Major Leaguers face same obstacles as high schoolers

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GREEN COVE SPRINGS - With area high school athletes contemplating an opportunity for a May return to spring sports action; baseball, softball, tennis, weightlifting, Major League Baseball and a handful of Clay County stalwarts are facing the same dilemmas with regard to preparation and readiness during the Coronavirus national dilemma.

"We were six weeks into spring training then all of a sudden had to shut it down," said former Clay High standout pitcher Kyle Bird, now a part of the MLB Texas Rangers organization. "The future is unpredictable. It's so much more than baseball though. The whole country is getting shutdown. It's so much bigger than baseball."

For former Clay High powerhitter Drew Weeks, 26, and a Colorado Rockies draftee in 2014, the momentum of having a solid 2019 batting season for the Triple AAA Albuquerque Isotopes, will be hard to maintain.

"Hitting 90 mile fastballs in game situation is hard to replicate without actually being there," said Weeks, who finished 2019 with eight homers, 26 runs batted in and a .355 batting average for August. "UNF is on lockdown so can't go there to hit, can't go to the beach and hit balls, so it's tough. I don't even have a cage to hit in the backyard. It's going to be difficult."

"We were six weeks into spring training then all of a sudden had to shut it down. The future is unpredictable. It's so much more than baseball though. The whole country is getting shutdown." -- former Clay High standout pitcher Kyle Bird, now a part of the MLB Texas Rangers organization.

Bird, 26, drafted in 2014 by the Tampa Bay Rays out of Flagler College and Florida State University, had a brief stint on the Rays 40-man roster then was part of a multiple player trade with Texas.

"I was put on a designated-for-assignment list and invited to the spring training in January for the Texas Rangers and was there for about six weeks," said Bird, a left handed pitcher. "We were in Arizona for spring training when the season cancellation happened. From here, there is no answer."

Another Clay High baseball standouts; Dane Dunning had been anticipating the upcoming season with some momentum.

Dunning, out of University of Florida and in the Chicago White Sox farm league; most recently the Birmingham Barons in double AA, was drafted in Round One by the Washington Nationals in 2016, Dunning has made nearly a full recovery from Tommy Johns surgery (in March 2019) to repair tendons in his pitching arm, considered the season move as both disheartening, but also a chance to keep rebuilding his arm.

"I had about a week of throwing in Arizona, but we had some rain and that delayed things, then the shutdown happened," said Dunning, a right handed pitcher traded from Washington to Chicago in December 2016. "After a year of rehabbing the elbow, I was making a good comeback with therapy and, the day I was supposed to throw in a game, the shutdown happened."

Fortunately, in one perspective, Dunning absorbed the season stop as a chance to get stronger and better prepared for his pitching.

"If the season didn't happen this way, I would be staying in Arizona," said Dunning. "Now, I can rehab some more, strengthen my arm and whenever the season starts back up, I will be more ready to go."

For Weeks, a power hitter out of the University of North Florida where he was a top slugger nationwide in the NCAA Division I rankings, a solid 2019 season for Colorado Rockies farm team, the Triple AAA Albuquerque Isotopes, was a pre-emptive step to getting on the field for the Rockies in the upcoming season.

"Triple AAA is as high as it gets in the minor leagues and I have been there twice; last year and, in 2017," said Weeks. "I had a great 2019 season with 20 homers and 75 runs batted in. Now, I'm out at the beaches (Jacksonville)."

Weeks was in spring training in Arizona for a week when he was instructed to stay by his phone due to rain and the imminent Coronavirus situation.

"It was pouring and that was their first concern," said Weeks, 26, a Round seven pick by the Colorado Rockies. "On that Friday, they told us we would be off for the weekend mainly because of the rain, but they had been talking about the Coronavirus at camp. They later called us in and told us it was worse. Just 24 hours later, they sent us home. That 36-48 hours went from a couple days off for rain to 'we are sending you home'."

Weeks thought the timeline was eerie as well as confusing.

"I think a lot of people were questioning exactly what was happening," said Weeks, who won the Mr. Hustle Award for the Isotopes in 2019. "I flew out to Atlanta and got picked up by my girlfriend, Taylor, to drive home mainly to stay away from my family from being in the crowds of the airport. I later found out that my blood type, O, is a blood type that can't contract the virus."

A fourth Clay High Blue Devil, Andy Toelken, also a pitcher, finished a stellar college career with St. Johns River and University of Missouri before being drafted in 2018 by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Toelken has been pushing his pitching prowess as a minor leagues for the Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League.

Toelken was part of the Blue Devils' state championship runnerup finish in 2014 under coach Rob Thompson before heading to St. Johns then earning a final two years at Missouri.

"I had two pretty successful years at Missouri; pretty much doing everything there as far as relief, starter," said Toelken. "I was preparing myself for a possible draft and the Diamondbacks picked me up."

In 2019, Toelken played his first full season, 140 games with Kane County and responded with a 2.91 ERA in 77 innings pitched with 59 strikeouts.

"I was at the first week of spring training in Arizona, we only had five days," said Toelken. "Monday was the start, but, by Friday when the whole team was in Arizona, we were told we were going home Saturday. We had some delays because of the rain and that was weird because it hardly ever rains."

Toelken recalled an impromptu team meeting in the hotel parking lot was how the team was advised on the situation.

"I think it sunk in pretty quick because of all the other stuff; the NBA, was getting cancelled," said Toelken. "We were in the hotel rooms at night prior to that trying to play manager and strategize how it would go."

Back in Clay County, Toelken looks to maintain his fitness, throw where he can and stay focused on a possible May start.

"Now, with all the gyms and fields closed, it is on us to be ready when the season finally starts," said Toelken, who attended some Clay High practices prior to the FHSAA shutdown. "Our staff reaches out once a week to make sure we are not sick, how our families are doing and the whole situation."

Toelken, who was entering his second spring training in 2019, kept his eye on the prize but staying in shape and throwing wherever he can.

"At this point of the year is when the season would be cranking up," said Toelken. "I went to this spring training feeling really good, but now I just try to stay positive and wait for the call back."

Toelken noted that his situation was a bit easier by being able to go home with his parents to weather the storm, but that it had to be tough for older players with families.

"I'm blessed to be able to come home and wait it out with my folks, but some of the guys are married, have mortgages and other bills with their own family," said Toelken. "I stay focused because a lot of people here are rooting for me and I am trying hard to make my best push to be successful. This situation is very unique, but all the players are in the same boat, so I try to control what I can control."

From Fleming Island High, former Seminole State and FSU outfielder now a first baseman for the Kansas City Royals, Rhett Aplin, 24, is just starting his professional baseball career with 119 games for the Idaho Falls Chukars. Aplin closed with 10 homers on a .310 batting average with 42 runs batted in.

Aplin also had the week of spring training before the shutdown.

"We had the couple of rain out days and we sat in more meetings trying to wait it out," said Aplin. "It was a wait and see situation before they sent us home."

Aplin's path to a spot on the MLB Royals' roster will come from staying prepared with the Royals employing a unique baseball ready strategy.

"They send us little baseball quizzes," said Aplin. "It's something to keep us active and sharp, thinking baseball situations, baserunning scenarios and fielding positioning. We also get workout stuff. Their main concern is our health."

Aplin earlier had linked up with Toelken for some live throwing and hitting, but with fields being shutdown, the burly powerhitter is now staying sharp with a kid-friendly ploy.

"I can take wiffle balls and hit them wherever I want," said Aplin, whose brother Ryan was also a Fleming Island High standout baseball, football player now coaching offensive football at the University of Western Kentucky after stints at Auburn and North Alabama. "I just continue to do what I can to be ready to play."

Aplin, who played under coaches Don Suriano and Jeremy Klosterman at Fleming Island High School, reminded younger players that the simple readiness to play question comes down to a simple answer.

"Most of the younger kids asked me questions on the speed of Major League baseball versus college and high school," said Aplin, who was in the Fleming Island High dugout in the first half of the season before the high school shutdown. "My best advise would be to control only what you can control to prepare yourselves to be the best player you can be and not worry about what other players are doing. Take this time off, assess where your weaknesses are and work on them. Coach Suriano used to say 'Perfect your craft'. Work hard is the best advice I could give."

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