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Connecticut Tigers 2B Will Savage (8) turns the double play in the first inning of a baseball game against the Brooklyn Cyclones at MCU Park in Brooklyn, Sunday, July 2, 2017. (Gordon Donovan/MiLB.com)

The calls began his junior year of college. Will Savage was leading his team in batting average, runs, hits, on-base percentage, and stolen bases. Soon enough, his play started to warrant recognition beyond the Ivy League. Major league scouts took notice, and Savage received calls from the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers, informing him that there was a serious chance he would be selected in MLB’s 2016 Amateur Draft.

Since major league opportunities typically go to Columbia’s pitchers, being drafted as a position player from the Lions represents a rare chance. In the 16th round of the draft, the Detroit Tigers made Savage, CC ’16, the first infielder to be drafted out of Columbia since 1984, when Gene Larkin, World Series champion with the Minnesota Twins, was selected.

“If you want to play professionally and someone’s giving you the opportunity, there are a lot of things that have to go right for you to be in that position as Ivy League hitter,” Savage explained. “It’s tough to turn that down.”

On draft day, Savage left behind an illustrious career with the Light Blue, where he played on two teams that won the Ivy League championship and collected a myriad of accolades.

A local New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, Savage watched his future teammates on TV in high school as the Lions won the Ivy League Championship and went on to play in the NCAA Regionals in Fullerton, California. Energized by his teammates’ success, Savage joined a Columbia team brimming with talent and newfound championship resolve. But he wasn’t sure how quickly he could contribute to a collegiate roster.

“To see my teammates doing that was really cool—and honestly really intimidating, from the standpoint of ‘I’m not sure I can do that, I’m not sure I can play at that level. These guys look really good,’” he said.

Ivy League competition proved to be an adjustment from his high school seasons. The pitches zipped quicker, the hits were harder, and every opponent was on top of their game. Savage recalled struggling at the plate during the beginning of his first year.

“I struck out so many times. I was being outperformed by my peers, but Coach Boretti, for whatever reason, gave me an opportunity. … I think I was hitting around .200 before Ivy League play. A few weeks into Ivy League play, all the failures led to something positive, and I got into a roll.”

While he may have stumbled into conference play, Savage quickly emerged as a breakout star his first-year season. He hit a blistering .414 against Ivy League opponents, earning the Blair Bat award for the highest batting average in Ancient Eight play. The awards began piling up that year: Savage took home a first-team All-Ivy selection, a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American nod, and won Ivy League Rookie of the Year.

Most important to the second baseman, though, was the Lions’ success his rookie year. The squad carried a 15-5 Ivy record to the Ivy League Championship Series, where it dismantled Dartmouth in a two-game sweep. At NCAA Regionals, however, the Light Blue fell short, losing consecutive games in Coral Gables, Florida.

Head coach Brett Boretti remembered Savage’s determination and leadership starting from the moment he arrived in Morningside Heights.

“Will’s work ethic was the biggest thing that stood out when he arrived on campus in the fall. That’s something that the older guys recognized immediately and really fed off of,” Boretti reflected. “He was somebody that was a leader, with the way he carries himself and what he does as an example.”

That work ethic—and a deep core of talented players around him—powered the Lions to their third straight Ivy League title in 2015, but it was the victories in the NCAA Regionals that year in Miami that made the deepest impact on Savage’s young career. Matched up against national powerhouses East Carolina, FIU, and the University of Miami, Columbia was the first Ivy League team to win three games in an NCAA Baseball tournament since 1974.

One particular game left a profound impression on both Savage and the No. 6 ranked Miami Hurricanes. On a warm Sunday night in front of a frenzied Miami crowd, the Lions stunned the Hurricanes, shutting them out in a 3-0 victory that forced a subsequent winner-take-all matchup. Savage recalls the night as one of his most cherished baseball memories.

“I remember going out on the field, it was about 6:30 p.m., and the stadium was packed. You’re playing on national television. … The whole stadium was orange and green, and there were just a few dozen of our parents in Columbia blue,” he remembered.

“As the game progressed, we were able to get a couple runs on the board, and in the later innings … it was deathly quiet. It was just us enjoying the moment. Being able to win that game in that environment was, I think if you asked anybody from that era, they would say that was the highlight.”

As the doors closed on his time at Columbia, Savage began his new life in minor league baseball, a world that would prove to be much more challenging and isolating than his days at second base for the Lions.

First, Savage was sent to the Connecticut Tigers, a short-season A Ball team playing in the New York Pennsylvania League, where he played second base and struggled to produce offensively. Although he posted a slash of .200/.304/.251, he led the team with 15 stolen bases, and contributed to the roster in a much wider scope than just at the plate, according to his coaches.

Ace Adams, a pitching coach for the 2016 Connecticut Tigers, got to know Savage through his style of play, which Adams came to admire after watching him for a whole summer.

“I’ve been coaching for 42 years, 25 in pro baseball and the rest in college. … This kid, for me, is one of the best kids you could have on a baseball team. The thing I really loved about him is I could trust him,” Adams said.

“If he struck out that inning, he’d go back out and play defense. If there was a guy on second base, and he was up, and we needed a run, he’d knock him in, or he’d move him over. You want to have guys that you trust, mentally. Guys that’ll give it their all, no matter what happens the inning before, or they misplay a ball. That’s the kind of kid he was.”

The challenges of the minor league game eventually caught up to Savage, though, who was accustomed to the team-oriented environment that Boretti had fostered at Columbia. Suddenly, players were less concerned with winning, and more with their own development, a reality that Savage soon came to realize was inevitable in the minor leagues.

Top prospects, Savage explained, are not in the minor leagues to make the team better. The major league organization which oversees each lower level is ultimately concerned with improving the major league roster, an aspect of the minor league experience that can make players feel like they’re on their own.

“[At Columbia,] we were all successful together, and the success of our team collectively enabled many of us to go on to play professionally. In the minor leagues, that’s not the case. You’re really in it for yourself,” Savage said. “That’s a really weird thing, especially if you’re used to a team-oriented environment, or, as simple as it sounds, playing to win the game—that isn’t really the case in the minor leagues.”

Beyond the diamond, the minor league lifestyle is a difficult adjustment for any college athlete. Players make a meager salary, ride buses until the wee hours of the morning, stay in mediocre hotels, and sometimes room with host families. It’s a lifestyle centered around one thing: baseball. When a player struggles, every part of life gets harder—from having to stomach your fourth strikeout of the day to going home to a hotel alone.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of minor league players fail to make it to the major leagues, and the struggle to stay above water at each level of the game can weigh heavily on players’ mental health.

As Adams puts it, “It’s a lot of pressure. You have to perform. … You’re on buses and you’re away from home, and you go 0-20, and you don’t really have anyone to talk to. … It’s a rough gig.”

“That’s the hardest thing in baseball. A lot of what you think about minor league baseball and pro baseball is glorified, because you’re seeing the end result on TV, and those guys that are the best of the best that have made it,” Boretti added. “As you go up in levels, it’s more from the neck up than it is physical.”

Savage dealt with his own share of tough breaks. After two years oscillating between the Connecticut Tigers and the West Michigan Whitecaps in the Tigers’ minor league system, he was released, pausing his development as a player and ending his time with the Detroit Tigers. Savage considered ending his baseball career altogether at that point.

“I definitely thought about stopping then. I was sort of fed up. The experience, purely from a baseball standpoint, was not especially enjoyable,” he reflected.

Nonetheless, he continued to pursue the sport. He signed a brief deal with the Toronto Blue Jays organization, was released again, and then found a spot on an independent league team in the American Association, the Gary SouthShore RailCats. When the pandemic upended his 2020 season, Savage reconsidered his future in baseball.

Instead of chasing more time on the field, Savage found closure from his baseball journey in a creative way: writing. At the end of 2020, he penned two op-eds, for the New York Daily News and The Athletic, about MLB’s recent decision to lower costs by eliminating 42 minor-league teams. The former minor leaguer has been outspoken about the harm that this decision could bring to minor league baseball, which is part of the social fabric of many rural towns that don’t have a major league team.

“What makes baseball the national pastime? What does baseball have that basketball and football don’t? [It has] its history, and this romanticism associated with it, in terms of how it’s integrated in small towns and it’s in the stitches of American society. By [cutting teams], MLB is hurting that image, and I think that’s hurting baseball long-term,” Savage explained.

Boretti agreed, reminiscing on a particularly meaningful minor-league experience when he took his family to see Savage at one of his Tigers’ games.

“One of my best experiences as a dad and as a coach was taking my family to go see Will play a game up in Connecticut, and after that game, watching my kids run the bases and take pictures with Will. … It gives me chills right now thinking about it, because, to me, that’s a lot of what minor league baseball is about,” Boretti recalled.

Now, Savage is applying to medical school, and though his days on a baseball field are likely permanently behind him, the time he spent on the diamond at Columbia and in the minor leagues has left a lifelong impact.

“I feel good about the efforts that I made, and I feel like I can move on in my life.”

Senior staff writer Miles Schachner can be contacted at miles.schachner@columbiaspectator.com. Follow him on Twitter @milesschachner.

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Will Savage minor league baseball Ace Adams pitching coach Connecticut Tigers Baseball Will Savage Minor League Baseball Brett Boretti Ace Adams
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