Wyatt Mills has a built-in rooting section at St. Aloysius Catholic School, and not just because his mother has taught first and second graders there for almost 20 years. He’s a graduate himself.
And later on, he worked in the cafeteria some, too.
So when Mills made his major league debut with the Seattle Mariners on Saturday night at T-Mobile Park – and on big screens in Spokane – some of the kids who once filed past to get their fish sticks and mac and cheese got a charge out of it.
“My daughter was so happy,” a parent told Pat Mills during playground duty, “that ‘The Lunch Lady’ made it to the big leagues.”
The Lunch Lady? Six-foot-4 Wyatt Mills? Really?
“Some of the kids call him ‘The Lunch Lady,’” Mills’ mother confirmed. “The parent said, ‘I told her she can’t say that anymore – he probably won’t like it.’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s endearing.’”
Like the man himself.
The 1-2-3 inning he worked in relief in his first appearance surely ingratiated him with M’s fandom, though of course that needle can move up and down depending the level of obsession and the outcome of each pitch thrown.
But it’s hard not to warm to a guy so candid about his development and career, and about regrouping from his disappointments.
Plus there’s the fact his big break has come with the ball club he grew up cheering for – and the one so close that his family could scramble to make it to his first game on a few hours notice.
“I was born into a Mariners family,” Mills said on Monday. “I remember watching games with my grandparents, from the earliest stage I can remember.
“I definitely was a huge Ichiro fan. And forever it’s been Felix Hernandez. I remember watching the perfect game with my family.”
It goes deeper than that. Pat Mills still has her son’s youth baseball cards “from tee ball or Pony, I can’t remember” dating back to when he was 6.
“His team was the Mariners,” she said.
So it was all that more fitting when the major league Mariners drafted him out of Gonzaga University in the third round in 2017 and sent him on a steady climb through their farm system – a mid-season promotion from the Northwest League that first summer, then a 6-0, 11-save season in Modesto the next and a solid 2019 with Double-A Arkansas.
But when COVID-19 wiped out the minor league season in 2020 and the Mariners assembled some of their best prospects at an alternate-site training camp, Mills wasn’t invited.
If there was any pouting or self-pity, it was quickly swallowed.
“It really lit a fire under me,” he said.
Mills returned to Spokane and poured himself into what workouts he could do on his own. He sleuthed out time in empty facilities, threw into nets, found a catcher, pounded the weight room. He found outdoor jobs “pushing dirt around” and later pulling out gross carpets in student rentals around GU, work that likely made cafeteria duty look appealing.
“I just narrowed down my focus and the intent behind it,” he said, “and carrying that discipline over into every facet of the game.”
And by the time he was invited to the M’s six-week fall instructional camp, the sidearm fastball that once topped out at 93 mph was touching 97, and the sideways movement could be nasty. In November, the club protected him on its 40-man roster.
Oh, the delivery. That’s another Mills endearment.
“One of my favorite questions to answer, always,” he said. “Sophomore year of college at Gonzaga, I was told by the coaching staff in the fall that I was probably going to redshirt. I was just an over-the-top righty. A buddy of mine after practice, we’d go to a turf field by our apartment and I’d practice throwing sidearm to him.
“I mustered up the courage to ask my pitching coach to throw a bullpen (session). They were impressed enough to say we’ll do it another two weeks and see how it goes. And I wound up making the travel roster.”
Still, in his favorite story repertoire, it’ll have to make room for his debut day now. After he got the call at 2:30 p.m. from M’s farm director Greg Hunter, he immediately dialed his mother who was, in her word, “frozen” – because the family plan was to celebrate daughter Sarah’s 23rd birthday that night.
By 5 p.m., Pat, husband Greg and Wyatt’s grandmother Mary Jean were on a flight to Seattle – with the blessing of Sarah and another daughter, Kate, who was farm-sitting and had chicks hatching out of eggs. They joined yet another daughter, Molly, and Wyatt’s fiancé Molly Steilen by the second inning at T-Mobile – where the M’s were already down 8-0.
Making it even more likely that they’d get to see their man in action – which they did, come the eighth inning.
“I caught myself standing up and screaming at every strike – like he could get people out with one pitch,” Pat Mills said. “Plus, it was so strange. He’s up there on the massive scoreboard, you had the TV that hangs up in front of you and then your phone – it’s sensory overload. I had to remind myself to watch the human being in front of me.”
Back in the classroom on Monday – the family drove Wyatt’s car back after Sunday’s game – she showed the video of the eighth inning to her classroom. There were more cheers, and a chance to explain about balls, strikes and three outs.
And that No. 40 on the mound once sat in the desks where they sat. Oh, and that he was The Lunch Lady, too.