Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Class A slugger is an outdoorsman

Stokes hunts for happiness
By Joe Bush
October 7, 2002

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill.–Jason Stokes had a lot on his mind for a 20-year-old in the middle of August.
How to help lead his Class A Kane County club to a playoff berth (one of the few tasks he failed to accomplish this season), the impending offseason surgery to remove a cyst from his left wrist, adjustments on sliders away, whether to buy a bass boat.
"It’s been a big issue on my mind," said the Midwest League’s best all-around player. "I’d love to have a bass boat, but the only thing is, we’re gone from March all the way until September, and that’s when the best fishin’ is back home. We’re kind of on the wrong schedule to own a boat. I’d still like to have one."
You’ve just discovered 60 percent of what gets Stokes out of bed each day–baseball, family and fishing. And the baseball part of that equation went pretty well in 2002: Before the pain got to be too much and he opted for surgery at the end of August, Stokes punished Midwest League pitching to the tune of .341-27-75 in 349 at-bats.
Another 30 percent of Stokes’ motivation comes from offseason deer hunting in snaggle-toothed central Texas, and the remaining 10 percent is his pickup. It’s a Ford F250 diesel his father Bobby bought him for high school graduation.
"I’m from Oklahoma, and (Stokes) is a kid you run into in this part of the country," said Marlins scouting and farm director Jim Fleming. "Confident, quiet. He’s got a little bit of a swagger. You never know how a kid’s going to react to money or to success. He’s special.
"There are guys who are in love with being a baseball player, and there are guys who are in love with baseball. He’s the second. He wants to go out and get into a battle with the pitcher."
Simple Pleasures
Stokes, from Coppell, Texas, has money ($2.25 million to sign in 2000), success (a trophy room full of honors this season), and has won nearly 35 percent of his dust-ups with pitchers. Barring injury, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound first baseman will be a big league star, able to hit for both power and average, and his salary will make that signing bonus look like meal money.
In a major league dugout, or on a plane, or in a hotel room, Stokes will daydream about Lone Star bass that average seven pounds, the venison jerky made from the deer he bagged the winter before, and the TV program he’ll have when the bat gets slow.
Stokes killed his first deer about the same time he started tee ball. "If I wasn’t playing baseball, I’d love to be a guide," he says. "I’d like to have my own huntin’ or fishin’ show, or something like that. Hopefully, that’ll come when I retire. Something to do with outside.
"I don’t want to be inside."
Don’t fence him in? Well, this spring and summer, no person or stadium was able to. Stokes became the Cougars’ single-season home run king in mid-July. He doesn’t hit them; he clouts them. Peoria first baseman Chris Duncan, son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave, is 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, and is prized for his power. After Stokes crushed a home run against the Chiefs July 1, Duncan was awed.
"Stokes is pretty serious," Duncan said. "That guy hits baseball further than I’ve ever seen baseballs hit. He hit one in instructional league about 600 feet."
Stories of Stokes’ strength emanated from his predraft workouts–onto roofs, with broken bats–but Cougars manager Steve Phillips didn’t know much about him. Phillips came over to the Florida system in the offseason along with most of the Expos’ player-development people.
Plus, Stokes didn’t get much of a chance to build his name in 2001. Injuries to his back and hamstring limited him to 35 games and 130 at-bats. Phillips heard Stokes was a second-round pick, and had some power.
"We knew he was a big, strong guy, but he didn’t really have that good of a start in spring training," says Phillips, a hitting coach at heart. "He was a guy who potentially had some power, and he’d help in the middle of the order. Toward the last week, he started to drive some balls in the gap, and then we went and played the Clinton team in Jupiter, and he hit a ball over the batter’s eye, which is very tall.
"Dead-center. He probably hit it 450 feet, 470. And there was a cross-wind blowing. That was the first time that we really saw his power, but it wasn’t until we got here that we saw him using the whole field consistently."
Beyond The Numbers
It’s that unexpected versatility that had Stokes at the top of the MWL batting race most of the year. Because of the wrist–he had to sit for a couple of games every couple of weeks or so–he had a low RBI total, but it also didn’t help that the Cougars hit .239 as a team.
Stokes’ defense has been a revelation. The Marlins’ old regime tried him in the outfield because Adrian Gonzalez, the No. 1 pick in the same draft as Stokes, is at first base as well. The new regime returned him to the infield, where he’d grown up, and his comfort level has been apparent.
"In spring training it quite honestly wasn’t real pretty," Fleming said of Stokes’ defense. "He’s made tremendous improvement, a lot faster than we thought. Our hopes were that we could make him an average first baseman. Now, we think he can be an above-average first baseman."
As for Stokes, he had a mostly healthy year, proved he’s worth the investment, and best of all, got to play ball.
"Baseball works out perfect, you know," he says. "Baseball ends in September, and well, deer season doesn’t start until the end of September, and lasts all the way until January, which is the offseason for me. It kind of makes my life one of the best lives anyone could ever live.
"I play baseball for six months, and deer hunt for the rest of the time. I couldn’t ask for anything more."

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