McCallum getting comfortable with life as a pro

The former Gophers’ star second baseman is in his second season with the Twins organization, playing at single-A Beloit.

baseball

Ashley Goetz

baseball

Derek Wetmore

BELOIT, Wis. âÄî Though the GophersâÄô run through the NCAA tournament is over, the dog days of summer roll on and folks around the country continue to embrace the national pastime at every level. Caught in between the excitement of chasing a college baseball championship and playing on the gameâÄôs biggest stage are the oft-forgotten minor league prospects, living a daily grind of games every night, buses around the country, fast food and modest salaries. Former Gophers star second baseman Derek McCallum is one such minor leaguer, âÄúliving the dreamâÄù in the Minnesota Twins organization playing for their low class-A affiliate, the Beloit Snappers, working his way toward a big league paycheck. McCallumâÄôs second season in the minor leagues âÄî since being drafted by the Twins in the fourth round in 2009 âÄî got off to a rough start with an early-season wrist injury. He has struggled since his return to the lineup, hitting just .219 in 33 games this year. But Snappers hitting coach and former Twins player Tommy Watkins refused to call it a slump. âÄúIt sounds like heâÄôs struggling a little bit, but heâÄôs only got [114] at bats so a couple hits here and there, [his average] could jump up a lot,âÄù Watkins said. Beloit McCallum is playing his first season with the Snappers after spending his rookie season with the TwinâÄôs Rookie League affiliate in Elizabethton, Tenn. He said the SnappersâÄô 3,500-seat Pohlman Field is actually a step down from the oft-criticized Siebert Field in terms of quality and size: As of Saturday, the team was averaging 961 fans per game, the second worst in the league. âÄúMinor league baseball is not as glamorous as people would think it is,âÄù McCallum said. âÄúItâÄôs living the dream and itâÄôs what you want to do, so there are no complaints.âÄù He added: âÄúThe first thing you notice [about pro ball] is youâÄôre not in school anymore; you donâÄôt have to go to class when you wake up in the morning.âÄù Beloit is home to the TwinsâÄô top prospect, Aaron Hicks , and has been the home of former top prospects like Matt Garza and Prince Fielder . With such impressive company past and present, itâÄôs easy to feel overlooked for players like McCallum. âÄúIn college, if you establish yourself, you get to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, but once youâÄôre here, youâÄôre almost just a number and youâÄôre just trying to survive for yourself,âÄù McCallum said. Watkins realizes itâÄôs a difficult reality to face âÄî he himself battled through the minor leagues for 12 years before breaking onto the scene with the Twins in 2007. He retired last fall and was immediately hired as the SnappersâÄô hitting coach, giving advice to some of the young players used to being the best player on a team. âÄú[Once you] get to pro ball itâÄôs like, âÄòMan, everybodyâÄôs good,âÄô âÄù he said. âÄúYou just have to hang in there, battle and get your work done. Just try not to take things for granted and work hard every day.âÄù McCallum was invited to his first spring training with the Twins this year, and he said he got see a lot of players from the system. ItâÄôs a farm system that notably lacks middle infield depth, but McCallum said he doesnâÄôt âÄúcount headsâÄù because he is focused more on his work than on the possibility of a promotion. Watkins is working with McCallum to improve his defensive versatility because playing multiple positions could help jumpstart a move up the minor league ladder. College McCallum, a graduate of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, was a standout offensive and defensive player for the Gophers, playing second base and shortstop. Though his success at college hasnâÄôt yet translated into elite prospect status, he did earn a spot on the 2009 All-Big Ten First Team with some of baseballâÄôs top prospects like Dustin Ackley and Stephen Strasburg . He was also in the running for Big Ten Player of the Year and one of 16 finalists for National Player of the Year after leading the Big Ten in home runs and RBI, setting the GophersâÄô single-season RBI record in the process. The summer after his sophomore season, McCallum wanted to prove to scouts that he could hit with a wooden bat. He joined the St. Cloud Riverbats of the Northwoods League in the off-season, and by his accounts had a âÄúgreat summerâÄù before returning and exploding onto the scene in his junior season. He pointed to that summer as the turning point that set him up for professional baseball. The draft McCallum was drafted with the 132nd overall pick in the 2009 MLB amateur draft, near where fellow Gophers player and fellow Shoreview native Seth Rosin was taken this year . At the time of the draft, McCallum was the highest-drafted Gophers player since Glen Perkins was taken by the Twins in the first round of the 2004 draft. Recent first-round draft choice Mike Kvasnicka has quieted some of the hype surrounding McCallum as a former Gopher in the minor leagues, but the latter actually had a more impressive final season with Minnesota. Kvasnicka hit for a .355 average with eight home runs and 50 RBI, while McCallum, in his junior season, batted .409 with 18 home runs and 86 RBI, all from a more demanding defensive position. McCallum received a $209,700 signing bonus after the draft and reported to the Elizabethton Twins in June, hitting .241 with five home runs in 57 games in the Appalachian League. While minor leaguers like McCallum donâÄôt play for a lot of money and often arenâÄôt promised anything in terms of a future in the big leagues, even non-elite prospects like McCallum get to have fun and play a kidâÄôs game for a living âÄî even if it is a cut-throat kids game. âÄúBaseball is your job,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs your life.âÄù