By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Ken Griffey Jr. was the role model of choice for most youngsters growing up around the Seattle Mariners. That included Cody Bartlett, but someone else stood out even more for the shortstop of the Bluefield Blue Jays.
“I am a big Griffey fan, but I was always a Joey Cora fan, a second baseman back in ’95,” Bartlett said. “He was that little guy that I had to look up to.”
Bartlett can relate. The 5-foot-8 shortstop for the Blue Jays has always been small in stature. All that does is motivate him to work harder than the rest.
“I feel height is something for other people to judge and fuel my fire,” said Bartlett, who is joined as the smallest player on the Blue Jays’ roster by 5-8 infielder Matt Abraham.
“I have always been the smallest guy. We are small guys, but we stick together. It fuels my fire when people doubt me and then I prove them wrong.”
Cora did much the same. Standing just 5-7 and 150 pounds, Cora — who has been a manager with the Kingsport Mets in the Appalachian League — spent 11 seasons as an infielder in the major leagues with four teams, earning American League All-Star honors in 1997.
Bartlett has always had an affinity for the small guy like Cora, who ignored size and made it big. Cora is now a bench coach with the Chicago White Sox.
“You are going to get doubted and they are always going to look at the bigger guys, but that just shows you what hard work can do,” Bartlett said.
He’s been working hard for this moment all his life. After a standout collegiate career at Washington State, Bartlett was a 41st round selection last month by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Call that a dream come true.
“It is kind of a surreal feeling, you can’t really describe it,” Bartlett said. “When I got that phone call saying I was going to get drafted I kind of went numb, and got a little emotional.
“I called my parents, I said ‘Dad, I made it’. That whole day is going to be memorable forever.”
Bartlett has struggled somewhat in his professional debut, batting .175 (7 for 40) in 12 games, but has driven in nine runs, scored seven more and collected five doubles for the Blue Jays.
He started fast, hitting .417 (5 for 12) in June, but is 2 for 28 since then.
“Nobody is ever pleased with what you do, everybody always wants to do more, but it has been a new transition from college baseball to now using wooden bats,” said Bartlett, who has seven errors in 53 chances at one of the more difficult positions in the field to play.
“It is always a struggle, it is always a grind and you have always got to get better. I am doing whatever I can to help the team win and progress with my skills.”
Those wooden bats can be difficult for anyone to adjust to, as Bartlett has learned, but he likes the feel of them when he has made contact. Among his hits was a three-run double in a win over Bristol, and he has two RBIs apiece in three other games for the Jays.
“To be honest I think wood is better. Wood bats — now the bats break — but think there is more pop in the wood bat,” Bartlett said. “It is a different feel, it is just getting used to pro baseball. That is really what it is.”
He did just fine at Washington State. He started 125 games in four seasons for the Cougars, batting .283 with 12 doubles and 25 RBI in the spring.
Known for his stellar defensive play, Bartlett had his best campaign as a junior, hitting .323 with seven home runs, 34 RBIs and a game-winning home run against Kansas State in the NCAA regionals.
Just the fact he played for the Cougars showed his individual desire to achieve on his own terms, having grown up as a fan of the archrival Washington Huskies.
“I grew up a Husky and rooted for Washington, but I loved the small hometown feel that kind of correlates over to this,” Bartlett said. “It is just the Washington State Cougar Nation, it is indescribable.
“It is like a family and I was bound and determined to go there as soon as I found out about that.”
Bartlett has found much the same kind of family feeling in Bluefield, while adjusting to playing baseball for a living more than 3,000 miles from home.
“It is definitely a little culture shock, it is a small town,” Bartlett said. “I come from Seattle, but it has been great. The fans are very welcoming with open arms, just great people here.
“That has made this culture shock a lot easier with the great fans. Loyal fans is what it really is, and the transition has been fairly easy.”
Seattle has a presence in the Appalachian League, and especially in Mercer County. Bartlett is just one of a few, including a trio of starters in Princeton — Drew Vettleson, Ryan Brett and Josh Sale — all of whom got their start in the game — often inside, since it rains so often in the Emerald City.
“Usually the southern guys are the big dudes, the baseball mecca is down south with all these big guys, but most of the time we are inside with all our rainy weather.” said Bartlett, who is from Kent, just outside of Seattle.
“We get a lot of work done in cages and infield camp. We produce good athletes and it is starting to show.”
While none of the Princeton trio played in college, Bartlett has been able to use that experience to his advantage at the rookie level.
The Pac Ten is one of the nation’s better baseball conferences, including such schools as USC, UCLA, Oregon State, California and Arizona State.
In fact, two of the top three players in the most recent amateur draft were pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer from UCLA. In all, four of the top 20 selections were from the Pac Ten.
“We like to say and from what we have heard, it is one of the better conferences in the nation,” said Bartlett, who will turn 23 on July 22. “Everybody thinks they are the best of course, but it is great baseball.
“The northwest schools do a lot of stuff inside. We get very excited to go down south to California to play, but it is a very competitive league.
“ If you look at the draft and the stats, there are a lot of good ball players.”
Bartlett compares the talent level in the Appalachian League favorably to the Pac Ten where so many of the players are either playing now or will be playing professional baseball in the future.
“I would say it was very similar, there were a lot of high draft picks out of that Pac Ten this year with Cole and Bower out of UCLA,” Bartlett said. “Every weekend in the Pac Ten, it was 90 miles per hour, and Cole he threw 100 so it was about 95 with the pitchers every game.
“We are all young guys and we are all very skilled so it is very similar out there.”
While the main goal of every Appalachian League player is to use his skills to move up their respective systems, Bartlett said the Blue Jays quickly meshed and showed the team aspect that is such an important part of the game.
“The personal goal is to make a large impact quickly for my career, but ultimately, it is professional baseball,” said Bartlett, whose Jays are 11-9, and in a three-way tie with Princeton and Pulaski for first place in the East Division.
“Right off the bat this team just clicked and now I just love playing for myself, but I love playing for my teammates.
“I like everybody on our team so that is definitely a perk. If you didn’t like your team it would be a lot more difficult and it would be more of a self-centered game, but I love all the players so it is that easy transition to make that impact for the team.”
Winning isn’t the most important thing to an organization with a team in the Appalachian League, but Bartlett said winning is simply part of the game that can’t be ignored.
“Absolutely, if you look at it, winning causes all the bad stuff to go away,” Bartlett said. “If you have a bad game, what you are taught as a young guy, keep your head up.
“You go 0-for-4 and do something bad and you win, you still pretty good at the end of the day and then the next day when you go play it gives you a little more fire to say, ‘All right, what I can do to help the team to win.’ ”
Bartlett has quickly learned that the Appalachian League title isn’t the only championship up for grabs for Bluefield. The Blue Jays currently hold a 3-2 lead in the Mercer Cup series, and he knows how important that is for the fan bases of both teams.
“I never really knew about this rivalry, but you could definitely feel the tension (here) with the fans … and when we went to Princeton,” Bartlett said.
“I was telling one of their players when I got out there, it kind of feels like the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry so it was a lot of fun.
“That is what keeps me going in a game is that competition.”
And, Bartlett always competes. That’s the only way the small guy can make it at this level.
“When that big guy goes in there (to work) for two hours you have got to go for three,” Bartlett said. “You have just got to out-work them and people are going to doubt you and you can’t let that get in your head.
“You have just got to keep that one-track mind that you are going to prove them wrong and then you have got to go out and perform.”
— Contact Brian Woodson