What started out as a food run with some of his Carolina Mudcats teammates led to something much deeper for Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Braden Webb.
He and the rest of the team’s traveling party had stopped for the night in Raleigh, N.C. on the way to their home base in Zebulon, where they’d play their season opener a few days later on April 5.
Taco Bell was closed, so Plan B was a nearby gas station where Webb picked up some snacks and water. On his way back out, Webb was approached by a man he’d seen in the area earlier. It was obvious he was down on his luck.
The man asked Webb for $20 to put toward a hotel room for the night.
“My first thought was this guy might be on drugs, he might want extra money for something, so I was like, ‘I only have my card on me,’ ” Webb, a third-round pick of the Brewers in 2016 out of the University of South Carolina, recounted recently.
“He kept talking and he was like, ‘Man, I appreciate you stopping,’ and people usually don’t say that if you don’t have money. They usually go on to the next person. But he was like, ‘Thank you for stopping and taking the time to hear me out.’
“So I thought maybe I should listen to the guy’s story.”
The man told Webb he was a father of two who’d encountered some hard times, and that he was trying to make ends meet while looking for odd jobs. He’d come to North Carolina from Florida to visit one of his children and now was trying to head back south to see the other.
“I went from sitting there thinking, ‘This guy could be on drugs. All he really wants is my money so he can go get him some more,’ to basically just changing my perspective on listening to people and hearing them out for the things they have to say,” Webb, a devout Christian, said.
“I’ve gone through some things in my life where God has blessed me and put me in situations where I can use my platform. So I was like, ‘Hold up,’ and I went back in the gas station and pulled out some cash. I was like, ‘Have you eaten anything?’ And he said he hadn’t eaten anything in two days.
“I was like, ‘Dang, this dude’s really struggling.’ He looked like he was about to pass out. He was trying to keep himself busy so he could keep moving and he didn’t just fall asleep outside. We went inside and I got him some food and the dude just devoured it in two seconds.
“I asked him if he needed a drink and he was like, ‘I wouldn’t mind a Coke,’ and he drank, like, six of them in about 20 minutes. I got to talking with him, I heard some more of his story, prayed with him.”
Webb then had the man gather up his possessions and the two headed to a nearby hotel.
“I paid for his room for the night and told him that I didn’t want to see him back over here trying to get money,” Webb said. “I wanted to see him go back to the job he had and beg the guy for more work so that he could make ends meet and be the father that he wants to be.
“He started crying and was like, ‘Whatever it is that God’s given you, I want that.’ So I was like, ‘Let’s pray about it.’ The man accepted Christ into his life that night.”
Webb hasn’t heard from the man since. He’s well aware he might have fallen for a story and lost some money in the process.
But to Webb, it was a risk worth taking if it meant possibly helping someone who needed some help to get back on his feet a bit. Webb credits his faith as well as his upbringing for trying to do the right thing in that moment.
“I don’t know if he’s going to stick to the whole following God thing or if he’ll never think about it again,” said Webb. “But the opportunity that was given to me to plant a seed in that man’s life that night and God gave me the opportunity, so I took advantage of it.
“If nothing else is taken away from that story, it’s that you can always pay it forward. I’m a big man of faith, and whether you believe in God or karma or whatever, you’re putting something out there that’s positive and what goes around, comes around.
“And hopefully if I’m ever in need, God sends that blessing to me as well.”
Webb has endured more than his fair share of trials and tribulations since he was a prep phenom in Owasso, Okla., a northern suburb of Tulsa.
As a junior, the right-hander threw a three-hitter in the state championship game to lead Owasso High School to a title and a 36-0 season. He was also a projected high-round draft pick who’d already committed to pitch for South Carolina.
The next year he threw no-hitters in each of his first two starts and was in the sixth inning of a one-hitter in his third start when Webb, as he termed it, “blew out” his arm.
What had originally been diagnosed as tendinitis turned out to be not one but two major issues: multiple stress fractures in his arm and, unbelievably, no UCL in his elbow.
“I didn’t have a UCL from the time I was 12,” Webb said.
Webb wound up having two screws put into his arm to address the stress fractures and also had the traditional Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow. Typical recovery time from Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months but with the stress fractures factored in, there were doubts Webb would ever be able to pitch again.
“As a 19-year-old kid, when something negative like that happens you don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next – especially when the doctors tell you there’s a chance that you might not ever throw again.
“Depression set in for the first couple months.”
Webb was ultimately drafted, but it was in the 38th round by the Cleveland Indians – the 1,144th pick overall – and he didn’t sign. In the meantime, Webb had moved to Maryland to live, rehab and train with the pitching coach from his East Coast-based travel team, Jamie Evans.
“He invited me to come out there and live with him and train because he didn’t think that what the doctors were saying was going to be true,” Webb said. “He believed in me long before I believed in myself in coming back from the surgery.”
Webb eventually made it all the way back, proving the doctors wrong, and turned in a strong freshman season at South Carolina in 2016. In 18 appearances (17 starts), he went 10-6 with a 3.09 earned-run average while striking out 128 in 102 innings.
Because of the time he missed due to his arm surgery, Webb was draft-eligible after that freshman year and the Brewers took him in the third round – 82nd overall, or 1,062 spots higher than he’d been selected by the Indians a year earlier.
Webb signed for a reported $700,000, $64,800 lower than slot, and then was shut down by the Brewers for the rest of the season in order to rest his arm and prepare for his first full professional season in 2017.
Assigned to Class A Wisconsin, Webb went 6-7 with a 4.36 ERA in 22 games (13 starts). He struck out 90 in 86 2/3 innings, limited opposing batters to a .222 average and pitched well enough to be named a Midwest League all-star.
The next rung on the organizational ladder is advanced A Carolina, where he’s currently 1-1 with a 5.14 ERA after his first two starts. Webb, who turns 22 on April 25, has struggled with his control but the organization remains high on him.
“Braden has an impressive arsenal of pitches,” farm director Tom Flanagan said. “He has stuff that is as good as anyone in our system. He can get his fastball into the mid-90s, and combines it with a good, 12-to-6 curveball and a split-change that gets a lot of swings and misses.
“But, like a lot of young pitchers, he’s working to learn how to best use that stuff and harness it. He showed up to spring training in great shape and is working hard to remain consistent with his delivery and let his stuff play.”
After his long road back, Webb has remained healthy while continuing to learn the ins and outs of the pro game.
“Keep positive thoughts,” he said when asked about his season goals. “I’m not trying to worry too much about whatever else is going on. I need to focus on being more consistent and staying consistent with my routine so that I can continue to develop as a player and help the Carolina Mudcats win games.”
While also trying to do the right things and set a good example off the field.
“I don’t want people to think I was doing it for the attention portion of it,” Webb said, referring to that night in Raleigh. “I was doing it to let people know that no matter what you’re going through in life, no matter how tough times get – if you’re homeless on the street or you’re at the top of your game – whenever there’s someone in need, you need to help out because that’s our job as people who have platforms to do things.
“Whether we’re athletes or in the government or teachers or janitors in schools, that’s just how we need to be. We need to help others in need.”