MLB: The Pride of The Valley (And, A New Promise)

lockejpg_originalWith the return of the greatest game on Earth comes a commitment from me, to you.

I blogged on a regular, nearly-weekly basis for at the end of high school and the first couple years of college. I’ve decided it’s time to get back to that and share my thoughts on baseball with you every week.

Each Monday throughout the season there will a blog on baseball in this space. I’m attempting to model it somewhat after Buster Olney’s daily blog on ESPN.com (a big-picture take, followed by links), except that I’ll be doing mine weekly.

This is for real, people. I’m going to do this, even if it kills me. You will get fresh takes from me every week. If I don’t, get at me about it.

In case you missed it, here is my annual American League preview, which doesn’t contain many predictions but just a general feel for each club.

For my first edition, I figured I would share something very few people have seen that seems particularly timely given some recent happenings.

As many of you know, I played baseball from T-ball through my senior year at Kennett High School in Conway, N.H. During my last three years at KHS, I played with Jeff Locke, one of the greatest baseball talents to ever come out of the Granite State.

Last Wednesday, news came down that Jeff, who made his MLB debut in September 2011, had won a spot in the Pirates’ starting rotation after a spring training competition.

I can only imagine how proud people were up in North Conway following the news, especially for his mom, dad, two sisters and all of his immediate and extended family.

Jeff was certainly born with talent, but I can tell you from experience he worked so hard from an extremely young age to live out his dream. To see him get rewarded for that work is nothing short of exhilarating.

Jeff and I were very close those three years, and the year after when I was a part-time coach at the high school. Although I didn’t have anywhere close to Jeff’s ability on the field, we shared a fierce, intense passion for baseball that we didn’t see in many other people around us.

I slept over his house countless times, gave him rides to school before he had his license and trekked with him all over the state to play the game we loved. More often than not, we won, and won big.

There was a weekend, several weeks before the start of one of our seasons, when Jeff wanted to play catch. His boyhood home was feet from the car dealership where his dad worked. We walked over to a back lot behind the dealership and amidst tall snow banks and a dusting of snow on the pavement, I tossed the baseball back and forth with a future big leaguer.

Over the years, when people would ask me if I thought Jeff would make it to the Majors someday, I’d tell them I didn’t think he’d make it, I knew he’d make it. How did I know? Because of days like that January or February morning in Redstone, when our footsteps left snowy impressions on cold pavement, when no amount of snow or cold would keep Jeff from working to attain his dream.

After Jeff’s made the Pirates’ rotation last week, I dug out a paper I wrote for my creative nonfiction class during my freshman year of college. From what I can tell it was written in April 2006, just as Jeff’s memorable senior season at KHS got underway.

I can’t recall specifically what the assignment was, but I interviewed Jeff and one of his fellow players for it. It’s interesting to look back on that time now, a few months before he’d be drafted in the second round by the Braves, a few years before his trade to the Pirates, a few more years before his MLB debut and more years still before Wednesday’s great news.

I present, in full, the paper I wrote about Jeff as he stood on the precipice of a professional baseball career. Enjoy. I’ll be back with the first regular edition of this blog next Monday.

***

           It is just another day, another game, and another inning for Jeff Locke. Staked to a fairly decent lead by his Kennett High Eagles teammates in this baseball game, Locke, the tall, slender senior with raven-black hair and a very serious demeanor at the moment, heads out to the pitcher’s mound for the bottom of the fourth inning. His opponents today, the host Oyster River High Bobcats of Durham, New Hampshire, send up their first batter to face Locke. The sun beams down brightly, the way it should on an April day meant for baseball. The wind blows dusty swirls from the infield dirt into the faces of a few hundred onlookers, admittedly not a typical amount for a regular season high school baseball game anywhere in New Hampshire. Many on these sidelines are friends and family of those playing in the game today, while others are there just to see the boy on the pitching rubber: Locke. About a dozen middle-aged men in windbreakers and slacks stand behind the backstop, holding up radar guns as Locke gets set to throw his first pitch of the inning. They’ve been sent here to watch this kid they have heard so much about, and they cannot miss a second of the show Locke is putting on.

           The first hitter for Oyster River seems horribly overmatched, a common sentiment for many of the hitters having to face the left-handed Locke on this breezy Wednesday afternoon. He winds up and releases the ball with incredible force, yet it almost seemed effortless. The baseball darts through the air and over the strike zone, into the glove of his catcher, Rob Knox. Bewildered, the hitter doesn’t move his bat as the home plate umpire signals “strike.” This exact scenario is repeated on the next pitch, the scouts clocking Locke’s velocity as his pitch comes in. With the count no balls and two strikes, Locke fires a fastball outside the strike zone that the hitter flails hopelessly at with his bat, followed by a long walk back to his bench. The second batter fares only slightly better, actually making contact with Locke’s second offering by fouling it back and later lifting a lazy pop fly, landing safely in the glove of center fielder Matt Fall.

           Expressionless, Locke walks off the back of the mound after the play, and licks his fingers so he can gain a better grip on the ball for what he hopes to be the final hitter of the inning. Kennett’s shortstop, Chris Donovan, yells words of encouragement from behind, “Stay up, Jeff!” After a couple of pitches, the batter hits a weak dribbler down the first base line, fielded cleanly by first baseman Sam Glynn. He touches the bag to end another easy inning for Locke and the Eagles. They stream off the field and back onto the bench for the top half of the fifth, each of them knowing their huge advantage because of the lefty with the number 11 on his back.

           Everyday is a test for Jeff Locke. Life as a teenager in a small northern New Hampshire town would seem to be simple enough, but not for Locke. The senior from Redstone, New Hampshire was born with an innate power that separates him from everyone at Kennett High School in Conway, and just about every young man in the state. Locke has played baseball his entire life; it’s what he eats, sleeps and breathes. And the combination of his love for the game, his dedication to hard work, and his natural talents have afforded him the ability to throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, which a good majority of current Major League Baseball pitchers cannot do. As a result, Locke is the only student athlete in New Hampshire’s high schools that is being heavily considered for entry into the professional ranks of sports.

           Last summer, Locke was named the New Hampshire High School Baseball Player of the Year by Manchester’s Union Leader, the most prominent newspaper in the state. He’s been contacted by 29 of the 30 Major League teams, and has had over a dozen representatives from those teams visit his small home in Redstone. Locke already has an agent, one that represents Major League stars Dontrelle Willis and Scott Rolen amongst others. Everyday, Locke takes and fields phone calls from scouts, journalists, and his agent concerning when next he will pitch for the Kennett Eagles, and how he feels about his prospects for the MLB Free Agent Entry Draft this coming June. While all this is going on, Locke has to try and live out his long-anticipated senior year at Kennett, and maintain some semblance of a normal life. He feels invariably that he has handled the pressure well, and he relies so much on his parents and family to bring him along.

           Locke was born on November 20, 1987 in North Conway, New Hampshire to his parents, Pam and Alan. He has two grown sisters, Corie and Cindy, both with young children. “I guess I better get a move on it,” Locke sarcastically remarked in regards to his own prospects for having kids. It didn’t take long for Locke to fall in love with baseball after he started playing, which he estimates happened around the age of four or five. “I would wake up early and head to the field and not step off it until dinner was ready or if the sun went down.” Locke starred on his Little League team, the North Conway Royals, for four seasons. Observers and fellow players from surrounding towns and teams began to take notice of the young lefty that was doing things no one else his age, or even years older, was doing.

           “Other people realized I had special talents before I actually did myself,” recalled Locke when discussing that earliest stage of his baseball career. “I think that the special talents were realized in my first and second years in Little League, when I was throwing progressively harder than everyone in the league, and younger than most of them.” After continuing to develop both on the mound and at the plate during two dominating years for Kennett Junior High, Locke made Coach Bob Burns’ Kennett High School varsity squad as a freshman, which Locke described as a “rush.” Locke continued to be a dominant force for Kennett, and has amassed an incredible 28-2 win/loss record through his junior season, and also leading his team in average and homers last year. Last June, he was named co-captain for the 2006 campaign, which for most high school players is the pinnacle of their baseball efforts. But for Locke, the honor he is most proud of was being named “New Hampshire Player of the Year” for 2005 by the Union Leader.

           As Locke’s ability and talent expanded as his body continued to develop and mature during his high school career, so also grew his stature and reputation as something special in baseball. All his life, Locke dreamed of being a Major League player, so he began to take steps towards turning those dreams into reality. Knowing the small confines of the Mount Washington Valley were not going to be enough to help him realize his Major League dreams, Locke accepted an offer from the Plymouth American Legion team to play summer baseball after his sophomore year at Kennett. Getting a chance to play alongside the best young talent from all of northern New Hampshire allowed him to show off his considerable abilities to a much more sizeable audience. “The ‘getting major attention’ thing started after my first summer playing in Plymouth,” meaning that professional and college scouts began to come knocking on his door after seeing this young lefty strike out established hitters three and four years his senior. “Everybody wanted to know [me] and it has only gotten worse.

           “Directly, as in at my house, I have met with the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, Brewers, Reds, Phillies, Royals, Devil Rays, Marlins, Blue Jays, White Sox, Indians, and the Twins,” said Locke when addressing what teams have shown the most interest in his services. Representatives from every Major League team except the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics were present at the first Kennett game of 2006 alone. “The Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox have impressed me the most.” According to Locke, the Braves seemed most impressed with his talents, compounded by what he called an “infatuation” that the franchise has with high school pitchers.

           Along with all the attention, Locke has to face difficulties everyday in regards to protecting himself and his family. “Everybody says something about you now,” Locke pointed out emphatically when describing his current situation, “to the point where you will hear five different things about you a day and none of them are true. Everybody wants something but the problem is that everybody wants something for free. And nothing anymore is for free.”

           The pressures and expectations that Locke faces all the time have been tenuous, but by pacing himself he has not allowed it to consume his life. “I’d be lying if I said there was no pressure 24/7,” he said. “It sucks sometimes. It does get overwhelming sometimes but for the most part you just have to tuck it under your hat and do your job. I love pressure, though. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and say ‘What’s going on?’ It’s really tough sometimes, but you know what? I’m having the time of my life.” To him, with all that is going on, being a senior in high school is “the easy part,” because of a reduced workload and is excited to see where the rest of the year takes him.

           When talking about his success and his drive to be a Major League pitcher, Locke never fails to mention his parents as the most important people in helping make his dreams into reality. “My parents have been as supportive as anyone could have been,” he said. “They’ve been there for me every step I’ve taken during my process to complete the unbelievable dream. I would have nothing right now if it was not for the support of my parents. They deserve as much credit as I do… My biggest influences in baseball have been my father and mother. They want me to make it more than anyone in the world.”

           Having his parents there for support has been terrific for Locke, because what he has gone through to this point and is still ahead will certainly not be easy. It is the general consensus, after many years of trials and research, that a majority of high school pitchers drafted by Major League clubs either never make it out of the minor leagues or do not have success once they get to the Majors. Today, many teams avoid high school pitchers in the draft and look towards more seasoned college players, ones that have faced a better overall sample of baseball talent compared to what Locke faces each time he takes the hill. But the scouts know what real talent is when they see it. Despite the fact that Locke has done most of his work against other public school players, these scouts would not have paid so much attention to Locke if they did not feel his talent was Major League-appropriate now.

           The player closest to Locke right now and over the years is his battery mate, Rob Knox. Knox, who has been playing with and catching Locke for the better part of the last ten springs, sees the tall lefty as not just a ballplayer and a friend, but as someone that carries the complete package to be a fine professional player. “He’s such an athlete,” said Knox. “He gives it his all, and he’s a real competitor. Jeff’s also a good kid and teammate.” Knox will himself be playing football and baseball at Norwich University in Vermont next year. “I hope Jeff succeeds. He’s got the ability, and I think he has qualities that would fit at the next level.”

           Locke is trying to focus right now on being the best player and leader he can be for the Kennett Eagles. “Kennett Baseball in 2006 will be a solid year,” he said when talking about the team he has given his heart and soul to for four years. “As for a state championship I’d like to hope so, but the past three years I’ve called on and never made it out of the 2nd round. But what I can promise you is that every player on the field will give it 110% all the time or they’ll find somewhere else to play.” Locke will be preparing for another playoff run when Draft Day rolls around on June 6, when he hopes to be getting that long-awaited call from an MLB team.

           “On June 6, I’m not looking for anything I don’t feel I’m worth,” Locke said when thinking about his expectations for the draft. “I think that it hopefully will be a great day for me and my family and friends. If I do not get chosen I am going to go to Chipola College in Marianna, Florida for a year and then hop back into the draft. I want to play professional baseball.” Chipola College, located on Florida’s Panhandle, is a nationally-renowned junior college for young baseball players, and has been the proving ground for dozens of Major League draftees like Adam Loewen (currently the top pitching prospect in the Baltimore Orioles organization) and Russell Martin (currently the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top catching prospect). By creating this safety net, Locke knows that should his foray into the Draft not work out this time around, the path towards his goal will go on.

           “My long term goal is to make it to the Show,” said Locke, referring to the glamorous spotlight of playing in the Major Leagues. Despite his talent, Locke also is aware of the work he’ll still have to do in order to get there. “I know I’m going to have to bust my ass everyday and do everything I can, because I have talked to a lot of ex-MLB’ers and they say it’s an everyday-every second process. All that I know is that I want to go to the place where little boys never grow up: The Bigs.”

           The Show doesn’t seem to be of the greatest interest to Locke as the game against Oyster River wears on. With a man on in the top of the sixth, and with a big lead in the game already, Locke is at the plate facing a pitcher throwing a good 15 mph slower than what he himself has dealt all day. After trying to work around the intimidating left-handed hitter, the Oyster River pitcher makes a grave error and tosses Locke a fastball right in the middle of the strike zone. Locke swings unmercifully and drills the ball deep over the right fielder’s head. There is no fence at this field, so the ball rolls almost onto Coe Drive, perhaps close to 500 feet from home plate. By the time the Oyster River fielders can reach the ball, Locke has already sped to third base and can jog home, a rare sight for an inside-the-park home run.

           This incredible show of strength affirms the fact that whenever Locke takes the field, he is on a totally different plane than his any of his colleagues. This is why the scouts are here, and why baseball people from coast to coast know the name Jeff Locke, the kid with a big smile, a big heart, and a big fastball from a small town of a couple thousand people. This is why baseball franchises, wanting so badly to field great teams people will watch, will go to the farthest reaches of America, and the world, to find any baseball talent, because that one player they might not pay attention to could beat them in Game 7 of the World Series. When a ballplayer can throw more than 90 mph, or can hit a baseball near 500 feet, people who pay those players money will, and must, take notice. This is why Jeff Locke knows he can be a professional baseball player; as long as he keeps his talents in tact and continues to be blessed with good health, Major League teams will continue to court his services. And if Locke gets what he feels he is due, one of the 30 teams in the Majors will have Locke in their farm system perhaps as early as this summer.

           After setting down the Bobcats in the bottom of the sixth, Locke is relieved for the seventh, the last inning for high school games in New Hampshire. The final pitching line for Locke on the day seems incredible but is only ordinary for him: six innings, one hit, one walk, one run allowed and eleven strikeouts. But when reflecting on his outing afterwards, the genial and gregarious Locke deflected the credit off himself and towards the people around him.

           “I felt good,” Locke stated simply, “I felt good and strong, and confident with my defense behind me. This year we have a lot of seniors, and the truth is that there are three outfielders that know what they are doing out there. We look good, but now I guess all I have to worry about is my next start.”

***

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s