A Brooklyn boy never strays too far from his roots. But Robert Whitenack has lived an adventurous life away from the Big Apple.
He's fished in the streams of North Carolina and lounged on the pristine beaches of Hawaii. Whitenack fell in love in Peoria, Ill., and spoke to some of baseball's greatest living legends in Chicago.
The 6-foot-5, 185-pound right-handed pitcher has been on a major league 40-man roster, been designated for assignment and endured Tommy John surgery.
"It's been a crazy ride," said Whitenack, a member of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Tribune Chronicle's Scrapper of the Week.
Looking at Whitenack's resume - the single-season strikeout leader at SUNY Old-Westbury, an eighth round draft pick in the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft, the Chicago Cubs' 15th rated prospect entering the 2013 season and a 4-year veteran of the minor leagues - Eastwood Field (playing in Short Season, low-A ball) is the last place baseball enthusiasts would expect to find a guy with those credentials.
But not Whitenack. He's happy to be here.
"It's a stepping stone, for sure," he said. "Sometimes you have to take two steps back to take three steps forward. I've had a very positive experience with the Scrappers and I'm looking forward to getting back on track, continuing to be successful and learning more everyday. This is a good place."
Whitenack rang in 2013 at the Cubs Rookie Development Camp and practiced at Wrigley Field. He even took part in the team's annual winter festival, signing autographs for fans alongside the likes of Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ernie Banks.
"I had to pinch myself," he said of the experience.
Also in the offseason, he was added to the Chicago 40-man roster after compiling 20 wins and a career ERA of less than 4.00 in four minor league seasons. He drew comparisons to Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and current Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Smardjia. In April, though, he was designated for assignment to make room for an infielder to replace the injured Darwin Barney.
"It was a shock," Whitenack said. "I was worried about the future and wasn't sure if I'd be able to get back in the game or what was going to happen."
The Cleveland Indians quickly claimed him off waivers and assigned him to High-A Carolina. After two starts and nine innings with the Mudcats, he surrendered five runs and struck out four, earning a promotion to Akron - where things went downhill fast.
In three appearances and just six innings, Whitenack was charged with 18 runs, 11 walks, three wild pitches and one hit batter. This wasn't supposed to happen to a player with such promise just a few months earlier.
"I struggled," he said. "It was pretty ugly. I faced a lot of adversity over my career, especially this year."
In the summer of 2011, he had Tommy John Surgery while pitching for the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League - an AA affiliate of the Cubs.
"I never had any elbow problems and I was thankful enough to never really have any injury problems," Whitenack said. "It was the third inning of an early-season game there, I threw a slider and I just heard a pop; it was so painful. And so was the surgery process - I wouldn't recommend that to anyone unless it was desperately necessary."
He's even built his career on avoiding injury, like when he spent the summer after his sophomore year of college in Hawaii. Whitenack had a stellar year pitching and earned an invite to a collegiate summer league team in the Aloha State.
That was his first time away from home. Just last week, he had his first chance to return home to a familiar baseball field.
A six-game road trip landed the Scrappers in Brooklyn and Staten Island to play the Cyclones and Yankees. In college, Whitenack played at MCU Park; in high school he played at Richmond County Bank Ballpark. With 50 friends and family members in the stands in Staten Island on July 21, Whitenack started and pitched five shutout innings, striking out six to earn his second win with Mahoning Valley.
"When I pitched against the Yankees," Whitenack said, "one of the coaches goes, 'Whitey, you got 50 tickets? There's that many people coming?' I had to go to the ticket office and talk to them ahead of time. It was good to see everybody and throw well in front of them."
Whether he twirls a gem or gets shelled on the mound, the lanky hurler always has a smile on his face as he leaves the clubhouse each night. He's got two girls waiting for him at home.
On Dec. 7, 2012, he welcomed a daughter, Mila Sophia, into the world. His girlfriend, Maygan, whom he met playing for the Peoria Chiefs in 2010, has followed him on his baseball journey and is residing in Trumbull County for the summer, too.
"It's a blessing everyday," said Whitenack, a 25-year old playing in a league where the average player is 21. "Being a father is a challenge; it's eye-opening. You just can't beat seeing a little, beautiful girl grow day by day. I love coming home to her."