I felt like today was a perfect time to re-release this old vintage story, a feature I wrote about Nate Schierholtz back in May of 2007. The headline above is the same one used in the now-defunct Danville Times, the weekly insert in The Contra Costa Times that I used to write for, and I found it rather funny (and frustrating) that the same headline could fit above any article written about Schierholtz two years later.
This was the first assignment that allowed me to interview a professional athlete, and the only reason it happened was I met Schierholtz’s mom on my day job and talked baseball with her for a while. And Karen knows her ball.
Schierholtz hadn’t made the Giants yet when I talked to him, so even as an “objective journalist” I was pretty excited when Nate got his first base knock in his first Major League at-bat against Toronto a month after this story went to press. I figured it was only a matter of time before Schierholtz got an opportunity to play every day in the Giants’ outfield. He and I are still waiting.
Schierholtz waits for his shot in S.F. (May 11, 2007)
Ever since he started swinging a fat-barreled, red plastic bat as a 2-year-old, Danville’s Nate Schierholtz has been focused on baseball.
“When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was trading baseball cards or reading about baseball,” remembers his mother, Karen Schierholtz.
When he swung the red plastic bat, Schierholtz was encouraged to hit left-handed, based on advice from the late Don Rowe, a family friend who at the time was the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.
According to Rowe, it was the best way for the youngster to make it to the big leagues. Schierholtz hasn’t made it there quite yet, but he’s as close as a ballplayer can get. He’s the starting right fielder for the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
“Overall, Fresno is a great place to play,” Schierholtz said. “I enjoy the park and the fans, and the travel has been better than it’s ever been in the minor leagues. We fly everywhere.”
Schierholtz has risen steadily through the Giants’ minor league system since getting selected in the second round of the 2003 amateur draft. He immediately went to Salem, Ore., and played well enough in rookie ball to be promoted to Hagerstown, Md., to join the Giants’ Class-A team in 2004.
Later that year, Schierholtz was promoted to a higher level A-ball team, the San Jose Giants. He spent all of 2005 with San Jose, hitting .319 with 15 homers, earning him a promotion to Double-A Connecticut.
“Connecticut was tough,” Schierholtz said. “It wasn’t too bad at first, but it was cold. It’s definitely tough to be bussed everywhere from a couple hour commuter trips all the way to 12-hour bus rides.
“It was a different experience for me to live out on the East Coast. And the pitching was a huge step up from Single-A. That was the biggest difference.”
Schierholtz didn’t struggle too much, however, and his 14 home runs in 125 games gave the Giants reason enough to send him to Triple-A for 2007, but not before giving the San Ramon Valley High School graduate some spring training experience in Arizona for the second straight year. This March he went 10-for-20 before injuring his shoulder in a collision with Eugenio Velez.
“It was bad, it could have been a lot worse,” Schierholtz said of the collision. “It was loud, you could hear it on TV. We definitely collided full speed. I’ve continued to lift weights to keep it strong.”
After the on-field accident, Schierholtz was sent to Fresno, which wasn’t a surprise given the Giants’ outfield, already set with Barry Bonds, Dave Roberts, Todd Linden and fellow San Ramon Valley High alum Randy Winn, plus Ryan Klesko and Mark Sweeney.
“(The Giants) said I swung the bat great and they were really impressed by what they saw, similar to the year before,” Schierholtz said. “The outfield obviously has a lot of guys that are right for the job right now. I just have to be patient.”
How long he stays in Fresno may be in question, as Schierholtz has begun to assert himself as the best hitting outfielder on the Grizzlies. As of Monday, Schierholtz had gone 18-for-37 in his last eight games, pushing his average to .352 with four home runs and a team-leading 42 hits.
Also possessing a powerful right arm, Schierholtz was converted to the outfield when he entered the minor leagues after years as an infielder, including his years at San Ramon Valley, where his brother Vai, a senior captain for the Wolves, plays the position Nate did as a high schooler.
“I started at shortstop all four years, which is kind of weird to look back on,” Schierholtz said. “Playing at San Ramon was a great experience; I got lots of playing time. It felt like I developed even though I wasn’t physically mature yet.”
“I did envision him playing pro ball,” San Ramon Valley baseball coach Rick Steen said. “But he needed a couple or three years of maturity.”
At the end of his tenure with the Wolves and with no interest yet from the professional ranks, Schierholtz had a difficult decision to make. With a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah on the table, he instead stayed local, going to Chabot College.
“Not many guys turn down a full-ride scholarship already in hand,” said his coach at Chabot, Steve Friend. “I think he wanted to try to play pro ball and if he had taken the scholarship, he would have had to wait three years.”
“I think that was the turning point,” Schierholtz said. “I started hitting for contact, putting a lot of weight on.”
Schierholtz played third base for the Gladiators and hit .400 with 18 homers his freshman year.
However, it wasn’t just his numbers that impressed.
“Nate Schierholtz had the innate ability to totally focus on the task at hand,” Friend said. “He might be the most disciplined individual I’ve ever met. He might be the most focused, as well as the most competitive.”
Schierholtz had learned those traits long before playing for Chabot, however.
“When he was in Little League and all the other kids were hanging on the cages messing around, he was the one sitting there and studying the game,” said Karen, who says that Nate’s focus on baseball was just as strong during high school.
“I would be like, ‘Don’t you have a party to go to?’ If he had a game on Saturday he was in bed early the night before. Baseball always came first.”
“He just was really quiet, really intense,” Steens said. “He didn’t accept failure on his own, but he had a really mature way of handling it. Has fast rise was a pleasant surprise.”
After excelling in his year at Chabot, Schierholtz signed a letter of intent to play for Long Beach State, a far better baseball program than Utah, with one caveat.
“If he got drafted in the first five or six rounds he would go pro,” Karen said.
Not only did he get drafted in round two, but it was by Nate’s favorite team, making the occasion even more special.
“I was always a Giants fan,” Schierholtz said. “There’s a lot of pride playing for the team that you grew up watching, watching J.T. Snow and a lot of the veteran guys coaching now.”
Now Schierholtz will try to stay focused on continuing his hot hitting at Fresno, improving his discipline at the plate and waiting for his chance to play his home games at Mays Field.
“My roommate last year, Travis Ishikawa, he got called up three times last year,” Schierholtz said. “He said that’s his best experience in baseball ever. It gives us something to shoot for every day.”