Vahalik boosts Washington’s winning ways

WASHINGTON, Pa. – As a player for the Washington Wild Things, Jim Vahalik lives with a host family during the 90-game season in the summer.

Just 30 miles away, though, Vahalik has blood relatives cheering him on in Jefferson County.

“My mom grew up in Steubenville,” Vahalik said. “My grandparents live in Wintersville, along with aunts, uncles and some other extended family members.”

Vahalik, a Westerville, OH native, attended high school at Columbus DeSales, playing baseball and football before graduating in 2007. In 2005, he faced off against Big Red in the Division III state championship football game – a 28-7 Steubenville victory.

“It was 0-0 at halftime,” Vahalik said. “Then Zach Collaros took over. We couldn’t contain his throwing arm in the second half.”

Despite that, he holds no ill will to the city or school.

“I really like the city of Steubenville,” Vahalik said. “I like going back there. Being from Columbus, everything is flat, then in Steubenville there’s some hills you have to drive through. It’s a great small town.”

His family makes the short trip to CONSOL Energy Park in Washington every so often to see him play. Vahalik encourages more people to see his team, too. The Wild Things are having one of the best seasons in franchise history.

Washington is 34-19 and sits atop the Frontier League Eastern Division standings. It holds a two-game lead over the Evansville Otters.

“The reason why were winning is because we have great veteran leaders and great rookies,” Vahalik said. “When you have that combination the game kind of takes care of itself.”

Vahalik, a three-time Frontier League All-Star, is currently batting .260 with three home runs and 12 RBIs. He signed with the London Rippers in 2011 after graduating from the University of Toledo. Vahalik was traded to the Wild Things in July of 2012 and has been the team’s starting catcher ever since.

“The last couple of years I took on more of a leadership role behind the plate,” he said. “Setting up the defenses, trying to dictate where the play is going to go, positioning guys, helping manage the pitching staff and making sure everybody is on the same page before putting everything to work.”

Prior to the 2013 season, Vahalik was signed by the Baltimore Orioles. He played in most spring training games and had a solid shot to latch on somewhere in the organization.

“They wanted me to play first base,” he said. “My heart will always be behind the plate and that’s why I came back to Washington.”

Like any ballplayer, Vahalik has major league aspirations, but his focus is on where he’s at right now.

“My No. 1 goal is to win a championship for the Wild Things,” he said.

The organization has been located in Washington since 2002 and has won five division championships. The franchise was founded as the Canton Crocodiles in 1997 and won a Frontier League title that season.

The Wild Things haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 but are primed to earn a postseason berth this year.

“We’ve always had our mindset on winning here,” said relief pitcher Pat Butler. “This season, we are just more talented. And we’re focused each game. We really go out there expecting to win each night.”

Washington is in the middle of a three game series with the River City Rascals, who are currently in second place in the West Division with a 32-19 record.

“These next few games against them is really going to set the tone for the rest of the season,” Vahalik said.

The Wild Things has six representatives at the Frontier League All-Star Game, which was held on July 16 in Sauget, Illinois. Recent Arizona Diamondbacks-signee Stewart Ijames, CJ Beatty, Daniel Poma, Carter Bell, Shawn Blackwell and Jonathan Kountis all made an appearance in the game.