Kannapolis, North Carolina lies about an hour’s drive northeast of the state’s biggest city, Charlotte, and is home to approximately 42,000 people. A few household names for sports fans got their start in Kannapolis, and the town’s biggest stars seem to always come in twos.
MLB All-Stars Corey and Kyle Seager got their start in the North Carolina town as did the most prominent names in racing: Dale Earnhardt and his son Dale Jr.
Former Bradley Braves pitchers Theo Denlinger and Brooks Gosswein do not share a bloodline or a last name like the Seagers and Earnhardts do, but they hope to be the next biggest duo to use Kannapolis as a springboard to stardom.
In mid-July 2021, both Gosswein and Denlinger were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively, of the MLB Draft, both by the Chicago White Sox. A native of the Windy City suburb of Barrington, Gosswein was ecstatic for his future, and even more so when he found out that he would accompany his Bradley teammate.
“Once I heard my name called, my phone started blowing up, so I had to put it down for a little bit and celebrate with my friends and family,” Gosswein said. “Later that night, my dad comes to me and says, “Guess what? Theo [Denlinger] is with the White Sox too,’ and I completely missed it. It was definitely cool going into my first season of professional baseball knowing someone.”
The Braves pitching duo packed their bags and, around a week later, flew out to Birmingham, Alabama for a minicamp designed for the White Sox’ draft picks. After learning about the standards of the White Sox and what to expect on a daily basis in the minor leagues, Gosswein and Denlinger took another flight to play for Chicago’s Arizona Complex League team.
“All the traveling … It’s insane,” Denlinger said. “In a matter of a month, I was on eight different planes.”
Adapting to the strenuous grind of life in the minor leagues was a high priority for the former Braves in mid-to-late July. The start of their professional baseball careers for the White Sox affiliate in the ACL consisted of both practices and a game each day, all in the grueling Arizona heat.
Denlinger needed just two relief appearances in Arizona before he got the call up to Chicago’s Low-A affiliate, the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. The 6-foot-3-inch righthander recorded six outs on the mound in his abbreviated ACL career, but his high-90s fastball helped him strike out all but one of those outs. Still, Denlinger knew he needed to expand his pitch repertoire.
“In the Missouri Valley, you can throw 98 miles per hour down the middle and the guy will swing and miss,” Denlinger said. “But you throw 98 even if it’s not down the middle and [minor league batters] will take it 430 feet. They can see [velocity] and just absolutely clobber it.”
Denlinger’s arrival was a welcome addition to a struggling Cannon Ballers team, who was 23-53 when the Bradley arm joined the them. In the first game on Aug. 4 after he arrived, Kannapolis won — an abnormal occurrence given how they had fared up to that point.
When it came time for Denlinger to pitch, he developed a slider in addition to his fastball and curveball. Since he was able to keep hitters more off balance in deep counts, the former Brave posted remarkable numbers. Denlinger finished his 2021 tenure with Kannapolis with nearly two strikeouts per inning, a 3.24 ERA and two saves.
Although their newest draftee was making a positive effect in the bullpen, the Cannon Ballers continued to struggle, losing their next 15 games in a row after their win on Aug. 4.
“It was pretty rough, but we just weren’t putting it together,” Denlinger said. “One game we would have the bats going, but we would give up 12 runs or something like that. Then the next day we would keep them to two runs, but we would get shut out.”
During that time, Gosswein was still gaining more starting experience in the ACL. In late August though, he received a promotion to Kannapolis, joining his former Bradley teammate in the process.
“Taking the jump from the ACL up to Kannapolis, you can definitely tell the difference between the approaches from hitters especially,” Gosswein said. “But I came in with a mindset of not giving the hitters too much credit.”
In his first start with the Cannon Ballers on Sept. 2, Gosswein pitched four shutout innings as Kannapolis prevailed 1-0 over the Down East Wood Ducks. Winning each of its first games after the former Bradley pitchers joined the squad, Kannapolis seemed to have found players who helped them turn the corner.
“Once we had the draft guys come up, we were starting to put the bats together and we were starting to shut people out,” Denlinger said.
The wins began to come more frequently for the Cannon Ballers, but that was not the best part of the experience for Denlinger and Gosswein; it was the whole minor league experience.
“For me honestly, I think my favorite part of the season was we had a game canceled [against] Down East and we had stayed in this old-school hotel,” Gosswein said. “Just being around the guys, that was my first week there.”
“I’m really talkative; I’m good at making friends, so it wasn’t hard for me at all to go in, meet new guys and get acquainted with them quickly,” Denlinger added. “When you’re bonding under baseball in the not-the-best conditions of the minor leagues, you get close with the guys you’re around because there’s not that much else to do.”
Minor League Baseball has become notorious for putting players through less-than-ideal conditions. Players are not paid well, all road trips are taken via bus and finding a comfortable or affordable bed to sleep in requires some luck.
Denlinger mentioned that during one night in a hotel, they found cockroaches and bed bugs. Even in the house that he was staying in with other players in Kannapolis, he had to make amends.
“I actually put up a little tent I made out of fishing line and nails, and then I hung bed sheets over them and made a tent,” Denlinger said. “We made do with what we had. I missed not sleeping in an actual bed, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
“It took me back to the college days of getting on a bus and going somewhere and staying in a hotel,” Gosswein said. “It’s a long day; you get to the ballpark at one o’clock for a seven o’clock game, but part of it is embracing the long days.”
Gosswein wasn’t only reminded of his college baseball experience off the field, but on it too. On Sept. 17, the left-hander started against the Columbia Fireflies. Despite giving up three runs, Kannapolis jumped out to a lead heading into the ninth, and none other than Denlinger would close the game out and earn the save.
“I remember talking to him after the game, saying, ‘Dude, just like the college days,’” Gosswein said.
“It was like a Bradley Friday night,” Denlinger said. “It was amazing to go from Brooks pitch on Friday nights to me closing on Friday nights at Bradley and then do that in the minor leagues.”
The Cannon Ballers finished their season by rattling off six straight wins, their longest win streak of the season. Gosswein finished his 2021 campaign with an impressive 2.65 ERA, 17 innings, 15 strikeouts and held batters to a .207 batting average between the ACL and Kannapolis combined.
In retrospect, it is possible for the former Braves arms to look at their situation negatively with long road trips, lodging expenses and a lot more losses than wins. But winning games at the end, embracing the minor leagues’ lifestyle and relying on each other the whole time made the 2021 season one that neither will forget.
“I know how people say how difficult the minor leagues [are], but they’re doing a great job of making changes and improving the lifestyle. For my first season, I had a great time doing that.” Gosswein said. “I was only there for a short part of the season but to end the season on a high note, no matter how long you were there, was cool.”
Denlinger said that playing in front of 6,000 fans some nights gave him an unmatched adrenaline rush. In his opinion, Cannon Baller’s home stadium, Atrium Health Ballpark, was one of the best in the league. However, Denlinger recalled the surreal feeling when he and Gosswein arrived at their minicamp in Alabama as one of the best memories of the season.
“Me and Brooks, we’re really good friends,” the reliever said. “As soon as we got [to mini-camp], we set our bags down and looked at each other like, ‘Woah, this feels like we’re at Bradley but now we’re in the minor leagues. How did we get here on the same team?’”
The former Bradley duo may very well continue to impress, and it is reasonable to think that both will earn a promotion to Chicago’s High-A affiliate Winston-Salem or their Double-A affiliate Birmingham in 2022, barring injury. As high-round draft picks with major league expectations, it may be difficult not to lose focus of the present instead of the future. However, Denlinger and Gosswein learned a valuable lesson from their time on the Hilltop.
“The biggest thing [Bradley baseball coach Elvis Dominguez] talked about was … how to be mature and always have a positive attitude,” Denlinger said. “He always said, ‘Be where your feet are,’ which means live in the moment, and that’s exactly what I did.”
“Never get too high, never get too low, no matter what the situation is,” Gosswein added. “You’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as you think you are. [Dominguez] did a good job of putting things in perspective, even off the baseball field.”
For the offseason, Denlinger is currently at home in Wisconsin practicing and spending time working in his family’s blacksmithing shop. Gosswein is in Arizona at instructional camp, learning tools from coaches in the White Sox organization to help him reach his aspirations.
Gosswein holds the coaching staff at Bradley in high regard in helping him reach professional baseball and he hopes to do so with his Bradley teammate and friend by his side.
“We’re going to keep working to get to the Majors together,” Gosswein said.