From pitcher’s mound to mowing duty: Taylor Widener, pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, has worked two offseasons as a crew member at The Westin Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., where GCSAA Class A superintendent Dan Figueras heads maintenance. Photo by Paige Widener
The same day Taylor Widener realized his childhood dream of becoming a major league baseball player, a deluge hit Scottsdale, Ariz.
That day in November 2019, Widener learned he had been added to the Arizona Diamondbacks 40-man roster. The next morning, he was scheduled to report before sunup to his post on the golf course maintenance staff at The Westin Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale. The downpour and the forecast for even more rain foretold a difficult day ahead at the 27-hole facility.
Few folks would have blamed Widener if he’d bailed out of his shift.
“No, I had made a commitment to work there,” says the 6-foot, 200-some-pound (we’ll get to that in a minute) right-handed pitcher from Aiken, S.C. “I showed up. Luckily, I’m from South Carolina. I have a full set of rain gear.”
Widener eventually made his big-league debut during last year’s pandemic-scrambled season. After toiling through the D-backs’ spring training this year, Widener learned on March 28 that he’d made the big-league roster again for opening day as the fifth man in Arizona’s five-man starting rotation.
That Widener showed up that wet November morning after his first promotion to the majors was no surprise to Dan Figueras, Westin Kierland’s director of agronomy.
“He was scheduled to rake bunkers, so for him it was probably a day of repairing washouts,” says Figueras, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 18-year association member. “It was one of those days that probably wasn’t going to be a lot of fun going out there. I didn’t even know he had just signed a major league contract until after the fact somebody said something to me. I just remember him being Mr. Business when he was here, the same happy-go-lucky guy who did his thing repairing bunkers.”
And as characteristic as it was for Widener to gear up and show up for a joyless shift on a soggy golf course, it similarly came as no surprise when he showed up again the following offseason.
“I don’t want to sound like any other baseball player or athlete has an arrogance or holier-than-thou mindset,” Figueras says. “But he’s just so humble and down-to-earth. Unless he told you he was a professional athlete, you wouldn’t think it. He’s just so approachable.”
When Widener — a 12th-round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2016 who appeared in 12 major league games last season and compiled an 0-1 record with a 4.50 ERA over 20 innings — first applied to join Figueras’ crew, he wasn’t the first baseball player to come through the door. Fifteen big-league ballclubs play in Arizona’s Cactus League — that’s a lot of physically capable young men, many of whom earn well below the major league minimum.
“A lot of minor leaguers apply,” Figueras says. “When Taylor first came in, I didn’t know him from the next guy. He said he wanted to work for us in the offseason. It’s definitely an intriguing deal. I went through the same interview process with him as anyone else. From the first time talking to him, it was obvious he was a high-character guy. I thought it would be worth it even if it was only a short stint. I thought it would be worth a roll of the dice if he got called up. There really wasn’t a concern he’d leave us before he really got going. We thought he was someone who would take it seriously, as we all do in this business. We couldn’t be more pleased with the output he provided. He had such a great attitude — a good team member.”
Widener, 26, is an avid and frequent golfer and worked as a cart runner at The Links at Stono Ferry in Hollywood, S.C., in 2016. He lives just off the Westin Kierland course, which allowed him to ride his bike to work most mornings.
Widener on the mound Aug. 24, 2020, when the Diamondbacks hosted the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field in Phoenix. Photo by Kevin Abele/Arizona Diamondbacks
“Ever since I was little, I enjoyed cutting grass and doing yardwork,” Widener says. “And this job helped me get into a routine.”
There was another benefit, too. When Widener first interviewed with Figueras, Widener was coming off a rough summer with the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A farm club in Reno, Nev. Widener, who joined the Diamondbacks organization as part of a five-player, three-team deal in the 2018 offseason, had gone 6-7 over 23 games and 100 innings pitched, with an 8.10 ERA for the Reno Aces in 2019.
Part of the issue, he says, was his weight.
The previous summer, with the Double-A Jackson (Tenn.) Generals, he was 5-8 with a stellar 2.75 ERA over 137 ⅓ innings and was named the D-backs’ minor league pitcher of the year. He tweaked his offseason workouts and hit the weights hard, bulking up to 232 pounds.
Now, he says, that combination of good (muscle) and bad (fat) weight was what led to his rocky 2019 season in Reno and what convinced him to stay in Arizona during the offseason for workouts. That ultimately brought him to Figueras’ door.
“I figured I might as well make some money,” Widener says. “I was tracking how far I walked every day. I was walking 10, 15 miles every day on the course. Especially walking that long in boots every day, I noticed a big difference in my body coming into the season after doing that. Working at the golf course, you’re definitely using all those small muscles.”
Widener showed up at spring training last year weighing 202 pounds — 30 pounds lighter than the previous spring.
“Taylor said something about, ‘It’s nice to have the free golf,’” Figueras says. “But he really seemed to enjoy working outdoors, getting some physical exercise. There’s no question there’s a lot of walking in this line of work. Doing all those physical tasks, there was definitely a change to his body. He definitely went into the next spring training lighter. I made the joke I should send the Diamondbacks an invoice or a bill for his new physique or ask for some tickets or something.”
Photo by Paige Widener
Hired to the entry-level golf course maintenance position of “greenkeeper,” Widener did as he was asked, Figueras recalls, without complaint. His typical morning at the Troon-managed facility was spent on golf course setup — raking bunkers, walk-mowing greens, changing hole locations — and, after a lunch break as the course began to fill up, he’d move to the perimeter and concentrate on landscaping.
“We’re a busy course,” Figueras says. “When it’s full, it’s full. We generally stay out of the way. There’s a lot of landscaping — trimming plants, weeding, trimming trees — and he was involved in all that. Basically, he started like any Day One employee.”
Given Widener’s rainy-day 2019 call-up to the big-league team, Figueras figured he might have seen the last of Widener. He hadn’t.
“He was basically a seasonal hire for us,” Figueras says. “After he was called up, after the season he had last year, I was a little surprised when he reached out and said he wanted to come back. But we were definitely excited for him to come back. Not for the novelty of having a Diamondback on our team, but because he’s such a good team member.
“There are definitely a large number of people in this industry who don’t necessarily do this for the paycheck. They do it for pride in their work. They enjoy the atmosphere. We all have bills to pay, but that’s certainly not the main driving force for him.”
Widener says he was especially fond of the quiet and solitude the job afforded, and he relished the early mornings and seeing the sunrise creep over nearby Camelback Mountain. (“Every morning,” he says, “approaching Mesquite (Course) No. 7.”)
He particularly liked walk-mowing greens.
“I just liked the concentration it takes, how you feel after you get done and look back at the nice, straight lines,” he says. “I used to mess with Dan and the equipment tech: ‘Look at those lasers I just laid down.’”
Figueras remembers. “I can vouch,” he says with a laugh, “for the lasers.”
A product of the Pacific Northwest who grew up a Seattle Mariners fan, Figueras shifted allegiance when he moved to Scottsdale about eight years ago.
“I’m a Diamondbacks fan now,” he says. “Without question. I probably would have watched a lot of games anyway. Anytime they’re playing, I’m watching to see who the Diamondbacks go to out of the bullpen. I’m always crossing my fingers they’re going to Taylor. He’s just such a wonderful individual. He’s just so easy to root for.”
Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.