CHICAGO — A 17-year-old Kyle Schwarber stood straight across from the man-child who would eventually end his football career. Schwarber, who was recruited by a slew of Division I football programs, made the fruitful decision to pursue baseball. Still, it was Schwarber’s intent to end his football career of his own accord—presumably at the Ohio state high school football championships.
That would not happen.
Schwarber, a senior middle linebacker for Middletown High School, was a gifted prep athlete. He was all-state in football and baseball. Had he grown more than six feet, Schwarber, now 22, might be a redshirt senior at a major Division I football program. Instead he finds himself on an even bigger stage—playing for the Cubs in MLB's National League Championship Series.
But on that fall night in Ohio, dreams of baseball’s Fall Classic were back of mind. Forefront was Wayne High School and the otherworldly power of its quarterback, Braxton Miller.
Like Schwarber, the national spotlight has shined on Miller this fall. Now a redshirt senior on No. 1 Ohio State’s football team, Miller, a quarterback turned wide receiver, already has seven Big Ten awards to his name—a conference record.
Before moving to receiver this season, Miller won the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2012 and 2013 as a quarterback. He is, arguably, among the most athletic players in college football, with 4.32 speed in the 40-yard dash and an arsenal of moves that couldn’t be replicated in a video game. So it’s easy to imagine the superhuman ability Miller had as a high school senior.
Whether foolish or cocky—take your pick—Schwarber stood opposite Miller, certain he had the answer to stopping what was then the nation’s fourth-ranked high school quarterback. Middletown High School football coach Jason Krause, now at a different school, signaled a defensive call to his middle linebacker. Schwarber acknowledged the call and then showed more moxie than most his age.
He called his own plays for an entire series.
“His competitive fire,” Krause said of why Schwarber made those calls in a game Middletown lost 21-0. “At the time he made some calls that he thought would be better suited. He was the guy on the field working through the game plan in his head and it did not turn out negative.
“We had a nice little conversation when he came off the field after that series.”
Nearly five years later, amid a playoff run, Schwarber is the same competitor who defies his age.
Minutes had passed since Schwarber hit a moonshot home run in the seventh inning of the Cubs’ Game 4, series-clinching win over the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. The ball went so high; it landed and remains on top of Wrigley Field’s video board in right field. “Schwarbomb” was trending on Twitter.
The left-handed Schwarber was becoming a social media cult hero when, soaked in a concoction of champagne and beer, he addressed reporters with the panache of a confident veteran—a mirror image of the linebacker from five years ago.
“We [Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler and I] were out in center field, and [Cubs manager] Joe [Maddon] was making a pitching change, and I was just joking around. I said, ‘I'm going to hit a home run off this guy,’ and he's like, ‘well, do it,’” Schwarber said. “There you go.”
Schwarber was always part of the Cubs’ future. He just wasn’t always in the team’s plan for 2015. He was picked fourth overall in the 2014 Major League Baseball amateur draft as a catcher out of Indiana. If the Cubs had the No. 1 overall pick, rumor is they still would have selected Schwarber.
The organization vacillated on where they wanted to play Schwarber. Initially the thought was that his prospects as a hitter were too high to sacrifice his knees at catcher. Later, after catching some in the minor leagues, the organization leaned back toward the idea of playing him behind the plate. Since being drafted, Schwarber has maintained his desire to catch.
But this offseason the Cubs traded for catcher Miguel Montero, who is in a $60 million deal that runs through 2017 and is among baseball’s best at pitch framing. The team also signed David Ross, the personal catcher for Cubs left-handed starter Jon Lester. There wasn’t thought to be room for Schwarber.
Injuries to both Montero and Ross netted Schwarber the opportunity for an earlier-than-expected major league debut. The injuries, though unfortunate, proved well-timed for the Cubs, as Schwarber showed his swing was major league ready.
“I'm blessed to be here,” Schwarber said. “You know, it could have been a totally different story if I was on a different team. Coming into this organization and them believing in me all the way from our front office to our ownership to our coaches.
“It could have been rookie this, rookie that, you do that. It wasn't any of that. It was, you're here to help us win, let's go.”
Still, Maddon said he didn’t feel Schwarber was ready to catch the Cubs’ front-line starters, Lester and Jake Arrieta. He proved so effective as a hitter that the Cubs, again, switched him to left field to keep him with the major league club.
This time, it appears permanent.
After playing six games with the team in late June, he was called up for good on July 17. In just 69 regular-season games, Schwarber had 16 home runs and 43 RBI. He has become a household name this postseason with four home runs and six RBI in seven games.
“We’re a good baseball team and that’s why we’re here,” Schwarber said. “That’s why everyone is here: We’re good baseball players. You can’t think of it as young. We’re baseball players. We know what needs to be done.”
Schwarber has always been the type of athlete who “loves to win” and “hates to lose,” according to his high school baseball coach Jason Cave. That isn’t a useless platitude. Cave can back it up.
A loss didn’t cause Schwarber to go into a table-tossing tantrum like so many driven athletes. Instead, it served to strengthen his determination. At one point during his high school baseball career, Schwarber didn’t think he was fast enough. So after hours of practice or even a game, Schwarber went to speed clinics.
While baseball generally took the majority of Schwarber’s time during the warmer months, he still maintained a regimented workout schedule for football.
He would travel away from Middletown on the weekends but would ask Krause for the keys to the weight room so he could work out early Friday morning. According to Krause, Schwarber took July off from baseball to fulfill his duties as captain of the football team.
“He was a leader and he wanted to be there for his teammates,” Krause said.
Said Cave: “His football recruiting could probably fill three or four shoe boxes and his baseball probably half of one. I was happy he didn’t keep growing or else someone would have gotten one heck of a middle linebacker.”
Schwarber never veered from baseball, though.
Cave, who also credits Middletown feeder coaches Ron Groh and Dan McCullough for Schwarber’s development, took note of his potential early in his recruitment. Middletown was facing a pitcher who drew coaches from several schools in the Midwest. That day Schwarber hit four home runs.
It makes sense to Cave now that he understands Schwarber’s underlying competitiveness. That same determination caused Schwarber, maybe overzealously, to call his own plays in high school. Certainly, it’s the reason he has been such a sensation in these playoffs.
Schwarber is always bigger than the moment.
Even when he hit that monster home run, he put his head down and ran around the bases. He did very little grandstanding. There was more baseball to play. There still is more baseball to play.
In the days since he smashed that home run onto the video board, there has been a debate about its trajectory raging in Chicago. Different people arrive at difference estimates as to how far it would have gone unobstructed.
One thing seems for certain: For the baseball world, it marked the moment Schwarber arrived in earnest.
“You run around the bases and the place is going nuts,” Schwarber said. “That's when it hits you, that this is what it's all about. This is what you live to play baseball for is playing in front of your home crowd in the playoffs."
Seth Gruen recently spent four years at the Chicago Sun-Times covering a variety of sports, including baseball. Before that, he served as the Northwest Herald's Cubs and White Sox beat writer.
Feel free to follow and talk sports with Seth on Twitter @SethGruen.