Mine That Bird was a baseball player that I once knew. Not much physically, he never stood out, but he could play. I saw that right away when he practiced with his team, but you needed an eye for the game to see it — and I’ll be immodest and admit I had one. Not many people did, except for his coaches and his parents, who’d watch him take ground ball after ground ball with an uncanny ability to get his body into position to field smoothly. But next to the studs that dominated the game at every level that he played, from youth travel teams through high school, he’d get lost in the crowd. There was always someone that pushed him to the fringes; for example, that stud with a cannon — never mind he didn’t have the easy actions of MTB– that got the job done at that level. But MTB, I always thought, had more. He had the stuff that would translate to the “next level,” but it wasn’t what the coaches looked for in high school — they wanted to win now, and size mattered.
His hands were softer than those of most high schoolers, and he could throw from various arm slots like a college player, but I remember his coach telling someone that he preferred another kid over him because the kid was bigger and stronger, even though this kid had none of MTB’s quickness and ability to pounce, field, move through the ball, and throw. By his junior year in high school MTB did find some suitors — college recruiters who could see what he had in projection. No, he didn’t get the big-time offer from Miami or Arizona, and Virgina and Vanderbilt passed, though he did have the grades, but a mid-level East Coast Div. 1 program offered a letter of intent in the November of his senior year that guaranteed him a 25 percent scholly and a chance to keep playing.
As a freshman, MTB sat, except for a few plate appearances and some late-innings defense. It was a replay of high school, where he’d spent most of his time on the pine until a junior. He played in a collegiate league way off the beaten path that summer, but he caught the eyes of a few scouts for fielding skills and his dedication to the game. Sophomore year, MTB got more playing time, and he made the most of it: A .995 fielding percentage, .376 batting average, and .439 on-base percentage. The numbers helped him– by the skin of his teeth — get into the prestigious Cape Cod League, where one in six players gets into professional ball. Those scouts had remembered.
MTB was lights out on the Cape, and his team had a dream season and won the championship that summer. MTB, who made the Cape All Star team, started half the games that he played in and hit .350 against top-drawer pitching and made only one questionable error.
He had another outstanding season his junior year in college, and by draft day in June he was a live mid-round draft prospect, with the lack of size still the issue and the reason he wasn’t considered higher. He was taken in the 12th round by an East Coast team and sent to Florida for rookie ball, where I had a chance to see him play at Disney. And what I saw was the same player I’d seen all those years ago, the same kid who’d never given up when others hadn’t believed in him, the same kid who’d chased his dream all the way to the Gulf Coast League. But now he was under the tutelage of people who believed in him. Against long odds, he’d made it to professional ball.
Against longer odds, MTB made it to the MLB four years later. I was switching from game to game when I saw a familiar blur on the screen that made me flip back — and I saw him charge a slow roller, make the quick transfer, and throw on the run, off the wrong foot, to gun the runner out. What a thrill!