Having played baseball for my entire life--let's be real: I'll always consider myself a ballplayer--I've been lucky enough to play both with and against players who have reached the professional ranks. And given my line of work, I've had the opportunity to meet several more over the last few years.
While there were countless players who went on to have successful and storied collegiate careers, it was the players who are now thriving in the minor leagues--and as you'll see, some even in the Major Leagues--that left the strongest impression.
So, to give the Prospect Pipeline readers a better sense of my playing background and what I've witnessed first hand as a player, here are some indelible memories of several noteworthy big-leaguers.
Scott Van Slyke, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
This past year I had the opportunity to get to know Scott a bit, as we both scouted for Prep Baseball Report in Missouri.
Of course, I repeatedly picked his brain about the life of a minor leaguer, and more importantly, what he attributed to his enormous success in 2011—Van Slyke was named the Dodgers’ minor league Player of the Year after batting .348/.427/.595 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs and 92 RBI in 457 at-bats for Triple-A Albuquerque.
Simply put: After seven years in the Dodgers' system, he finally figured out how to maintain a consistent approach and manipulate counts in his favor. The actual results were merely a result of the hard work he’d put in over the years.
Anyway, back to his debut. Van Slyke’s promotion was a corresponding move to Juan Rivera’s trip to the disabled list, and he made the most of his long overdue first at-bat, lining an RBI single back up the middle on an 0-2 fastball.
Once the dust had settled, he was welcomed to life as a big-leaguer with a standing ovation from the Dodger faithful as he tried his best to hold back an ear-to-ear smile.
And in my opinion, it doesn’t get much better than having your big-league debut called by the great Vin Scully.
Christian Friedrich, LHP, Colorado Rockies
Last Wednesday—hours before he made his major league debut—I wrote about Rockies’ left-hander Christian Friedrich and how impressed I was with his curveball when we both were in high school.
Well, the world got to see it first-hand as he picked up his first career win after holding the Padres to one run over six innings.
The 24-year-old, who has struggled to repeat the success of first professional season in 2009, scattered five hits while fanning seven and issuing one walk. As a vote of confidence, the Rockies decided to keep Friedrich in the rotation over Drew Pomeranz, who was optioned back to Triple-A Colorado Springs.
John Ely, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Prior to my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to play both with and against Dodgers’ right-hander John Ely, who made his major league debut in 2010 en route to a 4-10 record and a 5.49 ERA over 18 starts.
I saw Ely at his best at a Miami University (Ohio) camp as Division I hopefuls squared off and scrimmaged for the coaching staff. Unfortunately, I had to face him that day, and needless to say he was lights-out. The right-hander’s fastball sat 90-92 mph, according to the scouts in attendance, and his slider had excellent tilt.
Ely pitched three perfect innings to open the game, fanning seven of the nine hitters he faced—of course I was one of them. Here’s a recap of my at-bat:
Pitch 1: Fastball on the outside corner—called strike.
Pitch 2: Fastball on the outside corner—swinging strike; took a hack, wasn’t close.
Pitch 3: Tight, late-breaking slider—foul ball; I only got a piece because I was swinging for a fastball.
Pitch 4: Fastball at the letters—swinging strike; wasn’t even close.
As you might have guessed, the university offered him a full scholarship, as he went on to become a Freshman All-American and third-round draft pick of the White Sox.
Jason Kipnis, 2B, Cleveland Indians
The most impressive player I had to the chance to play against was Jason Kipnis, the Cleveland Indians’ standout second baseman.
Coming from the same high school conference, Kipnis was my counterpart at shortstop for our rival. Based upon his physical appearance, I never would have imagined that he would be a successful major league infielder, but he had that wiry strength and quick twitch muscles that allowed him to effortlessly blast home runs to all fields, on any pitch, in any count.
In one specific game, for example, the left-handed hitter homered to both right and left field, doubled off the right-centerfield wall, and tripled to dead center.
Not a bad day, right? That’s what it was like playing him every time. It was as if he only knew how to drive the ball.
That year, 2004, Kipnis and I both received All-Conference accolades at shortstop. After that, our careers took incredibly divergent paths—obviously.
Share Your Stories
Why am I reminiscing about my glory days? Because for baseball fans—especially those who once played, regardless of level or competitiveness—sharing stories is part of the game. They are the moments that have molded our love for the game and keep us perpetually invested in its future.
Seeing people I know and have competed against playing everyday in the major leagues blows my mind, and I know I’m not the only one.
So, Prospect Pipeline readers, let’s hear your stories. Did you play against or see a future big-leaguer before they were established? What was your lasting impression?