By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — The Kentucky State Police didn’t have to be concerned about Drew Hayes speeding up I-71 at 100 miles an hour Wednesday morning.
“I drove real slow so I could take it all in,” said Hayes.
There isn’t much to take in on I-71 between Louisville and Cincinnati other than green highway signs, truck stops and a lot of trees. But when you are on your way to become a major leaguer for the first time it looks like paradise.
Hayes, 28, has pitched in the minor leagues for six years without so much of a sniff of major league meal money after the Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the 11th round of the 2010 draft out of Vanderbilt.
HAYES IS A PERSONAL reclamation project. After he was invited to Major League camp for spring training in 2013 and 2014, he was not invited in 2015 and some soul-searching began.
“I had to look reality in the face at that point and it is what it is,” he said. “I had to make adjustments or I had to go home. It made me appreciate the game even more and appreciate the opportunities I was getting.”
And his adjustments to save his career?
“It was mental — have more fun and enjoy the game,” he said. “I found some happiness in life and a reason to be thankful for everything I have.”
PITCHING TWO YEARS in the Dominican Republic sent a message to him, too, as he saw the poverty and saw the dedication to the game the natives exhibited.
“That really helped me, honestly made me appreciate things even more, seeing what goes on there and the joy those people get from the game. And I grew stronger in my faith.”
Hayes was probably the best pitcher in camp this spring but late in camp found himself assigned to Class AAA Louisville.
Did he sulk, did he tear up a clubhouse, did he curse and bemoan? That’s not his style.
“I thanked manager Bryan Price for the opportunity and I asked him what I needed to do to improve,” said Hayes. And he received support from everybody in his small hometown of McKenzie, Tenn., where in high school he had the second most passing yards in Tennessee prep football history.
“I talked to my parents and my high school football coach and my brother — people who have supported me and been with me the whole way,” he said. “Now I’m thankful to be here. representing my hometown.” McKenzie is about a 4 1/2-hour drive and his parents, Glenn and Joyce, plan to attend Thursday’s game, “Because my mom had to work today.”
HAYES WEARS UNIFORM No.53 and said he has worn an assorted amount of numbers during his spring training camps, “84 in my first camp, 59, 58, 73 and now 53. And 53 (his major league number) is the best.”
After his demotion this spring, Hayes went to Louisville to show his spring exhibition performance was no fluke. “I was thankful that they gave me the opportunity to be with them this spring in the first place,” he said. “I was thankful and grateful for that opportunity to pitch. Go to Louisville? There are a lot worse places to be than in Louisville.”
HAYES WAS AT HIS locker Tuesday night when Louisville pitching coach Ted Power said, “Hey, Drew, the skipper wants to see you.” So Hayes trudged toward a corner of the clubhouse where he was met by Bats manager Delino DeShields.
“He didn’t tell me a thing,” said Hayes. “He just gave me a handshake and a hug. That was it. Delano I have a special relationship because I’ve played for him all through the minors from rookie ball to low-A (Dayton) and two years at Double-A and last year in Pensacola.”
Hayes said he naturally had doubts about ever sitting on a stool in a major league clubhouse pulling on a major league jersey.
“Yeah, I think everybody had doubts,” he said. “At some point, if you are realistic, you have doubts. But I was able to not put all my eggs in one basket and be happy wherever I’m playing whether it is Pensacola, Louisville or Cincinnati.”
PRICE HOPES THE eggs Hayes puts up are mostly goose eggs across the scoreboard.
“Drew had one of the better springs,” said Price. “If spring training was simply a blank canvass he would have painted his way onto the ball club. It wasn’t totally open tryouts because there are certain guys on the roster for sure, guys who get first crack.”
It worked against Hayes that he was not on the 40-man roster and was just an invitee to Major League camp. To place him on the roster Wednesday the Reds designated for assignment pitcher Keyvius Sampson.
“Drew was disappointed when he didn’t make the club, but considering where he was a year ago (not even in Major League camp or on the 40-man roster), I mean, here is a guy who wasn’t even in came in 2015 and he makes the club in 2016.
“I’m really excited for Drew because he is a good kid and he came up through our organization and he has earned his right be here.”
Even if he took his good ol’ time getting here — both during his scratch and claw journey up the organization ladder and his leisurely drive from Louisville to Cincinnati.