By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — This is a saga about perseverance paying off. It is a story about a young man overcoming overwhelming odds. And it is a tale of that same young man willing to take advice, apply it and make gigantic improvement.
Meet Josh VanMeter. He was not on the Cincinnati Reds 40-man roster and he was not in Major League camp during spring training.
But on Sunday morning he was in the Reds clubhouse wearing uniform No. 17, saying hello to all his new teammates.
Just one month into the season, a non-roster guy who spent spring training in the minor league camp, was called up for his first taste of the major leagues.
Why? Because he earned it. He was ripping apart Triple-A at Louisville — .336, 13 home runs, 31 RBI, 27 runs and 23 walks in 30 games.
VanMeter said he didn’t expect a call-up this quickly, “Because I didn’t go to big league camp and wasn’t on the roster. I didn’t get invited to spring training with the big club. So I went into spring training with a chip on my shoulder. When camp broke and they sent me to Louisville, I said to myself, ‘I am going to prove everybody wrong.’ I’ve done that, but I still have to play with that chip on my shoulder. I have never been given anything in this game since I got drafted. I had to earn everything and I want to keep earning it.”
And from where did he emerge? The 24-year-old infielder (he can play them all, plus the outfield and bats left handed) was a fifth-round draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 2013 out of Ossian, Ind. The Reds acquired him as the always mysterious player-to-be-named later when the Reds sent Rule 5 catcher Luis Torrens to the Padres after the 2016 season.
So VanMeter bounced around the minors, catching very little attention. He did fairly well in the Class A California League at Lake Elsinore (Padres) and advanced at mid-season to Class AA San Antonio in the Texas League.
And that’s where the transformation incubated.
“When I was with the Padres I had torn it up in high-A in the California League, which gets a lot of asterisks next to your name because it is the Cal League, known as a hitter’s league,” he said.
“Then I got to the Texas League, which is the polar opposite of the Cal League,” he said. “My hitting coach (Johnny Washington) told me, ‘Man, you have to change your hitting stroke. That ain’t gonna work.’ I struggled the year in Double-A, then that winter I tried to change and it has been an evolution over the past two or three years. Johnny Washington knew what he was talking about.”
Asked what is going on with him offensively, he laughed and said, “You don’t know how many times I have been asked that question. I’ve made a couple of adjustments dating back to the last half of Triple-A last year. Those are finally starting to come full circle. I’m locked in every day, taking the same approach every day and not missing a pitcher’s mistakes.”
There was one familiar and friendly face in the clubhouse waiting to greet VanMeter Sunday morning.
“Nick Senzel is probably my best friend in baseball,” he said of the Reds No. 1 draft pick two years ago and was called up for his debut just two days ago.
“That’s really special that we get to share this, even though he is a couple days ahead of me and a homer ahead of me, but I told him, ‘I got way more than you on the season.’ It is really special that we get to share this kind of journey together.”
VanMeter was informed of his call-up after Friday night’s game by Louisville manager Jody Davis, after VanMeter went hitless for one of the few times this season.
“Jody Davis called me into his office Friday night after the game and told me, ‘It must have taken a no-hit night for you to get called to the big leagues,’” said VanMeter. “Then there were overwhelming emotions.”
Being from Indiana, did VanMeter and his family root for the Reds? Van Meter smiled and answered in a sheepish tone.
“It’s special that we’re close enough for my family and friends to be here,” he said. “But, ummmm, I can’t say I grew up a Reds fan. I was a fan of another team, which I won’t say, and my dad is going to have a conflict, but I think he’ll root for the Reds now.”
It was the Cubs, right Josh?
VanMeter relayed a humorous scenario involving his dad, Greg, after the son was called up.
“I called my dad like nine times and he was sleeping,” said Van Meter. “I got no hits in the game so I guess he didn’t want to stay up and talk to me. I called my girl friend and called my sister and told her, ‘You gotta go wake up mom and dad because this is big news.’ Dad almost had a heart attack when she showed up in his bedroom and yelled at him, ‘Dad, wake up.’ Then I told him over the speaker phone and it was surreal.”
Reds manager David Bell said VanMeter would mostly come off the bench and would be inserted into some starting roles, sort of make VanMeter a Derek Dietrich II.
“We hope he can help us off the bench and get a start now-and-then,” said Bell. “He has worked very hard to get here and continued to work hard to make himself a better hitter. He has earned this day in every way possible. He is young, but he has put some years in to get to this point. You do what he did for a month in Triple-A, he made this happen himself.
“His story is a message for everybody,” said Bell. “You may not be on the 40-roster and you may not get invited to Major League camp. But if you work hard and play hard and play well, you can’t hide. Somebody will find you.”