By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
After one season on the diamond for Oklahoma, Hunter Lockwood made the decision to leave the Sooners for an opportunity to play his preferred position behind the plate.
“I went to Oklahoma, I was playing first base,” Lockwood said. “I came back for my sophomore year and I was still playing first base so I left so I could catch.”
An 11th round draft choice in June by Tampa Bay, Lockwood was selected out of Weatherford College in Texas, spending one season with the Coyotes after leaving Oklahoma.
He wasn’t, however, selected as a catcher. That is fine with him.
“It really came to a decision where I would like to catch and once I get drafted that is their decision where they want to be me,” Lockwood said.
That has been left field, which is where Lockwood has played for the Princeton Rays.
“I am happy where I am at playing left field,” said Lockwood, who received a signing bonus of $247,500. “It is actually working out pretty good for me. I am getting to make some plays out there, run around and catch some fly balls. It is fun...
“Now I am just going to play left field, that is what they want me to do.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Lockwood had played in eight games for Princeton heading into Friday’s twinbill at Burlington, having hit .200 (5-for-25) with two doubles, three RBIs and two walks.
Lockwood, who will turn 21 on Sept. 16, has shown potential in his bat, collecting two hits, including a double and RBI at Elizabethton last month.
“I am really pleased with how I have been hitting so far,” said Lockwood, who made the All-Big 12 Freshmen Team at Oklahoma, finishing second in the league with 11 home runs. “We are doing some things with my swing with the coaches, it is an every day process.”
There was never any doubt what Lockwood — a lifelong follower of the Texas Rangers — wanted to do with his life.
“I was always a Rangers fan, I lived probably 15 minutes from the ball park,” he said. “I was right there, went to a lot of games, I just grew up watching baseball, I just loved it, my dad loved it when I was really little so it was always fun.”
Much like Hall of Famer Johnny Bench once told a teacher his goal was to be ‘the greatest catcher in the history of baseball’, Lockwood had a similar message for an educator as a youngster approaching high school.
“Absolutely, there was a time in seventh or eighth grade when you meet with the counselors and you tell them what you would like to do,” Lockwood said. “I was asked what are going to do and I said I am going to play professional baseball.
“He just looked at me like I was dumb and I was like ‘Really, that is what I am going to do.’”
Who is laughing now.
“That is what I am doing and that is all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “It is great.”
Lockwood, who wore No. 7 for catching legend Ivan Rodriguez as a child, caught the eyes of professional scouts while a Texas high school standout, batting .505 with eight home runs as a junior, and followed that up with 19 homers, 55 runs batted in and a .485 clip.
He was drafted as a catcher by the Los Angeles Angels in the 17th round in 2011, but chose to play at Oklahoma. He batted .249 with 11 long balls and 39 RBIs for the Sooners, playing some at catcher, but mostly at first base.
That was followed by a solid sophomore campaign at Weatherford, batting .333 with seven homers, 38 RBIs and 16 doubles, both as a catcher and right fielder.
The pitching that has met Lockwood in the Appalachian League has been similar to what he saw at the collegiate level.
“It is about the same, from an OU standpoint, from being there and being at the D-I level, it is the same type of arms, guys with good velo(city), good stuff,” he said. “It is a good competition every day trying to get a couple of knocks here and there.”
While Princeton is a long climb from Tampa Bay and the major leagues, Lockwood finds it refreshing to know that such stars as Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Matt Moore and others got their start at Hunnicutt Field.
“It is cool to think we are in the same place they were,” Lockwood said. “It kind of gives you a reassurance that they have been in your situation. They made it where they wanted to be so if you put the work in and do the time you can work your way to that too...
“I just want to work my way one day at a time.”
Lockwood’s desire to be a catcher has been put on the shelf for now, as he learns to play a new position in the outfield. He did see plenty of time on the right field at Weatherford, but now he’s on the other side of the field.
“Pretty much the same as playing right, except I am on the other side of the field,” said Lockwood, on the differences between the corner outfield slots. “You are working on the drills every day, catching fly balls as they come off the bat, just working on that daily is part of the routine here and just trying to get better at it...
“It is more of like a repetition because there are certain times in the game when you will do something wrong, but you know what you did wrong and then they reiterate it in practice.”
Having been a catcher, Lockwood might just be more focused than some outfielders who could be forgiven at times for getting a little distracted by inactivity that can occur in the field.
“It is nice to know what everybody else is thinking because I have been in that situation,” Lockwood said. “It is good knowing where I need to be, where they are going to be, what is going to happen and just trying to think two steps ahead.”
After getting drafted and signing with Tampa Bay, Lockwood didn’t have to make the stop that many players make in Florida. He drove straight to Princeton, and has enjoyed the first stop of his professional career.
“It is a great place to play, the fans are definitely into our games every time,” Lockwood said. “It kind of gives you the same feeling of playing at OU. It is not an enormous crowd, but is a crowd that is here knows your name, they know you, they are rooting for you, they want you to do good so it is a great place to play.”
Princeton started the campaign with a 1-7 record, but had won three straight heading into Friday’s twinbill. Lockwood expects the wins to continue for the Rays.
“We have got a lot of talent and we just weren’t getting the hits that we needed early,” said Lockwood, prior to last Monday’s win over Johnson City. “We had a couple of key hits last night, Bralin (Jackson) came up clutch for us and he has been struggling, that was great for us as a team and really good for him.
“It is really great that the guys you know can hit, that have been struggling a little bit, can come out and get big hits for the team.”
It’s not just the players who are getting adjusted to Princeton. So is much of the coaching staff, including manager Danny Sheaffer, who Lockwood enjoys playing for.
“I love them, they are a bunch of great guys,” Lockwood said. “They really want us to do good, they are really pulling for us, they want to see us grow as baseball players as well as human beings so it is fun to play for them.”
A smile normally settles on Lockwood’s face when playing or talking about baseball. No wonder.
“I am having a great time, being around a bunch of new guys,” he said. “We are having a good time getting to know each other and playing some ball and doing what we love.”
—Contact Brian Woodson