“I was 4 years old,” Patrick (Packy) Naughton recalls. He’s sitting in his hotel room, resting after pitching five innings and earning seven strikeouts for the Dayton Dragons just a couple hours earlier.
“I started going out to the field with my older brother, Jake, and my dad. I wasn’t on the team, but I was always out there with them practicing.”
That practice paid off for 22-year-old Naughton, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in June 2017. He now pitches for the Dragons, their minor league team, and is still following his dream of making it big.
His persistence inspires many Boston teenagers. “I’d say many of the high school baseball players look up to him,” said 18-year-old Lauren Cloherty of West Roxbury. “In a way, he makes ‘making it’ real.”
18-year-old Maria Levine of West Roxbury agreed. Levine particularly admires how Naughton “follows a path that takes him out of Boston, yet still remains very connected to his roots.”
Naughton began following this path in eighth grade, when he became a starting pitcher for Boston Latin School’s varsity baseball team. By his sophomore year, his coaches were pushing him to fulfill his remarkable potential.
“My pitching coach...said I could make some real money playing the game of baseball,” Naughton recounts contemplatively. He smiles subtly and continues. “I thought, ‘Yeah, okay. I could see myself playing this for the rest of my life.’”
But Naughton, more than anyone, is aware of the physical risks of pursuing an athletic career. He experienced them firsthand during his junior year of high school. As he began talks with various college coaches about his future baseball career, Naughton suffered an injury in his left (dominant) arm, and had to endure Tommy John surgery. The procedure, which replaced a torn ligament in his elbow with a tendon from his wrist, put him on his team’s injured list for longer than any athlete would like.
In the 15 months before Naughton started pitching again, he was in physical therapy up to four times a week. He had to work to obtain full range of motion back, and then to strengthen his shoulder and elbow muscles. Thankfully, Naughton made a full recovery from the injury, but the surgery constantly reminds him of the fragility of a professional athlete, as it jeopardized his career before it even had a chance to take off.
“Going out to the field each day, I definitely don’t take it for granted,” he says. “I know that this can come to an abrupt end, but as long as the game of baseball is giving me time, I’m going to make the most of it.”
What exactly is making the most of it for Naughton? It’s rigorous weight training, daily long toss, working seven days a week and pitching one out of every five games. When he isn’t pitching, he’s taking notes on other pitchers and batters, warming up other players, stretching, working out and reviewing film. It’s always something, he says. The constant work is important for Naughton if he wants to stay on top of his game. But the first time he pitched for Virginia Tech, in a game against Clemson, he wondered if the top of his game was even enough.
“It kind of slapped me in the face when I got to college where I was facing 18- to 23-year-old men who I can’t just throw a 90 mile an hour fastball by,” Naughton says. “I actually have to work for it more. I came in that game against Clemson in relief, there’s a runner on first with no outs, top of the tenth inning and a tie ball game. I wanted to come in and shut the door, give our team a chance to take the win.” The detail with which he presents this story make it clear just how much it’s stuck with him.
“I walked a kid, gave up a single, and all of a sudden, it’s bases loaded. I went on to give up a grand slam that ended up winning the game.”
It’s almost hard to hear Naughton’s low voice and slow speech at this point. He’s lost in his own memory, reliving the first game that made him fear he was not cut out for this sport. But he did what he knew he had to: “I worked even harder.”
His coaches have noticed this dedication, specifically Seth Etherton, a pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds. “The [Reds] organization holds him in high regard as a young left-handed pitcher,” Etherton says. “He should move through our system pretty quickly if he continues on this track.”
When Naughton is having a particularly tough game, he is able to recognize how far he’s come and how one small detail, whether that be a rocky field or a bad pitch, won’t determine his entire career.
“It’s just an error. One error isn’t going to make or break your career. Battle through it.”
And battle through it he does. When he recalls a home game against Boston College—just weeks after the devastating Clemson loss—Naughton grins, as if he’s realizing why he plays the game for the first time all over again.
“I had pitched six innings perfect, without allowing a base runner,” his voice is noticeably lighter now, excited, even. “Again, I’m facing 18- to 23-year-olds, but this time I’m absolutely dominating them.”
Naughton’s sense of belonging is contagious, Coach Etherton notes.
“When it’s time to work, he works,” he says. “When it’s time to be a teammate, he’s 100 percent supportive, keeping everybody laughing.”
As Naughton finishes reflecting, he emphasizes the preciousness he finds in every moment of his career and his life.
“No matter what, it isn’t as bad as you think it is,” he says. “From having career threatening surgery at 17, to facing challenging opponents on tough days, your head can get caught up in the hard parts. But don’t let it. You’re out here playing a game for a living.”