On an ordinary November afternoon in 2012, Justin Nicolino was shopping inside a Nordstrom Rack in Tampa, Florida. Then a month away from turning 21, he was picking out clothes for a trip to Las Vegas he was planning with his friends Kellen Sweeney, Mike Aviles, and Nick Punto. He was one of the top prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, having been drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, and was living in Palm Harbor with fellow up-and-coming hurler Aaron Sanchez.
While browsing, he received a call from a Canadian number. Unsure of its origin, he let it go to voicemail. There’s no way he was being cut, he thought to himself. After all, he just finished a stellar season with the Low-A Lansing Lugnuts in which he pitched to an ERA of 2.46 and was named to the Midwest League Postseason All-Star Team. What could it be?
Minutes later, he checked his messages. It was Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays’ assistant general manager. Nicolino had been traded to the Miami Marlins in a deal that he was told included some big names. Tinnish told him that his inclusion in the deal was the only way to get it done, given his elite prospect status.
“I never thought I would be getting traded,” Nicolino recalled. “I never got a call in the offseason from a Canadian number before.”
Though he couldn’t tell anyone outside of his immediate circle, Nicolino was overcome with emotion and shock. Unsure of what to do next, he left the store immediately and drove to visit his girlfriend, Jordan, who was studying at the University of Southern Florida.
They talked for 20 minutes about what this would mean for his career, eventually turning on MLB Network to see if anything was being reported by the media. To his surprise, the trade was being talked about extensively, which allowed him to see some of the reported names that would be changing hands in the blockbuster, including superstar shortstop Jose Reyes, who was coming to Toronto.
Naturally, he called Anthony DeSclafani, his friend and teammate in Lansing, to help process his emotions.
“Hey man, guess what I just found out?”, he told DeSclafani nervously. “I just got traded.”
“So did I,” DeSclafani answered.
It was true. Nicolino, DeSclafani, infielders Adeiny Hechavarria and Yunel Escober, pitcher Henderson Alvarez, catcher Jeff Mathis, and outfielder Jake Marisnick went to Miami in exchange for pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, utilityman Emilio Bonifacio and the aforementioned Reyes. At the time, it was thought to be a franchise-altering trade for the Blue Jays.
While that wild sequence of events took place nearly eight years ago, Nicolino can recount it almost perfectly, as if it’s permanently preserved in his mind. After all, that trade may be what he is best remembered for to this day.
After making his debut with the Marlins in June 2015—where he serendipitously faced off against DeSclafani in Ohio, his original home state—he was soon sent down, only getting cups of coffee at the big-league level for the proceeding two seasons. For much of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he bounced around in the Reds, Twins, and White Sox organizations before deciding to sign with the Rakuten Monkeys of the Chinese Professional Baseball League in February.
Of the rather unconventional choice to play in Taiwan, Nicolino remembers being encouraged by a conversation with Vince Horseman, who was Lansing’s pitching coach from 2010 to 2014, and a mentor of his. Even after being traded to Miami, Nicolino remembers calling Horseman for advice, where he would always answer and provide insight and wisdom.
He had a subpar 2019 season, which he’ll be the first to admit. After playing some productive winter ball in the Dominican Republic and working out with some fellow free agents, he was upset to learn that no MLB teams called his agent to sign him. He pitched well in the winter and felt better than ever, but heard the same tire-kicking emptiness from semi-interested clubs.
He grew frustrated and even contemplated retirement. He even went as far as to say he was somewhat depressed.
But one morning in early February, after going for a drive to clear his head, Jordan called him and said that Horseman’s wife messaged her on Facebook with an opportunity. That day, Horseman called Nicolino and connected him with Tom Signore, a former pitching coach for the Las Vegas 51s, who is now the Monkeys’ pitching coach. Over the course of the 45-minute conversation, Nicolino was energized by the chance to play in Taiwan, which was spoken about very highly by his trusted former pitching coach. By the end, he was ready to get going.
“Before numbers were even spoken about, the contract was even negotiated, I was pretty much sold,” Nicolino said of the conversation. “Talking to [Signore], I said, ‘where’s the pen and the paper?’ I’m in.”
Ecstatic, he got off the phone and said to Jordan, now his wife, “I think we’re gonna go to Taiwan”.
Two days later, a contract was agreed upon.
And so, in late February, just two weeks after signing a contract with the Monkeys, Nicolino flew from Florida to New York to Taiwan, eventually settling in the Chiayi City, where his team would play their exhibition and pre-season games.
But, despite all his initial excitement surrounding his new opportunity, Nicolino now finds himself disoriented, both as a person and as a baseball player, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Situated in the northwestern city of Taoyuan, where the Monkeys play, Nicolino is without his wife and two-year-old daughter, Maddox. Originally, they were planning to fly in and meet him in Taiwan before the start of the season, which was scheduled to begin on March 14th, then pushed back to the 28th, and eventually April 11th.
But Taiwan, like most of the world, imposed strict travel bans in mid-March due to the rising threat of COVID-19, leaving Nicolino’s family more than 8500 miles from his new home in Asia.
The situation within which Nicolino now finds himself in is perplexing and confusing for a number of reasons. On one hand, he’s ecstatic about the opportunity to play professional baseball in a new and unique environment.
“I don’t think Taiwan needed me, I needed Taiwan,” he told me, reflective of his path thus far. “I look at it as a blessing and a curse, because this game has given me so much to be grateful for, but it’s also buried me into the ground. Wherever this journey leads me to, I’m trying to enjoy every second I can throw a baseball.”
After a while, the immense pressure of being a former top prospect got to him and he found it difficult to reconcile the gap between what was expected of him and what he was actually achieving. He likens moving to Taiwan to going off to college.
“You can be whatever you want to be”, he said. “I left all that shit at the airport in Florida. It’s done, it’s gone. I threw my ego out the door and allowed myself to be vulnerable.”
So, in that sense, moving overseas was the best thing he could’ve done for his career.
But, on the other hand, he misses his wife and daughter, as anyone would. Though he regularly sees Maddox on FaceTime—often getting up early or staying up late to compensate for the 12-hour time difference between Taoyuan City and their home in Palm Beach Gardens, FL—he finds it difficult to handle the separation between him and his family. Him and Jordan know how to deal with situations such as these, but it’s difficult on their child.
“As two grown adults, we become accustomed to this lifestyle,” he said, citing a recent emotional conversation he had over the phone with Jordan. “But the hardest thing for both of us is not being together as a family. Me and her know how to handle these situations, we’ve been doing this for ten years. But when you throw a child into the mix, your heart hurts a different way.”
Simply put, he misses his daughter, as any father would. More than that, he misses having his family together in one place, where they’re able to live and be comfortable together.
In a weird way, he’s now starting to understand everything his parents told him in his youth about the nature of parenthood. “Everything changes when you have kids”, he echoed.
And it’s not as if he’s in a familiar place either. Despite his Taiwanese teammates and team staff being incredibly welcoming, Nicolino has had to rely on the team’s translator, Oliver, and his three foreign teammates—Elih Villanueva, Ryan Carpenter, and Lisalverto Bonilla—for any sense of comfort and normalcy. Them, and his constant communication with Jordan, of course.
Though Taiwan is notably handling the COVID-19 pandemic better than some of its Asian counterparts, their frightening bout with SARS in the summer of 2003 heightened their defences when it comes to global health crises. He doesn’t want to make any blanket statements, nor does he know that much of what’s going in his home country, but he does know that he’s fortunate to have games to play, albeit in front of non-existent or possibly robotic crowds starting this weekend.
Above all that, he’s self-aware of the difficulties his career choice poses to his family.
“This is the life I chose,” he said bluntly. “We have to keep our daughter as safe as possible, whatever measures we have to go to, that’s what we have to do.”
At this point, he doesn’t know exactly when his family will join him in Taiwan. Taiwanese officials don’t yet know when airways will open up again, per Reuters, so it could be months before flights from the U.S. to Asia resume.
But, until then, he has to wait. Maddox is young, so she doesn’t know much about baseball, says Nicolino. Still, one thing she does know is that her dad plays, and loves, the game. Every time she sees a baseball or a glove, she instinctively says “Dada!” She doesn’t know, or seem to care, whether he just pitched a perfect game or failed to record an out, she’s always happy to see him doing something that makes him smile.
In a way, that’s helped him self-reflect on where his priorities in life lie. Though his career is undoubtedly important to him, there’s a part of him that’s being torn apart by the fact that he doesn’t know when he’ll get to hug his daughter again.
“She knows that baseball makes me happy,” he said with a slight trace of sadness. “I try to see it through her eyes.”
One day, hopefully soon, Justin Nicolino will get to play the game that he loves in front of the people that he loves once again.