After years of injuries and disappointments, this was the moment Danny Hultzen had dreamed of since he was 5. He’d made it to the major leagues. The day after the Chicago Cubs called him up from their top minor league team, the phone rang in the Cubs’ bullpen.
“Hultzen, you’re in,” a coach said.
All right, he thought. Here we go.
On Sept. 8, 2019, Hultzen threw his final warmup pitches, stepped through a gate and headed toward the mound at Miller Park in Milwaukee, where the Cubs were playing the Brewers. After a few steps into the outfield, something felt off. The crowd was silent. He looked around, then figured it out. It was the seventh-inning stretch; the singing of “God Bless America” was beginning. Hultzen stopped where he was, took off his hat, and waited.
That’s a hell of a way to start, he remembers thinking.
A pitch by Hultzen, a left-hander, hit the first batter he faced—prolific home run hitter Christian Yelich. The second batter singled. Then Hultzen recorded three straight strikeouts and his work for the day was over.
“Getting back in that dugout after that last strikeout and shaking everyone’s hand and then going in my locker, sitting down and just being like, You did it. You f****** did it, man. You did it. And just crying. That one inning and that one phone call made all those years of rehab and work 100% worth it,” he says.
Growing up in Bethesda, Hultzen was a star player in the Bethesda Chevy Chase Baseball league, then at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and for a summer travel team. Besides pitching, he sometimes played in the outfield or at first base. He was a three-time All-American at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, helping lead the team to two berths in the College World Series.
He and his family had agreed that he should hold off on trying to play professional baseball long enough to attend UVA and pursue a college degree. When the Arizona Diamondbacks picked Hultzen, a high school senior, in the 10th round of the 2008 amateur draft, he and his parents declined.
Pro scouts remained glued to Hultzen in college, where his record over three seasons was 32-5 with a 2.08 ERA. He holds UVA career records in strikeouts (395) and wins. In 2011, the Seattle Mariners made him the second player chosen in the amateur draft—ahead of future stars such as former Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, shortstop Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians and outfielder George Springer of the Houston Astros. The only player picked ahead of Hultzen was Gerrit Cole, the former Astros pitcher who now plays for the New York Yankees.
Hultzen signed a five-year contract for a guaranteed $8.5 million and left college early. But at Triple-A—one step from the Mariners and the major leagues—his pro ambitions took a disastrous turn. In 2013, he injured his pitching shoulder in three places. He tried to pitch through it, but eventually required surgery.