The sound was satisfying, a pop that confirmed both the location and the velocity were on point. Grayson Rodriguez would hear that pop again and again, throwing pitch after pitch through the flap of the homemade strike zone target his father had built.
Occasionally, there would be a thud added to the mix, and eventually a ping after the strike zone target was altered from PVC piping to metal tubing, to better handle the increasingly rapid speeds Rodriguez would throw down the 59-foot pitching lab created in a second-floor hallway of his parents’ interior design business in downtown Nacogdoches, Texas.
“Just trying to sling baseballs through it,” Rodriguez said.
That upstairs pitching lab is where Rodriguez spent most of his time in the winter months, a haven for the future first-round draft pick to work on his own, away from the cold weather and the crowds that filled the public cages. It’s where Rodriguez helped solidify himself as Major League Baseball’s top pitching prospect, a beacon of light for the Orioles as a rebuild nears fruition.
His father, Gilbert Rodriguez, purposely made the strike zone target smaller than the zone Grayson Rodriguez would face in a game. It stands upright on two legs and a square base, with PVC piping forming a square almost 2 feet off the ground. There’s that orange piece of rubber dangling from two ropes, a flap meant to withstand the repeated punishment of baseballs.
Gilbert Rodriguez still has the first iteration of the target on the second floor of his and his wife’s business. It’s covered in duct tape, and there’s a wooden strip along the base of the zone to help stabilize it. There’s a new version made of metal, but that initial version — there’s something about it. A testament to Grayson Rodriguez’s work ethic. A view into the teenage edition of a blossoming baseball star. A way to remember all those after-school throwing programs, when a pop would satisfy the ears with the knowledge of another strike.
“That was always the little sweet sound that would add to it,” Gilbert Rodriguez said.
Mementos such as that beat-up strike target litter Grayson Rodriguez’s trail from east Texas to Triple-A Norfolk — with a call-up to the big leagues likely in the not-so-distant future.
‘This isn’t normal’
In hindsight, Gilbert recognizes throwing the tennis ball at his toddler may not have been the best idea. Grayson, then just 2 or 3 years old, already had an affinity for playing catch, and he swung his plastic toy bat around with aplomb.
The balls he hit with that bat tended to be miniature plastic ones, nothing nearly as heavy as the tennis ball. But Grayson wasn’t daunted: He swung, sent the tennis ball flying and caromed it off the window.
“He smashed it,” Gilbert said.
It was an early example of the player Grayson would become, a natural hitter who consistently wowed his father and other onlookers with his pre-pitch movement at shortstop and power at the plate. When he was 5 or 6 in T-ball, he caught an offline throw at first base and swung his arm around to tag the passing runner.
“Whoa, this isn’t normal,” Gilbert recalled saying at the time.
Grayson never needed a hitting lesson. That came easily, with his father — who played college baseball — a strong guide. His parents have every home run ball Grayson hit in his career except for one. After the boom of his bat, someone would go scurrying to track the ball, scrounging until they found the souvenir of another Grayson at-bat.
The collection totals somewhere between 160 and 170 in all, but Gilbert still thinks of the one they couldn’t find. Grayson was playing a game near Beaumont, Texas, and clobbered a pitch well beyond the fence and into a dumpster.
Gilbert rummaged through that dumpster to no avail. And once the game finished, Grayson joined in the hunt, searching the dumpster and the trailer park beyond. There was no sign of the baseball, leaving their collection one short.
“That’s the only ball missing,” Gilbert said.
The pitching side of Grayson’s game needed more refining. There was only so much Gilbert could instill in his son before he needed to find a more able coach, someone with the experience to mold the burgeoning velocity into command. So Gilbert found Chad Massengale, who at the time served as Stephen F. Austin’s pitching coach, and set up lessons.
What Massengale discovered was a 10-year-old with skills — and size — beyond his years.
“When he first started coming to me, he was throwing a split-finger as a changeup,” said Massengale, who’s now the pitching coach at Texas State. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, his hands are big enough to throw a split-finger at 10 years old?’”
Two years later, Massengale decided to teach Grayson a spike curveball. The first day, Grayson already had a “plus, plus feel for it,” and they stood playing catch, throwing the pitch back and forth, before Grayson used it off the mound and spotted it in the zone.
Massengale would sit on a bucket behind home plate for their bullpen sessions, catcher’s mitt on his hand. When Grayson was 12, that’s when Massengale first felt the sting, despite the padding. And with each pop of the mitt, Massengale became more convinced Grayson would turn into something special.
“I could tell, it was just coming out of his arm,” Massengale said. “There was definitely some electricity in that right arm.”
His own field of dreams
With a small tractor, Gilbert got to work. He had identified the ideal plot of land — a gentle slope on the family’s 13-acre property — and now needed to meld that land into something usable. The brush went first, clearing the dirt of brambles and thickets.
And then in that tractor, Gilbert began leveling the ground, cutting into the slope to flatten the grade. He threw grass seed down, crafted some baselines, placed bags and molded a mound.
“It wasn’t much at first,” Gilbert said.
It would become much in the next few years, when Gilbert added a fence about 200 feet to center field. As Grayson grew older and better, the field on the family’s property about 2 miles from their house improved, too. The baselines were stretched to 90 feet, the mound pushed back to 60 feet, 6 inches, a backstop appeared and benches were made.
“It was like a real baseball field,” Gilbert said. “He’s probably the only kid in the county or in east Texas who had his own baseball field. He was proud of that.”
Like the pitching lab built years later on the second floor of the interior design business Gilbert and his wife, Temple, operate, the baseball field is a product of circumstance. He and a 7-year-old Grayson had practiced at a nearby school field for months. But one day, there was another father and son practicing.
Instead of arguing over who had rights to the field, Gilbert figured he’d build his own. And the final product is still used by Grayson and his 14-year-old brother, just as he still puts in work in the pitching lab.
The indoor bullpen had a similar origin. Rather than battling for space in public cages in the cold weather, the 16-by-62-foot hallway on the second floor transformed from storage into a setup befitting a future professional. The mound stands just shy of regulation distance, but it’s the hours spent both on the field and in the pitching lab that got him here, on the verge of a major league call-up.
A goal within reach
Grayson Rodriguez likely will never take another official at-bat. It’s his right arm — not his lefty swing — that earned him a $4.3 million signing bonus out of high school. It’s his right arm the Orioles place so much of their future on, a major piece in a rebuild entering its fourth year.
Rodriguez will take the mound Wednesday for Triple-A Norfolk, his third start of the season. Across his first two appearances, the right-hander has allowed two runs in nine innings, walking one batter while striking out 15.
Across two decades, the 22-year-old’s path has always led here. The mementos gathered along the way are evidence, from the plastic bat that nearly shattered a window to the ball field his father built. And then there’s the broken strike zone target, the one that left a satisfying pop sound whenever he flung another strike through the orange flap.
He hears a different sound now. It’s more of a smack, a ball hitting leather, over and over. Unlike the hours spent alone on the second floor of his parent’s business, where that pop noise was his only companion, that new sound — and the cheers that follow — are a reminder of where he’s come from, and where he’s going.
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