Modesto, Calif. -- You remember Groundhog Day, right? The movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman living out the same day over and over again, destined to wake up every morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight? Max White has lived that movie, only instead of groundhogs in Pennsylvania, the Colorado Rockies’ minor league outfielder saw it happen in the South Atlantic League again, and again… and again.
White wasn’t supposed to spend three consecutive years with the Asheville Tourists, of course. After being made the team’s second pick in the 2012 draft—David Dahl was the only man the Rockies selected ahead of White that summer—the high school outfielder from Florida was assigned to rookie-level Grand Junction.
The first rounder Dahl demolished Grand Junction in 2012; he led the rookie Rockies in every meaningful offensive category and came away with a .379 average and 1.048 OPS. The second-rounder didn’t fare so well; White hit just .200 that summer, with 72 strikeouts and a lowly .657 OPS in 50 games. But as an 18-year-old getting his feet wet for the first time in professional baseball, the Rockies evidently saw what they needed to see.
So, to begin 2013, they sent both White and Dahl to Asheville. It didn’t go so well. Exactly one game into his Low-A career, the Rockies sent Dahl back to extended spring training, stripping him of a roster spot after missing a plane and then showing an attitude that made the Rockies question assigning him to the South Atlantic League in the first place.
Dahl would eventually recover from that, of course; today, he’s beating down the door to Denver with a strong start to his second crack at Double-A. White, who had no such off-field problems in Asheville, nevertheless saw his path diverge from the fellow high school outfielder picked just one round ahead of him the summer before. It was then that White’s Asheville odyssey began in earnest. It wouldn't end for 246 games and nearly 1,000 plate appearances at the level. For three years, Max White lived out his own Groundhog Day in the mountains of western North Carolina.
★ ★ ★
You remember Groundhog Day, right? The movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman living out the same day over and over again, destined to wake up every morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight? Max White started living that movie in 2013, his first summer in Asheville.
Despite Dahl’s suspension, the first rounder eventually returned to Asheville. A year later he split time between there and the High-A Modesto Nuts, slugging 41 doubles and another 14 home runs and hitting .299, well on his way to his current position as one of the Rockies’ top prospects. White couldn’t keep up.
"The first two years, it was tough for me not to compare myself to [Dahl], because I was struggling and he wasn’t," White admits candidly. "I wanted to stay right there with him. I couldn’t."
How could you not want to stay right there with the guy drafted ahead of you, after all? Sure, it's more pertinent to worry about your own career, but it's only natural to make the connection. Two left-handed swinging high school outfielders get drafted back to back and sent to the same outposts in the same organization; immediately, one succeeded and one didn’t. Despite an off-field issue, one continued to set himself apart while the other failed to stick.
One found himself on the fast track while the other hit just .226 that summer in Asheville. And while even that was an improvement over his rookie ball season, White had just a .626 OPS in 2013. For a lefty swinger playing home games in the shadow of McCormick Field’s short right field porch, just three home runs in 72 games wasn’t good enough.
Ryan Castellani, White’s teammate in Asheville and Modesto and himself a high-round draft pick familiar with the external pressures and attention that come with that distinction, offers an assessment of what the second-rounder went through those years in Asheville.
"When you worry about what other guys are doing, that can get really time consuming and exhausting, because it’ll never end," Castellani says. "You can always find somebody else higher than you that you can talk about. It’s just toxic after a while."
White learned that lesson. It just took some time.
★ ★ ★
You remember Groundhog Day, right? The movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman living out the same day over and over again, destined to wake up every morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight? Max White lived that movie again in 2014, his second summer in Asheville.
As Dahl ran through Asheville and Modesto on his way to the top of every prospect list imaginable, White floundered, now in anonymity, back in the South Atlantic League. The then-20-year-old hit just .229 in 103 games for the Tourists, and struck out an alarming 153 times in just 350 at-bats.
Well, it's Groundhog Day... again..., the movie goes, and that must mean that we're up here at Gobbler's Knob waiting for the forecast from the world's most famous groundhog weatherman, Punxsutawney Phil, who's just about to tell us how much more winter we can expect.
A lot. You can expect a lot of winter.
Max White with the Grand Junction Rockies in 2012. Image via Charlie Drysdale.
That was a dark winter—or, summer—for White. Even though now he can look back at it as a learning experience, you still sense the pain he experienced going through it at the time.
"This game is tough," he says. "My first three years show that it is tough. But it’s my job, and it’s what I love to do, so I’ve just got to come out every day with the same mindset, that I can be the best player on the field."
White wasn't the best player on the field that summer; in fact, he only sat near the top of one category in the South Atlantic League in 2014: those 153 strikeouts were good enough for third in the league. He watched other younger, higher-round draftees like Ryan McMahon pass him by that summer, too, destined to move on to Modesto and eventually bigger, better things. White, firmly in baseball’s Punxsutawney purgatory, wasn’t going to move on to Modesto. He was going back to Asheville.
★ ★ ★
You remember Groundhog Day, right? The movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman living out the same day over and over again, destined to wake up every morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight? Max White woke up again to his own personal screening of that movie in 2015, finding himself one more time in Asheville. But that third time was different.
Where White's OPS failed to crest .700 in any of his first three pro seasons, 2015 saw him put up a smooth .965 mark while batting .309/.429/.535 in 74 games. After slugging 30 extra-base hits the year before in 400 plate appearances, White knocked 31 in 2015 in 100 fewer trips to the plate. Only an injury that robbed him of two months would prevent the outfielder from having wire-to-wire success in his third trip through Groundhog Day.
Predictably, the outfielder's on-field results came from wisdom gained away from the game—and being honest with himself in getting rid of parts of his life that weren't helping his career.
"I worked out with different guys than I had been working out with, and the preparation I had going into spring training just gave me a lot more confidence," White says of the changes he made a year ago heading into his third trip to Asheville. "Then during the season, I felt like there wasn’t a pitch that he could throw that I couldn’t hit, and that was every day, whether I had a bad game one night or a good game. If I had a bad one, it wasn’t like before where I was dreading the next day. I was ready to come back out the next day and be the same guy."
That mental development is part of what the minor leagues are all about, after all, and whether you're a second rounder or an undrafted free agent, the game is a cruel endeavor if you're not willing to learn the lessons. Fortunately for White, and the Rockies, he was willing to learn the lessons—even back early in his career when he struggled.
"My first spring training, I was with some older guys. I was 18 or 19 and they were 22, 24, and they told me that the minor leagues are a lot about learning yourself," White reveals. "I feel like that’s what I did a lot last year, learning what I’m doing when I’m going good, and what I’m doing when I’m going bad. Knowing that, it’s a lot easier for me now to know that whenever I do something wrong, or I have a bad night, to go back and think about it, and make that change mentally to get back to where I need to be."
Oh, and Dahl? White is proud of his teammate and draft-day compatriot, but the Williston, Florida native has learned a better way to compartmentalize that relative to his own career.
"I’m not in charge of where people go and when they go, I can only do what I can do and hope for the best," White cautions. "He’s moved on and I’m here. I played with him in spring and all that, and I’ve forgotten about all that. It’s time to play my game now. Instead of trying to compete with my other teammates, I’m trying to compete with myself, and learn to control what I can control."
Castellani, though a couple years younger than White, nevertheless understands that development process, too—especially as it relates to White's high-round draft status and struggle to succeed amid public pressure.
"I don’t think you can try and worry about anybody else, or who went where," Castellani ponders. "In the end, we are all on the same team, we are all together, and the best thing is to focus on yourself. Not in a selfish perspective against the team, but just in the idea of being present where you are, and knowing you can’t control anything else outside of that. Control the way you play and the way you recover. You do that, you’ll advance."
★ ★ ★
You remember Groundhog Day, right? The movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman living out the same day over and over again, destined to wake up every morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight? Max White suddenly woke up in 2016 free from the groundhog. Thousands of miles from Asheville, the outfielder was finally ready for a new level, a new challenge, and a new lease on his young career in High-A Modesto.
"Those first three years of failure have helped me now," White says, looking back on his walk through personal career purgatory. "I played with guys that have had really good first and second years, and they struggle the first week of the season and their head is spinning. That's not that big of a deal for me now, because I struggled so much, but I learned what went wrong when I was struggling."
"Now," he continues, "when I struggle, I can control that before it gets too bad. I can come back and get myself right back to where I need to be."
Where White needs to be ought not be overlooked in seeking out the redemption aspects of his story; remember, he's a second round high school draft pick who was committed to the University of Florida before the Rockies threw seven figures at him to sign back in 2012. In other words, he has tools—a strong mix of speed and power—and at just 22 years old, still the time to develop those tools into a potential big league career one day.
"I love watching him play because he’s so fast and he plays so hard, but he also has some serious pop in his bat," Castellani says. "When he connects, it goes really far, and yet he can lay the bunt down. So the defense has to respect everything he can do, they can’t cheat in because he could beat them deep."
"I just love how fast he is," Castellani continues, reflecting his pitcher's perspective with White manning the outfield behind him. "He plays the outfield hard. You feel safer and more secure on the mound when the ball is hit up in the air, because he’s gonna make the play. And then he’ll provide you some thump in the lineup and help get you some run support."
White's other teammates see it, too. Nuts right fielder Drew Weeks appreciates the speed White and teammate Wes Rogers provide in John Thurman Field's spacious outfield.
"Hey man, don’t sleep on my speed, I’m not that slow either," Weeks jokes when asked about White's ability to cover ground. "But seriously, it frees up a gap so I can play the line a little bit more. Especially in Modesto. Modesto is huge, but with him as fast as he is, we pretty much have most of the outfield covered."
And maybe that's the most interesting part; those that write about baseball inevitably overthink the game, because, well, they aren't playing it. Is Max White a bust because he spent three years in Asheville? Is he tainted from past failures? How does a young kid like that recover? Is he forever destined to be in Dahl's shadow? Or does he spin the failure into a positive trait? Can he really still impact the big league club one day?
None of those questions really matter to the players, though; they don't think about the game as much as they just go out and do it, and esoteric career questions and what-ifs will never cross their minds in quite the same way.
"Regardless of how someone plays or how their stats play out, you can always learn from everybody," Rogers says of his outfield mate's failure, and then success. "I’m so happy for the man. He’s definitely figured something out. He’s a great baseball player and he's one of my really good friends."
★ ★ ★
You remember Groundhog Day, right? The movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman living out the same day over and over again, destined to wake up every morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight?
Nah, Max White doesn't remember it either.