Tanner Roark has quite a résumé: He’s in the starting rotation for the NL East-leading Washington Nationals; he has a career ERA of 3.31 since being called up from the minors in 2013; and he pitched a 2–1 win against Japan in the semifinals of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
However, nobody would have expected this success from the guy who had a 21.41 ERA in the Frontier League before being drafted. So how did a kid from a town of less than 6,000 people get here? I recently sat down with Roark to discuss his experiences, beliefs, and overall journey to where he is now.
You got a slow start in baseball, and at times it seemed improbably that you would make it to the major leagues. What did you tell yourself that kept you going even when times got hard?
To believe in myself. Everybody thought I couldn’t do it, and I proved them wrong. Even today, that fuels my fire: to know that they doubted me and continue to prove them wrong.
Where were you when you found out that you were being called up to the majors, and what was your first reaction?
I was in Syracuse, and that was in 2013 in the beginning of August. I was told that I wasn’t able to tell anybody. So I couldn’t tell my parents, my fiancée. It had to be a big secret. But it was a great experience to have that feeling.
What do you remember about your first day and your first experience in the big leagues?
I was in the bullpen, and we were playing the Braves. We had a bench clearing: There was a big scuffle that was going on between, I believe, Bryce [Harper] and [a] pitcher for the Braves. Everybody starts running in, and I was like, Oh my gosh, my first time in the big leagues and I’m running out to the field in my first game ever. So that was a pretty memorable moment.
Do you have any big goals for the year? Any mechanics that you’re trying to work on?
Less walks. No walks. Limit the walks as much as possible. Make them hit the ball. That’s why we have the seven fielders behind me and the catcher back there.
Who’s the clown in the Nats’ clubhouse?
We’ve got a bunch. I would say we got [Jayson] Werth, [Shawn] Kelley, everybody. That’s what’s so great about this team: Everybody keeps it loose all the time. We’re always having fun. We’re always laughing, doing something to make each other laugh. So it’s always loose in there no matter whether we win or lose.
You grew up in the small town of Wilmington, Illinois. How was moving to D.C. different?
It was a very big difference. The culture was totally different.
Is there anything that you miss about home?
I miss all my friends that I grew up with [and] my family that’s still there. I guess I get homesick from time to time, but I started a new family out here, and I get to see my parents and family every now and then, so it’s good.
As a student athlete, was it hard balancing school and sports? Any tips for other student athletes?
Books are definitely first and foremost. You get rewarded by being able to play games and do practices and stuff like that. I’d say hit the books hard, and everything else comes afterwards.
Who were your role models growing up?
It’s funny that we’re playing the Mariners [today] because I love Ken Griffey Jr. My brother and I would be playing Wiffle ball in the yard, and I’d be playing Ken Griffey Jr. from the left side and trying to do the same swing and everything. He was my idol.
What is something that you love about playing in D.C. for the Nationals?
The fans. The fans are great. We always get a sold-out crowd. The presidents’ race is always awesome. Just being in an amazing capital, and playing for what seems like America, is pretty cool.
What’s something that you’ve yet to do or see in D.C. that you really want to?
See all the museums. There’s so much to do around here, and there’s so much secret stuff that we have access to. That’s a big thing. The Spy Museum—I want to do that very badly. Hopefully sometime before the end of this year I’ll get to go.
You have two young kids. Do you ever take them to the ballpark?
They come all the time. They’ll be here tomorrow. They come and they play in the family room. I had my youngest out here a couple weeks ago, and it was our off day. I had to pitch and play, so I’d throw and run, and she wanted to go out there and run with me. She just ran one time and she was done; that was it!
What was it like pitching in the 2017 World Baseball Classic?
Absolutely a unique experience: You are playing for your country. I was honored to get asked, and I couldn’t believe I did, but I did. I stuck with the team the whole time, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. We brought the gold back to the U.S., and it was amazing. Getting to play with those guys, it was definitely an All-Star team, and I’ve never been a part of anything like that before. Getting to know some of the guys and playing that high caliber of baseball was amazing.
What advice would you give to any young baseball or softball players?
Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever let anybody dictate what you can and cannot do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photographs by (from top) Greg Fiume/Getty Images; Celia Waldman