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From college walk-on to wholesome no-hitter: How Alec Mills became a part of baseball history

4 years agoTony Andracki

Alec Mills was fresh out of high school, enjoying his first fall on campus at The University of Tennessee at Martin.

He passed by the baseball fields and saw the team already practicing, so he strolled into the office of head coach Bubba Cates and asked for a tryout.

Cates saw a tall, lanky kid and remembers being struck by Mills’ “athletic look” so figured it was worth a shot.

After Mills left his office, Cates got on the phone with Steve Cornelison, a former player of Cates’ at Jackson State Community College and a guy very familiar with the baseball scene in Mills’ hometown of Clarksville, Tenn.

“I said, ‘Steve, do you know Alec Mills?'” Cates relayed. “He said, ‘I’ve never heard of him.’ And I thought that was kind of interesting because Alec had a good look about him — he just looked like he could be an athlete — but Steve had never heard of him and did a lot of recruiting up there.

“But Alec showed up the next day and threw for us in the bullpen and had a good, firm fastball — about 86 mph if I’m remembering right. And his curveball was good. It’s a little different than what he’s throwing right now — a little harder breaking ball, but it had some tightness to it.

“You could tell that he was a guy that had a chance to be a pretty good college pitcher at that point.”

Cates gave Mills a spot on the UT-Martin roster and the young pitcher proved his coach right.

“I was a walk-on player in college, so I had a sensitive heart for those guys,” Cates said. “We’ve had quite a few, but not many had a story like Alec has got.”


Cates — who spent 15 years as the baseball coach at UT-Martin from 1999-2013 — has followed Mills’ professional career closely. When he realized what was happening Sunday, he made sure to catch the final couple outs of Mills’ historic performance in Milwaukee.

As the unassuming and bespectacled right-hander put the finishing touches on the 16th no-hitter in Cubs history, Cates and the rest of the UT-Martin family celebrated 500 miles away.

Cates initially began Sunday reading the newspaper and following along with the game via the MLB app on his phone. As he moved on with his day, he got a text from a friend saying, ‘Hey, Alec’s got a no-hitter through 6.”

Cates was able to watch the 7th inning from home, but then had a meeting at his church, so he left and brought his laptop with him. He was able to get the stream back up just in time for the final 2 outs.

“Pretty special,” Cates said. “Really neat.”

Earlier in the game, Cates had called up one of his former coaches on the UT-Martin staff to alert him of Mills’ performance and let him know to get to a TV immediately.

Mills’ no-hitter became a virtual watch party for the community.

“There was a lot of excitement down here like that,” Cates said. “I saw Twitter messages and things like that from a bunch of people that were teammates of his, just saying nice things about him. I had gotten a few from guys saying, ‘Hey are you watching the game? Do you know what’s going on?’ Things like that.

“That was special. I think that’s one of the neat things about a professional player going through the college ranks because you do develop a lot of relationships that you keep for a long time — a lifetime. So a lot of people I’m sure were in contact with him. I know a lot of people were excited about what was going on.

“It’s not just him with his teammates, it’s people in the Ohio Valley Conference, where he pitched. Just an unbelievable thing.”


How did Mills celebrate this “unbelievable,” life-changing thing?

His wife ordered Pequod’s Pizza.

“It was really good; I think it might be my favorite pizza I’ve tried in the city so far,” Mills said. “That was a cool Chicago-style way to celebrate, so that’s fun.”

That’s as wholesome as it gets.

Mills also spent the off-day Monday responding to the more than 300 texts and messages he received from friends and family — including Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Crane Kenney and chairman Tom Ricketts.

“That was pretty cool to hear from those guys,” Mills said. “Overwhelming with how many people reached out. Obviously super thankful and very blessed to have that many people.”

The off-day came at a perfect time, as it allowed Mills to take a breath and gain perspective on what he accomplished the day before.

“I sat down on the couch and was like, ‘What did I just do?'” he said. “So I think it’s kind of starting to settle in a little bit.”

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It’s been quite the last decade for the 28-year-old — going from that life-changing conversation in Cates’ office to a performance that ensured his name will forever be on one of the most prestigious lists in Major League Baseball history.

After Mills walked on the UT-Martin team, he initially worked out of the bullpen before carving out a role for himself as a starter late in his sophomore season. He won a couple of big ballgames down the stretch for his team as they advanced to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, showing early signs of the same poise and calm demeanor that has been on display whenever Mills has taken the mound in a Cubs uniform.

By his junior year, he was drawing interest around the nation as a legitimate pro prospect.

That spring, he got the Opening Day start for UT-Martin against Georgia Southern, the No. 34 team in the nation. Mills was tasked with facing a Georgia Southern lineup that featured four players that were drafted that summer — including right fielder Victor Roache (1st round) and pitcher Chris Beck (2nd round).

“There must have been a major-league scout from every club there that day,” Cates said. “It was a great atmosphere.”

Mills wound up shutting the Georgia Southern lineup down until the 5th inning in a game UT-Martin ultimately lost.

“One of the guys from the major league scouting bureau came up and visited with me after the ballgame and said, ‘Man, your guy really showed off today,'” Cates said.

That momentum dovetailed into a season in which Mills posted a 3.94 ERA in 14 starts. The Kansas City Royals rewarded his success by selecting him in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft.

So here was a kid who wasn’t recruited out of high school, had to walk on a mid-level Division-I program and in less than three years, had turned himself into a bonafide MLB prospect.

Mills’ professional career got off to a good start on the field, as he pitched well initially. But then an elbow injury struck and he was shut down in the summer of 2013 for Tommy John surgery.

The Cubs eventually traded for Mills following their 2016 championship run, but the right-hander spent most of his first year in the organization on the injured list — first with an ankle contusion and then with a forearm strain.

In 2018-19, the Cubs called up Mills for a few brief stints in the bullpen and as a starter and he responded with a 3.17 ERA over 16 appearances (54 innings).

He carved out more of a role for himself at the end of last season and came into 2020 with expectations to be a part of the Opening Day pitching staff. Out of minor-league options and with a solid track record of success in the big leagues, Mills was ready to take a step forward.

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Tyler Chatwood won the competition for the fifth starter spot in Arizona, initially putting Mills in the bullpen as a long relief option. But José Quintana’s thumb injury ahead of summer camp opened the door and Mills has taken full advantage of it.

“He has shown perseverance for sure,” Cates said. “I think sometimes when you travel that road, you get a little bit different perspective on everything. You show up a little bit different than maybe you might’ve had you had some different opportunities — maybe been a high-round draft pick or something like that.

“He’s had to continue to work at every level, but he’s been consistent. I think his mindset has allowed him to do that. I’m watching the end of the ballgame [Sunday] and after the third out, I’ve seen guys have a special day like that where they’ve thrown a no-hitter or a perfect game or something like that and it’s like an explosion — people are going crazy.

“But Alec was almost like, ‘I can’t believe what’s happening. Another thing in my life that I just can’t believe something special like that is goin’ on.'”

That “aw shucks” demeanor has been a staple of Mills’ personality throughout his entire tenure with the Cubs. You’d be hard-pressed to find any moment in time where he was visibly upset or seemed angry in any way.

Which is also why his celebration after the no-hitter was so wholesome — Mills sticking out his tongue a la Michael Jordan.

Talk about a “Chicago-style way to celebrate.”

“Yeah, I have no idea where that came from,” Mills laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever stuck my tongue out in my life. I don’t know what that was. But obviously I don’t remember much about it. It’s just what happened.

“I guess pure joy, I don’t know. Obviously it was a lot of fun. I think the big thing for me was seeing how much fun everybody else had celebrating. That meant a lot to me. I think those guys enjoyed celebrating just as much as I did, so that really meant a lot for sure.”

That stuck out to Cates, too — the joy his teammates took in celebrating Mills’ accomplishment.

They always say actions speak louder than words and if you want to know exactly how the Cubs feel about Mills inside the clubhouse, look no further than Jason Heyward’s reaction when David Ross wanted to pull the veteran outfielder from the blowout game for rest.

“He was always a great team guy,” Cates said. “You could recognize that in his interaction with other people. He’s been able to carry that through his time in the minor leagues and even now with the Cubs.

“You can see how the guys react to him and I think that says a whole lot. Maybe that’s the best thing that is said about him is how the other guys that he plays with feel about him. That is a special thing.”


So what’s next for the 6-foot-4 kid from Tennessee?

Even coming off the no-hitter and earning National League Player of the Week honors, Mills still wouldn’t let himself get too carried away.

While conceding that his confidence is very high, he acknowledged there is still work to do as the Cubs work to lock up the division.

Right now, it looks like it will be between Mills and veteran Jon Lester for the No. 3 spot in the playoff rotation behind Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, but Mills isn’t worried about all that.

The no-hitter may have been something plucked right out of a Hollywood script, but it hasn’t changed Mills.

“I’ll do whatever they tell me, whether it’s starting or relief,” he said. “I’ve said that a lot — I’m sure you guys are tired of hearing me say that. But that’s what I’m here for. I just want to be a team player and help us win some games.”

There’s that team-centric mindset again.

Just like Kyle Hendricks spent his first couple years in the big leagues riding the CTA and walking to Wrigley Field without being mobbed by fans, Mills is living in that same under-the-radar world.

“Let’s just put it this way — no one’s ever recognized me in the streets so far in Chicago,” he laughed. “I don’t know if the chances of that may be a little higher now.”

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