March 29, 2018

Trevor Bauer: the pro athlete who races drones

Trevor Bauer is best known as a starting pitcher on the Cleveland Indians. If it were up to him, though, he’d rather make a name for himself in a different field.

“I’d rather be known as a nerd than an athlete,” Bauer told AirVuz.com back in 2016.

Bauer said those words about wanting to be known as a nerd on the same day he took part in his first-ever drone race. The 27-year-old pitcher has long been interested in science and technology. He studied engineering in college at UCLA, and often uses science and mathematical principles when fine-tuning his pitching mechanics.

Racing drones — or mini quadcopters — have been a passion of Bauer’s for several years. When he’s on the road during Cleveland’s long season (which spans from April to September — or October when the Indians are in the playoffs), Bauer brings his drone with him. He often flies freestyle with his first-person view (FPV) drone, performing tricks and maneuvers around obstacles.

“I’ll find a park and fly a couple packs freestyle and set up a race course just with natural obstacles, trees, bushes, whatever,” Bauer said. “I made some air gates out of PVC and pool noodles. I’ve been starting to set those up. Mostly just trying to work on control of the copter and making it do what I want it to do, and then figure out when I get out to races … so I can control it well enough I’ll be able to get through the course.”

Bauer even loves drones so much, he designated an entire page on his new website to his hobby. These are not the types of drones that other professional athletes are flying, though. Bauer custom builds each of his mini quads, using his technology background to make tweaks to his drones or to repair them if something breaks.

Often times, he’ll travel with multiple drones in case something happens with one of them. That was the case last summer when Bauer and the Indians were in Minneapolis for a series against the Minnesota Twins. As he often does on road trips, Bauer brought his backpack with drones and drone gear along for the ride.

He also had the chance to fly with one of the top FPV pilots in the world, Johnny Schaer (known in the drone world as JohnnyFPV). Schaer, a native of the Chicago area, is a Cubs fan and was able to give Bauer a bit of grief when Schaer’s Cubs beat Bauer and the Indians in the 2016 World Series.

“It was about a week after the World Series and I was like, ‘Johnny has a new video. Let me look. Oh, flying the W.’ Not good,” Bauer said. “It was a good video. I enjoyed it.”

Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer (left) and FPV pilot Johnny Schaer take to break to chat about their shared passion during a summer day in Minneapolis.

It was during that run to the World Series that Bauer put drones in the mainstream spotlight — though not necessarily in the way he would have preferred.

While working on one of his drones, the quad fired up and cut Bauer on his finger. The injury required stitches during the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Bauer tried to pitch despite the injury, but his finger kept dripping blood while he was on the mound.

Drones were the talk of the baseball world, for better or worse — thanks in part to Bauer bringing his mini quad to a press conference to talk about the injury.

Bauer has been able to put that incident behind him. Others have joked about it in good nature, including the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Bauer got his start in the majors with the Diamondbacks back in 2012 before he was traded to Cleveland.)

The Aces gave away a Bauer drone bobblehead at one of their games during the 2017 season. Bauer, wearing a Reno uniform for the bobblehead, is also holding a drone as he pitches.

That whole incident certainly got people in the sports world talking about drones, which have already started to cross over a bit into the mainstream sports scene. Schaer is one of several pilots who has competed on the Drone Racing League, which is broadcast by ESPN.

Competing on national television is just one thing Schaer and Bauer share in common, besides their love of drones.

“We both finished second,” Bauer said.

Bauer and Schaer flew together at an abandoned building in Minneapolis, along with local FPV pilots Megan Proulx and Simon Cheng. Even though Bauer isn’t a high-profile name in the drone world, he held his own with the other pilots.

“It’s cool to see Trevor into FPV and drone racing because it’s a growing sport,” Schaer said. “I hope more guys, more ball players get into it. It’s just a ton of fun. Trevor’s an extremely nice guy, so to enjoy the sport with him, it’s awesome.”

Most baseball players have hobbies that they do during the season or in their downtown after the season ends. Some are hunters or fishers. Others are into playing music. Some collect fancy cars.

Bauer flies drones, and flies them fast.

It’s not just the FPV racing drones he’s into, either. Bauer finds time to fly camera drones as well, taking beautiful aerial photos and videos of various locations. And while the majority of camera drone pilots fly products made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, Bauer is loyal to the Yuneec brand.

Still, racing drones are Bauer’s primary interest. Although he’d flown for over a year, Bauer had never competed in a race until the fall of 2016 in Minnesota. A local drone group, MAV Meetup, held a race that Bauer joined.

No one there treated him any differently because he was a professional athlete. He was just another drone pilot trying to win a race.

“It’s fun to realize that they may do a different job than a lot of us have, but at the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of nerds having fun,” said race organizer Aaron Sykes, founder of MAV Meetup. “He’s one of the guys. He’s a professional athlete in other walks of his life, but he comes to a community like ours and just enjoy himself and have fun. It’s been really rewarding to see.”

Bauer and the Indians now embark on the 2018 Major League Baseball season with the hopes of getting back to the World Series after falling short in 2017. Bauer will be an important piece for the Indians this year as he looks to build off a career-high 17 wins last season.

As he does, there’s little doubt he’ll continue to find time to fly his drone and spread the word about the growing hobby that he’s passionate about.

“The more people we can get into doing the freestyle and just going out and learning to fly is how it’s going to grow, I think,” Bauer said. “The more people that get into it, the more it’s going to be enjoyable. People don’t actually realize it until they do it.”