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40 in 40: Art Warren

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When the lights come on I’ll be ready for this. It’s in your bloodstream, a collision of atoms that happens before your eyes

Cincinnati Reds v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Art, as a concept, can be an extremely maddening thing to define or evaluate. The parameters of what make it good or bad, exciting or boring, change from person to person, each soul attaching to something specific that resonates with them. Sometimes the greatest feelings from art come from the devilish knowledge that it’s not for everyone, an exclusive club just for you. Other times it smacks you in the face like an unavoidable tsunami: a blockbuster film or undeniable pop song that makes your heart smile just as much as it does for your grandparents.

Art does not exist in the same way for all people. It occupies the spaces between society’s collective taste. A little bit of this plus a little bit of that equaling something that reminds you of something else. It can be breathtakingly beautiful, downright abhorrent, or perhaps even worse, not much of anything at all.

Art Warren is a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. He made his major league debut on September 12, 2019. He threw 15 pitches, allowed a hit, walked a guy, and recorded all of one out. It was an unwelcoming, roof-closed night in Seattle, and the Mariners lost 11-5. It was the type of thing you watch once and never think about ever again. But for Warren, a person making their first step into the spotlight, it was everything you want art to be. A gorgeous symphony. A passion project. A sculpture that took years to perfect.

Art Warren was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2015 draft. He started his collegiate career at the University of Cincinnati, a three-hour drive from his hometown of Defiance, Ohio. Life as a bearcat was not as sunny as Warren would have hoped, and after posting a 7.11 ERA as a sophomore, he elected to transfer to Division II Ashland University.

”You go Division II, there’s not all the perks and exposure and this and that,” Warren told Arkansas’ ABC news station. “I trusted my gut and I had a feeling it would work out in the end.”

One more conflict delayed Warren’s redemptive arc, in the form of three dreaded words for any pitcher: Tommy John surgery.

”The first thing I heard from the first doctor I saw was I’d never pitch again,” Warren said. “I may consider just playing third base to finish out my career, get my degree. No hope.”

With a year of rehab under his belt, Warren joined the Ashland roster for the 2015 season, creating his own hope amid bleak circumstances. The towering righthander threw 60.1 innings—more than his combined total in two years at Cincinnati—and made all of his appearances as a starter, something he only did twice in the Big East. While the numbers at Ashland weren’t eye-popping for a Division I talent playing down a level (52 strikeouts and 47 walks with a 1.57 WHIP), it was enough for the Mariners to take a chance on him.

From there Warren crisscrossed the American West, starting with rookie ball in Arizona, then Clinton, Iowa, then Bakersfield, California before stopping off in Modesto and finishing with two strong years at Double-A Arkansas. The major leagues were never a guarantee for Warren, as they typically aren’t for 23rd round picks from D2 schools. Walking 15% of the hitters he faced as a Clinton LumberKing certainly didn’t help either. Something seemed to click for Warren in Little Rock, though, where he not only played alongside several of the people he’d end up getting promoted with, but also put up the best numbers in his professional career.

Serving as the Travelers’ closer, Warren notched 15 saves, fanned nearly one-third of his opponents, and reined in the walks that had cursed him since freshman year at Cincinnati in 2012. If not for his triumphant 2019, during which the Travelers’ original manager bolted for the job at Oregon State, leaving the post to Cesar Nicolas, Warren might still be wondering what could have happened if his power conference career had gone better eight years ago.

”He’s a special guy,” Nicolas said of Warren in September. “He’s been through a lot. He’s the kind of guy you really root for. You want him to succeed.”

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The first acts of his minor league journey are what make its final chapter so fitting, if also a bit cruel.

As the story goes, after Arkansas was eliminated in the 2019 Double-A playoffs, the team gathered for the customary final speeches. Like the last game of any season, it would serve as the last time that group ever shared the same clubhouse together. But knowing that the MLB calendar had more boxes to fill, Nicolas prepared to tell some of his charges that they would be headed to Seattle.

Donnie Walton got the news first, reportedly falling to his knees and bursting into tears for what he would call “one of the best moments of my life”. Then Nicolas told Kyle Lewis, the former first-rounder whose production in Arkansas more than warranted a call from the big club. When pitching coach Pete Woodworth moved to the pitchers, he congratulated team ace Justin Dunn on his inevitable ascension, then he and Nicolas left the room, leading everyone to believe the good news was over. I’ll let Ryan Divish tell the rest.

Nicolas came back into the room and said he had one more quick announcement. But Warren was still in the shower, so he walked in and told his closer, “Hey, we’ve got one more promotion and I don’t think you are going to want to miss this one.”

Woodworth had told the team about Warren’s call-up. So when he emerged from the shower, his teammates were all waiting for him and exploded with more cheers.

“They all just started going crazy for me,” Warren said as the edges of his eyes filled with tears thinking about the moment. “I knew I was pretty excited about that. I just started crying right away. [...] My name was the last I expected.”

To know the details of it all, the story behind the art, is to gain a greater appreciation for the form. There are no masterpieces without hard work, no accomplishments without struggle. While Art Warren, the Mariners, and their fans are all hoping that Warren’s catalog is only beginning to take shape, that does not make the way he crafted it any less special.