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Senior and varsity baseball player Joey Wentz stepped aside during an afternoon practice. His teammates noticed his absence, but respected his attempt at privacy as he took a phone call behind a tree. When he returns five minutes later, they asked him who was on the phone.
“USA Today,” Joey replied.
And practice continued.
The reason his teammates brushed off the you-would-think-to-be-surprising response is because they are used to the kind of attention Joey has been getting this year. In the past year, his success has forced him to reckon with his future, but, for now, his primary focus lies with his team.
His teammates, along with much of the East community, see the various Dispatch, Royals Review and SM Post articles highlighting Joey’s fastballs or hear of his eight straight home runs at High School Select Home Run Derby.
Joey is creating this buzz as he plays alongside his teammates this Lancer baseball season. The 6’ 5’’ lefty power hitter and pitcher has worked to increase his fastball to 95 mph, taunting the MLB’s average fastball speed of 92 mph.
In Joey’s first four starts, he didn’t give up a single hit, which has contributed to the team’s 11-2 record and supports Max Prep Sport’s ranking of the Lancers as the number one team in Kansas.
But as Joey tries to focus on his team’s success, his skillset attracts those he cannot ignore, those who will play a key role in determining his future – scouts. Each game, around 50 scouts from college baseball teams and the MLB huddle together behind the backstop, raising their radar guns only when Joey steps on the mound. Even though he signed to play at the University of Virginia last year, they know the MLB draft in June holds enticing opportunity.
Philadelphia Phillies scout Brian Kohlscheen has traveled to five Lancer baseball games to watch Joey pitch, most impressed with Joey’s no-hitter games and how he “commanded the baseball.”
“He’s a guy that obviously has the tools and ingredients that you look for as far as a left-handed pitcher goes,” Kohlscheen said. “He’s intelligent, he’s athletic and he just possesses the ingredients that we look for to become a major league player.”
Kohlscheen estimates that hundreds of scouts from MLB teams and colleges have come to see Joey play this season, each comparing Joey to other prospects and seeing if he’d fit in with the team. According to perfectgame.org, Joey is ranked 37th overall among high school baseball players, 4th as a left-handed pitcher and 3rd overall in Kansas. Even though Joey may not be the highest-ranked player now, Kohlscheen believes if Joey continues to play how he does, “things will stack up for him” and emphasizes “it only takes one team to like you.”
Joey and his parents recognize that the scouts may be the first step in Joey’s lifelong dream of being a big-name, professional baseball player – he may be, quite literally, entering the big leagues. In preparation for Joey’s future, Dave and Jenny Wentz set Joey up with an advisor to help find the right college to play baseball. Joey, along with other high school prospects, have these unpaid advisors who would become their agents if the players got drafted and chose to go pro.
“UVA is a phenomenal school, great academics and first-class baseball program,” Joey’s mom, Jenny said. “That’s what he’s prepared to do. If the right opportunity comes along professionally, he’ll sit down and consider that.”
Joey and his family realize they must prepare for his future, manage interactions with the scouts and the media and, above all, make sure he keeps a level head.
“I really try not to focus on [the scouts] too much,” Joey said. “Obviously I see that there are people there, but I don’t really personally know them. I’ve talked to them a little bit, and if they come, I just try to do my best. Try to do well for the team.”
He knows his aspirations don’t just lie with the MLB, but here, in Kansas, at East, alongside his teammates. In the few weeks he has left, Joey focuses his efforts on his team and their united drive to win State.
And the team, including the coaches, are confident in his mental strength and focus on the team.
“In baseball, there’s a lot of mental,” pitching coach Kyle Frets said. “You’re either going to be in a slump and you’re down and not going to get out of it or you’re going get out of it – and he’s that guy that’s going to get out of it.”
His dedication to the team is why at practice, when Joey finished his phone call, he hustled back to the field. He lead a line of players doing high-knees, ran when the coach called and got on his teammates when they didn’t run pace.
Over the past three years of coaching Joey, Frets noted that each year Joey gained three to four miles per hour on his fastball. However, he has seen no change in Joey’s personality, regardless of his growing popularity.
“I feel like already he’s a college player; [he’s] really mature for his age,” Frets said. “I think that’s one reason why we have such good team chemistry – because of the seniors, including Joey. He not just leads by his words, but by his actions.”
Junior Henry Miller, who frequently is the first to joke with Joey when he returns to the dugout, appreciates the time they play together.
“I’m right behind him at first and pitching,” Miller said. “You take everything you can from him because he’s going be gone in a year – you gotta absorb all the knowledge that you can.”
During the 12th game of the season against Lawrence Free State, Joey’s fifth start of the season, Joey gave up his first hit of the year. One teammate turned to Miller and said, “Do you think he’s going to be pissed?” Miller responded, “He couldn’t care less.” Sure enough, Joey’s face remained emotionless as struck out batter after batter for the rest of the game.
After the Lancers won the game 2-0, the team celebrated. But Joey was not jumping, yelling or pumping his fist like the rest. Still he was the center of the pack as they walked across the field. At that moment, in this season, they know him as the first guy at practice and the last to leave. They know him as the freshman manager’s ride home. They know him as Joey.