By Rob Rains
They met in June of 2020, two 18-year-old kids from different coasts, brought together in the middle of America because of baseball.
Tekoah Roby and Thomas Saggese met the day they signed with the Texas Rangers after being selected in the amateur draft, a pitcher from Florida and an infielder from California, ready to begin their professional journeys.
What they didn’t know then was that they would be doing it together, becoming best friends in the process.
“We’ve been through everything together, really,” Saggese said.
Said Roby, “It’s funny. We are from complete opposite sides of the country but we are pretty similar people. I don’t really know how to describe it. We just like to hang out and kick back and relax. That’s kind of why we get along.”
It’s not unusual, especially in the minor leagues, for players to become close friends. What makes the story of Roby and Saggese’s friendship unique, however, is that it isn’t often that those best friends get traded – together.
“It’s actually happening”
Roby, whose nickname is TK, was at the Rangers’ spring training facility in Surprise, Ariz., on the morning of July 30, going through rehab for a sore shoulder that had sidelined him for more than a month.
“I knew there really was no time when a player couldn’t be traded, even during rehab,” Roby said. “But it definitely was the last thing on my mind.”
A telephone call from the Rangers’ farm director changed that, alerting Roby to the fact that he was part of a trade package that was being discussed as the deadline approached. He did not go into any specifics about the proposed deal with Roby.
“He told me to kind of hang tight and that he would get back to me,” Roby said. “I ended up going for a walk.”
While on the walk, Roby used his phone to pull up the box score of the Frisco game. He and Saggese were teammates on the Double A team before Roby’s injury.
“I saw Tom got pulled out of the game,” Roby said. “I knew that meant there was a good chance he was probably in a deal too.”
Was it possible they would be going to the same team, Roby wondered, or was that too much to ask for?
Saggese, like Roby, was aware of the trading deadline. It’s hard to ignore the rumors, but he also knew that many times those rumors don’t turn into reality.
“At first I thought I was going to be traded, then maybe that I wouldn’t get traded, then I was pulled out of the game,” Saggese said. “I thought, ‘Holy crap, it’s actually happening.”
About 15 minutes after he was pulled from the game in Wichita, Saggese found out Roby was in the same trade – and that both were headed to the Cardinals as part of the deal that sent Jordan Montgomery to the Rangers.
“I think it was probably worse for him because he was rehabbing at the time and was really blindsided,” Saggese said. “All of a sudden, boom, ‘you’re traded.’”
At about the same time that Saggese got the official news of the trade, another phone call gave Roby the same news. As soon as the Frisco game ended, while Saggese was still in the clubhouse, Roby called him on Facetime.
“There was definitely some emotion,” Roby said.
The trade meant that Saggese had to join the Springfield Cardinals while Roby moved his rehab from Arizona to the Cardinals’ spring training facility in Florida.
“That was tough for me,” Saggese said. “The first time you go into a new clubhouse it’s tough. It was so nice to get traded with one of your best friends, in baseball and in life too. For the first couple of days we were on Facetime all the time, talking about the new organization, and what was different.
“It’s nice to have somebody who is going through the same thing. Leaving all of your friends is tough, leaving everything you’ve known behind.”
While Saggese immediately began to meet his new teammates, Roby continued his rehab for three more weeks, until Aug. 21, when he was cleared to join Saggese in Springfield.
Their reunion lasted for 18 days, until Saggese – on his way to being named the MVP of the Texas League – was promoted to Triple A Memphis.
“It was some of the most fun I’ve had,” Roby said. “Playing with him, watching him do what he does, it was awesome.”
John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, said the team was not aware of how close the relationship was between Roby and Saggese at the time of the trade – but learned about it soon after the deal was completed.
Unintentionally, it was the latest move to bring close friends into the organization. The trade that brought Matthew Liberatore to the Cardinals from Tampa reunited him with childhood friend Nolan Gorman. Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn and Tink Hence all knew each other before the Cardinals selected them in the 2020 draft.
“I think it’s really cool to have guys on the team who are friends,” Roby said, “to have somebody you can kind of ride the ups and downs with is a big help. I think it helps create a good culture as far as being good teammates, caring for one another outside the field, being there to pick each other up when things don’t go right or to praise each other when things are going good.”
That’s what Roby and Saggese have been doing the last three seasons, and want to continue well into the future.
“We talk about the game,” Roby said. “I ask him about his at-bats, what he felt at the plate. He plays behind me when I’m pitching so he can see some things that I can’t. It’s nice being able to break down the game with him. He can give me a little insight from the outside looking in.”
Saggese finished the year in Memphis and returned home to California while Roby, after being limited to just 58 innings during the regular season because of his shoulder injury, reported to the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League to try to make up for some of that lost time.
It’s the latest stop on his journey.
“Sound of the trumpet”
Roby was born in Asheville, N.C., and that setting offers part of the story behind his unusual first name. His father, Sean, was running a wilderness program for juveniles in the area at the time.
“At the time I wanted all my sons to have names that ended in the same way,” Sean Roby said. “His older brother is Ukaia and his other brother is Jonah. He (Tekoah) was going to be named Noah, but a buddy of mine had a kid like three months before he was born and named him Noah, so that was out.
“I was driving around and saw this camp, Camp Toccoa. I started saying it and looked it up, and it’s actually the Hebrew spelling of his name that means ‘sound of the trumpet.’ Not that we’re Jewish, but I just liked the name.”
Roby had been living in Pensacola, Fla., before spending those few years in North Carolina and moved back to Florida soon after Tekoah was born, where he is now the vice principal at a high school. Roby’s first indication that his son might have a future in baseball came when Tekoah was eight years old.
He had a friend who was catching a team of nine-year-olds and he brought Tekoah up for a game. Tekoah had been playing in a coach-pitch league.
“My buddy knew I had been working with TK as a pitcher so he put him on the mound and he struck out like 12 kids,” Sean Roby said. “They made a rule after that that eight-year-olds coming up could no longer pitch.
“He wasn’t the biggest kid but he could throw strikes. At 10 he started working with Tim Spooneybarger (also from Pensacola) who pitched for the Braves and Marlins. Tim was great. He didn’t talk about ‘your elbow is supposed to be here’ or ‘your hips need to be here.’ He was more about the mental approach to pitching. That’s when TK kind of started taking it more seriously, wanting to throw and wanting to work outside of practices.”
Roby transferred to Pine Forest High School, where his father worked at the time, before his junior year. The baseball coach, Brett McCullough, had seen Roby pitch as an opponent as a sophomore.
“We met in the gym one afternoon that summer and my first question to them was, ‘What do you want out of this?’” McCullough said. “He and his dad both said they were just looking for an opportunity to keep playing in college. I told them, ‘Guys, you are selling yourself short.’”
Roby ended up receiving a scholarship offer to Troy University, and both father and son were happy.
“My wife and I were talking about getting a camper and pulling it up to Troy on the weekends to watch him play,” Sean Roby said. “That’s the way I thought things would go.
“He was very much a late bloomer on the prospect scene. When he was in high school the thought of him being a professional baseball player wasn’t even on my radar.”
That began to change the summer before Roby’s senior season. He went to the East Coast Pro showcase and about a week later, Sean Roby got a phone call from a scout who had coached Roby’s team.
“When he called he said, ‘I want to come by the school and talk to you guys,’” Sean Roby said. “I said, ‘About what?’” He was like, ‘the draft and TK.’ I went, ‘The draft?’”
That was the first of several visits from scouts who liked Roby’s ability. Still, his future was hard to map out because of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Roby was only able to pitch three official innings before the high school team’s season was canceled.
“After a few vists from scouts, TK asked me, ‘I don’t know if this even possible, but let’s say it was. Would you be mad if I didn’t want to go to college and wanted to just go play baseball?’ I said, ‘Not at all.’ Baseball will pay for your education when you are done … Here we are.”
The fact that Roby has reached Double A in only three pro seasons, overcoming a couple of injuries along the way, has not surprised McCullough. He saw the dedication and work ethic from the first day the two met.
“To be honest, the most impressive thing was how he prepared,” McCullough said. “Before the trip to East Coast Pro he had a scheduled mapped out of what he needed to do for the next 30 days to prepare – in the weight room, conditioning, throwing flat grounds, throwing bullpens. You don’t see high school kids map out a plan like that for a month of workouts.
“He always had a plan, long term and short term. I can tell you this: I’ve got a nine-year-old daughter, and he’s the kind of dude you hope your daughter finds. He’s a class act from day one. You never had to worry about what he was going to do in the classroom or what he was going to do on Saturday night. You knew if you had a group hanging out with him, you were in good business.”
A friendship is born
The Rangers made Roby the 86th overall pick in the 2020 draft, taking him in the third round. With the minor-league season canceled because of Covid, he was not able to begin his pro career until the fall, when he – and Saggese, the team’s fifth-round draft pick – were invited to the instructional program.
Their friendship really started then, and another person in their inner circle was the Rangers’ second pick in that draft, Evan Carter, who was promoted to the major-league team this summer and now is starting in the World Series.
Back then, the three were just kids, months out of high school, unsure of their future. All they knew was they were having fun, playing baseball and hanging out.
“He (Tekoah) has an amazing personality,” Saggese said. “He’s the man. He is really down to earth, just a quality dude. Everything about him is just very respectful, honest. He’s just a really nice guy.
“I’ve said this since 2020 – I Iove playing behind him. It’s like, ‘OK, this is fun to watch.’ He’s so competitive and he just has a presence on the mound.
“He has the ability to be a really good power arm. He executes all of his pitches pretty well, all above average. I think the Cardinals got a really high-end starter, that’s my opinion. I think he will be in the big leagues for a long time.”
Eric Peterson was the pitching coach for Springfield this season and worked with Roby after he joined the team in August. He also is the Scottsdale pitching coach in the Fall League, giving them a chance to continue to work, and learn, each other.
“He works hard, he’s got good stuff and he knows how to pitch,” Peterson said. “He goes out there and attacks. He has a game plan. Anytime you ask him, ‘What do you want to get done today?’ he knows what he wants to do.
“He’s very structured. He likes to have things mapped out and he works hard. Pair that with an understanding of what makes him good and he’s got a good future.”
Until their lives were upended by the trade, Roby and Saggese thought their future would be in Texas, playing with Carter, as the trio, together, one day helped the Rangers win the World Series.
While they now cheer for Carter, they are glad that their futures are still connected. Each are each other’s biggest fans and supporters.
“Tom is super gifted at the plate and is very passionate about what he does,” Roby said. “He knows himself very well as a hitter. I kind of do the same thing. I know myself as a pitcher and try to play the game with passion and have fun. That’s what Tom does really well. He has a lot of fun when he plays.
“My dream was to play with him and Evan on the big-league club. Now Tom and I are here with the Cardinals and we want to both help that team win. To be there with him, one of my best friends, would be exciting. It’s hard to not look at the future and see what it could be like.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of MLB via Getty Images, the Springfield Cardinals, Tekoah Roby and Thomas Saggese