Aaron Vernon’s not supposed to be here.
The Northwoods League is filled with future professional baseball players. There are a ton of prospects who have been on the inside track for years. Vernon, who settled in nicely on the Rochester Honkers' pitching staff, doesn’t fit that stereotype.
The Phoenix native fell in love with baseball early and has been chasing his dream since he was 3 years old. Vernon grew up a huge Arizona Diamondbacks fan; his claim to fame -- for now -- is that he went to the first-ever Diamondbacks game, when he was four months old, in 2000. He went on to play at Bourgade Catholic High School and even though he was a standout there, the fact that he was from a small, Catholic school deterred his college recruiting.
So, the 6-foot-5 right-hander stayed in Arizona, venturing 224 miles south to Cochise College in 2016. Vernon didn’t even have a scholarship; he walked on at the junior college program with the hopes of earning a spot. The baseball program is strong at Cochise, located just minutes away from the United States-Mexico border.
One time, Vernon said he was in a car with a few teammates when they got stopped by members of the Sicarios –– a Mexican drug cartel –– and they were armed with AK-47s.
"We had a group of guys get pulled out of the car by these dudes on the border,” Vernon said. “Thankfully, some of the people we were with had some connections and spoke Spanish and we were able to get out of the situation. It ended up being a big misunderstanding, but it’s a different world down there. You have to be careful. I was just really hoping I made it out alive.”
On the diamond, Vernon shines. Despite not being on scholarship, he appeared in 23 games for Cochise (second-most on the team) and racked up 53 strikeouts with a 3.54 earned-run average in 48 1/3 innings. Vernon earned a scholarship for his sophomore season and was dominant in 2017-18. He recorded 28 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings and allowed just four earned runs (1.27 ERA) in 13 appearances.
Vernon developed greatly as a player during his two years at Cochise College, but the work ethic and personal maturity he experienced was perhaps even more remarkable.
“It wasn’t the greatest place to be at so all you can do is grind and try to get better,” Vernon said. “It teaches you a lot. That made me part of the man I am today. I learned that you have to be your own proctor basically. You have to run your own life. Other people can’t help you out. You have to do it yourself, take the initiative and it made me grow up. In high school, I was like a big fish in a small pond and I didn’t have that work ethic until I got to junior college."
He parlayed his two years at Cochise College into an offer at Benedictine University in Mesa, Arizona. After three years as a workhorse on the mound for the Redhawks, Vernon elevated into someone who could come to the Northwoods League and compete. He’s been one of the stabilizing forces in the Rochester Honkers’ rotation, with a terrific 3.40 ERA. He’s allowed just 10 extra-base hits in 45 innings, with 47 strikeouts.
The man who wasn’t supposed to play in the Northwoods League is not only competing, he's dominating.
"Guys like me don’t make it here,” Vernon said. “So I'm just trying to make the most of it and take it all in and have the most fun that I can have. It’s been really awesome. We have a great group of guys behind us. Our staff has been great and our bullpen has been doing its job. Our catching has been phenomenal. Couldn’t ask for better catcher’s on this team and then everything else.”
Vernon is funny and full of personality. He thinks he “absolutely” has the best beard on the team, despite strong pushback from Honkers’ third-baseman Benjamin Rosengard. Even though he’s a Diamondbacks diehard, he still respects Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen despite his domination of the NL West for the past decade. Vernon has embraced being part of the Honkers this summer and getting to know guys from all across the country with different backgrounds. It’s a group filled with different personalities. Vernon is quick to joke and tease but he backs it up with plenty of compliments about his defense, catchers and bullpen.
The fun-loving Vernon also exudes an insatiable desire to get better. The lessons he learned on the U.S.-Mexico border have stuck with him all the way to the Northwoods League. And now he’s knocking on the door of a professional career. Not bad for someone who couldn’t get a scholarship at a junior college baseball program four years ago.
Vernon belongs. He’s supposed to be here now and he’s determined to make it count.
"I’ve had a dream to play this game and see how far I could take it,” Vernon said. "All the roadblocks that I face didn’t phase me at all. I’ve changed exponentially. It’s been crazy just to see where I was to where I am now. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s been awesome to see the growth and the change."