I never really thought about the next level when I was growing up.
Coming from small-town Indiana all I really cared about was just playing the game and having fun with it. I never imagined baseball would take me around the globe, or I’d have the opportunity to play in the big leagues someday.
Actually, there were only around 80 kids in my high school graduating class. The community was small, close-knit, and I enjoyed every minute of it. All I knew was baseball. It’s what occupied most of my time growing up. For me, life was just about working hard on the field and in the classroom, representing my hometown, and most of all enjoying the process.
Both my Mom and Dad worked late while I was in school and I was too young to drive. I had two options: I could either ride the bus home from school or stay after practice and work until dark. That was easy. I chose to stay close to the field. More often than not I’d be in the gym lifting weights and working on my craft until it was time to go home and eat dinner.
I’ve never considered myself naturally gifted. I’ve had to work for everything.
Man, I was probably the most surprised out of everyone when my game started getting recognized. It wasn’t a lack of faith in myself, I’d just never really thought anything of it.
I started going to high school showcases my sophomore year, mostly because my teammates started doing it and I saw them as just another opportunity to compete and improve my game. I showed out pretty well but life for me was still about going to school, getting ready for the season and having fun.
That April I threw a ball 92 miles per hour. I thought there must’ve been something wrong with the radar gun.
In the midst of all that keeping my nose down and working hard, I’d gotten pretty good, it turned out. From then on I started to get some buzz among MLB scouts and college programs. It was the first time pro sports started to feel like more of a reality and less of a dream.
My junior year I committed to play baseball at the University of Kentucky. Furthering my education was always a goal of mine—the way playing Division I ball has prepared me for the pros is just a bonus, even after a rocky start.
When I got to campus my freshman year it was like an avalanche of culture shock and surprises. I went from being used to going home every night to my parents and a home cooked meal to now living with a roommate and not seeing my family for months on end.
But that’s stuff you’ll experience in college no matter what, even if you don’t play sports.
What was really strange to me was getting used to sitting in lecture halls that were bigger than my whole high school. I grew up in Selma, Indiana where there were only about 800 people in my whole town—now I was sitting in Memorial Hall, the main lecture hall on campus, with hundreds of strangers. It was overwhelming at first.
Getting used to my new environment was hard enough. Before I even got to Kentucky I found out I’d be playing for a brand new head coach. The coaching staff that originally recruited me, who I’d developed a relationship with over the course of a few years, resigned right after I got drafted my senior year of high school. It was unsettling, to say the least.
Now a couple weeks before I’m supposed to be on campus they hire a guy who’s never been a head coach before. I didn’t know what to expect or what to do.
Looking back, it ended up being a good thing for several reasons. It taught me how quickly things can change and how you have to be able to adjust to the unexpected both in life and on the field.
When I got to Lexington I sat down with the new coaches and we discussed the direction of the program. It turned out Coach Mingione had a really great plan for the program, and his new staff had a great track record improving their pitchers’ draft stock—the end game for any college ballplayer.
I still felt a little out of place at first. I was still that kid from small-town Indiana, who’d been taught to keep his head down and work. But that too became harder in college. With increased schoolwork and overall life-load, it was harder to find the time to keep getting in that extra work.
Now I’m at a stage where I have less catching up to do, but at first, it was hard.
Transitioning from high school to college, you’ve got to step your game up. In high school, there might be a couple of guys on the team that take things as serious as you do. In college, everyone’s out for the same job. That means they’re working just as hard if not harder than you are.
Oh yeah, and they’re just as talented.
Playing at Kentucky helped me learn just how many people are competing for the same spot but it’s not just your teammates in high school or college. Everyone across the world is coming for your job. No matter where you come from here in the states there are guys working that don’t have half what you’ve got.
Last summer I got the opportunity to play for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team in Cuba. It was my first time outside the country and the first time I realized just how much competition is truly out there, and how much harder everyone else is working.
After one of our games in Cuba, the other team asked us for donations of any gear we could spare. This was their national team mind you and whether it was our taped up cleats or broken bats, they took anything we could spare.
Seeing where they were from and how little they had was a huge shock to me. With this being my first time outside of the country, I’d never seen an environment like that or people with so little, striving for so much.
That experience reaffirmed the work ethic I’ve always known.
It’s not just a competition among those you grow up playing against at home. You’ve got guys growing up in Latin America where their only way off the island is through playing ball. Everyone wants a shot at that same dream.
For me, whether my ability was there or not yet, it’s always been about believing I belong. I was taught to keep working until your name gets called. You’ve got to be hungry; you can’t expect someone to just hand it to you.
At the same time, that blue-collar mentality is as much about working hard as it is about enjoying the work you do.
Make sure to take a step back every now and then and just enjoy the moment, whatever your aspirations may be. The game changes so much after high school.
Remember that there’s always someone more talented, and there is always someone somewhere working just as hard. But that same tight-knit community aspect of high school ball won’t be there forever.
Appreciate it while you have it.
Zack Thompson | Contributor
LHP, University of Kentucky