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How three Mormon baseball players made the majors and the wives who supported them

SALT LAKE CITY — Shayli Hannemann was sure her husband had been injured, and she was not happy.

Before his last game with the Iowa Cubs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, on Sept. 4, center fielder Jacob Hannemann’s wife informed him he was not to risk harm to himself in any way. They had loaded their vehicle with luggage for their offseason road trip home from Omaha, Nebraska, to Utah, and she insisted on having a healthy husband.

“He’s had his fair share of injuries,” Shayli Hannemann said. “I remember telling him, 'Whatever you do, please don’t dive for any balls; just let it go past you.'”

Arriving late to the game with their infant son, Jax, she learned Jacob was pulled from the game in the third inning. “Oh, I am so mad at him,” Shayli Hannemann thought. “I just know he dove for a ball and he’s hurt.”

But he wasn’t injured. In a wild twist, Jacob Hannemann was waived by the Cubs and immediately claimed by the Seattle Mariners, who wanted him to report for his first major-league opportunity right away. Instead of driving home that night, they boarded a plane for Washington. Hannemann’s father traveled to Omaha to retrieve their car.

“Him getting called up was hands down the most memorable moment,” Shayli Hannemann said. “Four years of battle, (the minor leagues) are such a grind. It’s sketchy hotels and long nights. So to be there with him, to fly to Seattle, was so amazing, definitely the highlight. He was also injury-free, so even better.”

Hannemann is one of three former Brigham Young University baseball players and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make a major league debut this past season. Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Taylor Cole and Oakland Athletics outfielder Jaycob Brugman also reached the highest level of Major League Baseball.

Aside from their own years of dedication and resilience, all three players credit the sacrifice and support of their wives and families, who they said enabled them to chase their lifelong dreams of playing professional baseball.

“She has been amazing,” Jacob Hannemann said of his wife. “She has made a lot more sacrifices than I have. You’d have to say it’s our dream. She is just as much a part of me making it as I am.”

Team Hannemann

Early in their relationship, Jacob Hannemann jolted his soon-to-be wife with a bombshell question.

“What would you think if I dropped everything to go play baseball?” he said.

“Heck, no,” was her first reaction.

Seattle centerfielder Jacob Hannemann with his wife Shayli and son Jax. | Provided by Shayli Hannemann

“Is this kid crazy?" Shayli Hannemann said. “School is important. We’ve got to graduate. I’m not dropping everything to go pursue this.”

Of course, with time, his success on the diamond and constant calls from pro scouts, Shayli Hannemann warmed up to the idea of her husband having a baseball career.

Jacob Hannemann had been drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2010 but declined to serve an LDS mission in Arkansas. The former Lone Peak High athlete returned home to find he hadn’t lost his talent. Hannemann was drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft by Chicago.

“I felt it was the right thing to do and I was blessed for it,” Jacob Hannemann said. “I met my wife and had a good year at BYU. I was drafted by the Cubs in a higher round, more money. I attribute all that to my decision to serve a mission.”

As he embarked on a career in baseball, the couple determined to stay together. This meant being away from family and a lot of travel for Shayli, which became complicated when their son, Jax, was born. She volunteered to get up with the baby in the night so her husband could get more rest. To his credit, Jacob has vowed to make up for this during the offseason.

“No matter what we did, we wanted to stay together as a family,” Shayli Hannemann said. “It’s important for us to keep that core strength so when there are slumps and hard times away from other family, we still have each other.”

Remarkably, Shayli Hannemann has been able to support her husband while continuing to earn a degree in business management at BYU. For two years, she commuted by plane back to campus until she could take online classes. She only has two classes to go.

“It was crazy,” she said. “Now I think back on that and wonder, ‘Wow, how did I do that?’ I can’t believe I did that.”

Every trial they faced became worth it when Jacob was called up to Seattle, the same team he and his brothers fought to be when playing baseball video games as boys. He’s grateful to be learning batting tips from Seattle hitting coach Edgar Martinez.

“Going there is a blessing,” Hannemann said. “To think that was my favorite team growing up, and now I’m with them.”

On Sept. 30, when Hannemann crushed a line drive over the right-field wall for his first career major league home run against the Los Angeles Angels, more than 25 family members were there to witness the special moment.

“I love that we have been together and able to experience all these moments together,” Shayli Hannemann said. “I think through all of that, because I have my family, we’ve been able to stay consistently grateful through this journey, even if we’ve had highs and lows. It’s a great reminder of gratitude and the opportunity we’ve had.”

Team Cole

Taylor and Madilyn Cole dated before his mission and she was the BYU cheerleader who waited for him. The couple were married in 2011. But Madilyn has been much more than a cheerleader in the years since, and major league scouts have even noted her presence.

Toward the end of Cole's only season at BYU, Blake Crosby, a scout with the Toronto Blue Jays, approached Cole and asked to meet with both him and his wife. She would play an important role in his future success, Crosby said.

Toronto pitcher Taylor Cole and his wife, Madilyn Cole, at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. | Provided by Madilyn Cole

“I knew what it would take, the kind of support, the personality that not only he would have to have, but that she would have to have,” said Crosby, also a Latter-day Saint and now the national supervisor of scouting for the Blue Jays. “It takes a selfless, self-motivated spouse, who is OK with her husband being away. … I walked away from that meeting knowing he would pitch in the majors and that he had the exact right spouse to be able to support him in chasing this dream. They would do this thing together.”

They did. After several years of toiling in the minors, Cole experienced a special major league debut on Aug. 9. In addition to the prestige of taking the mound against the New York Yankees, Cole did it in Toronto, where he served his Mormon mission.

“Toronto is like a second home. I love the Canadian people. The members I served around years earlier were excited to have me back,” Cole said. “It came full circle, a really cool thing.”

It wasn’t an ideal outing, but still memorable. The Las Vegas native threw for one inning in an 11-5 loss to the Yankees. Despite giving up four earned runs, the right-hander can say his first major league strikeout came against Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

Madilyn Cole was there to document it all. It’s a day she’ll never forget.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions to get there, and it still is. Seeing everything come full circle from serving his mission in Toronto to years later having his major league debut in Toronto was surreal,” she said. “It makes us all realize when you trust in the Lord, his timing is perfect. It doesn’t always align with ours, but his timing is ultimately perfect.”

At times during his minor league sojourn, Taylor Cole questioned if he would ever reach the majors. At those key moments, he said the Lord placed the right people in his path to inspire him to keep going. Along with his wife’s constant support, the list includes his parents; teammates; coaches; Las Vegas doctor Roddy McGee; former Kansas City pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who helped influenced Cole to serve a mission, and even Nancy Murphy, wife of baseball great Dale Murphy. The Coles had the chance to visit with Nancy Murphy after her husband spoke at BYU’s annual First Pitch Dinner and fundraiser last January.

“She told us to never make a decision in the spirit of fear, only in a spirit of faith,” Taylor Cole said. “It was what we needed to hear and allowed us to keep pushing forward.”

Unfortunately, shortly after reaching the pinnacle, Cole suffered a fractured toe and was released a few days later. With patience, endurance, faith and healing, Cole was able to return to the Blue Jays by the end of the season. He hopes to remain healthy for the entire 2018 season and show Toronto why it drafted him.

The biggest overall challenge for the couple during Taylor Cole’s baseball career has been time away from each other. While he played, she remained in Utah to complete her undergraduate degree and earn a law degree. She has a job as a law clerk at the district attorney’s office in Las Vegas, the couple’s offseason home. The Coles place a high value on time together after the season is over.

“The distance is the hardest part and probably the biggest sacrifice. You have to find other ways to make each other a priority because you aren’t living in the same state,” Madilyn Cole said. “Life is hard. Things get crazy. But I think Taylor and I have been able to overcome a lot of adversity because we really try to keep each other our No. 1 priority. … We have supported each other. People would think, ‘Wow, how do you do the distance?’ We can do it because we are doing it for each other. He’s living his dream and I’m living mine. Even though we’re not together all the time, it’s worth it.”

Team Brugman

Jaycob Brugman played at BYU from 2011 to 2013 and married Ali (Alexis) Hill in 2012. He was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 17th round of the 2013 draft.

Their minor league experience was somewhat like the Hannemanns', as Ali Brugman traveled with her husband, but different because she had the couple’s first child, a daughter named Millie, the same year Jaycob was drafted.

Oakland A's centerfielder Jaycob Brugman with his wife Ali, daughter Millie and son Beck. | Courtesy Ali Brugman

This made for an memorable experience, as the young parents endured many late-night road trips, occasionally serving as the designated drivers and sleeping in small apartments with their baby and as many as six teammates.

“On road trips (in the minors), you have a roommate. That means if I’m going on that road trip with our baby, then that roommate gets us too, and we get him,” said Ali Brugman, who has studied graphic design and has a blog that promotes and reviews products. “It’s been crazy, but we’ve had a lot of fun and cool adventures.”

Oakland’s farm system took Brugman to Vermont, California, Wisconsin, Texas and Tennessee. About every three or four days, he played in a different city. Sometimes games in Midland, Texas, went late with extra innings, and after the game the team would board the bus and drive 13 hours to Arkansas for the next day’s game. Ali Brugman followed in her car with their daughter.

When Brugman reached the Triple-A level, the team flew, so Ali remained behind more, especially when she became pregnant with their second child, Beck.

“As a family, it’s not easy,” Jaycob Brugman said. “She stepped up huge and has taken care of the kids throughout the whole experience. … If you could explain the life to any mother they would think it’s impossible, but she did it. It’s been a major help for me because I’m busy, stressful with the season and gone a lot. So it’s nice to know that the kids are taken care of and she is all on board.”

Fortunately for the Brugmans, Jaycob’s 2016 season was over when Ali was forced to deliver their son two months early and he was able to be at her bedside. Beck came into the world weighing 3 pounds, 4 ounces. More than a year later, their son is still dealing with some health problems, but things are manageable.

“We’re taking it day by day and trying to get him healthy and strong,” Jaycob Brugman said. “Ali is dealing with doctor visits, is on the phone all the time with doctors, really working hard. We are hanging in there.”

Jaycob Brugman was called up to the big leagues in June. His coaches told him they wanted to watch film, give him some instruction and discuss his numbers after a game. To Brugman it felt like a normal meeting. At one point the manager walked in and asked what was going on.

“We told him and he said, ‘Well, you don’t need to worry about those numbers because you are going up to the big leagues,’” Brugman said. “I was shocked.”

His first game came at Tampa on June 9. One week later, Oakland returned home to host a four-game series with the New York Yankees on Father’s Day weekend. The A’s swept the Yankees, and it became a special memory for Brugman, as his family, including his father, was in the stands.

“It was a huge deal for us as a team, and I had some good games,” Brugman said. “It was also really special to have all my family there. We got to take some pictures on the field with special Father’s Day jerseys. It was a good time.”

As talented a baseball player as her husband is, Ali Brugman is just as proud of him as a father and member of the church. Over the years, Brugman has invited many teammates to church, clarified many Mormon misconceptions and set a good example of the LDS faith to others. She also had a feeling he would reach the majors.

“I never doubted it would happen. I am a cautious person, so for me to do this type of lifestyle, where the odds are so stacked against you, the nights were long but the years went fast. Then to see it happen, in only four years, that is really cool,” Ali Brugman said. “He’s hardworking, always positive and looking to the next game. … That really makes him stand out from other guys.”