As local players have shown, the road to MLB isn’t easy

Years ago I spoke with a high school baseball coaching legend about the best player to come through his program.

An ace in every sense of the word, this player had ultimate confidence on the mound no matter the situation. His 90 mph fastball and knee-buckling curve didn’t hurt either.

The player, despite massive expectations, labored in the minor leagues. He got a taste of the “bigs” a couple times, but he never could stick in Major League Baseball.

If I had to bet on one kid to be a superstar, this was the kid. So I asked the coach … what happened?

The coach had the baseball chops to discuss the mechanics, the pitch tipping … whatever the technical details might have been.

But instead he just shook his head and summed it up in a sentence.

“Man,” he said. “It’s just so tough to make it.”

Years later, that quote continues to find space in my brain as I think about the many incredible baseball players from this area. So few, however, end up on MLB rosters.

That’s why it was thrilling to see Willowbrook graduate Chris Roycroft and Hersey graduate Brett Harris recently get the call. Roycroft, a pitcher, is now on the St. Louis Cardinals while Harris, an infielder, is on the Oakland A’s.

Congrats to both. They definitely earned it.

Brett Harris, a Hersey High School graduate, was called up earlier this month by the Oakland Athletics Associated Press

Harris is the first Hersey graduate to play in an MLB game. Roycroft made the remarkable journey from Division III Aurora University to the Joliet Slammers and into the Cardinals’ organization.

Which makes me wonder about the toughest path in professional sports.

There are so few spots in the NBA, the inherent odds are awful. Although the NHL boasts a few local players, hockey isn’t even an IHSA-sanctioned sport. Football not only requires immense talent but incredible toughness and durability.

I still think baseball’s path may be the toughest. There are so many rungs to climb from high school and college through multiple levels of minor-league ball.

So many coaches tweaking mechanics. So many tiny towns called home for a short period of time. So many long bus rides and calls up or down to various teams.

The best baseball player I ever covered was pitcher Mike Bowden, a Waubonsie Valley graduate drafted by Boston out of high school in the first round of the 2005 MLB draft.

His senior year at Waubonsie Valley, Bowden struck out 185 batters and notched a 0.41 ERA in 86 innings. I wasn’t alone in thinking Bowden was the best they’d ever seen.

Bowden made it to the majors, appearing in 103 games over six seasons with the Red Sox and Cubs. Through the years he tried hooking on with Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and he kept his career going in Japan, Korea and Mexico.

It might not have turned out the way it could have as a first-round pick, but Bowden gave it his best shot. He did whatever it took to keep the dream alive.

Harris and Roycroft are living their dream right now, just like fellow local players Nicky Lopez, Paul DeJong and Mike Tauchman in our own backyard with the White Sox and Cubs.

As they face their own inevitable ups and downs, I always remember those simple few words.

Man, it’s just so tough to make it.

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