The rigors of professional baseball can be overwhelming. The long bus rides, the terrible hotels and the small and sometimes non-existent crowds. Those obstacles can be difficult enough, but missing a whole season due to an injury? That can be catastrophic, especially when you are not identified as a "can't miss" prospect. It would be quite easy to give up and move on to the next phase of life.
The aforementioned scenario is what Padres minor league second baseman Casey McElroy endured. McElroy was selected by the Padres in the 11th round in the 2011 MLB Draft, out of Auburn University. In his junior season at Auburn, McElroy batted a robust .372, with nine homers and 53 RBI's, Auburn finished that season with a .500 record and McElroy had the option to return for his senior season. He decided to go pro.
"I made the decision to go pro, mainly because I wanted to start my professional career and get closer and closer to my dream of becoming a major leaguer." McElroy said in an interview with this writer recently.
McElroy made his professional debut in 2011, playing with the AZL Padres and the short-season Eugene Emeralds of the Northwest League. In 105 plate appearances for both squads, McElroy posted a robust slash-line of ..293/.365/.446 with two home runs. His first professional experience proved what the Padres believed when they drafted him: McElroy can hit.
The 2012 season saw McElroy progress to High-A Lake Elsinore, after a stint with Fort Wayne. McElroy tormented California League pitching that summer, with a .327 batting average. His plate discipline was vastly improved as well, as he walked 27 times, with only 32 strikeouts in 258 plate appearances. While McElroy was not considered a top prospect, his bat was attracting attention in the system. However, the start of the 2013 season dealt McElroy a painful blow.
During Spring Training, McElroy suffered a sublaxtion of the right shoulder. He was expected to miss the start of the season, but never played a game in 2013. The adversity he faced gave McElroy time to reflect.
"Last year was an extremely tough year for me. I worked so hard in the offseason to get ready to play, only to have an injury wipe out the whole year. I mainly coped with the injury by keeping my mind focused on what I needed to do, in order to get back on the field as soon as possible. Missing the whole year gave me a new appreciation for the game. I learned that you cannot take anything for granted, because it can all be taken away in the blink of an eye."
After a year away from playing the game he loves, McElroy started this season in Lake Elsinore, in order to get reacquainted with playing baseball. McElroy played in 15 games with the Storm, before earning a promotion to AA San Antonio. Missions manager Rich Dauer inserted McElroy into the trusted three-hole in the batting order -- an assignment that McElroy relishes.
"I try to be a fastball hunter. I look for a fastball early in the count that I can drive to right, or left-center field. If I am behind in the count, I try to get my foot down as quick as possible with a short swing and hit the ball to the center of the field."
San Antonio has recovered from a slow start, to finish the first half of the season with a 39-37 record. The team also features some of the Padres top prospects, including Rymer Liriano and Austin Hedges. McElroy does not allow their profiles to distract him on the path to his ultimate goal.
"I never compare myself to those guys. Austin (Hedges) and Rymer (Liriano) are awesome players and deserve all of the accolades that they get. I just can't compare myself to anyone else. I am competing with only myself to become the player I want to be, and the goals I want to achieve."
One skill that will help McElroy realize his dream is his versatility. He was drafted as a shortstop, but has played mostly second base in his professional career. McElroy realizes the value in playing multiple positions.
"When you can play more positions, it will only help the manager to give you more playing time. Guys who can play multiple positions tend to stick around much longer."
At just 24, McElroy has already battled the baseball gods and has not stopped on his journey to San Diego. The Texas League is not known as a hitter's league, but McElroy has held his own with a triple-slash line of .269/.360/.394, with five homers and 22 RBI's. Despite all the adversity he has faced, Casey McElroy keeps grinding. It is quite simple to root for the young man from Florida. McElroy is an example of what our parents try to instill in all of us: never give up and always work hard. McElroy continues to chase his dream. Grind on, Casey.