Hometown kid a big hit in the Big Leagues

Growing up in Middletown, a city known more for basketball than baseball, Kyle Schwarber wasn’t the best hitter on his Little League team.

“Not even close,” his father, Greg Schwarber said. “It’s funny we were just sitting here a few minutes ago, asking, ‘Why him? Why Kyle and not the other kids?’ ”

His mother, Donna Schwarber, sitting a few seats away, doesn’t know, either. “Just think of all those players.”

But as Greg and Donna Schwarber sat in section 251 Wednesday night at Progressive Field in Cleveland, there was a steady stream of family and friends — several wearing Cubs jerseys with SCHWARBER stitched across the back — joining in the evening unaware what was going to transpire over the next three hours.

Then there was an announcement: “Now batting for the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber.”

Schwarber made his way from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box for his first at-bat as a starting designated hitter for the Chicago Cubs. On a night Cleveland sports fans were still deflated by the Cavaliers loss in the NBA Finals, Schwarber gave long-suffering Cubs fans another reason to celebrate.

He’s the future of the franchise, and the future is brighter than the Chicago skyline.

After striking out on three pitches in his major-league debut Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, Schwarber showed why the club made him the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, giving him a $3.125 million signing bonus. In his first at-bat Wednesday, with his mom’s legs shaking and cell phones in the section capturing every second, Schwarber laced a triple and added three singles. As the DH, he went 4 for 5 and collected two RBIs.

If not for a hard-hit double play, Cubs fans may have erected a statue of him outside Wrigley Field.

Schwarber’s hot start continued Thursday night in Cleveland. He hit his first career homer and added another single. In his first three career games, he was 6 for 10 with four RBIs.

Schwarber was able to get the home run ball back. The fan who caught it asked only for an autographed ball from Schwarber and one from Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer.

When asked about the second-inning triple Wednesday night that rattled around in the right field corner, Schwarber, surrounded by Chicago media after the game, said: “Didn’t see that one coming. At least I got the first one out of the way.”

Schwarber told everyone in spring training he was fast.

“No one believed me,” he said with a laugh.

By this time, the 22-year-old must be used to proving doubters wrong. He was an all-state football player at Middletown High School where he graduated in 2011, and some said he should have played Division I college football. But Schwarber said baseball was his first love, and at 6-foot, 225 pounds, he realized his chances of playing in the NFL were slim, his dad said.

So he signed to play baseball at Indiana University, again, like his hometown, known for a ball different than baseball. Indiana’s coach Tracy Smith probably would have signed someone else if his roots weren’t deeply planted in Middletown. Smith coached baseball at Miami University Middletown and Miami University before taking the Indiana job, and his wife, Jaime, is from Middletown.

In fact, Smith only scouted Schwarber in high school after being encouraged by Middletown’s Fred Nori and Mark Kerns, close friends and baseball coaches. He watched just one game and that was enough. Schwarber homered three times.

“The ball sounded different coming off his bat,” Smith said from his baseball office at Arizona State where he is now the head coach.

Smith said if Schwarber wasn’t such a talented linebacker, he probably would have been more heavily recruited to play college baseball. Throughout Schwarber’s three seasons at IU, Smith said numerous coaches asked him, “Where did you find this kid? Who is this guy?”

As a Hoosier, Schwarber hit .341 with 40 homers and 149 RBIs in 180 games, putting up a .437 on-base percentage and 116 walks against 91 strikeouts. He played for Team USA and led the Hoosiers to the school’s first College World Series in 2013.

Then, following the 2014 season that ended one game short of IU’s second straight appearance in the College World Series, Schwarber was drafted fourth, the first position player taken. At the time, the Cubs said Schwarber would play catcher, his natural position, and the outfield in the minor leagues.

But the Cubs’ front office couldn’t ignore the numbers he put up in the minors.

In 129 minor-league games since starting his pro career last summer, he’s hit .333 with an OPS of 1.043, knocking 31 homers and driving in 92 runs. So far in Double-A this season, he’s hitting .318 with 13 homers.

In the months since he was signed, Schwarber went from Class A to Class AA to the majors. When he was promoted Monday night, he was told he’d play six games with the Cubs, the last five as DH since the Cubs were playing in American League parks against the Indians and Minnesota Twins.

After Wednesday’s four-hit performance and since the starting catcher, Miguel Montero, was scratched with a sore back, there were those in the Chicago media who questioned manager Joe Maddon if Schwarber had earned an extended stay.

“He had good swings,” Maddon allowed. “He’s a kid who is a good hitter who knows he’s a good hitter. He does it in the right way.”

But Maddon said the plan is to send Schwarber to Class AAA after today’s game and have him work on his defense behind the plate.

When asked if he thought he should stay with the Cubs, Schwarber handled the question like a fastball down the middle.

“Some people never get to the big leagues and I’m here and I have to take advantage of it,” he said. “It’s exciting to be here. It’s crazy you know. This is something that you dream of growing up. Now that I’m here, it’s awesome.”

A few feet away, a Cubs media member who listened to the entire interview just smiled.

Schwarber’s success in professional baseball probably will be determined by his power hitting. That was evident early on, said Josh Spring, coach of the Cincy Flames, a summer traveling team.

“The bat showed early that it sounded like none of the other kids on the team,” Spring said while watching Wednesday’s game with about 40 of Schwarber’s family and friends. “You could tell he was going to hit. Whenever he got down on himself, he was always tough on himself, I always told him, ‘Go hit.’ We had a saying that ‘bears eat salmon.’ You just go up there and hit and don’t think.”

Two of his teammates at MHS said Schwarber also possesses an incredible work ethic, a sentiment echoed by the Cubs manager.

“Once he got to high school, a switch went off and he was a different person,” said Cameron Calhoun. “I played summer ball with him. We’d come home from tournaments and it would be 8, 9, 10 o’clock and he and his dad would go hit in a cage until he had blisters on his hands. Everyone else was tired, and we went home. He went straight to the cage. I tried to stay up with him a little bit, but it was a whole other level.”

Alec Fultz, 22, a 2011 MHS graduate, added: “He was always lifting the most weights of anybody. He was impressive. Then when he went to Indiana, he exploded. When he got there and took the starting job, that’s when it got real that he could do something.”

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