It has been a special time for Angels’ Brandon Marsh in a year of heartache
Sonja Marsh was sitting on a beach in Georgia’s St. Simons Island on a Saturday, watching sailboats race across the water during a girls trip with her friends, when the long-awaited news finally arrived.
For years she had been anticipating the day her son, Angels outfielder Brandon Marsh, would make his major league debut. But once she found out it was actually happening, that he was being called up the next day, the first Sunday after the All-Star break in July, she had to scramble just to get there.
With no time to drive back home to suburban Atlanta, she decided to fly straight to Anaheim from her vacation. She didn’t have time to pack a hair straightener, let alone any of the Angels gear she had been saving for the occasion.
“Honestly, that’s our life,” she said recently, laughing as she recalled her mad cross-country dash. “Nothing has ever really gone to plan.”
Sonja did bring one priceless possession with her to Angel Stadium that day: a small urn containing the ashes of her husband and Brandon’s father, Jake.
No, things haven’t gone according to the plan for Marsh or his family over the last year.
Jake died in April after a long bout with cancer. Then, in June, one of Marsh’s best childhood friends died.
On the field, Marsh dealt with a shoulder injury that limited his playing time in the minors. And even once he got healthy in July, he wasn’t expecting a big league opportunity to arise so soon.
But since making his debut almost seven weeks ago, the 23-year-old has found solace in his first MLB stint.
He is batting .266 with one home run and 13 RBIs. He has locked down an everyday role in center field in Mike Trout’s absence. And he has given himself and his family a way to cope, a reason to heal.
“It means a lot more now than it would have a year ago,” Marsh said. “I would have much rather had it happen a year ago, so everyone could have been there to see it. But, everyone is here that’s supposed to be here. So it’s a lot more meaningful for me, personally, to get up here this year.”
Angels outfielder Brandon Marsh made his major league debut Sunday, going hitless in four at-bats in a 7-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners.
Tony Wolfe can’t talk about Brandon Marsh without also thinking of Jake.
As Marsh’s baseball coach at Buford High in Georgia, it didn’t take long for Wolfe to notice that most of the player’s best traits were passed down from his parents.
“It was an unbelievably well-liked and respected family,” he said.
Jake and Sonja were the kind of parents who were always around — for both their daughter Erin, who ran track at Duke and finished 10th in the heptathlon at this summer’s U.S. Olympic trials, and their son, a multisport athlete who sprouted from a scrawny 5-foot-9 freshman into a 6-4 specimen by his senior year.
When Marsh was a kid, Jake coached many of his teams in football, basketball and baseball. When Marsh got serious about high school baseball, Jake was the team’s public address announcer at games.
“A lot of dads want to be outside the fence where all the pro scouts are,” Wolfe said. “Jake just stayed in the press box, did his thing, contributed to the program any way he could.”
Wolfe remembers one conversation, in particular, when he talked with Jake after Buford won a state championship in Marsh’s junior season in 2015. That year, future San Francisco Giants catcher Joey Bart was the senior star on the team, the subject of constant scouting attention before eventually being taken 27th overall in that summer’s MLB draft.
Marsh was still filling out his new frame, drawing the attention of mostly low-major and Division II schools.
But Wolfe knew, with the path he was on, Marsh would get the same treatment the following season. When Wolfe mentioned it to Jake, the proud father simply responded: “We’re just worried about today. Trying to win ball games.”
Wolfe was amazed.
“They never put on like they were any better than anybody else,” he said. “They were just as humble and likable as any family you would ever see.”
A year later, he saw that same attitude in Marsh.
As expected, the outfielder was a top prospect as a senior, eventually becoming the 60th overall pick by the Angels in the second round. He helped Buford get back to the state championship, where he had nine hits in the three-game series.
After Buford lost the final game, parents and players from the other team came up to Marsh. Knowing he was headed to professional stardom, they wanted his photo and autograph. For the next hour, he obliged every request.
“It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen,” Wolfe said. “At that moment, he recognized other peoples’ joy and was as polite and courteous as any human could possibly be. It’s the makeup of that entire family. His sister is like that. His mom is like that. And his dad was certainly like that.”
Wolfe paused, then added: “That particular moment, that is when I saw Jake Marsh as much in Brandon as I’ve ever seen.”
For all their humility though, Jake and Sonja always said they believed Marsh would make it with the Angels.
“He’s determined, he will not fail,” Sonja said. “Jake would always be like, ‘What’s your Plan B if you don’t make it.’ And he would go, ‘Dad, if I have a Plan B, that means I don’t think I can make it.’ ”
Her voice breaking, Sonja laughed while recalling those conversations. From that point on, she began envisioning the day her son’s big league dreams would come true. Jake did too.
Mike Trout spoke to the media Saturday to discuss the toll of his rehab on his mental health and what the future might hold.
For most of Marsh’s professional baseball career, Jake was dealing with cancer.
It began with a tumor in his tongue, then spread in waves to other parts of his body — one scare after another that required years of surgery and treatment.
Yet, Jake and Sonja were still there for almost every step of Marsh’s minor league journey, traveling to as many games as they could as he became one of the Angels’ top prospects.
But by last year, Sonja said it was clear Jake’s prognosis was only getting worse. And while she didn’t share the full extent of his struggles with her kids — “they just would’ve had too much on their plate,” she said — she quietly began to hope Marsh would reach the majors before the end of the pandemic-shortened season.
She knew Jake was running out of time.
Marsh came close to getting the call. He was added to the Angels’ 60-man player pool last year and attended their summer training camp. Once the season started, he went to the team’s alternate training site in Long Beach and, according to minor league hitting coordinator Damon Mashore, performed well enough to be in consideration for a call-up.
“It just wasn’t his time,” Mashore said.
This spring, any hopes of Marsh making the opening day roster were dashed after he suffered a shoulder injury that limited him to designated hitting duties in Cactus League play.
He opened the season at the alternate training site again, this time based in Arizona. And just days into the new campaign, he got the dreaded news from his family. His dad had died at 50. Marsh had to rush home.
Some of Sonja’s clearest memories of the whirlwind week that ensued took place at Jake’s funeral. About 600 people showed up at the First Baptist Church in Buford for the service. One speaker after another eulogized everything Jake had meant to them.
When Marsh finally stood up to talk, Sonja was blown away by what her son had to say.
“He spoke beautifully at Jake’s service, and from the heart,” she recalled. “We all just sort of winged it, but it’s easy to talk about somebody who deserves it.”
When he rejoined the Angels, Marsh leaned on others for support.
He had conversations with Mashore, who has also lost his father, and even joined the instructor on a family dinner early in the season.
“Being able to connect with somebody and talk and — not necessarily go deep into that part of it — but just understand what they’re going through, those are the connections that are more important,” Mashore said.
He also confided in fellow outfield prospect Jo Adell, one of his best friends in the Angels’ minor league system.
“I always reminded him to just keep pushing forward,” Adell said. “It’s tough. It’s supposed to be tough. It’s the toughest thing you can go through. But he’s got our support, my family’s. And Jake, from above, is supporting him as well.”
As the start of the minor league season approached, Marsh found internal strength too. He refocused on his pursuit of an MLB call-up. And he made a guarantee to his mom.
“Mom, I’m going to do it this year,” he told Sonja, “because I know Dad’s there.’”
Two months after his dad’s death, Marsh was back in Buford, standing again at the front of the First Baptist Church, delivering another eulogy.
This time, it was one of Marsh’s best friends, Jacob Cardiello, who had died unexpectedly from causes not made public. And unlike at his dad’s funeral, Marsh — who was speaking on behalf of his and Cardiello’s close-knit group of friends — struggled to get out the words.
“We knew where we were headed with Jake. We were a little bit more prepared even though it was difficult and tough and heartbreaking,” Sonja said. “With [Cardiello], that was sudden. … My heart hurt for him when I was sitting listening to him. He had so much more to say. And he just couldn’t get it out.”
It was the tragic culmination of a summer full of frustration and loss for Marsh, whose shoulder issue continued to linger and forced him to spend most of June on the injured list.
When Marsh went back to baseball again, Sonja wondered how much more he could handle, if he would be able to cope with so much heartbreak in the middle of a season.
She certainly wasn’t expecting to get the call barely a month later that he was headed to the majors.
But as she walked into Angel Stadium for his first game, and has watched him settle into the big leagues in the two months since, she sensed a change in her son — an inevitable maturation forged from the darkest of circumstances.
Angels rookie Jo Adell hit a grand slam against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night, following advice veteran Mike Trout gave him before the game.
“The transformation I’ve seen from him the past two years has been extreme, as far as knowing who he is, knowing he belongs where he is, whatever space that is, and owning it,” Sonja said. “I know ideally, he would have loved to have gotten up where his dad could see. But I think that there’s some healing in the fact that he did get up this summer. Because he feels like, not that he’s made it, but he’s accomplished.
“I think that’s a healing process for him. Had he come home in the offseason not knowing what next season would bring, or if he was going to be in his sixth year [as a pro] and still not in the league, that may have been a really hard pill to swallow. So I think this is pretty huge for his healing.”
Marsh agrees. Even when he was struggling in early August, mired in a 4-for-42 slump, he called the experience “a blessing, to be able to struggle, to figure out more about myself,” he said. “I know it’s weird to say, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Over the last three weeks, his game has begun to flourish. Entering Friday, he is batting .382 in his last 19 games.
“His confidence is up,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s going to continue to hit and get better. He’s a wonderful athlete. And he’s got a great frame of mind.”
Whatever Marsh does the rest of this season though, there probably won’t be a more memorable moment for Sonja than after that first game, when she and Erin embraced Brandon near the clubhouse, holding Jake’s ashes in her hand.
“The enormity of all of that was heavy but happy,” Sonja said. “We were just like, ‘See, you did it. You did it Brandon. You know he’s so proud of you.’ ”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.