Former Eastern Illinois pitchers Matt Wivinis and Jake Haberer both gave themselves a limited window to earn a professional contract.
Wivinis graduated in 2016 and signed a contract with the Evansville Otters on July 1, 2016, an independent team in the Frontier League. He was going to pitch for the Otters for a year, and if he didn't earn a contract from an MLB team after a year, he was going to give up the game.
Haberer graduated from EIU this past spring and had a workout with an independent team. They went in another direction and Haberer was about ready to hang it up when the Florence Freedom, a Frontier League team in Kentucky, called and offered him a contract. Haberer decided to give it a try and he didn't know how long the run would last.
Wivinis lasted the full season with Evansville, striking out 43 batters in 39 2/3 innings with a 1.59 earned run average. He helped the team win the championship. While that was a nice feeling, Wivinis felt a whole lot better two days later. The New York Yankees contacted Wivinis and said they were going to sign him to a professional contract.
"When I found out the Yankees were going to sign me, I was so excited," Wivinis said. "I never doubted myself and I always knew I could do it. I had some back luck with Tommy John in college. Then the good luck came after Independent ball. I've always had confidence in myself. I know I am not a 95 to 100 mile per hour pitcher, but I feel like I know how to get guys out. A lot of people have helped me become the pitcher I am today."
Haberer was having a good season with Florence with a 1.80 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 20 innings when he was called into his manager's office. His manager put on a stern tone, making Haberer think he was getting cut. His manager cut the act and congratulated him because the Seattle Mariners were signing him to a professional contract.
"It was a surreal moment. It's was one of those things that words can't describe it. The first thing when I got the news, I called my dad and it was the greatest call of my life," Haberer said. "I walk into the room, and my coach looks pissed off and gave me a hard time and then he tells me the news. I went from being scared to just in a surreal moment."
Both are beating the odds by getting signed. When a player misses out on being drafted, it's hard for a player to be picked up. The success stories from going from Independent baseball to the majors is rare. But both Wivinis and Haberer are proving to be two success stories from the Independent ranks.
"It's not the path that you would choose to go one. With Indy ball, there's no affiliation and you are hoping a scout sees you, and hopefully you perform well the one day they see you," Wivinis said. "The one day the Yankees saw me, I could've pitched bad and they could've turned away. It was a good coincidence and they saw something they really liked in me."
Wivinis went from almost retiring to moving up the ladder with the Yankees. Wivinis, who grew up a Yankees fan, is currently pitching for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, which is where organizations send some of their top prospects. Wivinis has a 1.74 ERA in 10 1/3 innings with 12 strikeouts.
"It's exciting that the Yankees chose me to represent them," Wivinis said. "It's been a long road, and I am happy some of it is starting to pay off. It's starting to look up."
His time at Glendale has mirrored his career so far with the Yankees. He pitched 12 games in Rookie ball in 2017 before moving up to A-ball in Charleston. His ERA in both leagues was below 1.00 and he had 11 saves. He started out in Charleston in 2018 and after nine games, he moved up to Class High A with Tampa. He saved eight games and had 44 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings. He got the call again, moving up to Double-AA with Trenton where he saved five more games.
It's been a whirlwind for Wivinis but he's just taking it day-by-day.
"I didn't expect anything like this to happen, but God's been good and he's been helping me through this. I never expected any of this so to be here saying I am a Yankee is awesome," Wivinis said. "I can't predict the future so I am going to go out and perform how I've tried to this past season and hopefully good things continue to happen. That's the end goal."
Wivinis is enjoying success as a reliever even though he was a starter for EIU. That's where EIU needed him so that's where he pitched. He feels more comfortable as a reliever.
"Starting was fun but I like coming out and throwing an inning or two. It makes you focus on one or two innings instead of seven," Wivinis said. "You can focus all of your energy on one or two innings."
He did run into some trouble at Trenton, though. He finished the season with a 4.86 ERA in 16 2/3 innings. But his ERA is inflated because of a couple of tough appearances. He still had 19 strikeouts and only walked one batter. Wivinis feels like he made the adjustments at the Double-A level and to him, it's one more step to hopefully making it to the majors in the future.
"You definitely get more consistent hitters in Double-A. There were two home runs that were three-run home runs that boosted the ERA up. Without that, it would be lower," Wivinis said. "I learned a lot from the coaches and you change what pitches to throw and what counts hitters are looking for things. You can tell you are on your way to the big leagues when you are at Double-A. That's the end goal."
Haberer had six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in rookie ball when the Mariners called him up to High A. He had a 4.15 ERA with seven strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. He didn't have a walk in 8 2/3 innings in the Mariners organization this season.
"My first outing was a little rough but once I settled in, I felt like I belonged. It all happened fast. I was in Arizona for about 2 1/2 weeks before being moved up to High A," Haberer said. "You just put on a Mariners uniform for the first time, you just can't explain that feeling. It's just surreal."
Haberer doesn't know what level he's going to start off at next season, but the Mariners let him know that they like his stuff. Haberer, whose dad Dave played for EIU from 1970-74, is from Highland and is close enough to work out at a facility in St. Louis during the offseason.
"Before I left, the Mariners said they like me. There's definitely a lot of room for improvement. I am training at a place in St. Louis and doing everything that they want me to work on. Just get better every day before spring training, that's all you can do," Haberer said. "I would say just commanding pitchers and taking it day-by-day and not getting ahead of myself."