It’s baseball season again.
It can be pretty hard to believe, with the deep chill that is currently hovering above the Great Plains. If you are dreaming of warm weather and springtime activities, North Port, Florida, is a good place to start.
According to Bryce Ball, it’s a pretty good place to spend the spring.
On a recent 86 degree Florida day, the former NIACC and Newman Catholic baseball star discussed his first spring as a member of the Atlanta Braves system.
Back in early January, Ball got the news that he would be attending major-league spring training, making him the first former NIACC player to be invited to a big-league camp.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound lefty slugger hit .362 in two seasons at NIACC, with an on-base percentage of .487, a combined 21 home runs and 96 RBI in 112 games.
After transferring to Dallas Baptist before his junior year, Ball hit .325 with 18 homers and 51 RBI in one season, before getting selected in the 24th round by the Braves.
After getting drafted, Ball went on an offensive tear. At his first stop at Rookie ball, the former North Iowa standout hit .324 for the Danville Braves, with a .410 on-base percentage, and a .676 slugging percentage with 13 home runs in 41 games. Ball was promoted to Single-A Rome, and hit .337/.367/.547 with four homers in 21 games.
“It’s a huge leap to go from Mason City to Texas to play baseball, create some of your best friends, and then you leave them after a year,” Ball said. “You go to professional baseball, where you really don’t know anybody. You are familiar with some people, but for the most part you don’t know anybody on a personal level."
For Ball, the minor-league baseball experience was a lot like he expected.
During his winter-time training in Dallas, Ball would listen to the stories of the different professional players that came back for the winter, hearing their tales of the discomforts that come along with playing lower-level professional ball. There are plenty of long bus rides and poorly maintained fields in the lower minor leagues, but Ball seems to take it in stride.
“If you are complaining all the time about how bad the fields are, and all the time on the bus, you’re not going to be very successful,” Ball said. “There are good facilities in most of minor league baseball. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t places where you look at it, and you go 'Are you sure we can play on this field?’ It’s a difficult life, for sure. But it’s what you make of it.”
With Ball spending the next month in the big-league facilities, he is getting a first-hand look at how the major league players live. Once minor-league players get a taste of the good life, that can be powerful motivation to play well, and get a promotion.
“Just from being in the big-league locker room, is not even on the same planet or galaxy in how things are run (in minor-league ball),” Ball said. “Minor league baseball is what I heard it was like, but I think it’s important to make the most out of it. The higher you go, the better you are treated. It’s plain and simple.”
For now, Ball gets to hang around with players that he has idolized for years. Players such as Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Nick Markakis are now his coworkers. When Ball watches those hitters do their work in the cage, or watches the pitchers throw in the bullpen, he realizes how lucky he is.
“Just to watch them work in the cage next to me is incredible,” Ball said. “These are some of the best players the game has to offer, and they’re right next to me standing and talking, which is great.”
Ball showed prodigious power from a young age. In his 2016 senior season at Newman Catholic, Ball hit 17 homers with 67 RBI, and finished the year hitting .520/.647/ 1.245. Seeing Ball make the leap from Class 1A to major league camp in just four short years has made the community at his high school very proud.
"He is a guy that has always dreamed of getting to this level, and will do whatever it is going to take to get him there," Newman Catholic coach Alex Bohl said. "You can see it in the way that he has transformed his body since his freshman and sophomore year of high school. The guy has put in the right amount of work and has definitely taken care of himself."
After his strong 2019 season, Ball shot up on the organizational depth chart. MLB.com recently named him as one of the 30 MLB prospects who are set to break out in 2020.
Ball is being mentioned as a top option to become the Braves’ first baseman of the future. While he is still probably at least a year or two away from cracking the MLB lineup if all continues to go well, a big-league spring-training invite is a sign that the team has high hopes for the 21-year old Ball.
“The big part is walking in and seeing your name on the locker,” Ball said. “I get to be out on the field with those guys, and be around them for the next month. I’m super excited to get out there and start working with those guys, and start learning. They have a ton of insight for me, I’m sure.”
Several former NIACC players aside from Ball have made the jump to the professional level in recent years:
• Pitcher Brandon Williamson was drafted in the second round out of Texas Christian by the Seattle Mariners in 2019.
• Outfielder Malique Ziegler became the first NIACC player to be drafted, when he was taken in the 22nd back in 2016 by the San Francisco Giants.
• Former Trojan Luke Becker was drafted out of the University of Kentucky in the ninth round of the 2018 draft by the San Diego Padres.
“I think that is cool (to be the first) with how many great players have come out of NIACC,” Ball said. “I’m sure there is more coming with the talent that is coming out of there.”
Ball will most likely start the year in Single-A, either back with Danville or with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs. The team hasn’t given him an indication of where he will end the year, but Ball’s personal goal is to at least make it to the Double-A Mississippi Braves.
“I think Double-A is a very achievable goal by the end of the season, and I hope get a significant amount of playing time up there," he said. "I think that is a good goal. Who knows? Baseball is a crazy game, and who knows what happens?”
Former NIACC coach Travis Hergert, who is now an assistant pitching coordinator with the Philadelphia Phillies, could see that Ball was going to be a special talent.
"He’s worked really, really hard," Hergert said. "You’re probably going to see him in a big-league uniform here sooner than later. We always knew that Bryce had those big-league intangibles, with his size, and his freakish power that you didn’t see from just run of the mill players."
Ball spent most of this past offseason training at Dallas Baptist. Rather than spend his winter hitting at the indoor cage at NIACC, Ball wanted to be able to take ground balls and train in the warm sunshine. Now, with a month of Florida heat and baseball to look forward to, life is looking good for Ball.
“It was nice to be here. The sun is out, and there was a little breeze,” Ball said. “It’s pretty warm. You can wear shorts and a t-shirt, and not freeze your butt off. It felt good to be back out in the heat again. I missed the summertime heat.”
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