Nerves, sweat and a phone call: How Casey Mize became Tigers' top pick

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press
Casey Mize hugs his father, Jason, after being selected No. 1 overall in the MLB draft by the Detroit Tigers on Monday, June 4, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.

AUBURN, Ala. – Casey Mize awoke Monday morning sleep-deprived but with a drive ahead to chase a dream.

When Mize was in high school, he often made the 2½ hour drive from his small hometown of Springville, Ala., to Atlanta for travel baseball games, even on the days he wasn’t pitching. When he was a homesick freshman in college, he drove 19 hours to play in the Cape Cod Baseball League in Massachusetts, all by himself.

But Monday's drive from Raleigh, N.C., to Auburn, Ala., was different. Mize, the most dynamic right-handed pitcher in college baseball this season, was eight hours from clearing the first hurdle in his dream of becoming a major league pitcher. 

Mize has been aware of his draft status the past few months. He’d seen the scouts in the seats at his Auburn University baseball games. He’d met with every major league team. And in the days leading up to Monday's MLB draft, he’d read the mock drafts — all of which accurately predicted he would be taken by the Detroit Tigers with the No. 1 overall pick.

“I denied everything,” he said. “That all meant nothing. I wasn’t buying into anything until my name was called over that screen.”

Casey Mize waits to hear his name before being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft on Monday, June 4, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.

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And so, on this drive, still fuzzy from a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, Mize caught up on some sleep in the back seat of his parents’ SUV. In a hurry to get back home, the family made just one stop, at a Burger King. They talked, but not much about the draft.

The drive took nearly seven hours, but somewhere on I-85 outside of Atlanta, after Mize’s parents dropped Mize and his girlfriend off for the second leg of the trip,  the emotions started settling in.

“I just remember he asked me halfway, ‘Are you OK with today?’ ” said Tali Milde, Mize's girlfriend. “I was like, ‘Yes, I’m OK. I just have a lot of emotions.’ And he said, ‘It’s OK. Me, too.’ ”

A night earlier, Mize had been up until 2:30 a.m., still wired from helping Auburn win its first regional championship in 19 years. Now, just hours away from the moment that had put so much pressure on him this season, Mize couldn’t help but think of the long drives he had taken in the past. 

“I was reminiscing on those moments,” he said. “Some of the stuff that we did to get to this point. And I definitely think it made the moment more special.”

Nerves. Sweat. And a phone call. 

The moment finally came at 7:11 p.m., after the most excruciating commercial break in Mize family history.

Jason Mize, Casey’s dad — a police officer who rarely gets nervous — began feeling anxious the night before. But Rhonda Mize, Casey's mom, who usually gets nervous much easier, managed to compose herself right up until Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred took the stage.

Jason and Rhonda Mize talk about their son Auburn pitcher Casey Mize at their Springville, Alabama, home on Thursday, May 17, 2018.

“When I saw the Commissioner come up there and say the words that everybody’s said a million times, ‘Detroit is on the clock' or whatever, that’s what got me,” she said.

And whenever the Tigers were mentioned during MLB Network’s pre-draft show, Mize’s name wasn’t far behind. And for good reason. Mize has dominated at Auburn this season, showing off his elite command of the four pitches — a fastball, split-fingered pitch, slider and cut fastball — that helped make him the safest and most MLB-ready pick in this year's draft. 

“Will they take Casey Mize?” host Greg Amsinger said on the pre-draft show.

“My gut tells me that we were right on this one,” analyst Jonathan Mayo said. “That Casey Mize from Auburn is going to be the first guy that comes off the board.”

Sitting in the front row of the Auburn athletics auditorium, between both his parents, and surrounded by other family members and friends who helped push him to this point,  Mize had no clue what would happen.

It’s common for the No. 1 draft pick to know his fate well before it's announced, given the contract negotiations that often take place behind the scenes. But that wasn't the case here. There was some uncertainty heading into the final hours Monday, perhaps over contract figures or even Mize himself.  Yet if anyone knew whether the Tigers were taking Mize, it would have been Dustin Bledsoe, Mize’s adviser, who might not have been willing to share any rumblings he had heard out of respect for the moment.

“He just kind of wanted me to enjoy the moment,” Mize said. “I don’t really know. But he was like, ‘It’s probably just going to be a thing that you’re just going to have to find out.' ”

Casey Mize, shown at the Auburn Athletics Complex on Monday, June 4, 2018, was the No. 1 overall pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 2018 MLB draft.

It was nerve-racking as hell. Half an hour earlier, as teammates cheered as his highlights appeared on the big screen in the room, Mize showed off the sweat from under his right arm. He didn’t need to be asked whether he was nervous.

The anticipation grew during that commercial break that came right before the pick was announced. For a moment, the room seemed to go quiet, which only ramped up Mize's nerves even more. 

His aunt, who flew in from Washington, patted him on the shoulder.

“Whatever happens is fine,” Mize told her, and you almost believed him.

Then, in an ice-breaking moment, Jason received a phone call from someone who apparently did not know his youngest son was minutes away from becoming the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft. Laughter ensued.

There were cameras pointed at Mize, a bright light shining in his eye and an ear piece that wouldn’t stay put. There was eye contact with a reporter from Detroit, which highlighted the overarching awkwardness of the moment. Everybody was here expecting Mize would be the No. 1 pick. What would happen if he wasn’t? And what would the reporter tell his editor?

As the Tigers’ four minutes on the clock turned into seconds, Mize’s left leg began to shake. His mom held his hand. His dad patted him a couple times on the leg. He stared at the big screen, his ear piece still loose, waiting for words that would change his life.

With the first selection of the 2018 MLB draft, the Detroit Tigers select ...

'I'm happy that's over'

The scene unfolded simply, as you’d expect, with an eruption after Manfred spoke the only word they needed to hear: “Casey.”

Not knowing what to do — and how could he — Mize pressed his head into the palm of his hands. He was, after months of speculation, the No. 1 pick of the Tigers.

Auburn pitcher Casey Mize pitches against LSU Friday, May 18, 2018, at Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park in Auburn, Alabama.

He was happy, for sure. He hugged his mom, hugged his dad, hugged everyone nearby. He damn-near blacked out, going numb at the sound of his first name.

“That’s why I don’t think I went crazy or anything,” he said. “I couldn’t really fathom what was really happening.”

But happiness isn't what he remembers most about the moment. It was relief. “There is some pressure that comes with it and there’s a lot of stuff that goes with it, but I did my best to enjoy it,” he said. “But now that it’s over, I’m pretty happy.”

Sure, he had thought about what Monday's moment might feel like. At times, he thought about it on the pitching mound. Or while walking to class. Or before he went to sleep at night. Mize, for all the accounts about his cool presence on the mound, is a 21-year-old kid.

“I did my best as I could to kind of tone that out, but obviously, it’s very difficult to keep out of your mind and so it was stressful. My own expectations. … ‘I wonder if scouts liked this start, if they didn’t like this’ and things like that,” he said. “But I enjoyed it as well. I enjoyed getting to meet with teams ... and go through this process, so it’s definitely something I’ll remember and enjoyed, but man, I’m happy that it’s over.”

He fidgeted with a microphone and fixed his ear piece before an on-camera interview on MLB Network. He was thrown off because of the network's tape delay. 

“You don’t really know what to expect because you’re just thrown into the fire and you just gotta figure it out,” he said. “So I did the best I could with it, wired up and everything, but it was awesome, though.”

He pulled his parents close, wondering whether they were in the picture and then stood before everyone for a thank-you address. He told his teammates he loved them. That they weren’t done winning baseball games this season. He began to tear up while talking about Auburn head coach Butch Thompson and gave hugs and handshakes and high-fives. He finished by saying, “What are we going to do now?”

But as one chapter on Mize’s life closed inside the auditorium, another began as he waited around in the atrium.

His phone was blowing up. He had 64 notifications, then 82 and eventually, too many. He opened Twitter and  turned off his mentions. He gained more than 500 followers almost immediately after being drafted.

There will be more interviews. Many more followers. A lot of attention for a small-town kid who went from undrafted high school prospect to the biggest prospect in a baseball-crazed city.

Mize and his girlfriend were the last people to leave the building on the biggest day of his life. They headed to the parking lot and to Tali's car, which he prefers to ride in.  The radio in Mize’s truck doesn’t work. The air conditioning only has two functions: Off or full blast. He eventually wants a Toyota 4Runner, and soon he'll have enough money to buy one. 

But until then, he’s content riding shotgun with his girlfriend and pitching Auburn closer to the College World Series without the pressure of trying to be the No. 1 pick. No, as the scoreboard across the street at Plainsman Park, Auburn baseball's home stadium, proudly displayed, Casey Mize is the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft. 

Contact Anthony Fenech: afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.