, ‘This is unbelievable!'”
After spending a few weeks in the minors, Phelps returned to the Yankees and actually started nine games over the final three months of the season. Even more important to the rookie, his relationship with the veteran Pettitte blossomed.
“When I finally got to spend some time with the club, he really went out of his way to pull me under his wing and help me out,” Phelps says. “He was the guy who led our bible study when we were on the road.
“He is such a great example of what it means to be a teammate, a player and a father. I went from being really angry to just loving the guy. People always ask me, ‘Who’s your favorite teammate?’ It’s not even a question. He’s been such an amazing influence on my life.”
With Pettitte providing invaluable support and advice along the way, Phelps closed out his 2012 campaign with a 4-4 record, racking up 96 strikeouts and a 3.34 ERA in 99.1 innings of work. The two helped guide the Yankees to the AL East Division title and a berth in the American League Championship Series, where the team would eventually lose to the Detroit Tigers.
During the 2013 season, Phelps had a front row seat to one of the most unique experiences in the history of professional sports – the “farewell tour” of Yankee legend and all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera. As the Yankees traveled around the country throughout the year, each opposing city took the opportunity to honor and thank Rivera for his contributions to the game of baseball. (Even bitter rival Boston presented Rivera with several gifts to commemorate his influence on the sport.) The tour concluded with Rivera’s final appearance at Yankee Stadium Sept. 26.
“It speaks volumes to the kind of person he is and the kind of impact he had on the baseball world and the world in general,” Phelps says of the tour. “I got hurt in July and had a setback, but one of the things I kept telling myself during rehab was, ‘I really want to be back to see Mo’s last game.’ I knew how special that day would be at Yankee Stadium.
“Also, Pettitte was retiring at the same time. He’s been my mentor here these first two years and he’s definitely someone that I look up to and really respect. Being able to be there for those two guys at the end of their respective careers was something that almost doesn’t happen in professional sports. It was incredibly special.”
“Mo” had a major influence on Phelps and his teammates, setting an incredible example of how to conduct oneself on the field. However, it was Rivera’s impact off the field that really left a mark on the young pitcher. Phelps, whose faith plays a central role in his life, came to recognize Rivera as a spiritual mentor.
“One of the biggest things that I took away from Mo was simply watching him go about doing his job,” Phelps describes. “It’s just perfection. He’s a machine and everything he does has a purpose. You can’t play as long as he did and be as successful as he was unless you have serious motivation and serious faith too because that’s one of the only things that keep you sane.
“That was another major thing I took from him – just how big of an impact his faith had in his life. He was always one of the guys running our bible study, and in my opinion that was one of his biggest impacts.
“You can help guys on the field, but helping guys when they’re away from their families or struggling means so much more. No matter what you were going through, whether it was your highs or your lows, he was there for you. You just don’t see that often.”
As for Phelps, he battled through injuries throughout the 2013 season to make 22 appearances, including 12 starts. He finished the year with a 6-5 record and 79 strikeouts in 86.2 innings pitched. The Yankees struggled in a tough division and failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in 20 years.
After a flurry of offseason moves, the Yankees seem poised to make some noise in the 2014 season. Among the major acquisitions are outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann, and highly touted pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Phelps looks forward to taking the diamond in the coming months with this new Yankee ball club.
“I’m excited because the guys we’ve brought in are really talented,” Phelps says. “They’re really going to help our team out. When you look at the list, it’s kind of staggering. It’s exciting. That’s one of the things that can definitely happen when you play for the Yankees.”
At this point, Phelps does not know whether he will be starting or coming out of the bullpen for the Yankees. His role will become much clearer during spring training, but ultimately Phelps just wants to contribute in any way possible.
“I definitely prefer to start,” the former Irish pitcher says. “That’s what I’ve done my whole career, but at the end of the day I really just want to do whatever is going to help this team win another world championship.”
Off the field, Phelps’ responsibilities have only continued to grow over the past two years. He is now the proud father of two daughters, 22-month old Adeline Rose, and seven-week old Eloise Susan. Although he is able to spend time with Maria and their daughters at their home in Pittsburgh during the offseason, Phelps admits that it is a challenge to be away from his family when the team is on the road.
“It’s tough,” Phelps admits. “I can be gone for three days, and I come back and they’re doing something new.
“You definitely miss a lot and that can be tough, but at the same time, I get to experience a lot of things with my kids that a lot of people don’t get to do.”
As Phelps prepares for spring training at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa, he will be seeing a lot of another recent Irish standout – 2013 BIG EAST Player of the Year Eric Jagielo, who was drafted 26th overall in last June’s MLB Draft by the Bronx Bombers.
“I actually walked into the complex the other day and one of the first guys I talked to was Jagielo,” Phelps says. “I had met him a few times, but we talked for a while. I’m sure in the next couple weeks we’ll talk a lot more.
“I remember my first few years, talking to some of the older guys and getting some advice about what to do and what not to do. Things like that can really help.”
This year the Fighting Irish face new challenges. Not only will they be without many of their stars from the 2013 campaign, including Jagielo, Trey Mancini and Dan Slania (all drafted by major league teams), they will also be making their ACC debut against some of the nation’s elite programs. Phelps has some important advice for the Irish that he believes will lead to success despite these apparent sources of adversity.
“When I was there in 2006, we didn’t have a lineup full of All-Americans,” he says. “Each player, whether through weight training or something else, found a way to get the most out of his ability. That was one thing that always worked really well for our team. That’s something you can impress upon any team.
“At the end of the day, when you look yourself in the mirror, don’t give yourself a chance to ask ‘What if I had done this?’ Your baseball career is definitely limited in terms of years, even if you play pro ball. As athletes, we have a shelf life. In that time that you get to play, don’t take anything for granted and give it everything you have because, at the end of the day, you don’t want to be able to look back and ask, ‘What if?'”
David Phelps has certainly discovered great success in his life by eliminating the question “what if?” from his vocabulary. He succeeded in his pursuit of his future wife, and now he is succeeding in pursuit of his dream to play baseball in the major leagues. At the end of the day, he has been able to look back on his life with no regrets.
With the Yankees thrust back into national prominence after a big offseason, look for David Phelps to make headlines throughout the 2014 MLB season and beyond.