Since Spencer Torkelson was playing baseball before he can remember playing baseball, why not let him join the Detroit Tigers whenever the season starts? After all, there won’t likely be any minor leagues, not in this strange and vacant year of coronavirus. And is he ready? Well, if the phrase “Born Ready” were ever to be applied literally, it might be to him. Torkelson, now 20, was walking around the house with a Wiffle ball when he was 2 years old.
“I can’t even remember it, but my family says I didn’t care who you were, if I knew you or not, I just wanted you to throw to me,” Torkelson told me Saturday.
The Tigers made the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Torkelson the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft last week, and from all accounts they hit a jackpot. He’s a big-time power hitter, a versatile fielder, a guy who considers himself a baseball player first and foremost, no matter what position, and who, when asked about his passions outside of sports, said, “I’m passionate about being a good person.”
How’s that for an opening statement?
Torkelson was sitting beneath a “Caddyshack” poster on the upstairs level of his parents’ home in Petaluma, California, on Wednesday night when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced his name — and the world began spinning.
“It was an indescribable feeling,” Torkelson said. “I felt like l blacked out for a good 10 minutes there — maybe 2 minutes before and 8 minutes after. It was so special and so awesome to share that with all my friends and family.
“It was definitely 10 minutes that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Yes. But what about the rest of that life?
Were these normal times, Torkelson might be playing in the College World Series right now, the culmination of a long season at Arizona State. And after that, off to developmental leagues, the minors, games, games, and more games.
Instead, Torkelson hasn’t played competitive baseball since early March, when his coach called the Sun Devils team together and said the series against Fresno State was off. And then, days later, the season was off. COVID-19.
“I was in shock,” Torkelson recalled. “I remember being a little upset. But then Tracy Smith, our coach, said, ‘Yes, we can mourn our season being shut early, but this is what our world needs. Some people are sick. Some are dying. We need to sacrifice whatever we can for the betterment of our world.
“That put things into perspective.”
It also sent Torkelson to the batting cages, the gym, the weight room, and any place else he could improve his game without actually playing his game. But there’s a big difference between facing a machine and facing a real pitcher. Three months is now the longest stretch Torkelson has had without baseball “since I was 9 or 10 years old.”
And it’s likely to continue. In late March, MLB suspended the Professional Baseball Agreement with minor league baseball. The feeling was players could not be provided full compensation until the pandemic was under control.
Since then, MLB has spent all its energy trying to get the big leagues up and running, something it still has not even achieved in theory, let alone practice. Manfred last week said he was “100%” sure there would be baseball this year. But what form and length it takes — and more vexing, how the money will be split — is still being wrangled between players and owners.
So here’s the question: when the game comes back, is it better to leave a guy like Torkelson in some weight room in northern California, or alongside the big club?
I posed this question to Al Avila, the Tigers GM, on Friday. He said he had just been on the phones talking about that very possibility for Torkelson.
“Not with the major league club,” Avila said, “but with the taxi squad. If and when major league baseball comes back, the plan is for an active roster of probably 30 players and a taxi squad of possibly 30 players. … We were kicking around the idea, ‘OK, can we have, after we sign (Torkelson), should we bring him to that taxi squad?’ We’ve had that conversation about some of our top guys in the minors as well.”
A taxi squad is normally a group of players that shuttles between the minors and the big club as needed, usually for fast fill-ins in case of injury. But this year, if there are no minor league teams, the taxi squad might be its own special unit. MLB has told clubs to find a place for taxi squads to play, someplace very near the home stadiums. And given a fast “spring training,” the likelihood of injuries, and the possibility of COVID-19 taking down players, the jump from taxi squad to big leagues could be pretty frequent in 2020.
I asked Avila whether it would be good for Torkelson to get some innings in against big league pitchers and hitters no matter what — even if it’s late in a game — and pick up pointers from major league teammates.
“Well, you know, the college game is completely different from the major league game,” Avila said. “While (Torkelson) is a really good talent, worthy of (the No. 1 pick), we’re a little bit more methodical in developing the player, make sure that he blends in, starts getting accustomed to the velocity and the repertoire of pitches that pitchers can bring to you at a more advanced level.
“Major league baseball is day-and-night difference from college ball. It’s day-and-night difference between Triple-A and the big leagues, and day-and-night difference between A ball and Double-A ball. While he has talent to hopefully move up quickly, I’d hate to just jump him in there.”
But Torkelson wouldn’t hate it.
‘I’m more than ready’
“That’s the exact reason why I’m working so hard right now, “ he said. “I want to be ready. I don’t want (the next level) to shock me. I’m ready. I think I can hang with the best of them.
“I’ve always believed in myself and my abilities. Maybe there’s a gap of knowing the ropes, but when it comes to baseball, I feel like I’m more than ready for that.
“Of course, it’s not my decision. They know more than I do.”
“But I think that opportunity would be awesome.”
If he sounds like young Simba in “The Lion King,” well, can you blame him? He just can’t wait to be a major leaguer. And you’d rather have him think he can right now than he can’t. History shows that it rarely happens — the last guy to jump straight to the majors was another Arizona State product, pitcher Mike Leake, for the 2010 Cincinnati Reds. He started 5-0, but eventually suffered arm trouble and was on the injured list before the season ended. There has been only one other player this century to make a similar leap, Xavier Nady back in 2000.
So it’s almost a unicorn event when it happens. But these are strange times. Nothing is normal. Short season. Fanless stadiums. Who knows? Maybe, for a team like the Tigers, not likely to make the playoffs, it’s good for a future power hitter to get in some swings.
Speaking of that, I asked Torkelson whether he remembered the first time he hit a ball out of a park.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I was 9 years old, on a 10-year-old All-Star team. I hit a home run over the fence. It went out to center field. That was one of the better days in my life.”
Someone chased the ball down, and Torkelson now has it in a small glass box in his bedroom, along with many other souvenirs from his young baseball life. It’s the bedroom he slept in when he was a boy, the bedroom he slept in when he was still just a college player Tuesday night, and the bedroom he slept in after he became the No. 1 pick in baseball Wednesday night.
“Although that night it took me longer to fall asleep,” he admitted, laughing.
But the normalcy is not lost on him. He likes the fact that he went fishing on a nearby lake after the draft, same as he always does, and that he celebrated his selection not at some swank hotel but in the cul-de-sac where he grew up, with all the folks from the neighborhood who watched him do it.
“It keeps you humble,” he said. “You stick with what got you here. I’m in the same room, wearing the same clothes that got me here, so I’m gonna keep rocking them until they don’t fit me anymore.”
And then he added: “Being normal is cool.”
A smart mantra for this most abnormal time. If our initial conversation is any indication, the Tigers got themselves a level-headed, gracious, grateful kid, who is a fiend about hard work and achieving success. The sky is the limit for him, but the sky is lower than usual. The track is greased. And whether on the taxi squad or an unlikely jump to the big dugout this season, something tells me we’ll see Spencer Torkelson sooner rather than later.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.