By Gabriel Brison-Trezise
Never in Matt Burdettes 17 years as Kenyons head baseball coach had a Major League Baseball (MLB) team drafted one of his players. Never, that is, until the Baltimore Orioles chose catcher Jack Graham 12 in the 38th round of MLBs First-Year Player Draft last June.
You just feel proud, Burdette said, kind of like a parent when your kids do something really cool, and youre just really happy for them.
When round 38 began there are 40 rounds total Graham had just finished a workout and was following the drafts progress on his phone. When I saw my name come up on the Draft Tracker, it blew me away. I fell out of my seat, Graham said. It was more of a hope-beyond-hope than it was an expectation.
It took Graham all of four days to sign with the Orioles. His signing bonus was $1,000, a far cry from the multi-million-dollar bonuses many first-rounders received but fairly typical for late-round picks.
He then reported to the teams rookie-level Gulf Coast League (GCL) affiliate, the GCL Orioles six levels below the majors for which he played through August, when their season ended.
By signing with the Orioles, Graham not only joined the elite ranks of professional baseball players; he also joined the highly selective group of Kenyon student-athletes who have gone on to play sports professionally, more of whom will be profiled in coming issues.
For a Division-III baseball player to be drafted, he has to beat exceedingly long odds. Last years draft class of 1,238 individuals included only 12 Division-III players. Graham was the lone pick from the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC). What made him stand out to Major League clubs, according to Burdette, was his extraordinary defensive skill.
Jack was an unbelievably good defensive catcher, Burdette said. By far his biggest strength was his defensive prowess, the way he threw the ball, the way he blocked the ball. I watched Jack completely derail an offenses running game with the first throw of the game.
Grahams statistics bear out Burdettes praise: he led both Kenyon and the GCL Orioles in fielding percentage last year, committing only one error in total.
Pitcher Tyler Dierke 13, for whom Graham caught for two years, also noted Grahams defensive excellence. Without a good catcher there, youre afraid to do things as a pitcher like throw a ball in the dirt, Dierke said. But he added, [Graham] was pretty stubborn in his ways. He liked to call the game with me in a certain way that got us into trouble sometimes.
When Graham arrived in Gambier as a first year in 2008, he was out of shape and a bit chubby, according to Burdette. He was put at backup catcher.
A year later, Graham transferred to California State University, San Marcos to be nearer to his family. There, Graham did not play much or particularly well. Since the less rigorous academic environment did not suit him either, Graham transfered back to Kenyon before his junior year.
His year away proved to be of some value, though. Out west, Graham adopted an effective training regimen. He returned to Kenyon a better-conditioned athlete with a quicker bat.
Graham started behind the plate for the Lords in his junior and senior years and finished with the fourth-most home runs in program history.
While Grahams exceptional skills alone piqued the interest of several major league clubs, he also benefited from a family connection: Brian Graham, Jacks uncle, is a veteran employee of the Orioles player development department.
Theres no question that he played a role, Graham said of his uncles effect on his selection. Baseball is all about getting seen and having an opportunity, and Im lucky enough to have had an opportunity through him to get seen by a pro team.
Graham batted .312 with 12 home runs at Kenyon. In the GCL, however, he struggled mightily on offense, batting just .118 and striking out in nearly half of his at-bats. At least some of Grahams offensive troubles in the GCL are attributable to the much stronger pitching he faced there.
In Division III, youre unlikely to see a guy throw 90 miles an hour your whole season, he said, but when you show up to pro ball, youre unlikely to see anybody throw below 90 all season.
Adapting to vastly better pitching is going to be a very difficult piece in the puzzle for [Graham], Burdette said.
To supplement his Orioles salary in the offseason, Graham worked at Starbucks and a baseball training facility in Fairfield, Conn., his hometown. Though many people may not realize it, minor leaguers nearly always have to work offseason jobs to make ends meet, he wrote in a follow-up email.
On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Graham headed back to the Orioles training complex in Sarasota, Fla. Although he hopes to make it to the major leagues some day, for now spring training is Grahams main focus. The Lords baseball team will also begin its season in Florida; its spring-break trip to the Sunshine State has become a program tradition. Burdette is hoping to reunite the Lords and their former starting catcher at some point during the teams travels.
I cant wait to see all of them, Graham said. The bond you build with your teammates is stronger than any you can build outside of your family.
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