When Nicole Vogelsong ran up to me at the @ Cafe in AT&T Park, the first words out of her mouth were an apology. She apologized profusely for being two minutes late while giving me a big hug as if we’ve been close friends for years. Her energy was both welcoming and contagious, and put me at ease immediately. Being a huge Ryan Vogelsong fan and lover of their story, I was both intimidated and nervous to meet her.
Turns out, I had no reason to be.
I had known for quite some time that Nicole would be a great person to talk with and to gain a unique perspective about baseball. After seeing her and Ryan on Showtime’s The Franchise, it was clear this family had been through something tremendous to be standing where they are right now.
When I initially reached out to Nicole, she was very hesitant to do the interview. I had heard from others that she was hard to nail down and through our conversations, I began to understand why. After the filming of The Franchise there was criticism that she was someone who wanted to stand in the glow of Ryan’s limelight and capitalize off the media attention he was receiving. She told me in our initial emails that she didn’t want to distract from his career, his success in San Francisco, his story.
Sure, Ryan Vogelsong’s story is absolutely incredible. You can’t deny the journey he took to finally sit in a convertible on Market Street with black and orange confetti showering down on him while thousands of fans shouted his name.
A part of a baseball player’s career we don’t often hear about is the woman behind that man. Sure, we ask questions about how a player is adjusting to a new ball club when they get traded. But how often do we think about the dutiful wife who packs up the family and uproots their lives so the person they love most can do the thing they love most?
I don’t want to get off track or paint a picture of the baseball wife as a martyr — this is certainly not the case. But it provides insight into the lives of player, what shapes them, and what motivates them.
I was pretty curious about how the couple met – I knew Ryan had been through some very hard times in the beginning of their relationship, but wasn’t sure to what extent.
Nicole had moved to Nashville away from her home town of Pittsburgh (yes, she grew up a Pirates fan) to pursue a singing career when she was 19 years old. She moved into a $450/month apartment with nothing but a futon, microwave and a few dishes, and started recording back-up vocals, doing karaoke nights, and studio work. On the side, she worked at a personal care home and tended bar to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, Ryan had been traded to the Pirates and was working with their Triple-A affiliate. One night, he and former Giant, Bill Mueller, just happened to be grabbing a drink at the bar Nicole was working at. Ryan immediately asked for her number, and she declined. As we know, Ryan Vogelsong is not a man who quits easily. He returned two nights later, won her over and in her words, “The rest was history.”
The couple developed their relationship over late night phone calls while Ryan was traveling with the team until he was called up to the Pirates in 2001. He only had two major league starts before blowing out his arm and undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery. When he received the news, Nicole immediately offered to fly back to Nashville to take care of Ryan and be his support system. That’s when Ryan knew Nicole was all in — that he was going to end up spending his life with her.
Despite the couple’s romantic journey, the road was not at all easy for the pair. Although Ryan was able to come back to pitch in the major leagues, he posted an ERA of over 6.00 in the next two years with the team.
“It was so awful – he’d come home and literally be in tears with no idea why or what was wrong. And then he got sent to the bullpen. He would go 15 days without pitching and would go out there in a 9-1 game and want to do well. And he would give up one run and they would be like, ‘that’s why we lost the game.’ It was the worst and kept getting worse.”
His struggles took them across the world to Japan, where his baseball tales remained a roller coaster of inconsistency while his relationship with his wife grew.
“We had so much time together and it really made us so much stronger than we may have already been, because that’s all you have is each other.”
Eventually the couple decided to move back to the States — Nicole was pregnant with their son and she felt Ryan was selling himself short by not giving himself another shot at the big leagues.
And then 2011 happened and well, we all know what happened there. In a cloudy haze of underwhelming baseball and Buster Posey’s devastating injury, Ryan Vogelsong was a shining ray of light. That year Ryan made the All-Star Game — something that given their story, they never thought was possible.
“There’s the numbers.. and then there’s real life. My husband is proof that anything is possible and your numbers cannot predict baseball and what anyone can do. “
2011 capped off the right-handed pitcher’s greatest performance to date. Vogelsong finished the year with a 2.71 ERA, 13 wins and the Willie Mac Award, which is voted on by teammates and coaches.
Even so, Vogelsong was determined to prove that his breakout year was not an anomaly. In 2012, Nicole was able to watch Vogey keep up with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball but she never stopped holding her breath.
“Every day he pitches still I’m nervous. I live and die with every pitch he throws out there … but obviously how he does out there means nothing about who he is to me.”
Ryan Vogelsong was able to reward his wife’s faith and belief in him by helping the Giants win the World Series in Detroit. After the game, Ryan came to her, tears in his eyes, and said “We did it. We did it.”
“I couldn’t even believe it because on our lowest days where he was literally the worst pitcher in Pirates history … you can’t see 5 years in the future. You can’t ever see yourself successful when all you’ve known is defeat your entire career. I just remember thinking … is this real?”
2013 has obviously been quite a different story for the Vogelsong family. Ryan struggled considerably in his first few starts. His season is currently being disrupted by a fractured pinkie after being hit by a pitch during one of his more positive starts of the year. This has obviously been extremely frustrating for Vogey, who is known for his game face and extreme competitive toughness that brought him back into the Majors. On the “real” Ryan Vogelsong, Nicole says:
“He’s always making me laugh and that’s one of my favorite things about him. No one gets to see that because he wants to be all business when he’s here. He wants to be the best he can be. So he doesn’t let it get in the way of what his job is. But maybe you as a fan or a writer don’t get to see the real him.”
The pitcher is currently still listed on the DL with hopes of returning shortly after the All-Star break. While this may seem unrealistic to most doctors and trainers, Nicole reminds us of his mental toughness and determination that has him itching to come back as soon as humanly possible:
“We know we only have so much time left. And he’s watching every day tick by, thinking ‘I just want to pitch, I don’t have a lot of time left.’”
It’s absolutely incredible to think about what the Vogelsongs have been through and how far they have come. The gratitude for the second chance is not something that Nicole and her family have ever taken for granted:
“I cant even explain the hugeness of what happened to us the last two years and how unbelievable it was. I think the first year, every game he pitched, I cried because I couldn’t believe I was finally watching him be successful and truly happy on the field.
I’m glad that we were given that humbling experience to make it. Every day here, every good day, every clap, every standing O, every sign — it means everything.”
I finished by asking Nicole if it’s been difficult for her, as a wife and mother, to follow a career that may or may not have lead to where they are now.
“Right now, today, after 12 years of being with Ryan — I have never felt closer, happier, more in love. I’ve so thankful that I found someone I find hot, I find funny, I adore. I’m just so thankful.”
Behind every great player there is likely a story of hard work, perseverance, determination. And behind Ryan Vogelsong’s, there’s also Nicole. A loving wife who made her husband’s dreams her own and together proved they could overcome the statistics the game of baseball loves to hang it’s hat on.