Persistence helps Lakes' Snelten maintain baseball relationship

Posted4/16/2010 12:01 AM
  • Lakes' pitcher D.J. Snelten has committed to Minnesota but is being scouted by major league scouts each time he pitches.

      Lakes' pitcher D.J. Snelten has committed to Minnesota but is being scouted by major league scouts each time he pitches. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

For a minute there, DJ Snelten probably felt like he was being interviewed by an entertainment reporter from "Extra," "Entertainment Tonight," or "People" magazine.

The question was, "Have you ever asked a girl out and been rejected, and how did you handle it?"

"That totally caught me off guard," Snelten said. "I remember just looking at my dad and I started laughing. And my dad turned to the guy and was like, "What is the purpose of that question?"

Well, the answer would be obvious if Snelten was in fact being interviewed by an entertainment reporter. The reporter would have been angling for some juicy scoop.

But since Snelten, a 6-foot-6 senior left-handed pitcher from Lakes High School, was actually being interviewed by a scout from the Boston Red Sox, the motive of that line of questioning, which couldn't have had less to do with baseball, was a little less clear.

"There were other crazy questions like that and I think they were all to see if I'm confident with myself or not," said Snelten, recalling the scout's recent visit to his home. "The scouts are talking to you about all kinds of things and part of what they do is try to take a psychological approach to see if you're a player worth investing a lot of money in. I understand that. There could be a lot of money involved."

Welcome to Snelten's surreal world, in which, seemingly overnight, he became a highly coveted young pitching prospect immersed in the fast-paced, high-stakes game of Major League scouting.

Just three years ago, Snelten was a 5-foot-8 freshman who showed some promise in baseball but didn't even make his local travel team.

Now, after growing 10 inches, seven of which came during his sophomore year alone, developing a wicked changeup and slider and hitting 90 miles per hour regularly with his fastball, Snelten is suddenly attracting a traveling sideshow every time he pitches.

"There are scouts everywhere," Lakes coach Bill Rosencrans said. "They come to see him pitch, they'll come early just to see him stretch and play catch. They call and send letters. I just got done talking to a guy from the White Sox. It's amazing. I've never seen anything like it."

At Snelten's first start this season, scouts from 14 Major League teams were on hand, radar guns dutifully in tow. At his second start, 17 were in attendance.

"I thought after the first game that it would fall off from there because you figured a bunch of scouts would come out and get a baseline on DJ and then they wouldn't be back for awhile," Snelten's dad Don said. "But then to have even more scouts there for his second start was unbelievable. DJ handles it so well. The nerves, everything. I can't even imagine what that must be like for a 17-year-old to have all those scouts swarming around like that."

Considering that Snelten is off to a 2-1 start and has not disappointed so far, the swarming will probably continue. And that means more "interesting" questions are probably coming down the pike.

For the record, here's how Snelten answered the rejection question:

"I just told the guy that I had been rejected (by a girl) before," Snelten said matter-of-factly. "It's bound to happen. No one gets what they want every time."

And yet, Snelten is probably going to get pretty close with baseball.

On the one hand, he's got the Major League scouts salivating, and word is that he could end up being selected high enough in the upcoming June draft to warrant a pretty sweet signing bonus.

But if that somehow doesn't work out, Snelten already has a big-time college scholarship lined up. With more than 40 major Division I schools expressing serious interest, he signed with Minnesota in December and considers himself lucky to be able to learn the ropes from highly regarded pitching coach Todd Oakes, who is in his 12th season with the Golden Gophers.

"I kind of feel like no matter what choice I make, I won't be in a bad situation," Snelten said.

Actually, Snelten's situation of having so many good options is downright enviable. And, believe it or not, he first found himself in this position not too long ago.

He says he had a good experience last summer playing with the Kenosha Indians, a traveling team for which he threw a no-hitter with 12 strikeouts in one game. But what put him over the top was an outing just a couple of months ago.

Snelten says he fared rather well at the Super 60 Showcase in February, which was held in southwest suburban McCook, Illinois and attracts hundreds of scouts.

"I threw average to good that day, but I guess the big thing is that I threw pretty hard," Snelten said. "I hit 90-plus miles per hour seven times over 25 pitches with 10 fastballs. I think that helped."

What also helps Snelten is his work ethic and boyish looks.

"They (scouts) like it that I don't shave yet," laughed the blond, blue-eyed, far-skinned Snelten, who, at 17, is young for his class and seems to have plenty of more growing and maturing to do. "They like that I have all kinds of (physical) potential."

Snelten has already reached some of his baseball potential simply by pushing himself hard to get there. Along the way, he's gotten a bit of help from his dad, a former pro golfer who is used to setting the bar high.

Don Snelten went so far as to become a certified pitching instructor so that he could teach DJ (short for Donald Jr.) how to pitch. He also built DJ his own indoor pitching cage with a moveable mound. It's set up in the family's basement and DJ uses it almost daily, especially in the colder months.

"My dad and I are very tight and we both love baseball so much," Snelten said. "We practice all the time, we talk about baseball all the time, we watch baseball together as much as we can. Sometimes, we'll say, 'Let's go out to a movie or just do something that has nothing to do with baseball.' And we'll be in the car and, before you know it, we're talking about baseball again. It's like we can never get away from it."

Not that Snelten wants to.

He says that baseball has been his love ever since he was little, and it remained that way even when he was nowhere near being a big league prospect.

"When you're a little kid, you always dream of being a pro ball player. It's kind of a pipe dream that every kid has and that was me, too," Snelten said. "But then as you get older, you realize your chances of playing in the Major Leagues aren't very good and that dream kind of fades away. That's what happened to me when I was younger, like in junior high. I wasn't very big back then, I didn't throw very hard and I didn't even make the travel team around here.

"But I kept working at it, I grew a lot and then my dream came back."

Now, Snelten just focuses on making sure that his dream doesn't turn into a nightmare because of all the pressures and stresses of being the most watched player every time he takes the field.

"When I get on the mound, I just try to find a light pole or something in the distance to look at and then I think about a place or a time that I was totally comfortable, relaxed and happy," Snelten said. "I usually think about personal family moments with my mom (Sandy), my dad and my brother (John, a former standout baseball player at Antioch who went on to play at Valparaiso University).

"That makes me feel better and I can just go out there and do what I need to do and enjoy all of this."

And, rest assured, Snelten is trying to enjoy it, as crazy and as overwhelming as the experience can be, and probably will continue to be.

"It's surreal and it can be stressful, but it's also pretty cool and fun," Snelten said. "My family is making a scrapbook and videos about all of this for me. I'm glad they're doing that because this is the kind of thing I'll want to show my kids someday."