Size didn’t prevent baseball whiz from making Major League

Michael Wielansky, a Ladue High School graduate, impressed baseball scouts while playing for College of Wooster, an NCAA Division III school. Last week, Wielansky was drafted by the Houston Astros. 

Ellen Futterman, Editor

I’ve always been a sucker for a good David and Goliath story. In this modern-day version, think of Goliath as big-time baseball. As for David, the underdog, let’s call him Michael Wielansky, a 2015 Ladue high grad who was drafted last week by the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros.

Shortly before Houston called, Michael, 21, had just finished his junior year at the College of Wooster, a NCAA Division III school in Ohio best known for its stellar academic programs, not baseball excellence. Still, when he was picked in Round 18 (of 40 rounds), he became the top Division III position player in 2018 selected by a Major League Baseball team.

Let’s rewind the highlight tape to Michael’s career at Ladue.

Although he put up impressive numbers in the field and at bat, Michael and his parents, Steve and Linda Wielansky, said he was too small in high school for Division I schools to seriously court him. Linda recalled that at his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel, a skinny 4-feet-9 Michael had to stand on a box to reach the microphone at the pulpit.

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“I entered high school as a freshman at 5-feet. By junior year, I was 5-feet-8, but only 125 pounds,” said Michael, who played shortstop for the Ladue Rams where he hit .642 and was the league’s player-of-the-year as a senior.

“A lot of colleges liked my skill set but passed on me because I was small,” he added.

Michael also played soccer at Ladue, which many thought would be his sport. As team captain, he finished his senior year with 26 goals and 12 assists and was named to the Post-Dispatch’s All-Metro Team as well as first team all-state and first team all-conference. But baseball was his true love. He wasn’t about to let his size — or lack thereof — deter his dream to play college ball.

Missouri S&T, a Division II school in Rolla with a focus on engineering, wanted him, but his academic interests lay elsewhere. Michael decided on Wooster, a 2,000-student top liberal arts college about 60 miles south of Cleveland, where he would major in business and economics. And play Division III baseball, of course.

Boy oh boy, did he ever play. In fact, it would be accurate to say he slayed his opponents.

He started at shortstop his freshman year, batting just under .400. As a sophomore, he was voted a Division III All-American and won the prestigious ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove Award as a shortstop, becoming the first player in Wooster history to do so. He hit .425 (79-for-186) and finished with 54 RBIs, 20 stolen bases, 15 doubles, 10 home runs and six triples.

“I put up some really good numbers in Wooster, which drew some attention,” said Michael, who then played that summer with mostly Division I players as a Charlottesville (Va.) Tom Sox in the wood-bat Valley Baseball League. He wound up leading the league with a .432 average. The Tom Sox won their first Valley League championship and Michael was named MVP.

That summer was a game changer. Goliath, or in this case, professional MLB baseball, definitely was taking notice. The trajectory continued at Wooster where Michael had more success, becoming the second known player in NCAA Division III history to record 200 hits, 200 runs, 150 RBIs before the end of his junior year.

“Going into college I just wanted to play as well as I could and as much as possible,” said Michael, who now stands at 6-feet-2 and weighs 175 pounds. “I had a lot of success, and after last summer’s ball, I started to think (being drafted) could be a possibly. Scouts started coming to my games and watching me. All of a sudden, it became pretty realistic.”

Still, when the draft happened on Wednesday, June 6, Michael says he wasn’t sure what to expect. He had heard that both the Mets and his hometown sweetheart, the Cardinals, were interested, but in the world of these Goliaths, nothing is for sure.

“It was a stressful process,” said Steve Wielansky, who coached Michael’s summer baseball teams through high school. “We heard that morning the Cardinals are really interested, but the Mets were still” the most interested “and were thinking about taking him somewhere between the 11th and 15th rounds.

“We had the computer on. The 15th round goes and nothing happens. Then the 16th. At that point, I turned the computer off and said, ‘Let’s go into the other room and relax. There are no guarantees. A lot of good players fall through the cracks.’         

“Then the 17th and nothing. In the 18th, Michael’s phone rings to say Houston is interested. He also hears that the Mets and the Cardinals are back in.

“I had my phone on. Houston had the next pick. They are supposed to call first but I was looking at my phone and there was Michael’s name. I said, ‘The Astros picked you!’ From there, it was hugs all around and so much excitement.”

Steve and Michael hugged first. Then the hugfest continued as Linda; Michael’s older sister, Allie, and his college girlfriend, Lissette Torres, got in on the action. Calls and text messages flooded the household.

On Monday, Michael flew to Albany, N.Y., where he will play this summer for the Astros single-A affiliate, the Tri City Valley Cats. In addition to a signing bonus, the Astros will pay for Michael to finish his senior year of college should he decide to do so.

“If his parents have anything to do with it, he will finish,” said Linda, laughing.

In the few days between the draft and leaving for New York, Michael tried to take in what had happened, along with plenty of toasted ravioli and Ted Drewes. It all seemed so surreal, he said. He had planned to play again in Charlottesville this summer, until, well, his lifelong dream came true.

I asked Michael if he thought his Judaism had a hand in any of this. After all, his father had shared with me that during Michael’s three years at Wooster, he played his best ball during Passover, adhering strictly to its dietary rules. He played so well, in fact, his teammates begged him not to eat bread for the rest of the season. 

“My faith plays a big part in my life and definitely correlates to the baseball field in a lot of ways,” said Michael. “When I’m struggling, I will pray a little bit. It’s not necessarily every game, but I definitely feel connected to my faith and rely on it.”

Just like David who championed Goliath.