Today was a special one. It was Graduation Day. Not officially, but unofficially. At least for me and you and a whole bunch of other folks who've been watching the Class of 2012 grow, mature, and put themselves on the brink of world domination. Or at least putting themselves on the brink of earning a substantial living as a big league baseball player. It didn't start off as Graduation Day, that's just sort of how it played out. Walking up to the backfields, I passed Luke Jackson on the MLB practice fields, posing for pics for his baseball card. A nice chat with him about his back and his expected schedule, his offseason travel expeditions and life in general. I first met Luke when he was 18 years old and we shared an interest in sneakers and travel. He has a genuine curiosity about the world and now, health permitting, he's going to earn more than enough to indulge that interest. Once I rolled to the backfields, I quickly realized I was in for another treat as Graduation Day continued. In one group, on one field, in one cage, Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, Jurickson Profar, and Lewis Brinson were all taking turns annihilating baseballs. They too have been in my crosshairs since the age of 18. Now grown-ass men of 20, 22, 23, and 21 respectively, they were hitting balls to places unknown. A stiff wind was providing ample adversity for lefties Gallo and Mazara, but even the Arizona gales turned out to be no match for them on occasion. Brinson took full advantage of the breeze and launched pill after pill high into the sky and far beyond the left field fence. Jurickson took turns from each side of the plate, peppering the base of the left and right center field walls. They were loose and enjoying the moment. None of them wants to be on the backfields any longer, but all of them realize they are. They know what's ahead and they're excited about it. But simultaneously, there's a cognizance that their "upbringing" has been a special journey as well. For Brinson, Maz, and Joey especially, they've grown up together and are now all on the verge of living the dreams they've spent hundreds of bus ride hours imagining. I had a chance to chat with Joey for about half an hour after the games were done and he said they all knew and openly discussed how special the team was in Hickory in 2013. It was and always will be. There was an uncommon number of future big leaguers on that roster. I count 15 guys who either have been in the bigs already or who have a legit shot at making it there. That's remarkable...and they knew it at the time.
The wind was blowing out to left center, but swirling a bit, and overall it made for a comically long day for the pitchers. The fighter jets from Luke Air Force Base were hovering and screaming above and making the scene that much more daunting for the hurlers. Watching Gallo and Brinson saunter up to the plate on the backfields was a bit like watching Coldplay take the stage in a 250 person nightclub. Regardless of how you feel about them, it was pretty damn clear that they didn't belong there.
I could wax poetically about it all damn day, but when visuals are available...well:
Here's a fun one. Patrick Kivlehan pops one up and that's Joey you hear on-deck telling him "they don't see if Kivey" and they (the fielders) didn't and it dropped in. Then you can hear Joey ask Lewis, who crosses the plate following the error, what pitch he'd just hit. Lewis tells him "slider". It's a nuanced game and there's so much more to it than what we can see watching big league games on the teeeveee. Joey sees the pitch but gets just a bit under it and up on the handle and breaks his bat. Fairly certain another inch or so and that ball lands in Scottsdale.
Maz has a slightly bum toe so he is sitting out the game action for a few days, though I did see him in some very expensive Gucci flip flops later in the afternoon and I didn't notice any mangled digits. He's fine. And bigger. I grabbed him by the shoulders and he's a grown-ass man. Strong and ready for the season to start.
They're all ready for the season to start. I shouldn't just make it sound like I watched these 4 guys with a single tear streaming down my face all day. I watched other stuff too. Curtis Terry has legit 70-grade raw power and Michael Roth remains a name to remember as a bullpen lefty. Jairo Beras was back in camp after playing well for Nicaragua as they fell just short of qualifying for the World Baseball Classic, and for the first time I got to see helium-having Scott Williams pitch. Here's Scott:
I had a nice long talk with Mike Matuella and as you may have imagined, the Duke product is not short on intelligence. He's 2 semesters away from his degree in Economics and is already aware of next fall's add/drop deadline. But his focus is squarely on baseball and he hopes to make some rehab starts in Extended sometime late in May, then earn a full-season assignment. And again, it's "match-you-ELLA".
But today wasn't about guys like Mike Matuella or Scott Williams. They're still a ways away. Today was Graduation Day for at least 4 guys we've seen grow into players who have a great chance to be big league regulars and a better than average chance to be All Stars. It's taken an unbelievable amount of work and effort to get these guys from their signing days to this point and it's a testament to the Rangers' player development crew and most notably, the players themselves that they stand on the cusp of playing baseball for a living at the highest level. Obviously, no one has any idea if these guys will make even a single All Star appearance or finally help bring the Rangers a World Series, but we do know that their days on the backfields are just about complete. They're all headed to AAA for finishing school and this time next year, at least a couple of them will likely be penciled in for starting jobs in Arlington. But for the last 4 Springs, they've been all mine and all yours as we've watched the progress and quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) held out tremendous hope that they'd even make it this far. Well, they've made it this far and they're not stopping here. I spoke with all of them this afternoon and none of them look at making the big leagues the way I do. They know that's when the real work begins. The real road to stardom begins once you make it to the Show. But for me and possibly for you, this is where the road ends. If you get the chance to go see them in Round Rock this summer, take it. It'll likely be your last.
As Always, Enjoy Baseball!