Age may be the most malleable commodity in sports, with the possible exception of attendance figures.
For instance, you’ve heard it said that November’s freshman in college basketball is a sophomore in March, having 30 games of experience behind him. NFL running backs are old at 28, ancient at 30. And let’s not even start with Chinese gymnasts and their birth certificates.
So what about baseball’s teenager? Is he still a rookie in September if he’s playing for a ring?
For the ninth time in their 29 seasons as an entry in the short-season Northwest League, the Spokane Indians are in the best-of-3 championship final – although for the first time they had to survive a best-of-3 semi-windup to get there, knocking off Yakima in two straight, including a 6-1 breeze Tuesday night, for the East Division title.
For what it’s worth, the Indians have never lost an NWL championship series. But no pressure, guys.
“The downside to having two halves,” chuckled Spokane manager Tim Hulett, whose team won the first part of the split season. “We have to do it one more time.”
But look at it this way: now his teenagers have ripened two more games.
They don’t check your ID at home plate in professional baseball, but one of the most curious aspects of Spokane’s 2010 success is that it’s been accomplished with four teenagers in the everyday lineup – and even more remarkably, in those “up the middle” positions considered so critical.
Admittedly, the quartet of Kellen Deglan, Santiago Chirino, Jurickson Profar and Jake Skole weren’t the ones pounding the Bears into submission. They had but one hit among them in the two games, Chirino’s hard single just inside the first-base bag that capped a four-run first inning Tuesday. But even if their offensive numbers for the season don’t suggest anything beyond adequate, they’ve been something far more than that.
“The young guys we have here – they’re not the norm,” Hulett insisted. “You might find a high school pitcher who can come in here and do OK, but to find guys in the middle of the infield, catching and playing centerfield and having the kind of success they’re having says a lot about their poise and ability to stay in there and compete.”
Not that it should be that much of a surprise. Skole and Deglan, the centerfielder and catcher – both 18 – were first round picks by the parent Texas Rangers in the June draft. Profar, the 17-year-old shortstop from Curacao, was one of the most coveted prospects in Latin America – albeit as a hard-throwing pitcher – before signing for a reported $1.55 million. Chirino, 19, led the Rangers’ Arizona League team in RBIs last summer.
“It’s nice to have some guys your age that you can relate to – who are going through the same things you are, being out here on your own at a young age,” said Skole. “But the older guys have been great to all of us, too – teaching us how to play the game and just grow up.”
And growing up fast.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve felt overmatched,” said Deglan, “but a lot of these guys are a lot stronger than me.”
Exactly. The NWL isn’t a rookie league. The bulk of its players have either collegiate or previous professional experience. And the best teams have more of it.
For example, the three previous Texas-supplied Spokane teams that won pennants had exactly two everyday players shy of their 20th birthdays – third baseman Matt West in 2008 and second baseman Julio Santana in 2005 – though the ace of the 2008 pitching staff was 18-year-old Wilfredo Boscan.
And Everett, the Indians’ opponent in the final series scheduled to begin Thursday in Spokane, has exactly one teenager on its roster that’s played more than a single game – all-star catcher Steve Baron.
By contrast, Spokane not only has the four young regulars, but Tuesday’s winning pitcher Randol Rojas, is just 19. So is the pitcher likely to start the opener of the next series, Nicholas McBride.
“I think there’s always some apprehension about starting a young guy at this level,” Hulett said, “but maybe not so much with these guys. Kellen’s done a great job behind the plate. Yakima’s stolen 150 bags this year and it was important for us to shut their running game down – though getting ahead early helps. Profar doesn’t play like a kid, obviously. And Jake’s a strong kid for his age, so he’s competed well.
“Your concern isn’t about their talent. It’s about whether they think they can fit in and compete – whether that young guy is questioning his own ability. I don’t think these guys do.”
So youth, in this case, is not being wasted on the young.