Written by Biko Skalla
Everybody loved Joe Miller Day this summer. Well, everybody who sported a rooting interest in the Savannah Bananas success loved Joe Miller Day. His opponents certainly had a very different feeling about his presence on the mound. Whether cheering for or against him though, what may not have been fully appreciated by everyone who got to experience Joe’s dominance is how he became the best pitcher in the Coastal Plain League in 2021. Maybe most shocking of all is how close he was to possibly unveiling his most deadly collegiate self in the summer of 2020, for the Macon Bacon.
Joe grew up in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a small town of roughly 7,500 people, just a pinch over a half an hour north of Philadelphia. A die-hard Philly sports fan, he grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball. By the time he had reached La Salle College High School, (talk about an oxymoron), a private all-boys high school about 20 minutes from home, Joe was just playing baseball. He was able to parlay four years of honor roll academics and fierce production on the mound for the Explorers into an Ivy League opportunity.
“My parents always stressed the importance of good grades for me,” Joe said. “An Ivy League school was definitely the goal, and the combination of getting into Wharton, getting to play good D1 ball, and getting to be like a half an hour from home made it a pretty easy choice.”
Wharton is the University of Pennsylvania business school, easily a top 5 business school in the country, if not the best. On the diamond Joe had a solid freshman campaign, beginning the spring as a mid-week starter and a few weeks in shortening his mid-week starts so he could come out of the pen over the weekend too. He would end the year with a 4.76 ERA in 34 innings pitched, striking out 41 while only walking 26. Joe only allowed one run over his final 7.2 innings of work, and carried the end of spring success into his first collegiate season of summer baseball with the Asheboro Copperheads in the CPL. In 7 starts for the Copperheads he tossed 38 innings to the tune of a 3.08 ERA while striking out 44, earning CPL All-Star honors and the trip to Savannah that came with them.
“I hadn’t really heard of the Bananas or anything going into the All-Star Game,” Joe told me. “I walked out of the locker room during the singalong and I got goosebumps. It was the biggest crowd I had ever played in front of and the energy was unbelievable. I threw pretty well in the game and it was an awesome experience overall.”
After his strong summer down south, Joe returned to Philly with high hopes for his sophomore campaign. The Quakers offense the year before had been one of the best in the country and probably the greatest in school history, sporting an otherworldly .334 team batting average that was second-best in the nation. Only losing 5 guys from the powerful 2019 team, the veteran UPenn squad started off the spring by dropping 2 out of 3 games to Ryan Kennedy and his Kennesaw State Owls. Then for spring break they shipped down to Miami to take on Christian Dearman and Florida International University. They split the four game set with FIU and then trekked to Boca Raton to take on Florida Atlantic University and that’s when things got weird.
“We had a meeting with our assistant AD the day before we played FAU,” Joe said. “He basically said, ‘Don’t read into all this COVID stuff too much. We may have to have a guest pass thing for home games and a limit on family members we can have there but besides that everything should be fine.”
Men’s and women’s college basketball was cancelled the next day, but once again the Quakers were assured that because they played outside all would be fine. They attacked their 4:00pm game against FAU just like any other. That is until about 3:15pm when their coach gathered the guys and announced that he had just been told their season was cancelled but they would still get to play this one last game.
“It hit us extra hard because it completely went against everything we had been hearing the last few days,” Joe said. “Then about 20 minutes later he gathered us again and let us know he just found out we actually couldn’t play this last game and were flying back home tomorrow. There were a lot of tears especially from the seniors which was tough to see. They had one last catch in the outfield with their jerseys on. It was really sad and surreal to see.”
Two days later when they were supposed to be in Deland, Florida, playing Stetson, instead they were back in Pennsylvania, and Joe had his worst birthday to memory. As disappointing as it all was, he didn’t sit around to lament his sorrows. Joe kept throwing into a portable net he had at his house, and with the help of some friends he turned his garage into a makeshift gym. They would play behind the house, in a local park, or at a batting cage nearby. There was still plenty of hope for summer ball and Joe was headed to the Cape!
That is until the Cape Cod League was cancelled in April. What followed was a plethora of swinging door moments.
“I had an opportunity in the Northwoods League but they kept pushing things back and then all of a sudden wanted a night-of commit but it meant a drive across the country to Wisconsin or North Dakota or something and I wasn’t ready to sign on for that,” Joe told me. “Then I was committed to go back to Asheboro and they cancelled their season pretty close to when I was supposed to report which took most of the wind out of me for playing anywhere else. There were talks of going to Gastonia too but that was mostly rumor stuff, (and they ended up not playing).”
Then his UPenn teammate Josh Hood approached him with another opportunity to play in the CPL.
“Josh was going down to play with the Bacon and they needed an arm and I thought about joining him but at that point I had had so many teams and leagues close on me that I was pretty much over the whole thing.”
Joe Miller, a member of the Macon Bacon. What a terrifying thought that is. Instead he stayed home, continued to workout with his friends, and actually formed a team in a local men’s league to try and stay fresh.
“It was actually really cool to play with my friends from high school and travel ball,” Joe said. “It was kind of weird though because we had a full D1 lineup and we’d lose to a team full of 40 year-olds.”
UPenn wasn’t able to actually play in the fall because of COVID, but they could practice in small groups with masks on and there were bright skies ahead with coronavirus numbers decreasing and most college leagues figuring out how to safely get their seasons in. Of course, this just made what happened next all the more shocking.
“We thought there was no way our season could get cancelled again,” Joe said. “I don’t think the communication was amazing from the league on what actually was going to happen, but then all of a sudden in the spring we got an email about a meeting with an important announcement and that of course ended up being that the Ivy League would not have a season, although there would be a chance for non-conference games.”
Most of the team went home after that with little to no hope of any non-conference games actually materializing. Joe went back to Hatboro. His buddy Eduardo Malinowski, who just had his senior season cancelled, went back to his home in Spring, Texas. It was another disheartening end to a promising spring. But this time in less than two weeks Joe got a call from his coach saying they actually did have a good shot at playing non-conference games, but they needed to have guys back quickly to get some practices in. The practices could only have a maximum of 6, masked up players at them, but the important part was they were actually going to play.
UPenn ended up being the only Ivy League team to get any action this past spring, as the Quakers were able to snag 14 non-conference games which also wasn’t enough to burn a year of eligibility. Unfortunately for Joe, his long-awaited return to school baseball did not come with personal or team success. UPenn went 6-8 and in his 15 innings pitched Joe gave up 15 runs on 16 hits and 14 walks. The strikeouts were still there as he K’d 21, and he had one outstanding performance as he went 7 innings of 1-run ball against Delaware, but overall it obviously was not what he or the team was hoping for.
“There was definitely a lot going against us,” Joe told me. “The restrictions made it so we couldn’t all practice together and we never even got out on the field until days before the first game. We had sophomores who didn’t get a freshman season and then freshman who didn’t get a fall so the spring was their introduction to D1 competition. We had no locker room, and days that we couldn’t use the weight room so I would have to drive home to workout.”
Plus there was the problem of most upperclassmen not getting much game action over the past year and a half either.
“I got kind of caught in the training mindset on the mound where I had worked on so much over the past couple years that I was thinking about everything all at once out there and got myself into a lot of trouble because of that.”
Joe’s struggles in his second straight season marred by COVID wore on him. He admitted to being pretty dejected when he went back home, and his dad Ed noticed it too.
“The bottom line was he had a great time with Asheboro,” Ed said. “But then his sophomore year got messed up, and then he only played a partial season and didn’t do too well in it. He missed 2 years of college baseball, and a summer of college ball, and all of that in a nutshell took a toll on him.”
Luckily, once again there were bright skies ahead. For the second straight summer Joe had a temp contract in the Cape where he would have an opportunity to showcase his skills in the best collegiate summer league in the county for over a month before the draft. That is until the Cape’s start was pushed back and Joe got a call from his buddy Eduardo Malinowski.
“Eddie said the Bananas were looking for some early season pitching help and I had an invite down,” Joe recalled. “It was mainly the awesome experience I had in the All-Star Game back in 2019 and the opportunity to try and log some positive innings before going to the Cape that convinced me to come.”
Before he knew it, Joe was following practice up with a four hour music video shoot and preparing for his first performance in Historic Grayson Stadium, which wouldn’t be on the mound but in the Opening Day player’s dance.
“I think I was in every promotion that needed a player,” Joe said, chuckling. “They threw me in the fire which helped me embrace it all. I didn’t have a choice in the matter so I just did the best I could.”
Joe got his first action of the summer in a game 3 start in Macon, and threw a solid 4 innings of 2 run ball. After a sturdy outing in Lexington County where the Bananas unusually faulty defense stood a third of an inning between Joe and just 1 run over 5 frames of work, he had a turning point in his season. The Bananas were firing on all cylinders and had won 9 straight games to start the summer. They turned to four-year vet Kyle Luigs for the start in game 10, and he tossed a masterful 6 innings of shutout ball, giving up just a one-out double in the 1st inning and retiring the next 14 Bacon he faced. Then Joe came in from the pen to a raucous Grayson Stadium crowd.
“I hadn’t experienced that in so long,” Joe told me. “I hadn’t come in from the bullpen late into a meaningful game since early in my freshman year. The game was flying by and I’m not sure anyone had really left by the 7th inning. I just remember it being so loud when I came in. It was a packed house, the place was rocking, and it was a one-run game. What else could you ask for?”
Joe retired the first 7 guys he faced, making it 21 straight hitters retired between him and Kyle. Then the Bacon produced a double with one out in the 9th to put the tying run in scoring position. Joe struck out the next two hitters on a pair of overpowering fastballs, and let out a primal scream of triumph.
“I got super fired up and came out of my shell a little bit on the mound that night,” Joe said. “From there on I pitched a lot better.”
That’s the understatement of the century. After Joe’s two solid starts to kickoff his Bananas career he would only give up 4 runs over the next 33.1 innings for a 1.08 ERA, striking out 56 while only giving up 19 hits and 13 walks. His mom Susan saw something special in his only relief appearance of the summer too.
“I absolutely love that that moment was caught so well on film,” Susan said. “I know that Joe has such a passion for this game but it just comes through so well there and I hadn’t really seen that emotion from him on the field before. I loved it.”
Ed remembers talking to Joe soon after the exciting contest.
“Joe called me after that game and said, ‘Dad, you just can’t imagine with the 4,000 people how loud it is in there.’ He said with the energy of that crowd it was unbelievable just to get to be there.”
The Bananas did eventually lose a few games, but the vast majority of the summer was spent winning, especially when Joe was on the mound. The Nanners won all 10 games that he appeared in, and would finish the summer a 2021 CPL leading and Bananas franchise best 36-8. The consistent dominance that Joe showed on the mound and the never-wavering winning that accompanied it led to his starts being labeled “Joe Miller Day.” I’ll let his teammates explain what Joe Miller Day meant to them.
Ty Jackson: “I knew I wasn’t gonna get much action in the field and we only needed one run to win. That’s a very nice thing to know.”
Kyle Luigs: “It was a really special thing for me because it changed the whole way I looked at the day I was making a start too. Joe told me, ‘I have a special feeling when it’s Joe Day, and I’m gonna chase that feeling every day.’ I thought that was a cool way to not only treat baseball but life in general.”
Dylan Cunningham: “Coming from the bullpen perspective, you usually had the day off. Enjoy it and take notes from the guy on the mound.”
Bill LeRoy: “Joe Miller, (my brother), is the ultimate competitor. He accepted nothing less than perfection from himself. The passion was contagious, and it really did feel impossible for us to lose when he was on the bump. It was his work ethic and preparation that allowed him to compete like a freak!”
Matthew Steidl: “The thing I enjoyed most about it was how fired up he could make everyone. It’s like you knew when Joe was pitching there was no way you could lose.”
Eduardo Malinowski: “As one of his collegiate teammates, I’ve always known it as a day you can relax in the field. He always goes out there to dominate and he did that at a whole different level in Savannah. It was always a good day because it meant a win for us.”
Nolan Daniel: “Every time it was Joe Day we knew it was gonna be a cake walk if we scored any runs for him. The energy he gave off could really be felt even if I knew I wasn’t pitching that day and that takes a warrior.”
Bryson Bloomer: “Joe Miller Day meant a win because Joe is the GOAT.”
Christian Dearman: “Being his throwing partner gave me a close look into how much hard work he put into his craft and what it took to be great. From stretching to the end of his throwing session it was all business, he never took a single second or throw for granted. The hunger of wanting to be the best radiated off him and he let that beast eat every single Joe Day!”
Danny Oberst: “Joe Day was more than just Joe going out and dominating on the mound, it was a day that meant everyone on the team was gonna dominate. It was his infectious energy, and the competitor in him brought that out in all of us too. Anybody that gets to take part in Joe Day should consider themselves lucky, I know I do.”
Nick Clarno: “I wanted to run through a wall every time Joe was on the mound! That’s the kind of alpha dog energy he brought when he pitched.”
The most important Joe Miller Day of all came in Game 2 of the Petitt Cup Playoffs. The Bananas had been shutout in Game 1 for only the second time in 45 games, and shipped up to High Point-Thomasville for a win-or-go-home affair in enemy territory. Joe and the guys were surprisingly at ease in such a high pressure ballgame.
“I had pitched there a ton for Asheboro, my last start was actually terrible though,” Joe said, chuckling. “Walked a house and gave up a bomb, but knowing I had been there plenty of times was good. We weren’t scared at all, we just knew that we got to clinch at home now. Nobody really cared about losing Game 1.”
That mentality got a hearty boost from a Danny Oberst solo home run in the 1st to give the Bananas their first run of the playoffs and Joe a lead to work with. After getting out of jams in the 1st and 2nd inning, he found his entire arsenal on the mound and cruised through 6.2 scoreless innings of work. That is until a 2-out walk to the 8-hitter and a 9-pitch battle with the 9-hitter ended in a 2-run homer to left. But the Bananas had supplied plenty of run support at that point highlighted by a 3-run bomb from his fellow Quaker, Eddie. The team headed back down to Savannah with an 8-2 victory and a tied series. When he got back to his host’s house a little after 5:00am Joe decided to pour through the box score of the game. He noticed he had thrown 106 pitches, checked the league rules and realized that meant he couldn’t pitch in any of the three CPL Championship games because he needed 5 days of rest for throwing more than 105.
“When I realized I wouldn’t be able to throw again I was basically like, ‘That’s not possible,’ closed Safari and completely memory holed that like, ‘Nah, that’s not happening.'”
Joe said it was tough for him to accept what he had discovered especially because going into the playoffs he had basically forgotten that there were any pitch count rules at all.
“I had been half messing with Pye for a while saying, ‘I’ll start game 2 of the semis and game 1 of the finals like I’m good to go! I’ll close any game you need too, just give me the ball and I’ll be ready.’ I was kind of being serious too, like I wanted to see what he would say about that and then game 2 happened and I looked it up after to see what was really going on and I just couldn’t accept what I found.”
Thankfully, Joe was just the tip of the iceberg of the best pitching staff in the league. Tyler Gillum and Corey Pye turned to the bullpen in game 1 of the championship, riding a miraculous 4.2 shutout innings of relief from Matthew Steidl to a 5-4 come-from-behind victory. Then they turned to the second-best pitcher in the CPL for Game 2, Ryan Kennedy, and the 3rd year Banana had a scoreless outing through 5.1 innings before giving up a 2-run game tying homer in the 6th, and the Bananas would go on to lose 5-3. That set up what nearly everyone thought would be Joe Miller, the best pitcher in the Coastal Plain League, starting a decisive game 3 with the Petitt Cup on the line. But Gillum and Pye had also crunched the numbers, and now they had to tell their ace that he had thrown one too many pitches on Tuesday to pitch on Saturday.
“That was probably about as down as I’ve been in a while,” Joe said. “And I know Gillum and Pye were down too. Pye put all the blame on himself but it was my fault for walking the 8-hitter and then not being able to put away the 9-hitter. I think the guy saw like 24 pitches out of me in 3 at-bats. He was tough man.”
Having to actually face the fact that he probably wouldn’t get to pitch in front of the Bananas fans again brought tears to Joe’s eyes.
“You work so hard all summer for this and I was so pumped all week to be able to pitch this game,” Joe told me. “Obviously we wanted to sweep the series, but it was like, ‘Hey, if we lose a game, I’ll be good to go for game 3. I’ll be ready to go, like I’ll pitch the whole thing. I’ve got plenty of time to recover from this, I’ll throw 5,000 pitches if I have to.’ It was the situation you dreamed of.”
Gillum had some sage advice for one of the greatest pitchers he’s ever gotten to coach.
“He told me to take my time to get myself together, but once I went back into the locker room those guys couldn’t know how upset I was that I couldn’t pitch tomorrow. We still have Kyle who can go the next day you know, it’s not like a bullpen day or anything we’ve got one of our best guys still. The whole thing was tough because we had just gotten beat pretty good, the game was kind of chippy, and we had kind of let them get to us and weren’t playing our game. But Gillum did a really good job of getting us all together and explaining that this is what we’ve worked all summer for, we couldn’t expect to just sweep our way through the playoffs, and we’ve got one of the best pitchers in the league on the mound to win this thing.”
Mustering all the mental fortitude he could, Joe was able to fight back more tears when he was back in the locker room with the guys, and kept up the brave face until he was alone again driving home from the stadium.
“He called me up crying,” Ed said. “Initially I was really pissed that someone had lost track of his pitch count but then I said let’s talk business and forget about the emotions and all that. Game 2 of the divisional series was the pivotal game, the season’s over if you don’t do what you did. Would I have loved to see him pitch the last game, sure, but it’s just the way it is. He did his job when the guys needed him to, and now somebody else would have to step up.”
Wise words from his parents helped him accept the situation, but they couldn’t help him fall asleep.
“It was obviously really tough like I barely slept at all, I mean barely,” Joe said. “But the next morning I came to the realization that there was nothing I could do about it, and now I just had to do everything I could to help the team win. So I tried to have the best influence I could on the team even though I wasn’t actually going to be on the field.”
So Joe showed up to the field a couple hours early. He got all his throwing in as if he was going to get into the game, just incase by some chance the league found a way to let him pitch. Once it was game time, Joe stepped up in the only way he could.
“I knew I was gonna be in basically every promotion and I was okay with it. If I could take it from someone who may have a shot to get in the game and help the coaches out in that way too than I was more than happy to dance my heart out. And I had a lot of fun doing it too,” Joe said chuckling.
Now for the question on everybody’s mind.
“Would I have rather pitched? Well yeah of course, 100 times out of 100 I would have rather started the game,” he said laughing. “But I understood what I had to do with the cards I had been dealt so I just tried to do the best I could.”
It ended up being a delightful evening either way. It started with Drew Yniesta’s three-run homer, in which you can see Joe right in the middle of the jubilant celebration, fired up as can be…
“Drew was a guy I was really close with all summer,” Joe said. “He put in as much work as anybody on a team full of hard grinders and I know he was really good here last summer and this was like the only time in his life he hadn’t had a ton of success hitting. Plus he was the guy who started the whole, ‘Come on!’ thing at the start of the summer and him doing that on his first swing in the playoffs and getting us all fired up was electric. That’s a guy who nobody heard complain once that he hadn’t gotten an at-bat in the 5 games leading up. It was poetic.”
The whole night would be poetic, with the Bananas winning 13-3 to take home their first Petitt Cup since the inaugural season in 2016. All’s well that ends well.
“How incredible I felt winning the championship after not getting to play in the game I think speaks for itself,” Joe told me. “It was the culmination of all the work from the year and all the crazy little things that had happened that led up to the end. It was the craziest, most surreal feeling in the world. And then it was so awesome to see Gillum, Fox, Pye, and Adam all get to win it knowing how much work they put in. They poured their hearts and souls into the team and were such great coaches. And then of course getting to see the guys like Bill, Kyle, Dan, and Dearman, who had been with the team for years and were ending their college careers with this. To go out on top and the heartfelt thanks they gave us for helping make it happen was really special. And it was basically a 180 from what my last two years of baseball had been with all the seniors I had been playing with having their college careers end in the last possible way they would want it to. It felt great to know that my guys finally got what they deserved for everything they had put in.”
Joe got to stick around for a few days to hang with the guys before driving up to Wilmington, North Carolina, to send his little sister Emily off to college. Then he loaded his 2006 Cadillac SRX onto a trailer there and his dad drove them back up to Hatboro.
“It was perfect because I had driven him halfway down at the start of the summer,” Ed said. “And 8 weeks later he met us up in Wilmington, put his car back on the trailer and we took him home. Couldn’t have scripted everything that happened in between much better.”
Days after arriving back in Pennsylvania, it was announced that Joe had won the CPL Pitcher of the Year award. He easily led the league with an astronomical 71 strikeouts, (14 more than 2nd place), in just 42 innings pitched, was tied with teammate Nathan Dettmer for the best record at 6-0, and only trailed his teammate Ryan Kennedy with a 1.50 ERA.
“Now Biko, you do realize with fate and how everything happened here right?”, Ed asked me. “If it wasn’t for Eddie Malinowski, Joe never would have ended up with the Bananas. And all of sudden the Bananas helped him get through what was a really crappy part of his life. The Bananas organization was a gift for us, and obviously Joe was a gift for them too. It’s just crazy to see how things all fall into place, and they did!”
“It was such a joy for us to see the happiness in Joe’s face throughout his whole summer in Savannah,” Susan said. “And then when we got down there and got to experience the magic of the stadium ourselves we really understood how special it was. I can’t explain just how electric the atmosphere of the stadium was and the fans are all so devoted you would really think it’s a major league club they’re rooting for. We just wanted Joe to get to play some baseball anywhere this summer but when we saw what was happening in Savannah we were blown away.”
Joe now has the incredibly unique experience of entering his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania with three more years of eligibility left. He’ll be looking for a new home to transfer to for his last two years of college baseball while also trying to end his Quakers career with a bang. His sights will be set on the Cape Cod League for the third straight summer, and once again the game plan is to show he can shutdown the best bats in college baseball and then hear his name called in the 2022 MLB Draft. But he’s taking things one step at a time, and is currently most excited about getting back out on the mound in scrimmages this week in what should be a much more active fall season than what he had a year ago.