Above photo of Landon Dieterich by Fredericksburg Nationals/Edward Maurer
FREDERICKSBURG, Virginia- Growing up in the central Texas town of Riesel, population 1,007, Landon Dieterich would often watch the Texas Rangers, stacked with the likes of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and others, and dream about playing in the pros somewhere down the road.
The former UMHB baseball player, who signed with the Washington Nationals on June 22, 2020, said it was always his dream to play professionally. Yet, for quite some time, it seemed the chips were against him, rather than in his favor.
In fact, had it not been for former UMHB baseball coach Ben Shipp giving Dieterich an offer, it is likely the 6’5, 225 lb standout would have taken his talents to the basketball court, rather than the baseball diamond.
“I was very close to playing basketball at a different school,” Dieterich remembers. “I was struggling with that decision and God kind of led me to UMHB. I’m glad he did. I always say I liked baseball more, and UMHB was my only offer actually.”
For a player who is batting .250 through nine games in Low-A ball, the lack of college offers seems baffling. But along Dieterich’s road to success, there was a substantial number of doubters, specifically coaches who said he lacked the size to play college baseball, much less professional baseball.
“There were quite more than a few teams that decided they weren’t interested,”Dieterich recalls. “My dad and I would go from tryout to tryout for about 15 weekends, just looking for a team that would take me. There wasn’t anyone. At first, UMHB wasn’t interested in me, until things got a little later.”
Despite the frustration of very little recruiting interest, Dieterich did not dwell on those who chose not to give him a chance. Instead, he made the most of his opportunity with the Cru, starting 40 games, with a .261 batting average during his freshman year in 2017. Two years later in 2019, he led UMHB in batting average, RBI, triples and extra-base hits. Last season, he was UMHB’s lone four-year player, and got to experience the first year of head coach Mike Stawski’s tenure, though the season was cut off after 15 games due to Covid.
“Winner’s win,” Dieterich said of Stawski. “He says that all the time. I now understand why. I only spent about 13 games with him, but man, he knows how to play the game. I wish I would have had more time with him, honestly.”
In a way, it seemed that Dieterich would be coming back for a second year under Stawski if he wanted to continue his baseball career, as he started slow, finishing the abbreviated year hitting .205.
“It didn’t help that I didn’t start off that year too hot,” he recalls. “I kind of came on towards the end of it, but the numbers weren’t where they were the year before. So there was definitely that scared feeling that those last two or three games could have been my last.”
It took longer than usual for Dieterich’s professional career to kick off, as the minor league season was cancelled in 2020. But when it resumed in May, with Dieterich being assigned to the Fredericksburg Nationals, the Nationals’ Low-A affiliate, he immediately made an impact. He had a solid spring training performance, and has continued it into the regular season.
There was a question as to whether his first at-bat, as a pinch hitter in the season opener, was a hit or error. Though it was scored as an error, meaning Dieterich did not get credit for a hit, it is a moment he will remember forever.
“I got thrown in in the bottom of the eighth for the last full inning of the game, and I knew I was going to get an [at-bat],” Dieterich said. “It was a fun moment for sure. I was really nervous, but then again, you kind of step back, and I looked at it, and thought, ‘There’s a lot of people back home that are proud of me, rooting for me, and it’s one at-bat. You can’t be too nervous, however it goes.’ I knew right when I stepped in that batter’s box that it’d be a moment I’d remember forever.”
He notched his first hit the following night, a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fourth inning. It was also the first start of his pro career. He continued making history in the third game of his career, swatting a solo home run in the fifth inning, which was not only the first pro homer of his career, but also the first in Fredricksburg’s history.
“For sure,” Dieterich said when asked if the home run is the most memorable moment of his career so far. “That might be my most memorable at-bat ever. That was something I’ll never forget. Saw it well, hit it well, and now I have a little piece of history with the FredNats that I didn’t know I had until after the fact.”
With all that the 23 year-old has accomplished early on in the first season of his career, it comes as a surprise to some that Dieterich played his college ball at a Div. III program. He hit his first homer off Jordan Jones who played at Div. I Washington, and has faced pitchers from Oklahoma State, Seattle and College of Charleston already this season. The perception of many is that the players who played at Div. I programs are “more talented” than those who come from small-college programs, but Dieterich, along with several others, are disproving that.
“It’s funny when guys ask me that,” Dieterich said. “They always are surprised when I say [the transition from D3 to the pros] is different, but it’s not drastically different. At the end of the day, if you’re playing another sport, it’d be a lot different. In football, guys are just bigger, faster, stronger. Baseball is so much of a routine, and the mental game to it that anybody can play with anybody at any time. It’s not a crazy difference, as long as your head is in the right place.”
Last spring, the game of baseball was abruptly taken away from Dieterich due to COVID. He faced the harsh reality that he might never step onto the diamond again as a player. Now, as he heads to the ballpark everyday, to do his job and play the game he loves, he constantly remembers how thankful he is to be playing again. Even on the tail end of a six-week grind that included spring training and the first five games of the season with no days off, he said there is no place he would rather be.
“I try to be the guy who always looks at it like, ‘This could always be your last anything,’” Dieterich said. “It could be your last game tomorrow. But after really feeling that feeling and it almost coming true, I can definitely have a new appreciation for what I get to do everyday.”