Who is that masked man?
Chris Wallace hopes to play at Minute Maid Park someday, although if he does get called up to the big leagues, it won’t be his first time playing in the Astros’ downtown Houston home.
In fact, Minute Maid Park is where Wallace’s baseball career nearly ended just two years ago when he was a junior catcher for the University of Houston.
Wallace, playing in the annual Minute Maid Park-hosted College Classic, took a fastball from Texas A&M right-hander Barret Loux off of the right side of his face. The ball missed Wallace’s eye by inches, but the damage was nonetheless devastating — it shattered his eye socket and cheekbone and broke his nose. The end result was extensive surgery that required four or five metal plates and 42 screws.
If he gets hit in that part of his face again, everything will shatter. Except this time, the damage will be irreparable.
“That’s what they told me,” said Wallace, his face showing only a slight trace of a scar left over from the five-hour surgery.
To ensure this will not happen again, Wallace wears an elaborate face mask when he plays. He hates it, especially over the course of a hot summer, but he also realizes it’s a necessary evil that is a lot better than the alternative.
The alternative, of course, would be to get hit in the face again and have no chance to continue playing baseball, not to mention lead a normal life. So the mask has become as much a part of his baseball life as shin guards and a chest protector. It’s a small price to pay to continue to play and have a chance to debut for the team he grew up watching, especially considering how the Astros have been herding him through the Minor League system at a noticeably rapid pace.
It’s been just over a year since Wallace was drafted in the 16th round in 2010, and already, the Double-A Hooks are his fourth team.
Wallace’s offensive numbers are good, but what has impressed the Astros front office more than the 14 home runs he hit in just 66 games with the Legends earlier this year is how well he handles pitching staffs. It’s what made him stand out on a New York Penn League-championship winning Tri-City team last year, and the Astros are hoping he brings the same type of stability to the Hooks staff.
“Something that stuck out for all of us is his leadership qualities,” Director of Player Development Fred Nelson said.
Nelson recalled a conversation he had with Tri-City pitching coach Gary Ruby last year, after the ValleyCats won the title. Ruby was credited by many for turning around the Tri-City pitching staff, but to Nelson, he said, “The pitching staff turned around when Wallace showed up.”
Wallace, drafted after his senior year of college, is now 23 and slightly older than many of his current teammates in Corpus and former mates in Lexington.
His age likely contributed both to his success at the plate and the club’s decision to have him bypass High A Lancaster all together. While there may be younger catchers in the system who are more highly regarded, Wallace has the club excited.
“He’s a solid citizen, hard worker, a no-nonsense type of guy,” Nelson said. “He has a mental toughness that will give him an opportunity to succeed.”
There’s no telling if some of Wallace’s tenacity is a byproduct of his near-tragic episode at Minute Maid Park two years ago, but perhaps dealing with that sort of adversity added some mental toughness. Wallace was out only six weeks recovering from the bean ball. He spent most of his time with sports psychologist Robert Andrews.
To Wallace, his sessions with Dr. Andrews were his true rehab. Physically, he knew he would be fine. Emotionally, he had work to do. Doubts would creep in. Bad thoughts would rush back.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play baseball again,” Wallace said. “How to handle that mentally — he really helped me get all of the doubts out of my mind.”
Wallace continued to see Dr. Andrews, even after he returned to the field. If he had any trepidation he hid it well. He swung at the very first pitch he saw in his first at-bat of his first game back, and homered. He added another one later in the game and wound up 4-for-5 with six RBIs on the day.
One element of the game Wallace has seemingly mastered is dealing with hecklers. The face mask has not gone unnoticed, especially by fans in opposing ballparks. He’s heard it all — Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader — “anything you can think of that wears a mask, I’ve heard it.”
He tipped his cap to one heckler in particular though, who noticed Wallace’s somewhat gaudy contraption and yelled “Blue 42″ and other football playing calls.
“Most guys are not too creative,” Wallace said with a grin. “This one was.”
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