As a pitcher for the Charlotte Knights, Tyler Danish’s job is all about control. Control the count. Control the strike zone. Control the batter.
But while Danish has spent a good chunk of the past three seasons in Charlotte trying to control hitters in the International League, he’s spent a good chunk of his life coping with something wholly outside his control: the unexpected and devastatingly tragic turns his father’s life took as Tyler was growing into a man, at a time when he wanted and needed his father the most.
And last September, when he narrowly escaped a horrific and deadly 22-car and tractor-trailer pileup on Interstate 95, he came away with a fresh perspective on baseball, and life.
In a way, Danish views this as a second chance — something he didn’t get with his father.
’It was heartbreaking’
The only child of Mike and Charlotte Danish of Brandon, Fla., Tyler Michael Danish arrived on Sept. 12, 1994, and “when he was born, I think he wanted a ball,” Charlotte says.
He started playing baseball at the YMCA on his fourth birthday, took up basketball soon after, and got signed up for football at 5 years old. His mother got him a set of golf clubs for Christmas that year, and when he opened them and realized what they were, he hugged them.
At every opportunity, Tyler would recruit someone — a friend, a neighbor, a parent, a grandparent — to throw a ball around with him in the backyard, and when that one would get tired he’d find another one.
His father, who’d been a multi-sport high school athlete and small-college basketball player, coached Tyler’s youth teams almost from the very beginning, and a bond developed that went deeper than father-son. “He’d get home after working a 10-hour day and I would say, ‘Let’s go hit,’ or ‘Let’s go shoot hoops,’ anything I wanted to do sports-related ... and he wanted to go do it with me, even if he was tired,” Tyler says. “He was my best friend.”
Mike and Charlotte Danish rarely missed one of Tyler’s games. Mike coached, Charlotte was their number-one fan, and win or lose they’d all ride home together and focus on the positives.
Right up until the morning in February 2007 when police showed up at their front door. They were there to arrest Mike for his role in a loan-refinancing scheme that bilked older homeowners out of more than $400,000. Authorities had been onto him for some time — an investigation by the state’s Attorney General’s office found the crimes took place between 2002 and 2004 — but it was a complete blindside to Tyler, who was in sixth grade at the time.
“It was heartbreaking,” he recalls. “I mean, you just — you see your best friend put in handcuffs and you don’t know what’s going on ... it was tough.”
Mike was released on bail a couple of weeks later, and from Tyler’s perspective, it was over. He thought his dad was home for good, and life went back to “normal.”
But in November 2007, Mike Danish pleaded guilty to all charges, and in December, a judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison, followed by 20 years of probation. He also was ordered to pay back all of the money he made in the scheme.
“I came home from school and walked in and I saw my mom just crying on the couch, and I knew something was wrong,” Tyler says. “That’s when she said, ‘Your dad’s going to prison for 10 years. But the good thing is he will be coming home, eventually.’”
Or so they thought...
Mike Danish told Tyler that someday he would explain everything — what happened, what went wrong, and why he did it in the first place.
But now wasn’t that time. So in their two-a-week phone conversations, he let Tyler catch him up on school and recap the games he’d played since their last chat. Every four to six weeks, Charlotte and Tyler would drive the 110 miles to the state prison in Marion County for a visit that seemed more focused on clearing security hurdles and waiting around than on one-on-one time with Mike.
Then in the summer of 2010, about 2 1/2 years into Mike’s sentence, Charlotte and Tyler began to notice a change. When he’d gone to prison in 2007, Charlotte says Mike — who was 6 foot 3 — weighed about 240 pounds. When they visited him on Aug. 15, she says, he was down to about 150.
And they never saw him again.
That September, Charlotte says, Mike was transferred to a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was diagnosed with colon cancer and began chemotherapy. She says the prison communicated very little about his condition, and that because Mike was too sick to get to the visiting room on his own, their contact with him through the fall was by phone only.
Tyler had a vague understanding that his father was sick, but was completely unaware of how serious it was.
Mike continued to call them regularly, up until the week before Christmas in 2010; then around the holiday, he missed a couple of days when he normally would have called. On Dec. 27, Charlotte got a call from the prison, but it was not from Mike. It was someone calling to say that Mike had died.
At the time, Tyler, 16, was playing in a baseball tournament near Orlando. Charlotte drove up to tell him, and Tyler burst into tears — first shock, then grief, then anger.
“I was still a lot more angry than I thought I really was at him,” Tyler recalls, “for leaving us behind like that. Nothing can ever take away that love I had for him. ... But I was angry.”
A bittersweet triumph
At first, that anger led to apathy. His grades dipped during the second half of his sophomore year. He started skipping some classes.
But his love of baseball — and realizing that doing poorly in school wasn’t going to help get him to the big leagues — snapped him out of his funk. Then, between sophomore and junior year, he joined (and excelled with) former White Sox star Chet Lemon’s nationally heralded Juice youth travel teams.
That began his transition from shortstop to the pitching mound, where he stood out with an unorthodox low three-quarters delivery. During his senior year at Durant High School in Plant City, Fla., in a district deep with hitting talent, Danish dominated: He pitched 94 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
He graduated in 2013, and when the Chicago White Sox selected him in the second round of the draft, Tyler and his mom jumped up and down in their living room. Tyler says it was the first real joy they’d experienced in a long time.
“The saddest part about that was his father wasn’t there to see it,” Charlotte says. But there was more, she says: Not long after Mike’s death, Mike’s parents and Charlotte’s mother all passed away. “In a nine-month period, Tyler lost three grandparents and his father. ... So for him to get drafted and to finally realize his dream ... It was bittersweet, I guess.”
Soon after, Tyler officially reneged on his verbal commitment to play for the University of Florida and signed a contract with the White Sox for a shade over a million dollars.
An accident, then a new outlook
Danish’s fledgling pro career has taken him from Bristol, Va., to Kannapolis to Winston-Salem to Birmingham, Ala., to Charlotte, and twice — very briefly — to Chicago.
He’s experienced the high of earning his first (and so far only) major league victory, last May, and the low of his only other stint in Chicago, in 2016, when he gave up two runs on six hits in 1.2 innings over the course of three appearances.
He threw his first (and so far only) complete-game shutout as a pro for Birmingham on his father’s birthday in 2016, but struggled to find his groove with the Knights last year, finishing with a 4-14 record and a 5.47 ERA as a starter.
And last season ended in perhaps one of the most awful ways possible.
After pitching in the season finale, Danish was driving back to his off-season home in Florida when an accident on I-95 forced him to a standstill. A tractor-trailer several cars behind him didn’t slow with the rest of traffic and plowed into the jam, causing a chain-reaction crash that involved more than 20 vehicles; the wreck killed one person and injured 13 others — including Danish, whose car was totaled and thrown nearly 100 feet. He managed to escape with a dislocated left shoulder (he throws with his right).
When he returned to Charlotte this spring, he brought a new outlook to go with his new role as a relief pitcher.
“A lot of guys you see are very serious when they pitch,” he says. “When it’s my day to pitch or coming out of the bullpen, I’m very relaxed. I mean, I’ll joke around five minutes before I even have to go warm up.
“It’s weird, ‘cause I used to be very uptight, serious, ‘don’t talk to me’ that day. Ever since that accident last year, though, I’ve just kind of been like whatever happens, happens. I can only control things before the ball leaves my hand; after it leaves my hand I can’t control anything about it.”
Almost all of his numbers have been better so far this year.
And off the field, Danish says he’s happier than he’s been in a long time. He recently celebrated his first anniversary with his girlfriend, Tampa model Nicolette Smith, and not long after the accident they adopted a French bulldog together.
Charlotte got remarried in December to a man named Chuck Fowler, who Tyler says makes his mom “super-happy,” and who “doesn’t try to be my dad — he understands that my dad has a special place in my heart.” During the off-season, Tyler and Nicolette live in Florida, in a house he bought two years ago, just 10 minutes away from the house he bought his mom after he was drafted.
Today, he calls his mom “one of his best friends.”
“She’s a special person, and she went through a lot as well,” he says. “But she kept one foot forward and made sure I stayed on the same path that I needed to. ... She’s an amazing mother — one of the best in the world.”
But they don’t see eye to eye on everything.
His way of remembering Dad
Before a recent game, Danish starts a quick tour of his body art by turning his palms upward to show off his wrist tattoos: “CDD” on his left for his mom, Charlotte Diane Danish, and “MWD” on his right for his dad, Michael William Danish.
Charlotte says she was against Tyler getting tattoos, that she told him his dad would be happy to simply be in his son’s heart.
“My mom hated ‘em at first,” Tyler concurs, “but I think she understood eventually that it meant a whole lot to me to have that on me. It’s something I don’t regret, and I don’t think I ever will.”
“Dreams Come True” is in cursive on his right forearm; the Roman numerals “VI XI XVI” on his left forearm commemorate his major league debut on June 11, 2016. On his chest is “Life May Be Tough, But I’ve Got a God That’s Tougher.”
He neglects to mention one, though — Charlotte mentions it later. It’s a ray of sunshine with a cross in the middle, tattooed on his shoulder. “It reminds him of his father’s death,” she says, “but also the fact that there is hope and promise for the future.”
When you ask him specific questions about his father, Tyler Danish will answer them in detail and doesn’t get emotional. But “Tyler’s a very private person when it comes to his father. He doesn’t even to this day doesn’t talk about him very much. He keeps a lot of that stuff inside, and I think he always has.”
But she knows pitching this Sunday would mean a lot to him.
“Father’s Day is always difficult for him,” says his mom. “I always make a point to send him a text or something no matter where he’s at. You know, tell him that his father would always be proud of him” — her voice hitches as she fights back a sob — “that his father would always be proud of him, and that I’m proud of him, too. ... Just to let Tyler know that we aren’t gonna forget about his father. That we’re never gonna forget him.”