Gary Van Tol was inside Memorial Stadium as a scout, watching A.J. Snow pitch six innings of two-hit ball for Eagle High during the 2011 5A state semifinals.
Despite striking out 10 batters in a 10-0 victory over Lewiston, Snow was ready to walk away from the game following the Mustangs’ state championship season with his ability to play in college hampered by a pair of autoimmune diseases.
Ten years later, Van Tol and Snow were reunited at Memorial Stadium with Van Tol serving as Boise Hawks manager as Snow took the mound on June 9 to make his professional baseball debut as a 28-year-old rookie.
“It was really cool and emotional,” Van Tol said about the moment. “He and I have a history and a relationship, and I think that made it even more special, no question for him and his family, but even for me as a manager and the opportunity that we’ve been able to give him. Just what he’s been through it’s a great story.”
After a decade away from playing, Snow came in with two outs in the eighth inning of a 6-5 win against the Great Falls Voyagers and a runner on second. The lefty worked his way back from a 3-1 count to strike out the Voyagers’ Michael Deeb and retired the first two batters in the ninth before running out of gas and being pulled after giving up a walk and a hit batter.
His stat line for the game read one inning pitched, no hits, two earned runs, one walk and one strikeout, but for Snow, this moment was about much more than the the numbers.
After spending the last ten years as an assistant coach on the Eagle High staff, he can now proudly call himself a professional baseball player.
“Getting back on that mound, it put me back in a happy place,” Snow said. “Baseball is my entire life, so being able to go back on the mound, competing and help these guys win in that game, that was extraordinary for me.”
Snow was released to the Hawks’ practice team earlier this week, as the team embarked on a week-long road trip to Idaho Falls and Ogden. He remained in Boise to work out with bench coach Jerry Hollow. After so much time away from the game, he needs more time than most pitchers to recover from an outing. So, the Hawks see Snow as a long-term project and turn him into a serviceable left-handed pitcher that can go every other day.
“He’s got four years of eligibility in the (Pioneer) League,” Van Tol said. “Is he going to pitch in the Big Leagues? No. He knows that, but he has an opportunity to play in his home town, be a professional and get paid. He’s in a unique spot being local and he wants to do this, that we have time. And because of our history, I’m willing to give him that time, get him back on the squad and continue to build him up.”
For Snow, it’s been a long road to the Hawks that dates back even further than 2011, when he helped lead the Mustangs to a state title game.
It started when he developed a rash on Super Bowl Sunday during his freshman year at Eagle. He also started throwing up and having trouble breathing, so he went to the ER. After having some blood work taken, he was sent to the ICU at St. Luke’s in Boise.
He spent four days in quarantine there, while doctors tried to figure out what was going wrong. The diagnosis ended up being juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
He spent 10 days in the hospital.
“I was always a small kid anyways, but after the hospital stay, I dropped down to 107 pounds,” Snow said. “I really couldn’t do much, it took me an entire year to start throwing a baseball again.”
But once he started feeling healthy, a second autoimmune disease set him back again. During his junior year, Snow was diagnosed with Chron’s Disease. This time it didn’t require a hospital stay, but Snow had ulcers along his digestive tract making it hard for him to eat. Even drinking water caused him pain.
But once again, he fought his way back and helped the Mustangs through their championship season as a senior. He had offers to continue playing at community colleges, but because of the uncertainty with his health, Snow didn’t feel like he could commit to playing for four years.
Instead, former Eagle High coach Frank Wright offered Snow an assistant coaching job with the Mustangs’ freshman team.
“After high school, going through the challenges I went through, I honestly hung the cleats up,” said Snow. “I was like ‘I don’t know if I can be physically ready for this at the college level at this point.’ I was lucky Coach Wright gave me a job right out of high school to coach. It kept me around baseball, kept me in the game. I feel like that was a blessing in itself there.”
Over the past decade, he’s been an assistant coach for the freshman and junior varsity teams and this past spring, the head coach for the junior varsity team. He’s also been a head coach with the Eagle Vipers American Legion program in the past.
But after four years away from the game, Snow said he started feeling healthier and started thinking about ways he could get back in the game.
“I can’t say it was a regret, because it was the right decision at the time, after my high school career to hang my cleats up,” Snow said. “But as I got healthier, as I got my autoimmune diseases under control and started putting on muscle and started feeling better, I was like ‘what if I could find an opportunity to get back into baseball?’ I had no idea it was going to be able to be with the Boise Hawks.”
He started looking at community colleges and was in talks with Chaffey College, near where his mother lived in Rancho Cucamonga, California, but nothing came of that. He returned to school at Boise State, where he had started college the fall after his high school graduation. In 2020, while he was still attending the school, Boise State reinstated its baseball program. Snow reached out to Van Tol, who was coaching the Broncos, to inquire about playing for the Broncos. But he was unaware that his NCAA eligibility clock started the day he started taking classes at Boise State, so his eligibility had long run out.
A couple of changes to the local baseball scene helped bring Snow and Van Tol together a year later, though.
The Boise State baseball team’s return lasted just 14 games before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the program was disbanded later that summer due to budget restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Hawks — who had been a short season ‘A’ affiliate of the Colorado Rockies in the Northwest League — were one of 43 Minor League Baseball teams to lose their MLB affiliation and joined the newly independent Pioneer League, allowing the team to have full control over its roster. The Hawks hired Van Tol, who previously coached the team when it was an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, as its manager.
Shortly before the season, the Hawks held open tryouts and Snow participated in them.
“He stood out with all the other players we had,” Boise Hawks pitching coach Michiel van Kampen said about the tryout. “He was (pitching) 87, 88 (miles per hour), was throwing strikes and had a good breaking ball.”
But Snow hadn’t pitched in 10 years, not even in rec leagues. Pretty much any throwing he had done since graduating was at batting practice for Eagle High. So rather than put him on the roster right away, the coaches opted to sign him to the practice team and get him ready to see live batters in a game.
“Once I sat down with him, explained how this worked, asked if it was something where that was it for him, was that the adrenaline rush he was looking for to hang it up and put it to bed, he said ‘if there’s an opportunity, I want it,’” Van Tol said. “He’s in town, he’s got his own living arrangements, so I said ‘let’s put you on the practice squad, you’ve got a 10-year gap, let’s build you up and do things right.’ We’re in no rush, so we can put him on the practice squad to do that.”
A few weeks later, he found himself on the Memorial Stadium mound, in a game situation.
“It was a roller coaster going out there,” Snow said. “I was shaking a little bit at the knees, but as soon as I got to the mound and as soon as (catcher Hidekel Gonzalez) gave me the sign for the first pitch, I was like ‘OK, I’m back where I need to be, I’ve done this before’ and I was ready to go at that point.”
The Hawks plan on pitching Snow again when his arm is fully recovered and hope to eventually get him to a point where he’s able to recover enough to be used as a situational pitcher against a left-handed batter every two days. Van Tol even raised the possibility of having him move into a starting role in future seasons if he’s able to build up his arm strength.
But for now, Snow is just looking to continue to develop as a ball player and make his dream of being a professional last as long as he can.
“The way I look at it is I’m going to do whatever I can, especially this season and in the offseason and then see what next season holds,” Snow said. “If things are going really well and I’m trending in the right direction, (starting) is always going to be a possibility to me. I’m not going to quit, if there comes a point where I feel like I can’t compete at that level, whether it’s from health reasons or I can’t recover quick enough, I’ll meet that when it comes. But until then, I’m going to do everything I can to help these guys out.”