By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When the news came out, no one was more surprised than Derrick Loveless.
All Loveless did in the opening week of the season for the Bluefield Blue Jays was bat .355 (11-31), including a pair of home runs, two triples and two doubles, while scoring five runs and even drawing five walks.
No wonder Loveless was chosen as the Appalachian League Player of the Year, the first recipient for the 2013 season.
“Surprising. I am not going to lie, because I started off a little slow,” Loveless said. “I was hitting the ball well and when the second series came around I just started doing a lot better.
“It was nice just having a reassurance, but I never really expected to win that award, it was kind of humbling.”
A 27th round draft choice in 2011 by Toronto out of Solon, Iowa, Loveless struggled somewhat in his professional debut, but has had no such troubles since arriving in Bluefield.
Loveless, who batted just .165 in 37 games last summer in the Gulf Coast League, broke out on June 23 in Pulaski, collecting four hits, including a pair of home runs. He has continued to produce, batting .300 (15-50) heading into Tuesday’s game with Johnson City, along with four RBIs, seven runs, three doubles, two triples, along with a .419 on-base percentage, and .560 slugging clip.
He has four hits in 15 at-bats in his last three games for the Blue Jays, who are loaded with talented outfielders, meaning Loveless must produce to stay in the lineup.
“We have a great team, pitching staff, outfielders, infielders and catchers, we are competing against each other, but we are also trying to win the game,” said Loveless, whose Blue Jays (10-8) were in third place, a game behind Burlington, East Division prior to Wednesday’s game with the Royals. “We love each other like brothers and baseball is baseball, we are just out here to play.”
Also a talented football player in Iowa, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound lefty-swinging Loveless soon realized his future would be on the diamond.
“At the beginning I was more of a football guy and then I started realizing I was getting better at baseball than football,” Loveless said. “That is when it really kind of triggered that maybe I should pursue baseball rather than football.”
Loveless played just about every sport in Solon. He led his school to the Class 3A state championship in baseball as a senior, batting .554 with 11 home runs, 54 RBIs, 14 doubles, six triples and 28 stolen bases.
He also starred in football, track and field and even served as a goalkeeper for a soccer team that also played for the state title.
Toronto noticed his athleticism, and snapped him up in the 27th round two years ago. The Blue Jays had a close contact who helped make it happen.
“I was not really surprised because I had been talking to them for a while since my junior year,” said Loveless, who grew up a fan of the Chicago Cubs and Ken Griffey, Jr. “The scout that actually recruited me, he actually coached football at my high school.
“When they picked me up it wasn’t like ‘Wow, I am surprised they picked me up’, it was like ‘Wow, that is cool, I get to actually pursue my dream.’”
Loveless, whose father, Derrius, played football at the University of Iowa, also had a scholarship offer from the Hawkeyes, but decided to play baseball at the professional level.
“I just felt like this would be the better option for me,” Loveless said. “College baseball in Iowa is kind of cold and coming down here and playing in warm weather is something I would rather be doing.”
The 20-year-old Loveless started his career with a brief stint in the Gulf Coast League in 2011, batting .059 in just five games. That was followed last season, hitting at a .165 clip with 11 runs batted and a home run.
“The Gulf Coast last year was really tough actually,” Loveless said. “I had to make a lot of adjustments from my first year, this year I don’t think I have to make as many adjustments so it is a little bit easier for me to just kind of focus on playing and just helping the team.”
Loveless has enjoyed his stint in Bluefield, and especially the climate that surrounds historic Bowen Field.
“Playing under the lights and with people in the stands is just a whole different, compared to the GCL where you have no one and it is really hot,” he said. “Here, the atmosphere is just great, I love the people here and the town is nice, it is nice and small.”
It is also much different than Iowa, which is mostly flat with a few rolling hills, but nothing like what Loveless is now experiencing in Bluefield.
“The mountains really surprise me, even though I have been here a few weeks, I still like looking at them, especially in the morning when the clouds are low,” he said. “It is just astonishing to me...I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
It’s not just in Bluefield. Loveless has been on a few bus trips since the season began, which is part of the minor league experience.
“The bus rides aren’t that bad, they are just uncomfortable to sleep in when you need sleep, but it is no different than the GCL,” Loveless said. “I am kind of used to it, but when we stayed in Danville, that was a little bit different staying in a new town and experiencing that.”
Being a full-time baseball player can seem like a glamorous way to make a living, but — much like any profession — it is a job and it can be draining, especially mentally when doing the same thing over and over every day.
“Definitely, for me when you are here like eight hours a day and then you have got to go home and sleep and get up and then it is back all over again, and you have to do that from March when you first start to August,” Loveless said. “By the end or halfway sometimes you are even drained, it is just part of the grind and you just have to keep coming here and refocusing.”
The players do try to get away from the game when it is possible.
“We just hang out, play cards, just stuff that kind of keeps our minds off baseball until we actually have to get ready to practice and everything,” he said.
Loveless is confident that the Blue Jays can continue to produce wins, and challenge for the club’s first league title since the Orioles won it all in 2001.
“I think we can as long as we just keep it one day at a time and game by game,” he said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, we are on a good winning streak, but we are not out here to get winning streaks, we are out here to win games and improve as players.”
The goal for every player in the Appalachian League is to eventually play in Toronto, but Loveless doesn’t spend time thinking about those type of goals. He’s trying to help Bluefield right now.
“That would be great if I had the opportunity to play there, but if I don’t I feel that whatever I do I am going to be happy with,” Loveless said. “It would definitely be great to play there, but I am not really worried about that right now. I just want to stay focused on where I am at right now...
“That is all we can really do. We can come out here and work hard day after day, but in the end if you don’t make it that is just how it is.”
—Contact Brian Woodson