SPRINGFIELD — On his first day as a big-leaguer, four years after helping lead the Kenton Ridge High School baseball team to the state championship game, Adam Eaton arrived early for work.
The Arizona Diamondbacks’ team bus was leaving at 10:30 a.m. Eaton showed up at 10:05, as eager as the fan who lines up days ahead of time to buy Opening Day tickets in Cincinnati.
Only this time, Eaton didn’t need a ticket.
“I’m not missing this bus,” Eaton thought.
Eaton found a seat five or six rows back, and the players started filing past him, veterans such as Willie Bloomquist, young stars such as Justin Upton and Chris Young. Then the biggest guy on the team, one of the largest men in baseball, Wily Mo Pena, approached.
The 5-foot-9 Eaton had never met the 6-3, 270-pound Pena, a former Red. That didn’t deter Pena from befriending one of the smallest players on the team, a player who was still roaming centerfield for the Miami RedHawks a year ago at this time.
“He put his big, bare arm around me and said, ‘You hang with me, brother. I’ll take care of you,’ ” Eaton said Wednesday from a hotel room at spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He showed me the ropes. He showed me what to do, where to go, how not to get lost. You’re really on your own there. Nobody’s telling you what to do like in the minor leagues. Wily Mo Pena took care of me. He’s a huge guy. I’m the smallest guy in the ballpark that day.”
A great month
Maybe one day Eaton will repay the favor to a young rookie. The day might not be that far away.
Eaton got a taste of the big leagues in spring training, a sip of the cup of coffee. For seven games, he helped fill the Diamondbacks’ lineup when they were playing split-squad games against other Major League clubs.
The promotion — even though it was temporary — surprised Eaton. The Diamondbacks never sat him down to explain why they chose him, but they obviously wanted to reward one of their top prospects, a 19th-round draft pick last June who performed like a first-rounder. Last summer, Eaton hit .385 with an on-base percentage of .500 with the Missoula Osprey, a Rookie Level team in the Pioneer League. He hit seven home runs and stole 20 bases. He was runner-up in league MVP voting.
This season, he will play for the Diamondbacks’ Single-A Advanced club in the California League, the Visalia Rawhide. Eaton left Arizona on Saturday for Visalia. Their season starts Thursday.
“I’m excited,” Eaton said. “It’s a hitter’s ballpark. It’s a hitter’s league. I’m excited to get going. I’ve just got to give everything I’ve got every game, every at-bat, every pitch.”
If Eaton’s April mirrors his March, he’ll reach the Double-A Mobile Bears in no time.
Last month, Kenton Ridge honored Eaton by putting his name on a sign on the outfield fence at Tom Randall Field. He joined the exclusive company of former big leaguers Dave Burba, Rick White and Dustin Hermanson and Ohio State head coach Greg Beals, the other former Cougars to get drafted.
“The sign on the fence, that’s just icing on the cake,” Eaton said. “I love being from Kenton Ridge. I’m really honored to be on the fence. Growing up outside Northridge on Sandalwood Avenue, knowing the guys who played for Kenton Ridge, who made a name for themselves, I was in awe of the guys on the signs.”
An even bigger award followed. Last Wednesday, the Diamondbacks named Eaton the winner of the Aurelio Rodriguez Award, an honor given to the Diamondbacks minor leaguer who shows character on and off the field.
“It’s one of the biggest awards I’ve ever received,” Eaton said.
Eaton’s thrilling month began as soon as he arrived at spring training in early March.
He entered the Diamondbacks’ facility looking for his locker. Players are grouped according to what class they’re expected to play at in the upcoming season. Eaton first checked the Low Single-A area, where many of his former Missoula teammates, now expected to play in South Bend, were stationed. He checked the Visalia area. His name wasn’t there either.
Finally, he found his locker. The Diamondbacks had placed him with Double-A players.
“Being a 19th-round pick, you don’t get much handed to you,” Eaton said, “so I was thrilled to be working with the Double-A guys.”
That was just the beginning. Not long after his arrival in Scottsdale, Eaton found out he would get a chance to put on a Major League uniform. His dad Glenn Eaton remembers the conversation when Adam — still known as “Spanky” or “Spank” by family and friends because of his resemblance to the “Little Rascals” character when he was little — called his parents in Springfield with the news.
“Guess who’s dressing in the major league game tomorrow,” Adam said.
“Who?” Glenn asked.
“OK, Spank, we’re on our way.”
A great experience
Glenn and Robin Eaton flew to Arizona to see Adam enter a game against the Rockies as an eighth-inning substitution for Chris Young in center field.
“It was surreal,” Glenn said. “There were the major leaguers we watch on TV, and there Adam is, rubbing elbows with them. Really, we kept getting him confused with the bat boy. No, he looks good in a major league uniform.”
Eaton felt good, too, thanks to Pena’s efforts, and the white uniform pants — the envy of every minor leaguer in camp — didn’t hurt.
“That’s always the big thing in the minors,” Eaton said. “When you’re with your specific team in spring training, you’re always wearing gray pants. The managers wear whites. The coaches were wear whites. The big-league guys wear whites.”
On March 17, Eaton got his first at-bat with the Diamondbacks and lined into a double play to end the game. He hit it hard, though, and impressed manager Kirk Gibson, who hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history — a walk-off shot in the World Series against the A’s — seven weeks before Eaton was born in 1988.
“You hit that ball hard,” Gibson told Eaton. “I’m proud of you. I like the way you swing.”
The next day, Eaton doubled and struck out against Mariners veteran Jamey Wright. A day after that, his marvelous March peaked with a two-run home run off Reds reliever Logan Ondrusek. Glenn Eaton was so excited he posted the news twice on his Facebook page. Kenton Ridge assistant coach Scott Zerkle urged him to post it a few more times. That’s not the type of news you grow tired of.
“The fastball was right down the middle,” Adam said, “and I stayed on it. I hit it to left-center, and I was running like the wind, not looking, just running as fast as I can. Halfway around first, I realized it was gone. It was a great experience.”
Eaton gained more than playing experience. He got to talk to players like Young, Upton and Bloomquist, picking their brains when he could. He also met Arizona’s Triple-A manager Brett Butler, a 5-10 center fielder who spent 17 seasons in the big leagues. Before he was drafted, scouts often compared Eaton to Butler.
Eaton even some time in the Diamondbacks’ video room, studying his at-bats and how pitchers had thrown to him.
“It’s so much more in-depth in the big leagues,” Eaton said. “So many little things go on with the game of baseball I didn’t even realize. There’s so much more to learn to get to the next level.
One thing he has perfected is his autograph stroke. It’s hard to imagine the outgoing Eaton, who was poised in interviews even as a freshman at Kenton Ridge, ever getting tired of signing for the fans.
“Every time I go, I sign until there’s no balls left to be signed,” he said. “I have a book that I write in, and I wrote in it, ‘Sign for the kids.’ Even though I’m a minor leaguer, I know it’s making their day. I really enjoy that.”
Often he has to remind fans who he is — or rather who he isn’t. Another Adam Eaton, a pitcher, finished a 10-year career in 2009 and is still fresh in fans’ minds. Springfield’s Adam Eaton still has a long road ahead to make the name his, but he’s on the right track.
“I just tell them I’m the shorter Adam Eaton,” he said.
Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0351 or email@example.com.
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