Eighty-five degrees and humid. Sweat rolling down the chubby cheeks of little leaguers. It was another hot day out at Missouri 3&2. Senior Joey Wentz was eight years old and playing for EM Baseball, a Missouri based tournament team. There was no pressure, it was just the second game of the season. Wentz was up to bat and took the pitcher deep to center field. This was where it all started. Wentz’s first career home run.
Even before Wentz hit his first home run, he was a hitting balls off a tee in first grade.
“Baseball always just came, not easy, but naturally,” said Wentz.
Wentz has played varsity baseball every year he has gone to SME.
“Joey is unbelievable talent that doesn’t come along very often,” Varsity baseball head coach Jerrod Ryherd said.
Showing exceeding talent in pitching, first base and hitting, Wentz was a major prospect for many big name colleges. In his sophomore year, Wentz committed to playing baseball for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, the 2015 College World Series champions.
This summer Wentz was playing in the Tournament of Stars in Cary, North Carolina, trying out for the 18-U 40-man USA Baseball team, an international baseball tournament competitor. He didn’t make the cut for the team, but something even more special was in the works. Little did he know, he was being judged on every swing of his batting practice.
Shaun Cole, the head of the tournament, was judging Wentz, along with every other player competing in the tournament for the High School Select Home Run Derby, the official high school home run derby held as a major league All Star feature. Following the cuts for the 40-man team, Cole pulled aside eight high schoolers, including Wentz and offered them a chance to compete in the Derby. That evening Wentz talked with his parents about the opportunity, and the next day he confirmed that he was going to compete.
After being asked to compete in the Derby, Wentz headed to Atlanta for a three-day tournament with his club summer team. He returned home for three days and then traveled to another tournament in Oklahoma.
On the morning of July 9, Wentz and his mother, Jenny, flew to Cincinnati for the big Derby. After filing out of the plane and gathering their luggage, drivers were waiting for Wentz and his mother in the parking lot. The driver took the two to the Millennium hotel in downtown Cincinnati. Wentz and his mother arrived at noon, had time to get checked in and eat lunch and then they were on the move again. Around 2 p.m. the drivers picked the hitters up and took them to the Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds.
When Wentz and his mother arrived at the Ballpark, a locker in the clubhouse was waiting for him. Prior to Wentz’s arrival in Cincinnati, he had been asked what his favorite Major League team was. His answer, of course, was the Royals. A custom All Star name plate had been put above the locker, along with Under Armour cleats, a black American League jersey with red sleeves and Wentz #17 on the back, red side-piped white pants, warm-ups and KC Royals All Star hat, all the same as the Royals All Stars would be wearing on Sunday night in the All Star Game.
“Once you saw the nameplate above the locker, it really set in like, wow, this could be a once in a lifetime deal,” Jenny Wentz said.
Due to KSHSAA eligibility rules, Wentz was not able to take home any of the gear he received from the MLB, although it will be shipped to him after he graduates this spring.
The morning of July 10 Wentz was met by a 6 a.m. wake up call. It was the morning of the Derby, but Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating. There was a storm in the forecast and many officials of the Derby were worried they wouldn’t be able to hit. A clear pocket in the storm came through at 7a.m. for the batters to be able to hit. An eerie mood was set in the stadium at such an early time. Instead of the nearly 43,000 people that usually fill the seats of the nearly red sea of a stadium, only the cleaning crew and sluggers were in the stadium.
After an hour of waiting, it was finally Wentz’s turn to hit some dingers.
Wentz jumped on the first pitch thrown by Xavier University hitting coach, and bombed it deep to right.
“It’s intimidating hitting in a Major League ballpark, but after you get the first one out, it just feels like you’re hitting batting practice,” Wentz said.
In the first round of the derby every hitter got 10 outs before they move on to the next batter. In the derby, an out is any hit or swing that doesn’t qualify as a home run. Every hitter advanced to the second round, that lasted only five outs per batter, and whoever hit the most home runs took the win.
Concluding the first round, Wentz hit seven long balls and moved on to the second round. Wentz ended with eight home runs and was just three home runs short of clinching the win.
According to Wentz, being able to compete in the High School Select Home Run Derby is a memory he will never let go of. Someday, he hopes to see his name up in that locker room again.
“I thought how a lot better it would be in five or 6 years to see my name up there permanently,” Wentz said.
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