Homecoming

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“So, I’m sure you’ve already heard.”

My dad’s home in Marietta, my childhood home near Atlanta, and I already know exactly where he is in the house. Before he says it, I even know what channel he’s watching.

“Yup,” my dad says, “I just turned on the MLB network.”

My dad’s my go-to person in life. Always the first person I call when something big is going down.

I’m driving around Nashville and my phone’s buzzing from incoming texts — literally hundreds of texts, and lots of them from numbers I don’t recognize. My dad’s phone is blowing up too, so we keep the call short. We only talk for about 30 seconds, but I’ll never forget what he said before we hung up.

“God always has a plan. It’s our job to figure out that plan. And that’s the beauty of life.”

*

Let me take you back to when I found out the news. An hour before, it had been a normal day. I was at dinner at BB King’s in Nashville with my girlfriend and some Nike officials who were in town for Winter Meetings. It was still more than two months until I had to report back to the Diamondbacks — in what would be my first full season for a big league organization.

In the middle of dinner, life decided to deal me some new cards. A text came in from a friend.

It just said three words: “Is it true?”

This is last December, right in the swing of trade season, so I knew the “news” could really only mean two things: either the Diamondbacks landed a big-time pitcher … or I was getting traded. After a flurry of calls with my agent, it turned out that both things were true.

The D-backs were getting Shelby Miller. And I was going to the Braves.

When I got the call from my agent, he confirmed it.

“You’re going to Atlanta.”

I don’t think I processed it right away.

I needed a getaway. After dinner, and after I called my dad, I knew exactly where I’d go. I drove to Memorial Gym, the home court of the Vanderbilt basketball team. I parked and went in, knowing I’d have the gym all to myself. It was just me, a basketball and my headphones. When I put my iPod on shuffle, Young Jeezy, the Atlanta-born rapper, came on. It felt like a sign — however small — of my pride in where I’m from. I started to shoot around. One shot after another. I was able to clear my mind and be alone with my thoughts. In between songs, there was just the sound of the ball echoing off the walls of the gym.

A lot of people may not know that I’ve always loved basketball. In fact, basketball has often been my way, my getaway, to refresh my mind and body from baseball.

Shooting around, I thought back about how much has happened in the last year. Last spring, I was still playing college baseball at Vandy. In June, I was drafted by the Diamondbacks. In July, I moved to Arizona. Last fall, I played in a few dozen minor league games for the D-backs organization. I lifted, I trained, and I prepared for my first year with the D-backs organization. (Oh, and somewhere in there, I took a fastball to the face, followed by 14 stitches.) Now, only a few months later…

I was going to the Braves.

It was just hitting me.

I was going back home, to the city that developed me, to where I am standing today.

*

The timing of my trade was ironic, but not for reasons you might think.

In the fall, I was invited back home to my former high school to give a speech to the student body. The title of my speech was “Homecoming.” I was really excited to be able to go back and share a few lessons, and maybe some words of inspiration, with kids who were sitting in the same seat I sat in just five years ago. It was great to be welcomed back by my old teachers: Mrs. Herrero, Principal Taylor, Dr. Colburn, Mrs. DeJarnett and Coach Hall.

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I talked to the students about one of the most important things I had learned in the past few years: recognizing the difference between natural talent and passion. You can only teach “talent” to a certain point, but there’s no ceiling for passion, dedication and enjoyment — whether it’s in sports or other parts of life. I truly believe that. I told the students: natural gifts are important, but only if they uncover our why for what we do. The why is what’s most important to figure out. Our why is what fuels us and helps us discover our purpose in life.

Giving your own advice is easy. Now I was going to have to try to listen to it.

I finished my speech with a challenge. I encouraged them to embrace changes that may lie ahead. I also advised them to stay close with the people who are most important to them. I reminded them not to forget that failure is going to exist on the road to success.

At the time, I had no idea what was in store for me. I never imagined being traded so soon. But now I know that I may as well have been talking to myself in my “Homecoming” speech last fall.

Giving your own advice is easy. Now I was going to have to try to listen to it.

When I was traded, a lot of people brought up the same stat: I was the first #1 draft pick who was traded before the start of the first season.

How did I feel about it? Was I going to embrace becoming the new hometown kid? Everyone wanted to know.

Well, my first thought was instantaneous: it was a dream come true to join the Braves. I also considered it an honor to be traded in a deal for a big-time Major League pitcher.

But more than that, the trade made me reflect on what it actually means to go #1 in the draft.

The truth is, going #1 doesn’t mean all that much.

I’m not just saying that lightly. Of course, it was a big honor. It was humbling. Baseball is the love of my life and making the Majors was always the big goal.

But #1 in the draft doesn’t have any bearing on what you’ll do next.

Here’s another stat: Ken Griffey Jr. is the only #1 draft pick to make it into the Hall of Fame.

Now obviously, I’m not in the same universe as Griffey. But what I mean is, going #1 doesn’t guarantee you anything. The lesson to me is: you can’t live off your draft status, it’s only a starting point.

It’s like if you get an A on your first paper in a class … and then you think you can coast through the rest of the semester. There’s always going to be more tests. You’ve got to keep learning and working to become the best.

I like starting from the bottom again. It gives you the opportunity to embrace the journey to the top.

That’s how I plan to approach my professional career.

I like starting from the bottom again. It gives you the opportunity to embrace the journey to the top. It’s funny how a baseball career goes in cycles: only recently, I was a freshman scrapping for a spot on Vandy’s team. Then, before I knew it, I was a junior on a prestigious college baseball team, trying to win a second national title. Then I got picked #1 in the draft. All of a sudden I was on a minor league team, fighting for a chance to be called up to the Majors, like all of my other teammates.

Top of the totem pole … to the bottom. That’s the beauty of baseball.

I can’t wait for my first big league at-bat at Turner Field, and I hope it’s this year, but right now I’m embracing the lessons of the minors. I’m starting to see how the minors prepare you for the Bigs. You might think the biggest difference between college ball and the pros is pure talent. But more than anything, I’m learning that the difference is consistency.

In baseball, you have to find consistency in the hardest sport to be consistent in. The sport is all about dealing with failure. It’s built into the game. You can’t escape it. Too often, we get lost in results (grades, stat sheets, money, etc.). In life we aren’t perfect, and never will be. As bad as we want to never mess up, we will. In baseball, it’s the same. Even if you’re a great hitter, you’re likely to get out seven times out of ten. You won’t get a hit every time you come up. Maybe in high school you can do it. Maybe in college you can most of the time. But not in the big leagues — that isn’t how baseball operates.

The lesson I’ve taken from that is simple: Work hard. Embrace each moment. And focus on being the best player and person you can be.

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I’m from Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta, just a 30-minute drive from downtown and Turner Field. You may or may not have ever heard of my hometown, but Marietta represents my childhood. It’s everything I knew up to 18 years old. It’s my family. It’s my friends. It’s baseball. My church, my best friends’ houses, my high school, my house — they’re all nearby. Marietta is my pride and joy.

Home truly is where the heart is, and for me, that is both Marietta and Atlanta. These places have built my character and shaped me to be the person I am today. There are so many people that have been influential in my life: parents, siblings, coaches, friends, and many more. I owe a lot of my success and growth to these people.

Atlanta pride runs through my veins. I’m not just talking about sports. If you ask my friends, they’ll tell you that I talk about Atlanta — the city itself — all the time. So much that I think it annoys them sometimes. They often tease me by saying that I’m not even from Atlanta, I’m from Marietta. But if you’re from around here, there’s no real difference.

Atlanta pride runs through my veins. I’m not just talking about sports.

My homecoming is not only about playing for the Braves, it’s about my love for Atlanta. I have so much passion for this city. I want it to be the best it can be — a model for professional athletic success. I want the Braves to help bring prominence to this great community. I hope we — everyone in Atlanta and all the fans — can come together to make this vision a reality. I know we can do it, but it needs to be a community effort. A hometown effort.

To Braves fans, some of you know me, but most of you probably don’t. I can promise you this: I’ll keep playing with the same passion that made Vanderbilt a winning program. I’ll keep bringing the strong sense of work ethic instilled in me by all my mentors and coaches, including James Beavers, the legendary summer ball coach.

As an athlete, I want to win above all. But as a person, I want to be the light I wish to see in this world. I believe that the community you live in is a direct reflection of that light. That means, no one can do it on his or her own.

To my friends from Marietta and Atlanta, I’m sorry I’ve been kind of slow to call and text you back in the last month. It’s been hectic. I swear I will soon.

Hey, Mom and Dad, one last thing. I have a big favor to ask of you. Now that I’m back home, I’m going to adopt a puppy. You know how I’ve always wanted a dog but never had the time or space for one?

When I’m on road trips, will you take him out for walks? I want him to feel comfortable at home.

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The Art of Catching

I’ll never forget May 17, 1998, when David Wells was working on a perfect game and I was behind home plate. Every sign I put down that day, he went right along with me. He probably shook me off four times at the most. I know David claims he was pitching with a big hangover that day, so maybe that had something to do with it.

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