Living the Dream
Spring Training for Zach Kirksey and Raph Rhymes
article by Michael DeVault
When you hear your name called and step out onto the grass, the crowd cheers. The sun beats down mercilessly and, as you flex your fingers in your glove, the tight leather squeaks. Your teammates remove their caps and cover their hearts. The pop star is about to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” When she’s done, you file out to your place on the field. An umpire steps behind the plate and shouts, “Play ball!”
Then, you wake up.
It’s the dream of every American boy to play professional baseball, to spend a summer or ten on the mound or at first base for the Yankees or the Red Sox, the house that Babe Ruth built or the field made famous by Ted Williams. Maybe that dream is to walk in the footsteps of more recent heroes, men with names like Finley and Ryan, to play for the A’s or the Rangers. As a rule, for most hopefuls the dream fades and ultimately is replaced by visions of pharmacy school or an MBA.
Local boys Zach Kirksey and Raph Rhymes are proving the exception to that rule. Earlier this month, the pair traveled to Lakeland, FL, where they reported for Spring training with the Detroit Tigers. The 2014 spring training sessions are the first year for Rhymes, a standout from Neville High School who drew national attention for Louisiana’s own Tiger squad at LSU. For Kirksey, this isn’t his first trip to Lakeland, so he mostly knew what to expect. Still, he’s aware that he’s worlds away from where he started.
“This is my second Spring training,” Kirksey told BayouLife Magazine. “So I kind of had an idea of what I’d be getting into. Knowing what I was in for made a lot easier transition this year. But it’s definitely different from college.”
It’s the first time for Rhymes, who was drafted in the 15th round. Because this is Rhymes’s first trip to Lakeland, he’s tring to take it all in, to appreciate the experience, and to learn the ropes. “This is a learning process for me,” Rhymes said. “It’s something new and I’m trying to learn from the older guys how things work. I’m focused on getting better at my craft.”
One of the biggest differences for both Kirksey and Rhymes is the sheer magnitude of Spring training. In college ball, as well as in high school, most teams top out at 35 players. Practices involve plenty of batting practice, fielding, and base runs, all in the comfort and familiarity of home field. Things are a bit different in Tiger Town, the sprawling facility the Tigers have called home each Spring since 1953.
Built on the side of Lodwick Field, a former Army Air Corps installation left behind after World War II, Tiger Town boasts five full-sized diamonds, practice facilities for pitching, for batting, for running. The camp is also home to gyms for workouts, tracks for running, and stands for the more than 100,000 spectators that will take in the intra-organization exhibitions as well as the preseason games between the Tigers and other Major League organizations. All the while, coaching staffs from the numerous Class A, Double A and Triple A Detroit organization “farm teams” work with some 180 players to hone skills and keep an eye out for the best talent.
Their days start early. The players are up and out the door by 6:45 every morning. They meet in the locker room, have a brief workout, then eat breakfast before getting into the meat of their day. Batting cages give way to defensive drills, which yields to bunting practice and base running. Forty-five minutes of relaxation time speeds by quickly before the players are put through a full-team stretch. Then, the players are split into groups just before lunch. After they grab a quick lunch, the fun begins.
“We come out of lunch and get ready to play a full game,” Kirksey said. “So we’re playing baseball from 7:30 to 4:30 every day.”
Players come from around the world to take part in these Spring training sessions. Each of the 30 teams in the Major Leagues conducts similar Spring training sessions to prepare their organizations for the business of baseball. And while other sports conduct similar training meets, only baseball operates the extensive farm teams system, with multiple semi-professional and professional leagues, each filled with teams competing for pennants. As part of a crop of much younger players, Rhymes and Kirksey interface very little with the stars of the Detroit Tigers. Instead, they work in groups of pros from the A, Double A and Triple A ball teams. The Detroit organization includes teams in each of the three divisions of semiprofessional baseball. Also, Detroit operates teams in the Venezuela League, the Dominican League, and other international baseball organizations.
“There’s also an academy for Detroit Academy Australia,” Kirksey said. While dreams of the Big League are there in the back of his mind, like all of those players from all of those teams in all of those countries, both Rhymes and Kirksey really have just one goal: to make a team and then move up from there. But it’s still to early to see where they’ll land.
For two men, though the boys’ futures were never in doubt. Tim O’Neal and Mark Sims remember both players from their high school careers. O’Neal coached Rhymes during his Junior and Senior years at Neville High School. O’Neal said he always knew where Rhymes was headed and recalled a hard worker, dedicated team member, and overall “great kid,” who had the raw talent necessary to succeed in a competitive game filled with players of a high caliber.
“He just had it from the beginning and then worked to refine it,” O’Neal said. Rhymes spent plenty of time working to hone his skills and to better his performance on the field, which helped propel the Tigers to numerous wins over his years in high school. More than anything, according to O’Neal, Rhymes’s drive for perfection was apparent.
“He had one of the purest, best swings I’ve ever seen,” O’Neal said.
Zach’s high school coach remembers a similarly gifted player, who worked tirelessly to improve his skills on the field. Mark Sims coached Kirksey at West Monroe, where they made numerous trips to the playoffs, including a 2007 championship. “He worked and worked and worked,” Sims said. “Where he’s at now is the payoff.”
Sims is proud of Kirksey’s continued success and said he tracked the player’s career from LSU-Eunice to Ole Miss, where Kirksey came to the attention of the Detroit Tigers. Sims said he never doubted Kirksey would succeed at baseball beyond high school.
“Zach had some of the most intense power I’ve seen in high school. He had tremendous bat speed,” Sims said. “You could tell that Zach really wanted to be a ball player.”
After spending two years at LSU-Eunice, he was drafted in the 41st round by the Toronto Bluejays. “I decided not to go,” Kirksey said, opting instead to spend another two years at Ole Miss. When the Tigers drafted him in the 27th round, he decided to take his shot. Now, he’s having the time of his life.
“This is still fun,” he said. “It’s still baseball.”
Rhymes enjoyed a similar trajectory. After graduating from Neville, Rhymes spent a season with LSU-Eunice before moving over to the LSU Tigers squad. During that transition of schools, Rhymes also transitioned from infield to outfield. After he graduated from LSU, Detroit drafted Rhymes in the 15th round. So far, Rhymes has enjoyed the ride.
“I think it’s going well so far,” Rhymes said. “You can’t really tell what’s going to happen, where you’re going to end up at this point. You just go out, have fun, and keep working hard.”
The caliber of the players frequently surprises both men. Also, according to Kirksey, the reactions and interactions with coaching staff are different. In high school and college, coaches frequently reached out to players to commend them on a job well done. If a player nailed a solid hit, the coaches commented. When they fielded a ball for a double play, a round of congratulations followed. That’s not so in professional baseball, where the feedback model is different.
“You’re a baseball player,” Kirksey said. “In pro ball, it’s kind of expected you’re going to do it right.”
Spring training is designed to pull the best possible plays from the best players available. Surrounded by professionals, some of whom have been playing for more than ten years, Rhymes’s own game is improving.
“You’re with the best of the best out here,” Rhymes said. “When you surround yourself with guys who can play, you only better yourself.”
That benefit brings with it a certain responsibility, to push that much harder, to reach farther, and to not let your teammates down. “You’ve got to make sure you’re doing your part to keep up with them,” Rhymes said.
Meanwhile, as the 2014 Spring Training sessions come to a close, Rhymes and Kirksey continue to live the sport they’ve played now for almost all of their lives. Rhymes called it a tremendous honor.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rhymes said. “I think everybody who grows up playing baseball has a dream to play in the pros.”
Kirksey dismissed talk of the future and said he’s not thinking beyond the next game. Instead, he’s focused solely on improving his performance on the field, working to stand out as a ball player, and to enjoy the game to its fullest.
“We don’t know where we’ll go until the end of Spring training,” Kirksey said.
Spring training ends March 31. Of the 180 players on hand, some will be selected for farm teams throughout the Tigers organization. Some won’t be selected and will go home with memories and a jersey or two. For a few lucky ones, though, they’ll don a Tigers uniform when the regular season begins in April.
For every one of them, however, this is the Spring of a lifetime.