CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There’s no sport, arguably, that magnifies the word “grind” more than baseball at the professional level.
You live inning by inning, game by game, week to week. You may go days, weeks, even months, and see little obvious progress. Then, seemingly overnight, something clicks.
You may not even know why. It just does. It’s baseball.
That’s one reason why kids drafted into professional baseball out of high school struggle, because life experience, and the patience that can bring, is so valuable.
And that may be why former Western Hills and UK baseball standout J.T. Riddle is able to keep his emotions above water as he grinds his way through Class A baseball with the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
“It’s a long season,” the 22-year-old Riddle said Monday, on the road at Applachian Power Park, home of the South Atlantic League’s West Virginia Power. “We play some 140 games. You can’t get down if you go a few games where you don’t hit well because you may have a few more games and get your numbers right back up there.
“But you can’t worry about numbers, either,” added Riddle, a year removed from both UK and lower Class A rookie ball. “You just have to come out and play every day, whether you went 0-for-5 or 5-for-5 the night before. Just play.”
Monday’s game against the Power was typical of the struggle. On a night when the Grasshoppers (38-26) cranked out 18 hits in a 10-2 win, Riddle was 0-for-5, reached on an error and scored a run.
Riddle made contact at the plate all night long. But the ball didn’t fall for him, while it seemed to have eyes for most of his teammates.
This game dropped Riddle’s batting average to .225 on the season. In 142 at bats, he has 32 hits, with 13 runs batted in, two home runs and three doubles.
Defensively, he’s played primarily at third base, though he was the designated hitter Monday night.
Riddle said third has been a struggle at times after playing three years at UK largely at second base, and his prep career at Western Hills as a shortstop.
“You have to be ready for anything at third,” said Riddle, who played at that spot most of last summer at Batavia, N.Y., in the New York/Penn League. “You never know what to expect. There are certain balls hit to me that I haven’t seen before though I think most of the errors I’ve had this season have been throwing errors.”
Season ‘going really well’
On the flip side of these concerns, however, there’s this: Asked up front how this season is going for him, Riddle said without hesitation: “It’s going really well.”
Greensboro manager Dave Berg does not dispute Riddle’s assessment.
Berg, 43, played six professional seasons, from 1998-2004, for the Miami Marlins — the parent team of the Grasshoppers — and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Asked how Riddle is doing this season, Berg said cheerfully: “It’s good so far.”
Berg indicated struggling is pretty much the life for youngsters in the lower rungs of the game.
“Look around the league,” he said. “Look at the stats. It’s not great around the whole league.
“The main thing is to keep improving throughout the year,” he added.
Berg said the Grasshoppers have tinkered with Riddle’s swing, trying to get him to use his lower body more, to add some punch to his bat.
“That’s not easy to do once you get into the season,” Berg said. “But he’s getting a feel for it. And a lot of things with hitting is feel. It’s not necessarily all mechanical.”
“I like what they’re trying to do,” Riddle said. “It is challenging to try to change things up in mid-season, but I’m starting to feel better with it after a few games, getting used to it against live pitching ... finding a rhythm.”
Berg also appears unconcerned about any struggles Riddle may be having defensively.
“He can really play shortstop well — he has above average range and he has a knack for not trying to do too much — but he’s equally good at second and third,” Berg said. “The last few games he’s made some errors, but guys go through that.
“I was watching him shag fly balls during batting practice today, and I’m sure you could play him anywhere on the field,” Berg added. “If I put him at first base, he’s going to go out there and play it as good as our regular first baseman.”
Riddle has indicated many times in recent years that he feels more confident about his defense than his hitting. But when asked if defense is Riddle’s trump card as he makes his way up the ladder of minor league baseball, Berg said, not so fast.
“He’s got the ability to hit,” Berg said. “He’s got the ability to hit the ball the other way, and he’s got some power on the pull side. It’s just getting the at-bats and getting that experience.”
Injury could have been much worse
Riddle is happy to be playing at all, given the severity of an ankle sprain he suffered just a week into the season, trying to beat out a ground ball at first base.
Riddle said doctors initially told him the ankle was broken.
“It was like, you’ve got to be kidding me,’’ Riddle said. “With all the work I did in spring training to make a full-season roster, and then have that happen seven games into the season ... it was heartbreaking.
“But it didn’t feel like a fracture,” he added. “I could put pressure on it. So we went to see a doctor in Greensboro, and he said it was just a bad sprain and a bone bruise. I was in a boot and on crutches for a week, and then once we found out it wasn’t broken, I was out of the boot and good to go.”
Riddle was relieved, of course, in part because Greensboro plays in the same league as the Lexington Legends, so he’ll get a chance to play on his home turf when the Grasshoppers play in Lexington July 1-3.
He has several family members in West Virginia this week as Greensboro wraps up a three-game set with the Power tonight, and he’ll have many more familiar faces on hand in Lexington.
“When I come to Lexington, I think there will be people everywhere — family, friends and fans I may not even know,” Riddle said. “So that’ll be fun playing in front of UK fans and everybody from Frankfort.”