BY MATT LaWELL
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico | The Sandia Mountains stand silent behind Scott Van Slyke. He walks toward his dugout, a bat in his right hand after a couple rounds in the cage, all those peaks at his back. If all this was some old Western, with boots and bandanas instead of cleats and caps, Van Slyke would be sauntering off into the sunset and the credits. Focus just enough and everything else around him falls away. He might as well be the only person out there in the desert.
This is not some old Western. This is Isotopes Park on a Friday night. More than 13,000 people will pack the stadium tonight, and when Van Slyke slugs a home run in the middle innings over the wall in left field — his third in two games — most of them will cheer him wildly. Right now, they clamor for his autograph without knowing his name.
A lot of big things are about to change for Van Slyke. For now, he is in a beautiful minor league park that represents a middle point for him in so many ways, geographically and metaphorically. Read into that whatever you want. Van Slyke knows how to use literary tools.
He reaches the dugout and sits down and starts to talk. Stories unfold, snapshots of a life lived inside stadium walls. He keeps telling stories. You realize you know next to nothing about him.
One thing you probably know about Scott Van Slyke
He is no longer an Albuquerque Isotope. Five days after he walked into that dugout in Albuquerque and rattled off stories, Van Slyke walked into a clubhouse in Tacoma, Washington, and picked up a telephone for a call that changed his life. Juan Rivera had strained his left hamstring and the Dodgers moved him to the disabled list. That opened a roster spot for some lucky soul. With other players injured or slumping or old, Van Slyke provided the best option for a team in search of a good bat from the right side. He left the stadium that morning, flew from Tacoma to Los Angeles, arrived at Dodger Stadium around the time Chad Billingsley fired the first pitch, then walked to the plate six innings later with the Dodgers up two runs and a runner on third.
In his first at-bat, Scott Van Slyke hit an RBI single to center.
One thing you might know about Scott Van Slyke
He is the second son of former Major League All-Star Andy Van Slyke. The name is familiar, of course. Andy Van Slyke played 13 seasons in the Major Leagues with the Cardinals and the Pirates and, at the end, the Orioles and the Phillies. He landed on five all-star teams, won three Gold Gloves, two Silver Sluggers, almost won a World Series when he was younger than Scott is right now. One season, smack in the middle of his prime, he scored 101 runs, drove in 100 more, hit 23 doubles, 15 triples and 25 home runs, even stole 30 bases. If you lived somewhere other than Pittsburgh or St. Louis those years, you might forget just how good Andy Van Slyke was for a long time.
In his first at-bat after Scott was born during the summer of 1986, Andy Van Slyke hit an RBI single to center.
Nine things you have never heard before about Scott Van Slyke
1. Like Malcolm Gladwell, he believes in tipping points. On April 21, 2009, Van Slyke was mired in the kind of slump that made him question whether he even wanted to play baseball. He had started the season hitless in 11 at-bats for the Inland Empire 66ers of the High-A California League. He reached base safely one time in the first five games of the season, and that was only because of a walk. Two weeks into the season, his average had climbed as high as .179.
“Out in left field one day, I was like, ‘God, if I’m going to go 0-for-the rest of the season, make me break my leg or run into a wall, something bad. It can’t be like this. I’m supposed to be here and play baseball or I’m not. I’m sick of this,’” Van Slyke says. “I didn’t want to say I was challenging God, because you’re not supposed to do that, but I was on the fence. I didn’t know if I wanted to play baseball anymore.
“I was sick of being average.
“I was sick of being below-average.”
And then everything turned. On April 22, he knocked the Lancaster JetHawks for four hits, including a double and a triple. That one game raised his average to .250. Three days later, he hit his first homer of the season and collected five hits against the Lake Elsinore Storm. The next day, again with Storm pitchers on the mound, he hit another homer and two doubles. Another four-hit game.
“It was almost like I flipped a switch,” he says.
He started May with a 10-game hitting streak. In that stretch, he batted .489 with two more homers, five doubles and a triple, had scored seven runs and driven in 13. In 18 games and 19 days, he had rapped 11 multi-hit games and raised his average exactly 200 points — from .179 to .379.
“It was time to get serious,” he says. And ever since then, he has. He finished that season with 23 homer and 100 RBI. The next season, he jumped from two levels. Last season, he led the Double-A Southern League 45 doubles and batted .348, more than 50 points higher than any previous season. Before his call this season, he was batting .336 with eight homers in 32 games and walking almost as much as he struck out.
2. He was one of those private school kids. For four glorious years, Van Slyke lived across the street from John Burroughs School, one of the top prep schools in the country. There are U.S. congressmen and state senators and a Pulitzer Prize winner among its alumni. Plenty of CEOs, too. And Jon Hamm.“I have three friends who are going to be lawyers, one who’s going to be a pharmacist and two who are really good in math and are accountants,” Van Slyke says.
There is a noticeable lack of big names in sports on the list of more than 6,000 alums. Van Slyke is there now, of course, days after his Major League debut. Golden State Warriors forward David Lee attended but never graduated. Sports are important there, but only as far as building character. Winning is secondary. “Nobody gets cut,” Van Slyke says. “I had a girl on my baseball team.”
There is a noticeable lack of big names in sports on the list of more than 6,000 alums of John Burroughs School. Sports are important there, but only as far as building character. Winning is secondary. “Nobody gets cut,” Van Slyke says. “I had a girl on my baseball team.”
3. He and his older brother were drafted in the same year, nine rounds apart. The Dodgers grabbed Van Slyke in the 14th round of the 2005 draft. The Cardinals drafted A.J., an outfielder who played collegiately at Liberty and Kansas, nine rounds later. A.J. ripped apart the Appalachian and New York-Penn leagues that summer, batting a combined .365 with five doubles, two triples, four homers, 19 RBI and 17 runs in 22 games. Three years later, he started the season in an independent league. Four years later, he was out of baseball.
The third Van Slyke brother, Jared, played safety and on special teams for the Michigan football team. The youngest brother, Nathan, is a freshman at the same high school they all attended. Another athlete in a family full of them.
4. He was an awful trumpet player. At John Burroughs School, you have to take some relatively serious classes, and you have to play sports, and you have to dive into the arts. “My freshman year, we had this band concert,” Van Slyke says. “I played the trumpet.” He was so out of tune, off key and just plain playing the wrong notes that the director looked up at him and started to slash his baton across his throat. “I was like, ‘Me?’” Van Slyke says. “He could hear me over all the other trumpets.” And today? “I could probably still play the note where you leave the middle finger up. I could still blow into it.”
5. He slipped into handcuffs, uncomfortably, before he could drive. He was 15 or 16, the little brother in a bunch of seniors. “One time, they egged cars, so I went with them,” Van Slyke says. They all had better arms than legs, too, hitting the cars but not escaping local police.
6. During bus trips, he just sort of sits there. He almost never sleeps, sometimes watches a movie, maybe plays cards. The glorious life of a minor leaguer.
“I think for 99 percent of the people who play in the minor leagues, this is just fulfilling the dream of playing professionally,” Van Slyke says. “For the other 1 percent, this is fulfilling a dream of becoming a big leaguer.”
7. He thinks of himself as part of the 1 percent. On the field, that is. “I think for 99 percent of the people who play in the minor leagues, this is just fulfilling the dream of playing professionally,” Van Slyke says. “For the other 1 percent, this is fulfilling a dream of becoming a big leaguer.” He says this before he is a big leaguer, during the last days of just killing Triple-A pitchers in the Pacific Coast League. He looks out at his teammates. “I don’t think there’s anybody out here who doesn’t want to be here. I think everybody who signs a contract understands what they’re getting into. At this level, it’s just, ‘How well can I play every day to give myself a chance to play in the big leagues for the first time? For the fifth time? For whatever?”
Van Slyke can act like the jock. He was one, after all. Still is. But he understands effort and working hard to capitalize on ability. He is able to put things in perspective. He can probably write a short essay about all of it if he really needs to. “Three years ago I think I was just playing because that was what my job was at the time — go to the field, hit, whatever, go home. Now it’s my desire to be the best. I wanted to be the best player in Double-A last year, I want to be the best player in Triple-A this year.” He points his bat toward the field and another team out for afternoon batting practice. He looks at another player at random. “I want to be better than him.”
8. He is about to be a father. His wife, Audrey, is pregnant. “Boy,” he says proudly. “Swimming in her belly right now. Eight months.”
Stay tuned for an RBI single to center.
9. For a long time, he thought the minors were a little weird. His dad was already a staple in the Cardinals lineup by the time Scott was born, but he went back to the minors — to the Carolina Mudcats and a pair of rehab games in the Double-A Southern League — in the summer of 1993. To that point in his elementary school life, Scott had lived in Major League clubhouses. Those two games jarred everything he knew about the game.
“I grew up in the big leagues,” he says. “That was normal. They played music between innings, nothing crazy went on in the stands. In Carolina, I specifically remember the promotions, like people throwing stuff in the stands, and me thinking, ‘What? This isn’t normal!’”
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