Stodolka's trying journey to success

Stodolka's trying journey to success

OMAHA, Neb. -- The heat is entirely Midwest. Clothes stick to your skin because of the humidity -- and inside the home locker room at Rosenblatt Stadium feels just the same way.

It's about 3 p.m. CT now, and Mike Stodolka steps outside of the cramped quarters into the dugout. He's just finished early batting practice and takes a seat near the far end of the bench minutes before stretching. A teammate asks if he has any more tobacco.

"No, but I was going to run to the store later," Stodolka says.

Tall and tan with short black hair and a wad of chew in his mouth, Stodolka has the look of a baseball player. This is his kind of place. Only -- at the same time -- maybe it isn't. Not this place. Triple-A, where youngsters think the three-hour drive down I-29 to Kansas City is just a phone call away, and lifers play out the rest of their career hoping for one more shot at the Majors before time or the front office makes them call it quits.

Stodolka expected more. So did just about every member of the Royals scouting department.

Eight years ago, as a high school senior, the Royals made him the No. 4 overall selection and first pitcher taken in the Draft. He signed for $2.5 million.

Injuries followed. First the shoulder. Velocity dropped. Then the elbow. He had Tommy John surgery. By 2005, he considered quitting the game and enrolling in college before Kansas City gave him the opportunity to become a hitter.

Throughout the rough times -- pitching struggles, his father passing, lack of playing time earlier this season -- Stodolka always kept the same demeanor. Teammates call him Stoli and love him for his laid-back style.

Now he's here, enjoying the good times for the Omaha Royals in the dugout outside the high school-sized locker room, next to the crystal dome of Henry Doorly Zoo. Stodolka is hitting the ball close to .300, getting consistent playing time as an outfielder and truly enjoying the dream. He wants to make the Major Leagues -- pull a Rick Ankiel -- and although it's a long shot, his latest hot streak makes it seem less far-fetched than it did even a month ago.

Maybe he is in the right place.

"The past two years," Stodolka said, "have been the most fun years I've played baseball-wise."

***

The scouts filled the bleachers and stood behind the fence of the ballpark at California's Riverside Poly on an April day in 2000. They held radar guns. They scribbled in their notepads. They whispered to each other, their eyes focused mainly on the kid on the mound, Centennial High's lefty, Stodolka.

There were about 60 or 70 scouts that day. Centennial was facing Temecula Valley, a team ranked seventh in the nation that had six players who had committed to play for Cal-State Fullerton.

Stodolka struck out 19 batters, tossing a one-hitter in a victory. Quite a feat as Riverside Poly is known as a hitter's park.

"It was kind of like a dream scenario," Stodolka said. "I probably lifted my Draft stock way up that night. I threw as hard as I did that whole year."

Scouts saw him plenty more times his senior season. They came to his house, chatted with his parents, made him take some odd psychological tests -- all the stuff scouts do for the best high school players.

And Stodolka was one of the best. He was 10-0 with a 0.67 ERA his senior year. He struck out 111 batters in 52 innings.

That was enough for the Royals, who grabbed him with the No. 4 pick, signed him quickly and put him to work on their Rookie League team. They didn't want to overuse Stodolka and limited him to 37 innings that summer. He went 0-3 with a 2.68 ERA.

And that was about as much success as Stodolka ever had as a pitcher.

He caught a bad case of mononucleosis during the offseason and lost 25 pounds. Injuries started taking their toll. Stodolka spent a month in extended spring training in 2001, dealing with shoulder problems, and struggled that year for Class A Burlington. The next three seasons brought more of the same.

Stodolka's elbow and shoulder basically fell apart as he languished at the Class A level for a total of four years. Finally, in 2005, the Royals promoted him to Double-A Wichita, even though Stodolka had compiled a 16-28 record and pitched more than 100 innings in only one season.

The move up did nothing to help him. He went 4-11 with a 5.92 ERA.

"Every year it seemed like my velocity went down one or two miles," Stodolka said. "It wasn't like a big drop, but it was a slow descent into just... poo."

Thing is, you'd never guess his performance lacked when he walked back in the clubhouse. Stoli had the same look after throwing one of his best outings or one of his worst. That's how Mike Aviles remembers it. Aviles, now with the Royals, played several years in the Minor Leagues with Stodolka.

"Even back then," Aviles said, "you couldn't tell. Stoli's a Cali guy. He's the guy who would just joke with all the guys in the clubhouse."

But behind the smile, Stodolka knew something had to change. His arm killed him. For the first time in his life, Stodolka thought about quitting.

Then he got a phone call that changed everything.

***

Muzzy Jackson, then the Royals' director of player development, talked on the other end of the line back in Kansas City. Stodolka listened at his parents' house in Fontana.

The 2005 season had just ended, and the Royals were evaluating their options. Stodolka, the No. 4 overall pick who got a $2.5 million bonus just five years ago, wasn't too high on the list of top Kansas City prospects anymore.

Jackson gave him three choices. The Royals could release him. They could trade him. Or, they could turn him into a hitter.

After all, that's what Stodolka was at first, and really, he always felt more comfortable hitting the ball anyway. Remember that game where he struck out 19 batters against Temecula Valley? Stodolka also hit a solo home run in the 1-0 victory. His senior year of high school, he hit a homer in five consecutive games, finished with a .593 average and originally signed with UCLA as a first baseman.

During that year, George Brett saw him play twice.

Brett would question why the Royals were drafting Stodolka as a pitcher when he hit better than anyone Brett had ever seen.

Stodolka took a couple days to decide about becoming a hitter, consulting his agent, his parents and his high school coach, Bill Gunn.

"I knew what he thought about it already," Gunn said, "because I could hear the excitement in his voice."

As they always did, his parents, Tim and Jean, told him to do whatever made him happy.

"I said I'd be happy if I didn't have to go out there and pitch every day," Stodolka said. "With how my arm was, it was an easy decision. I still loved baseball and wanted to be a part of it."

That winter, Stodolka started going to the Norco Batting Cages every day. It was just like his childhood. His father used to drive him there all the time when he was still learning the game of baseball. Even the guy who owned it back then was still in charge of the place.


"I think it's a good thing that he's struggled. He's always been really good. He'd never had to do any soul searching."
-- Stodolka's high school baseball coach, Bill Gunn

Most of the time, Stodolka was the only one there during the afternoons. He got free tokens and hit for at least an hour, working on the swing that was at one time so pure, but hadn't been tweaked or even used for more than five years.

Royals instructors helped him a little. But this story was about a man and a bat. Stodolka knew how to swing already, he just went there every day, making sure to remembered everything he learned so long ago.

"It was just like Little League and high school," he said. "No pressure."

His first at-bat in a Minor League game, Stodolka struck out. He struck out again. Then, he struck out one more time. Phase 2 of Stodolka's career started with a zero-for-four day -- not exactly what he wanted.

But it got better -- fast. Stodolka started tearing up the California League for Class A High Desert. He finished the season hitting .284 with 11 home runs and 67 RBIs, numbers that would've been even better if not for a late season slump.

The Royals organization saw more than they could've ever expected out of Stodolka and moved him up to Double-A Wichita in 2007. He hit .291 with 12 home runs and 59 RBIs, was named Royals Player of the Year for the Double-A level and earned an invite to Spring Training 2008.

At age 26, Stodolka became a part of the plan and got closer to the Major Leagues then he ever did as a pitcher.

***

All the anticipation for the 2008 season came to a sudden stop last fall.

Tim Stodolka passed away. He was like a best friend.

Tim had introduced Mike to baseball when he was little and was always there to play catch in the backyard or drive him to the batting cages. When Mike began his transformation from pitcher to hitter at High Desert, Tim showed up at nearly every game to watch.

They talked on the phone after most games last year -- not about baseball -- about life. Stodolka can't remember specifics, just that they'd talk about everything.

"Obviously," Stodolka said, "it's been a little different not having him around."

It didn't help his performance that after two years in a starring role, Stodolka couldn't get off the bench. Ryan Shealy was the starting first baseman and Billy Butler was sent down to the Minors which clogged the first base position even more. Stodolka moved around to the outfield or designated hitter for some games but never saw consistent playing time.

He'd call Gunn often or vice versa. Usually once a week they'd talk on the phone. They'd talk about life -- like Mike did with Tim. Gunn would always give encouraging words and offer to send Stodolka burritos from Miguel's -- his favorite Mexican restaurant back home.

By mid-July, the baseball started getting much better. The O-Royals moved him out of the crowded first base position to right field, and he's returned to the form he showed in Wichita and High Desert. Stodolka is hitting better than .400 since, and his overall .286 average is about 50 points higher than it was in early July.

"I think it's a good thing that he's struggled," Gunn said. "He's always been really good. He'd never had to do any soul searching."

***

On nights like July 21, the dream feels like it's close enough to reach out and touch.

It was the ninth inning and neither Omaha nor Round Rock had scored a run. Pitcher Fernando Nieve had recorded one out before Stodolka stepped up to the plate. Stodolka ripped the first pitch over the right-center wall, a walk-off solo home run.

It's apparent now that Stodolka has reflected plenty on all of his troubles -- be it baseball or his father's passing. He can't keep from laughing when he talks about how bad it got when he pitched in the Minors all those years.

Ankiel, who knows plenty about struggles and making the transformation from pitcher to hitter, believes Stodolka's state of mind is the right one to have.

"You try to enjoy it," Ankiel said. "You just try to remember it's going to be OK."

Stodolka's not quite sure what he's going to do next year. His contract runs out at the end of the summer, and his recent surge at the plate could be enough for the Royals to give him another shot at Spring Training next year. J.J. Picollo, Royals director of scouting and development, said the organization wouldn't make its decision until the end of the year.

If the Royals don't want Stodolka, there's always the possibility of signing with another team. Stodolka's not in the mood to wake up at 6 a.m. and go to work yet. Or, there's still college. One gets the feeling he'll accept whatever happens.

Eight years later, Stodolka is the same humble, relaxed guy he was in high school. He's still the person, who, instead of celebrating with his teammates after that 19-strikeout game so many years ago, waited by the field and talked to anybody, even little kids, who wanted to chat.

That's why he laughs at all the troubles baseball has caused him, why he doesn't mind the cramped clubhouse at Rosenblatt and recognizes that his dad would be proud of whatever he ends up doing, big leagues or not.

And when times still do get rough, and even a mellow guy like Stoli worries about the future, he thinks about something Tim used to tell him.

It's not about the destination. It's about the journey.

Mark Dent is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.