Paul DeJong Is Breakout MLB Star Thanks in Part to Man Serving 4 Years in Prison

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 4, 2017

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 25: Paul DeJong #11 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a two-run home run against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning at Busch Stadium on July 25, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It was the day before the 2015 draft began, the day before some team was going to give the most unlikely pre-med student at Illinois State University the chance to take another step toward his dream.

Plenty of kids have a backup plan in case medical school falls through. For Paul DeJong, medical school was the backup plan. Baseball was always the first choice, and it was baseball that had him driving 2 1/2 hours down Interstate 55 to Busch Stadium on that Sunday in early June.

He couldn't actually work out, because of a broken left thumb, but the St. Louis Cardinals asked him to come down to shake hands and talk.

Tom Lipari, the area scout who liked DeJong so much, was there. So was John Mozeliak, then the Cardinals general manager and now the club's president of baseball operations.

And Chris Correa.

"He seemed like he was pretty smart," DeJong said.

Smart or not, he was pretty important to a college kid hoping to get drafted. Correa was the Cardinals scouting director, the guy who would make the picks. And when the Cardinals used their fourth-round pick on DeJong two days later, it was Correa's call to take him in the only draft he would ever run.

"He's really a bright kid," Correa told Rob Rains of STL Sports Page that day.

He's a bright kid, and he's turned into quite a baseball player, too. Not even two years after the draft, DeJong was in the major leagues with the Cardinals this May. He just turned 24 on Wednesday, he's playing every day at shortstop, and he's batting third for a Cardinals team that still has hopes of making a run at a playoff spot in the National League—and he was just named National League Rookie of the Month for July.

He's the first Cardinals rookie to play short and bat third since Red Schoendienst in 1945. He hit more home runs in his first 53 major league games (14) than any Cardinal in history other than Albert Pujols. His 13 home runs since his most recent call-up June 15 are tied for the second most in the majors behind only Giancarlo Stanton.

He won't be going to medical school, at least not any time soon.

Oh, and Chris Correa, the scouting director who called DeJong's name in the draft?

He was fired a month later when an investigation showed he had hacked into the Houston Astros' computer system. He pled guilty to five criminal charges, was permanently banned from baseball and sentenced to 46 months in prison. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, he's serving his time at FCI Cumberland in Cumberland, Maryland, with a release date of Dec. 31, 2018.


Correa was responsible for making DeJong a Cardinal, but it was Lipari who scouted DeJong at Illinois State and emphatically made DeJong's case in predraft meetings.

Chris Correa is in prison now, but in 2015 he was the Cardinals scouting director who made the call to draft DeJong.
Chris Correa is in prison now, but in 2015 he was the Cardinals scouting director who made the call to draft DeJong.Bob Levey/Associated Press

"I ended up speaking for quite some time," Lipari, a former college coach who was in his first year scouting, said. "Not only on the physical strengths of Paul, but the type of person he was. And of course, we had cross-checkers and analysts who thought highly of Paul as well. Total team effort."

DeJong remained on the board through the first three rounds of the draft, and at some point Correa had Lipari call and ask if DeJong would consider signing for fourth-round money. DeJong, a junior in eligibility but graduating senior academically, quickly said he would (he eventually got a $200,000 bonus).

It didn't matter that he was graduating with a 3.76 GPA, or that he had been as serious as any other pre-med about his academics.

"Paul was an incredibly hard-working student," said Dr. Christopher G. Hamaker, who had DeJong in a first-year chemistry class.

But medical school had always been a backup plan. Being a doctor sounded cool, but playing professional baseball was his first choice.

The question was whether he'd get a chance. Not only did DeJong go undrafted out of high school, but no college offered him an athletic scholarship. He considered going to Wisconsin, which didn't have a baseball team, but chose Illinois State after coaches showed interest in having him walk on.

"That's what it seems to come down to for me," DeJong said. "I've struggled to get opportunities. Once I finally get it, I take advantage. That's my whole life. I was never considered the elite player. I just quietly wait my turn, and then never look back."

After his third year at Illinois State, the Pittsburgh Pirates chose him in the 38th round of the draft. DeJong didn't sign, but he did decide professional baseball would be his next step. He kept up his challenging academic program—Biochem 2 was particularly tough, he said—but baseball became the priority.

DeJong wasn't a shortstop then. He was a second baseman, third baseman and an occasional catcher. He was catching when a foul tip broke his thumb.

"A lot of teams probably freaked out," DeJong said.

Fortunately for him, and for them, the Cardinals didn't.


The road from fourth-round draft pick to starting shortstop batting third was a quick one, but it wasn't direct. DeJong played third base after he signed and for most of last season at Double-A Springfield. He didn't move to shortstop until last July, but the Cardinals thought enough of his offense and defense to send him to the Arizona Fall League to play the position.

He came to the big leagues in late May as a second baseman when Kolten Wong got hurt. He moved to shortstop in late June because he was hitting and Aledmys Diaz wasn't.

He waited his turn. At least so far, he hasn't looked back.

"I see an aggressiveness with the first step, and I like the way the ball is carrying across the infield, too," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I just like what he's doing, the way he's going about it defensively."

And, of course, he's hitting.

There could be some concerns because DeJong had 63 strikeouts and just eight walks in his first 54 major league games. Cardinal fans, who have seen some other youngsters get off to good starts before struggling, want to be sure the same won't happen with DeJong.

The Cardinals have been impressed with DeJong's play at shortstop.
The Cardinals have been impressed with DeJong's play at shortstop.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

For now, the team says it's not concerned.

"If you hit the ball hard, good things will happen," Mozeliak said.

DeJong has hit the ball hard. Of Cardinals players with at least 100 plate appearances this season, MLB.com's Statcast says DeJong has the highest average exit velocity, at 97.9 mph.


Matheny knows DeJong's background, but he said his shortstop looks like a ballplayer and not like a science student who lost his way and ended up at the field. And DeJong can still talk chemistry, especially with his grandmother, who worked 30 years at Dow Chemical. He still keeps in touch with some of his professors at Illinois State.

Thoughts of medical school are behind him now.

"It would be tough," DeJong said. "The biggest challenge would be the MCATs. And the workload is way more than in college. There's no way you could do medical school and play baseball."

Besides, those reasons he wanted to be a doctor in the first place kind of apply to baseball, too.

"I liked math, but I didn't want to write, and I didn't want to read," he said. "I had an uncle who was a doctor. He was always fishing or hunting, and he made a lot of money. I thought, This is a good thing to go into."

He's into baseball now, the first player from that Correa draft to make the big leagues (though outfielder Harrison Bader has since followed). He's the only current major league shortstop out of that 2015 draft now that the Atlanta Braves have sent Dansby Swanson to the minor leagues and the Houston Astros have moved Alex Bregman to third base.

And maybe, just maybe, that chemistry background has played a part.

"I knew he would succeed in baseball because of his work ethic," Hamaker said. "I knew that if he put as much work into baseball as he did into his biochemistry studies he'd play in the majors."

And maybe there was another thing, too.

"He's used to experiments failing in the lab and having to adjust," said Burton Rocks, DeJong's agent. "His background scares some people off because they think chemistry and baseball don't go together. But they do, in a tangential way."

DeJong and baseball go together in a pretty obvious way. Lipari understood that, perhaps a little more than any of the other scouts who were watching.

He made his case. And the guy headed for prison made the right call.

           

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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