Morgan County is in the middle of two weeks of Dixie Youth state tournaments.
In all the excitement at Montgomery Park in Decatur and North Park in Priceville, no doubt some of these young players from ages 7-10 probably have dreams of one day playing Major League Baseball.
Just a tiny percentage who play baseball get the opportunity on the professional level. Right now two from Morgan Country are living the dream. Both are at the bottom of the minors on rookie league teams trying to impress their organizations.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Decatur’s Derrick Adams. “It is a dream come true.”
Adams, 22, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals last year in the 27th round of the Major League draft. The former Austin and Jacksonville State left-handed starting pitcher plays for the Idaho Falls Chukars in the Pioneer League.
Former Brewer pitcher Dakota Bennett celebrated his 20th birthday Friday as a member of the Batavia Muckdogs in the New York-Penn League. Bennett, a left-handed pitcher, was an 11th round draft pick by the Miami Marlins in 2017.
“I realize this is a great opportunity, and I certainly want to take advantage of it,” Bennett said. “It’s exciting.”
Living the dream in pro baseball doesn’t usually have a happy ending. Few survive the road to the big leagues. Former Austin player Justin Camp was drafted out of Auburn in the 37th round of the 2016 draft by Kansas City. He threw in relief at four stops in the Royals’ farm system over the last two seasons. His ERA was 2.78 with 122 strikeouts in 142 innings.
Last November, the Royals released Camp.
“It caught me totally off guard,” Camp said. “I thought I was making progress. Maybe they needed my roster spot for somebody else.”
Camp, who is 26, said his two years in the minors were a learning experience.
“I learned how hard you have to work to even get a chance,” Camp said. “Everybody that gets drafted is good. It’s those who work the hardest that usually advance. Staying healthy also has a lot to do with it.”
Ardmore’s Cody Reed is an example of how important staying healthy is to a career. Reed was the 54th pick in the 2014 draft. The left-handed pitcher passed up a scholarship with Vanderbilt for a signing bonus of just over $1 million from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Reed pitched in a few games after the draft in the summer of 2014. In 2015, he went 5-4 in the Northwest League. Reed opened the 2016 season in the Midwest League with a 5-2 record and a 1.82 ERA. He was then moved up to the California League for the rest of that season. That’s when the injuries struck.
After the 5-2 start in 2016, Reed went a combined 8-15 over the next two seasons. He sat out last season following Tommy John surgery. Reed is rehabbing in Arizona and is expected to pitch in games later this month.
Idaho Falls is one of eight cities in the Pioneer League, which covers Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Utah. The bus rides can be long, but Adams said the scenery helps ease the time.
“The mountains up here are unbelievable,” Adams said.
The Pioneer League is a Class A rookie league that starts play in June after the draft. Adams was drafted in 2018 and spent the rest of last summer working at the Royals' training facility in Arizona.
“This is my first pro team, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Adams said. “We have players from five different countries.”
After being a starter in college, Adams has been pitching in relief. Through Thursday, he is 2-0 with two saves and a 1.26 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings. He has allowed just two earned runs.
“They want me to develop more velocity on my fastball,” Adams said. “Right now, I’m throwing it between 87 and 89 and sometimes hitting 90. They really like my curve and change-up. They tell me to keep throwing it like I always have.”
Adams admits the relief role is different, but so far he likes it.
“A starting pitcher usually throws once a week,” Adams said. “That’s one game a week to be ready. When you pitch in relief, you have to be ready for every game.
“I don’t know what the Royals will end up wanting me to do, but I wouldn’t mind being a relief pitcher. I think I have the mentality for the job.”
Life in Batavia
The New York-Penn League has 14 teams in eight states in the Northeast. Batavia, with a population of around 16,000, is one of the smallest towns in the country with a pro baseball team. It’s had one since 1939. This is Bennett’s second season with the Muckdogs.
“It is a small town, but that’s what I’m used to growing up in Morgan County,” Bennett said. “The people are great. The town really supports the team. It’s a lot of fun.”
After pitching just eight innings in his 2017 rookie season in Florida, Bennett started 2018 at Batavia. In nine innings, he went 0-2 with an 8.68 ERA. The Marlins then moved him back to Florida and in 37 innings he had 37 strikeouts with a 1.46 ERA.
The 2019 Dakota Bennett is different from the one Batavia saw last season. He’s grown to 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. He’s one of seven starting pitchers in a five-man rotation. That means starters sharing games. On July 6, Bennett pitched the last four innings to earn a save in a 4-1 win over the Auburn Doubledays. He allowed no runs on two hits with no walks and two strikeouts.
On Thursday, Bennett got his first win of the season. He threw five innings of shutout ball with three strikeouts in the Muckdogs' 5-2 win over the Lowell Spinners, a Red Sox farm team.
“The coaches have been great about helping me with tips on how to be able to repeat my delivery,” Bennett said. “I’m not really concerned with velocity on my fastball. It’s probably in the upper 80s.
“I am still throwing the curveball and change-up like I did in high school. I still like using my curve to my advantage.”
For the season, Bennett is 1-1 with a 4.79 ERA and 11 strikeouts and six walks in 20 2/3 innings. In his last two appearances, he’s thrown nine innings, allowed zero earned runs, five hits, walked two and struck out five.
“There’s a lot of excitement in Batavia about this team,” said John Anderson of the Muckdogs’ front office. “The Marlins have done a great job of sending a lot of talent here this season. Dakota is certainly one of the stars of the team.”
Bennett said his coaches have worked with him more on the mental side of the game.
“I’ve learned a lot about pitching sequences and how to read a hitter’s swing,” Bennett said. “I probably learn as much from watching as I have playing.”