In the third inning of July 22’s match against the Dunedin Blue Jays, Marcus Knecht tagged from third base and extended a telepathic dare to Stone Crabs’ right fielder Drew Vettleson: “Catch me if you can”. Knecht just barely dove beneath the reception of Vettleson’s missile of a throw to home plate amidst the cheers of fans thinking Knecht was out and, perhaps more so, the awed inhalations of others stunned by the sheer force and spot-on accuracy behind Vettleson’s launch.
Vettleson’s right arm housed his primary draft value in 2010, where he was taken by the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round, 42nd overall, out of Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, Washington. But the now-22 year old had another weapon in his back pocket, one which was largely canned upon his selection: he occasionally served as switch-pitcher in high school, an endowment so distinctive that a few teams sought him for its rarity.
“The Atlanta Braves were looking at me for my pitching ability,” Vettleson confirms with a somewhat wistful chuckle. “There were others who liked me for it. But my primary focus was outfield and my bat.”
Tampa Bay concurred with Vettleson, though he admits that transitioning from sometimes-clay to full-time grass involved a bit of mental reprogramming.
Instead of dealing 94 mph (right arm) or 88 mph (left arm) fastballs or low-80s knuckle-curves and changeups, he knocks them off the wood or gloves the fly-ball results of one. In right field, footwork became his most important modification. The dance of the outfield, he explains, has a different rhythm than that of the pitcher, and one must learn to step swiftly without straying from the tempo.
He presently recognizes right field as his sole home, the green of the turf and the glove on his left hand as his reassurances that yes, his dream is coming true, and yes, he is exactly where he belongs.
Since joining the pro scene his numbers draw the outline of an outfielder who owns his terrain with more than a slice of confidence. His fielding percentage peaked last year in Bowling Green at .977 in 117 games, and despite 13 errors rearing their uninvited heads with the Stone Crabs in 2013, fans of every allegiance have come to appreciate his flair for firing a ball to the diamond.
Even the opposing Dunedin Blue Jays players breathed a “Wow” at Vettleson’s answer to Knecht’s challenge.
Vettleson’s plate talent refuses to be ignored, too, and held prevalence in the minds of the Rays’ front office on draft day. This season, piggybacking off Jake Hager in the batting order while staffing the number three slot, he sits at a comfortable .276 batting average with 22 doubles and 42 RBIs: two and 11 shy, respectively, of the team leads.
Despite his bountiful success, no year passes without those nipping games meant to toughen his hide. Vettleson is not immune to the stings of misfortune, but in his three professional seasons, he’s learned that “coping” and “dwelling” produce two different overall outlooks. He recalls a home game in April where a pair of mishaps in the outfield dented his motivation fairly in the remainder of the match. He knows, from that occasion and from games before and after, that managing by distraction is the path to take when it comes to calming oneself after a rough outing. “Jake (Hager), Jeff (Malm), and I like to play card games or listen to music to keep our minds off bad days. I like being around other guys because we help one another relax.
“It’s better than being alone and tearing yourself apart for your mistakes.”
Attitude adjustment was vital, also, in releasing himself from home. Vettleson resides a six-hour flight from Florida in the clement state of Washington. Bremerton, his hometown, lies about an hour from Seattle, and climatically light-years from Florida’s chokingly humid temperament. The front of his polo by the midst of the meeting was darkened with sweat, but the heat is just another change Vettleson met with open arms. He likes Florida despite its moodiness and the copious rain-outs, and relished his time in Princeton, West Virginia, and Bowling Green, Kentucky.
He remembers departing from Washington the first time in June of 2011 (he signed with the Rays in August of 2010, just before the deadline, and opted to spend the summer outside of the organization) and emerging from the airport terminal in Princeton.
“My heart was pounding, it was very unreal,” Vettleson reminisces. “And the first year always has its difficulties… Going from seeing the family every day to talking to them on the phone is different. I think I adjusted pretty quickly, though. I know they support me, and I know I have a job to do.”
Vettleson maintains that, in order to reap success in his dream, he must fine tune his brain to separate casual life from baseball. Per the aforementioned statistics, he seems to be moving with the music well.
Baseball’s music isn’t the only tune Vettleson moves with. When Malm breaks out the guitar in their home, Vettleson is often the first on his feet trying to mimic the Backstreet Boys’ or N-Sync’s maneuvers. He anticipates the forthcoming question, laughing and shaking his head. “I’m terrible. I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I like to try anyway, ‘perfect’ a few moves so I can claim I’m good at it. But everyone knows I’m not.”
One might assume that growing up participating in recreational water sports along Washington’s Pacific coastline and residing for a year in Florida might birth a quality swimmer in Vettleson. He says otherwise, though. Just like his dancing, his swimming could use some work.
“I just don’t like (swimming) that much,” he says. “I can do it; not terribly well, but I can.”
Not that he has to worry about swimming through a baseball field, even in the torrential deluges that visit the Gulf Coast. Nor does he need to preoccupy himself with the reservations a ballet or tap dancer would think about at night. He is not the upcoming Michael Phelps, or the next contestant on So You Think You Can Dance. He is a prospective Major League Baseball player, one whose melody is ball-on-bat, cleat-on-grass, and, eventually, the buzzing of a telephone stating that his time has come to don a big-league jersey.