By: Eric Leary
Making the most of one’s opportunities has always been considered words of wisdom. Count Chris Munnelly, a Dirtbag alum and member of the 2009 class, among those considered a believer of the view. As a right-handed pitcher, he overcame an initial insecurity of whether he belonged to becoming one of the greats in the history of the organization.
By 2007, Dirtbags were already known for having rosters of top flight talent and while Munnelly had played for a different group out of the area, he decided to attend an Impact Baseball event. The rest, as they say, is history. He quickly caught the attention of Dirtbags founder and head honcho, Andy Partin.
“I remember seeing Chris throw for the first time at our showcase at Wake Forest University. I was blown away! I didn’t even let him cross the foul line before I ran down and introduced myself,” Partin said.
Munnelly recalls that day as well. After popping an 88 on the radar gun, he says the conversation with Andy quickly went to an invitation to be a Dirtbag. Having played against the Bags, he had some idea what he was joining and says it was clear they were the best. But in agreeing to … he may not have envisioned he would be considered one of the best of the best.
As a student at Forsyth Country Day School, in Lewisville, NC, Munnelly was aware of and even competed against some of the players. This included someone he’d known his whole life, Wil Myers who attended rival High Point Christian. On his first day in a Dirtbag uniform, Munnelly was about to find out just how special his new team was.
According to Munnelly, the game was at Wingate University and he wasn’t scheduled to pitch. So after entering the dugout and meeting his new teammates, he began a conversation with Myers. Suddenly Partin asked Wil what he was doing because he was up next. Without even changing his shoes into cleats, the future AL Rookie of the Year strolled to the plate, hit a BOMB and returned asking Munnelly to remind him what they were talking about before he departed.
“That was a big league moment,” remembers Munnelly, who says he realized then he was now with a special group.
Assuredly, Munnelly would have plenty of his own moments with the Dirtbags. And that success would be leveraged again and again to offer even greater opportunities to succeed on the field and beyond.
When asked to reflect on a personal achievement or memory as a Dirtbag, Munnelly settled on a game versus a top club in Jupiter in the fall of 2008. He tossed a complete game, only giving up two or three hits. With plenty of scouts and coaches in attendance, he cited the atmosphere as a highlight. Many of his other recollections centered on the team’s accomplishments, relationships with teammates and lessons learned from the experiences.
By the time he was completing his time with the Dirtbags, Munnelly was a top prospect. And plenty of credit for his rise can be given to the stuff he took to the mound. In high school, he says he pitched 88-90mph, with an occasional 91-92. The curveball was slurvy curveball and he had a change. Once he reached college he said he needed more so he developed a legit slider by his sophomore year. The slider would eventually end up being his best pitch for the rest of his career even as the velo increased to 94mph.
But a lot of his drive was internal and he says that came from the chip on his shoulder, being a smaller kid. Though he was 6’2” and 200 pounds in college, the growth spurt was late and Munnelly felt he had to prove himself. The bulldog mentality that resulted became the difference maker even as the physical attributes showed.
“I wanted to be the fiercest competitor. Knowing that always someone could be watching,” said Munnelly.
Being the total package of talent and makeup is definitely what sets Munnelly apart. Partin weighed in on this by saying, “Munns will go down as one of the top pitchers we have ever had in our program. He was the guy that you knew you were going to win with every time he took the mound and our players knew it too. He was the epitome of what you wanted in a pitcher. He had that all-business demeanor on the mound and the stuff to dice up hitters.”
Success with the Dirtbags increased his confidence while in high school. As he started to realize he did belong, Munnelly remembered, “I thought I was good. With success I realized ‘you are that good’.”
While Munnelly says he believes players will eventually get “found” if they can play, he credits the Dirtbags for creating the platform to put him in front of the best schools and scouts. He says the success he experienced gave him the confidence to be motivated to get even better. Playing with “physically mature dudes” provided the incentive to get in the weight room and be motivated to eat right.
So the success, the stuff, the work and the attitude all culminated in Chris Munnelly moving on to play for the North Carolina Tarheels after high school and the Dirtbags. The next four years would be filled with even more personal and team successes.
As a weekend starter his freshman through junior year he solidified his reputation of being a go-to guy for a national powerhouse. In his senior year at Chapel Hill, he actually started mid-week games and was used to “finish” on the weekends. The experiences, again far outweighed the personal gains according to Munnelly. He was part of a team that made two College World Series appearances, captured three ACC titles, and won the ACC tourney his senior year.
But most of all he says he gained the next steps for success in day to day life. Once again, for Munnelly it goes back to taking advantage of opportunities. He had come to realize some very important lessons in the game that have continued to be impactful in his life.
For Munnelly, it was a continued recognition he still had to work, no matter the task, saying “A lot of guys have a rude awakening in college. They don’t realize the commitment of work necessary.”
Without surprise, the next chapter in Munnelly’s journey was a stint as a pro. He joined the Astros as a free-agent in 2013, after considering a few other offers. He then entered into what he called a loaded minor league system from 2013 to 2015.
Though he spent just a short time in pro ball, the experiences continue to be leveraged by Munnelly. Spring training was spent learning from Nolan Ryan or interacting with the likes of Biggio and Bagwell, the opportunity to “be a sponge” wasn’t lost on Munnelly.
Here, between stories of playing with future big leaguers who were the starters on his teams “throwing 100mph and I’d come into close with 94”, Munnelly offers some sage advice what he learned way back as a Dirtbag.
“Before I was intimidated because of (the) notoriety (of others). I had read about the ‘top dogs’. But I belonged. The Dirtbags was a confidence moment,” Munnelly stated.
For Munnelly it seems to be more of what he took away from his experiences at all levels. Today, as a wealth management advisor who finds himself working with athletes, he tries to relate to their quest to perform.
“(I) encourage guys to put it all in perspective. People struggle with identity when the game is over. Don’t let it consume who you are,” he said.
But perhaps the most valuable nugget in the conversation was one he shared when talking about the process of improving and achieving.
“We only have a limited time, or window, to play this game; make the most of it.”
From a Dirtbag legend, wisdom indeed.