KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jurickson Barthelomeus Profar, 19 years old, with a regal game to match his regal name, stared as most teenagers might stare were they sitting alone inside a major league dugout with garb that bore the Texas Rangers' logo: wide-eyed, fixed on nothing and everything, the late-summer's humidity no impediment for the permaglow in which he basks these days. He sat for five minutes, then 10, then more. No one interrupted him. Better to let the kid enjoy himself.
He's been a big leaguer for five days now, five days of relatively uninterrupted fawning over all things Jurickson Profar. From the numerophiles who want him to replace Michael Young in the Rangers' starting lineup to the scouts who wish their ballclub had someone like that to the teammates who can't help but say nice things about him, Profar may never have it better. Thrown into a pennant race as a teenager, homers in his first at-bat, gets to spend September – and, hell, who knows, maybe even October – playing the sort of meaningful baseball so few ever do.
Jurickson Profar became the 113th player in major league history to homer in his first career at-bat. Here's a look at the past 10 to accomplish the feat:
|Jurickson Profar, Tex., 19||Sept. 2, 2012|
|Eddy Rodriguez, S.D., 26||Aug. 2, 2012|
|Starling Marte, Pitt., 23||July 26, 2012|
|Brett Pill, S.F., 27||Sept. 6, 2011|
|Tommy Milone, Wash., 24||Sept. 3, 2011|
|Brandon Guyer, T.B., 25||May 6, 2011|
|J.P. Arencibia, Tor., 24||Aug. 7, 2010|
|Daniel Nava, Bos., 27||June 12, 2010|
|Starlin Castro, Cubs, 20||May 7, 2010|
|Luke Hughes, Minn., 25||April 28, 2010|
Source: Baseball Almanac
"I'm ready for it," Profar said with neither arrogance nor hubris but this sort of certainty, this conviction he shares with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who have Rat Pack talent and Brat Pack birthdays.
Call them the Bat Pack.
The influx of young and supremely talented players over the last two years may be nothing more than an anomaly, a blip in baseball's industry-wide shift toward conservatism with youth. Still, it's worth noting that all four have debuted in their age-19 season within the last two seasons. In the 2000s, only six players arrived in that time frame, and the '90s gave the big leagues just 11.
While baseball isn't trending back to the strategy of 50 years ago – from 1963-65, 58 players debuted in their age-19 season or earlier – it is celebrating grand talent. And if there is anything to take out of the Trout-Harper-Machado-Profar renaissance, it is this: This is a potentially transcendent group, something Trout and Harper have shown and the latter two soon will.
Because despite what your friendly neighborhood old-timer may say, baseball today is better than ever and harder than ever. Higher velocities. Greater variety of pitches. Bullpen specialization. Video to exploit weaknesses. Information to overload the mind. Media pressure. To buzz through the minor leagues and force a team to call players up during their age-19 season takes a level of achievement that confounds veterans.
"He looks like he belongs, and he's 19," Rangers closer Joe Nathan said. "Think about that. I know there have been guys in the past, but with everything you've got these days? The cutter barely existed when I started pitching. Go back to the '60s and guys never saw split[-fingered fastball]s. Before that, there weren't sliders. The game today is just so much better. I've gotten in arguments with guys about this. They can have their opinions.
"All I know is, if Babe Ruth used a 44-ounce bat against pitchers today, he wouldn't hit .100."
Now, each of the Bat Pack comes equipped with a special talent to survive in an era when the game is at its all-time best. Trout is loaded with more tools than a Home Depot, and each has actualized with amazing rapidity this season. Harper hit home runs Nos. 16 and 17 on Wednesday, passing Ken Griffey Jr. in his age-19 season. Machado left high school with comps to Alex Rodriguez – himself an age-18 debut – and not just because they were Latin kids from Miami.
Profar is different. He is not the sort of physical machine of the rest. He stands 6-foot and weighs about 170 pounds. The Rangers worry about him losing weight. He signed with them for $1.55 million in 2009 because they wanted him to play shortstop. Everyone else around the game saw him throwing in the mid-90s as a 16-year-old, saw a 100-mph arm and preferred to develop him as a pitcher.
"Pitching is boring," Profar said.
Texas believed in Profar as much because of his makeup as his tools. Makeup is a tricky part of baseball scouting, particularly with teenagers. It is betting on personality, on something so very intangible, something even less developed than their raw skills. Who is at 21 what he was at 20, let alone at 16?
Profar's base was there. He was the star of Curacao's Little League World Series championship team at 11 years old and runner-up at 12. He was raised by an airport policeman father and a schoolteacher mother. He learned to play the game in his back yard by throwing around rocks with his brother, Juremi, a 16-year-old the Rangers signed this week. He spoke English, Spanish and Papiamentu, a language native to Curacao, a tiny island off the northern Venezuelan coast that is turning into the new shortstop factory with Profar, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius and Jonathan Schoop. Few things in baseball are as valuable as a player who can bridge the divide between English- and Spanish-speaking players in a clubhouse, and the Rangers envisioned Profar as that sort.
They knew what they had come his first spring training, when, during a game, a Rangers pitcher walked a hitter, then went 2-0 on the next.
"He went over and started talking to him, trying to calm him down," said Rangers infielder Mike Olt, who played alongside Profar in two minor league seasons. "Everyone is standing there, like, 'What just happened? Did he really do that?' It was a big leaguer."
Profar had turned 17 a month earlier.
"I don't remember who the pitcher was, but he didn't laugh or say anything," Olt said. "He just listened. It just shows you how people see him."
Certainly they don't see him as any 19-year-old. Part of the reason it takes such a special talent is free agency, of course; once players weren't teams' property in perpetuity, delaying their service clock to get their prime years became a legitimate consideration. Used to be 19-year-old debuts were nothing more than kid makes the big leagues, as opposed to No. 1 Prospect In Baseball Arrives During Playoff Race and Hits Home Run in First At-Bat and OMG WTF LULZ.
Suffice to say, Walter Johnson did not deal with prospect saturation in 1907 when he first started at 19. Nor Waite Hoyt, Bob Feller, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Catfish Hunter. Not Doc Gooden, in New York. Nor a fat pitcher who impressed in his first season for the Red Sox in 1914: Babe Ruth.
Ty Cobb and Mel Ott and Mickey Mantle and Robin Yount … hell, even Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and the Upton brothers: Even within the last five years the landscape in baseball has evolved so rapidly it barely resembles what it did when they disembarked in the major leagues.
Perhaps that's why Jurickson Barthelomeus Profar, 19, was sitting on the bench, staring at nothing, at everything. He may still be a kid, but he's wise enough to understand: What he's done is different, special. That goes for the whole Bat Pack, baseball's greatest example of something worth admiring, savoring and, best of all, enjoying.
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