Every baseball player has dreams, both short-term and long-term.
A short-term dream might be as small as hitting a home run in a whiffle ball game, or winning a district title in high school.
As a career progresses, long-term dreams can sometimes become closer realities, such as playing college ball, and moving on to a career in the big leagues.
Tunkhannock graduate Mike Papi had already crossed the former off the list, becoming one of the best players in the Atlantic Coastal Conference during a three-year career at the University of Virginia.
But last week, two of his biggest dreams came true, all within a five day period.
It might be time to start making another list.
On Thursday, Papi was selected by the Cleveland Indians as the 38th pick in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
On Monday, the Virginia Cavaliers punched their ticket to the College World Series by defeating Maryland in a best-of-three series.
Not bad for a kid from Tunkhannock.
“It’s an honor and a true blessing (to be drafted),” Papi said a little after midnight, just hours after his team earned a trip to Omaha. “To have the opportunity to be a professional player is what everyone always dreams of, and it came true. I’m extremely happy to represent NEPA and Tunkhannock and everyone back home. It’s great for me and great for them and I’m extremely fortunate to have this opportunity.”
Baseball America ranked Papi as the No. 43 prospect in the country heading into the draft, with the chance of being drafted in the first round a strong possibility.
But Virginia was in the midst of preparing for a three-game super regional set against Maryland after beating Arkansas the weekend before, and the focus was less on the draft and more on the task at hand.
“The whole week before the draft was truthfully a blur,” Papi said. “We were so busy with regionals and super regional practice, and our coach (Brian O’Connor) did a great job keeping us focused and not thinking about ourselves. It handled itself and there was nothing I could do to change my draft stock a week before the draft, so I was focusing at the task at hand: to win and move on.”
On draft day, the Cavaliers packed into a restaurant to watch the draft as a team. Nick Howard, closer for the ‘Hoos, was the first Virginian chosen at the 18th pick.
As part of the Competitive Balance Round with the first round, when picks are just one minute apart, Derek Fisher was the next Cav chosen as the 37th pick.
Papi had already heard from his advisor earlier that night, saying that the Indians were interested in making an offer, but still wasn’t sure if the Indians would pick him.
One minute after Fisher was picked however, Mike Papi’s name flashed on the television screen.
“We were still celebrating Derek’s pick after waiting all night, and 30 seconds later you hear my name,” Papi said. “It was great for us and everyone was very excited and happy. I didn’t have the opportunity to be with my parents but it was nice to be with my second family and celebrate with the guys. It was a true blessing for us.”
While some players are already reporting to their respective clubs, teams will have to wait to finalize any deal with Virginia players, whose focus now is Omaha.
“They (the Indians) gave me a call to offer congratulations and to see how I was feeling, but said to take care of what we have going and after that we’ll handle business,” Papi said. “The draft didn’t really effect me, but I know it puts a mental stress on people and it was a huge weight off our shoulders. We can focus on playing loose and aggressively now in Omaha.”
TRIP TO OMAHA
To get to Omaha, the Cavaliers had to get past a tough Maryland team that had struggled early in the season, but seemed to get hot at exactly the right time.
But the ‘Hoos were hosting the super regionals just like they had the series before, and could potentially use the park’s deep dimensions to their advantage.
“It was great being able to use our facilities and practice field and have the environment from our fan support,” Papi said. “It’s always easier to play for fans rooting for you rather than against you, so it was amazing.”
But Maryland remained hot in the first game of the series and quieted the Virginia crowd, as the Terps offense scored three runs in the fourth and played fantastic defense en route to a 5-4 win.
“We’re an extremely confident veteran group of guys, so we’re able to move past losses and move on to the next day,” Papi said. “We hit it hard that day but it was right at people, and that’s how baseball works sometimes.”
In game two, the Virginia bats came alive. Papi had his second three-hit game of the series, and the ‘Hoos won 7-3.
“I was seeing the ball a lot better in the first two days,” Papi said. “When I’m hitting the cover off the ball and when things go right, I’m a confident hitter and I just ride that confidence.”
In the final game of the series, Papi hit the ball hard in four at-bats, but got under it each time for flyouts.
But he flashed the leather in the field, picking a throw from short that ended the top of the eighth inning and a Maryland rally.
“It’s extremely important not to take your offense out onto the field,” he said. “They had the momentum and I think it was huge to be able to pick the ball and end the inning. I know the infielders trust me to catch anything in the vicinity and it was important to get out of that inning and put up another crooked number.”
Leading 6-2, Virginia exploded for five more runs, the last of which came from Papi, who connected for a double in his final time up, finishing the series with seven hits.
“Some days you come in and feel great and other days it’s a grind and battle and that’s how it was tonight,” Papi said. “But a lot of my teammates came up with clutch hits and we’re very fortunate for our other guys to produce.”
The Virginia pitchers also produced on the mound, shutting out the Terps for seven innings, en route to the biggest celebration the Cavaliers have had to date.
“Even with a lead, our coaches preach to us that we have to play all 27 outs and don’t think about the end results too early,” Papi said. “We were happy with the lead but knew we had to handle our business until we could dog pile in the middle of our field.”
TASK AT HAND
Papi isn’t the only player from Tunkhannock to get the amateur draft call from the Big Leagues.
The last to do it was Mike Grohs, now of Clarks Summit, who was drafted by the San Diego Padres as the 153rd pick overall in the 1991 draft.
And back then, things were a lot different than they are now.
“It’s so much more different today than it was in 1991, not just money wise but the publicity that these kids can have in having every opportunity to showcase their talents,” Grohs said.
Grohs, now 45 and working in business for Frontier Communication, was taken in the sixth round, but unlike Papi, wasn’t even home for his call to the big leagues.
“My dad said let’s go out golfing so we weren’t thinking about it, and when I came home my mom said that I might want to give the Padres a call,” he joked. “It was a joyful time for all of us.”
Grohs played three years of Single A ball, and before two rotator cuff surgeries ended his career, found out just how tough the grind to the Majors can be.
“It’s great getting drafted but there’s a lot more to be done,” Grohs said. “You’re still playing for the love of the game but now it’s a job and you’re doing it 24/7 for 10 or so months a year. Every day is a grind while you try to get better.”
But much like the town of Tunkhannock, Grohs is pulling for Papi to succeed, and is hopeful that he can live out the dream he has dedicated much of his life to.
“I think he’ll do very well,” Grohs said. “He’s in for a long road but I think it will probably be a great journey for him and I think he’ll make it. That’s how good I think he is.”
The community support certainly hasn’t been lost on Papi, who continues to remain humble through it all.
“The support group that I have is amazing,” he said. “So many people have reached out to me and contacted me and it means so much that so many people realize it’s a dream come true for me and are happy for me.”
And even though his childhood dreams are slowly becoming more clear, for Papi, it’s just something else to cross off the list.
“It’s just the next step in what I’ve been working on my whole life,” he said. “I’m going to give everything 110 percent, and if it works out, it’ll work out. We’ll just have to see where it goes.”