Cristina Byrne-Sternberg/Rocket City Trash Pandas
Trash Pandas: Aaron Whitefield ran from Australia to Rocket City, promoted to Angels
MADISON – When Aaron Whitefield stepped to the plate as the leadoff hitter on Opening Night in Birmingham on April 8, he knew he had to be aggressive. So, on the first pitch of the second season in Trash Pandas history, the 25-year-old lined a single to left, setting the tone for that night’s game, and his hot start to his 2022 campaign.
Through the season’s first month, the outfielder has been one of the Trash Pandas’ best hitters, with his power at the plate and dazzling speed on the basepaths on display each night.
Leading off for the Trash Pandas is the latest stop on Whitefied’s winding sports journey that started on the fields in his native Australia, took him all over the world to represent his homeland, to the heartlands in Iowa, and then to the big leagues in Minnesota, and to time spent in Puerto Rico last winter before landing in the Rocket City.
As a child, baseball was the furthest thing from Whitefield’s mind.
“My parents made me play every sport growing up. I played soccer, Australian football, track and field, rugby, just about anything I could get my hands on, I played,” he said. “Then I got to a stage where I had injuries and turned to fast pitch softball because both of my parents played it.”
When he returned from a softball tournament, a baseball scout approached Whitefield and suggested he give baseball a try. Within a couple years, Whitefield signed a professional contract with the Minnesota Twins and came to the United States. But his long journey to the big leagues began with stops in Florida and Iowa, with the occasional hiccup along the way.
“One of the hardest things for me was getting used to the phrases I’d have to use for people to understand me. Sometimes at grocery stores or restaurants people would look at me like I wasn’t speaking English,” he recalled. “It was exciting to see all the new cities and new places that not many Australians had been to.”
While the off-the-field issues came up from time to time, Whitefield picked up his game on the field quickly. In his first full season in 2016, he was named a Gulf Coast League All-Star. In 2019, he made his Double-A debut for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Heading into 2020, he was hoping to start with Triple-A Rochester and stay on the path two the big leagues.
But when the pandemic altered the baseball season, Whitefield needed a new plan. When Spring Training was halted in Mid-March, he faced a dilemma. He could either return home to Australia or stay in the US to be closer to Minnesota if and when a season would begin. He chose the latter, and moved in with his new girlfriend in North Carolina.
There, he trained and was able to make it to Minnesota for the team’s summer camp before the regular season began in July. Right before the season was set to begin, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli came to his hotel room and gave him the news every player dreams of hearing.
“It was a wild week. Just a few days before the season Rocco came to my room and told me I’d made the team,” Whitefield said. “He told me at midnight or 12:30 in the morning, I spent the rest of the night calling my family and everyone who’d helped me out in Australia.”
On July 25, 2020, about six years after he first learned the game of baseball, Aaron Whitefield became a Major Leaguer, making his debut as a pinch-runner for the Twins in Chicago against the White Sox. When he stepped on first base, future American League MVP Jose Abreu was there to greet him. It was a moment that will always stay with him.
“It was such a surreal moment,” he said. “Even though the fans weren’t there. I as taking it all in and enjoying being on the same field as the best players in the world.”
Whitefield made two more appearances for the Twins over the next couple weeks, grounding out in his only plate appearance and scoring a run in another. After becoming the 35th Australian to reach the big leagues, he was optioned to the Twins’ Alternate Training Site in August.
“Being there restarted my motivation. Sometimes you can lose it in the minors when you’re trying to grind all the way to get to the big leagues,” he said. “When I got there and got a taste, I wanted to get there again. Mentally, I learned so much more in the big leagues than what I learned physically. We had guys like Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler that helped me and get my game where I’m at now.”
With those lessons learned, Whitefield spent the entire 2021 season at Double-A Wichita, stealing a career-high 36 bases in what was his final season in the Twins organization. He’s attributed his baserunning prowess to just simply watching.
“Everyone things stealing bases is on the catcher. But the majority of the time, it’s on the pitcher,” he said. “If he’s not quick to the plate, I’m going to go. It’s all about getting myself in the best shape so that when I get on base, I have the best opportunity to move to the next base.”
Heading into the 2022 season, Whitefield signed with the Angels, where he would later reunite with a good friend from his time with the Twins, first baseman Trey Cabbage. The duo are great friends both off and on the field.
“He’s been like a brother to me ever since I’ve been over here,” Whitefield said of Cabbage. “It was great to come to a new place and have someone else close to me so that could go through this together.”
In the Rocket City, the pair have formed a dynamic duo over the season’s first few weeks. Whitefield ranks second in the Southern League with 13 stolen bases while Cabbage is leading the league lead with nine home runs 27 RBI.
As of May 8, Whitefield was on a 16-game hitting streak, the longest streak in Trash Pandas franchise history, passing David MacKinnon’s 12-game streak from 2021. He has been promoted to the Los Angeles Angels, becoming the 11th former Trash Pandas player and first position player to play for Los Angeles Angels when he makes his debut.