St. Louisians Kyle Grieshaber, Lance Jeffries, Blake McKnight and Zach Loraine are all members of the Johnson City Cardinals. (Aaron Hodge photo)
By Rob Rains
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – The dreams were born 600 miles away, nurtured on Little League and high school fields around St. Louis. As young boys they grew up with a baseball bat and a ball in their hands and a love of the Cardinals in their hearts.
Lance Jeffries, Zach Loraine, Blake McKnight and Kyle Grieshaber all had the same dreams, making them no different than thousands of other youths who went to bed every night imagining what it might be like to some day put on a Cardinals uniform and call Busch Stadium their office.
After all, they had seen other hometown kids whose dreams had turned into reality, David Freese and Kyle McClellan being the most recent examples.
For most kids, however, those dreams begin to fade as they grow up, realizing that it is hard to hit a curveball or that you can’t teach somebody to throw a fastball 95 miles an hour. Those are special gifts which are handed out only to a select few.
For Jeffries, Loraine, McKnight and Grieshaber, the dreams are still alive and well. They realize that every day when they come to work at Howard Johnson Field and put on uniforms that have the famous Cardinals logo stitched across the front.
The four St. Louis products are members of the Johnson City Cardinals, the rookie level affiliate of the Cardinals in the Appalachian League, one of the lowest rungs on the minor-league ladder. Jeffries is the senior member of the group in terms of experience, now in his third pro season after being drafted by the Cardinals in 2011 after his senior year at McCluer High School. He is the youngest of the four, however, now 20 years old.
The other three have a month of professional experience. Loraine and McKnight, both 22-year-old right-handed pitchers, were selected by the Cardinals in the June amateur draft while the 21-year-old Grieshaber, an infielder, signed as a non-drafted free agent the day following the draft.
Until Loraine, McKnight and Grieshaber signed, Jeffries had been one of only two St. Louis-area players in the Cardinals’ minor league system. Right-handed pitcher Joe Scanio (a Hazelwood West graduate) was drafted last year and currently is a reliever at Class A Peoria. The Cardinals also drafted and signed another St. Louis product this year, catcher Luke Voit, out of Lafayette High School and Missouri State, who is playing in State College, Pa.
A fifth member of the Johnson City roster, infielder Brett Wiley, also has ties to the St. Louis area even though he is a native of Indiana, having played junior college baseball for a year at Jefferson College.
Jeffries is glad to have the hometown company.
“We are on the 12-hour bus ride coming from Florida to Johnson City and somehow we got to talking about where everybody was from,” Jeffries said. “It shocked me that all those guys were from St. Louis. Now I’ve finally got somebody I can talk to about St. Louis places.”
All four realize they are a long way away from St. Louis, playing their games in front of crowds generously announced at several hundred. The most expensive ticket costs $6 and hot dogs set customers back $2. Parking is free.
What all four players understand, and value, however, is that they have the chance to do what they have always wanted to do. They have the opportunity, and whether they climb all the way to St. Louis or drop off somewhere along the way will be determined by their talents and how far their ability will carry them.
They can’t ask for anything more.
“It’s an honor,” said Loraine, a graduate of Fort Zumwalt West, selected by the Cardinals in the 21st round of the draft after his junior season at Coker College in South Carolina. “It’s a dream come true to be here. There is no other way to say it.”
Loraine is a converted catcher who did not pitch full-time until this season, the kind of prospect the Cardinals have discovered and developed in recent years.
“I had probably thrown 15 innings in my entire life before this spring,” Loraine said. “I had been told my whole life that I had a plus-arm and should be a pitcher, but I didn’t want to give up the bat. I finally decided this spring that if I wanted to make it, I had to give it a shot.”
Like Loraine, both McKnight and Grieshaber are also small-college products. McKnight, who grew up in O’Fallon and was homeschooled through high school, was the team’s 38th-round draft pick out of Evangel University. Grieshaber, a Marquette High School graduate, played two years at Louisville before finishing his college career at Central Missouri.
Loraine has appeared in nine games so far this season, all in relief, with no record and a 1.20 ERA. In 15 innings he has allowed 10 hits, walked five and struck out 21.
McKnight has made three starts and pitched in four games, going 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA. He started Monday night and gave up five runs to Greeneville in the second inning, but saw the game suspended by rain in the fifth inning so the results won’t be official until the game is completed in August.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been a great experience,” McKnight said. “With Zach also being a pitcher, I’ve bonded more with him. We talk about old teammates and mutual friends we had growing up.
“The lifestyle is different, going out and playing every day instead of two or three times a week like in college. But I am just sticking with what has got me here so far. We’ve tweaked a few things here and there.”
Jeffries, who played in the Gulf Coast League the last two years, is hitting .246 in 18 games, but has struck out 26 times in 61 at-bats. Grieshaber has played in 17 games and is off to a slow start, hitting just .203.
“I think I’ve matured as a player and as a person,” Jeffries said. “The first year I was really homesick. I think the longest I had been away from home before that was like a week. I’m kind of better now with that situation.
“I need to work on my hitting. I feel my defense is really solid.”
Part of the reason Jeffries became an outfielder came from watching Jim Edmonds. A year ago, he got to work with Edmonds during the spring training mini-camp. “It was pretty exciting,” he said.
Johnson City manager Joe Kruzel has been pleased with all four St. Louis products.
“We’re glad all of those guys are in the organization and pleased with where they are,” Kruzel said. “Hopefully with the opportunity all of them are getting they will take it and run with it.
“The ultimate goal is to get to the big leagues. They are just starting out, and this is a great experience for them.”
All four are learning not only what it’s like to play baseball for a living, but also how to deal with normal off-field issues. McKnight is sharing an apartment with four teammates, while the other players are all living with host families. None of them have a car, but have access to one either through a roommate or their host family.
“They do it out of the kindness in their hearts,” Grieshaber said of his host family. “They are not making any money out of it. It’s nice to have people who care about what you are doing and trying to help you.”
Grieshaber and Loraine, and teammates Vaughn Bryan and Devante Lacy, are living with Don and Susan Hembree and the couple’s 14-year-old son. This is the fourth year the Hembree’s have welcomed players into their home. As the games begin, the couple is seated in the front row between the Cardinals’ dugout and home plate, cheering as if the players were their own sons.
“The first two summers we only had pitchers,” said Mrs. Hembree. “Even in Little League when your child pitches it is so nerve-wracking and that’s what I felt. My heart was pounding. The last two years we have had some position players to so we get to see them play a little more.
“We don’t like to hear people criticizing them and we feel protective of them. They are doing their best out here and they are learning.”
The Hembree’s have received Christmas cards and thank you notes from the parents of the players who have lived with them, and the mothers are especially grateful, she said.
“I just think of it like if it was my son off somewhere, what I would like people to do for him,” said Mrs. Hembree. “We just really want them to feel like they are at home and can come in the kitchen to eat or sit in the living room and watch TV.
“You can tell sometimes if they didn’t have a good night because they will just go to their room and not have a lot to say. We try to be encouraging and bring out the positives because everybody is going to have a bad game. But when they have a good night it’s really fun because they want to talk about it.”
Three of the four St. Louis area players were familiar with each other before being united in Johnson City. Loraine and Grieshaber were teammates for a short while when they were 13 years old, and then played against each other. McKnight and Loraine played against each other in high school and college.
“It’s nice to know a couple of guys that you can talk to and communicate with,” Loraine said. “I know in the offseason we will be able to get together. We have some interesting conversations in the dugout when we get bored.”
Grieshaber became the victim of some good-natured abuse from his teammates on Sunday night, when he was ejected from the Cardinals’ game against the Greenville Astros after objecting to a called third strike.
He said it was the first time in his life he had been kicked out of a game, with a major concern being how much money he was going to be fined by the league.
Money is tight for all of these players, and their teammates, but when you are doing the only thing you have ever wanted to do in your life, that isn’t something you can put a price on.
All four know it will be years, if ever, before they can say their dreams really did come true, that they made it to the major leagues, hopefully with the Cardinals. All are determined, however, to enjoy the journey – however long it lasts, and wherever it takes them.
“This is just kind of a steppingstone,” Loraine said. “There’s still four other levels to get to. I just want to give it my best every day and keep working. I won’t be satisfied until I make it on the big field.
“I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been a great experience. I can’t ask for anything more – I have the opportunity to play baseball.”
Grieshaber tells himself that as well.
“The biggest adjustment is not riding the highs too high and the lows too low,” he said. “The more you can remind yourself that tomorrow is another day and get past the bad, and learn from it, the better off you are going to be.
“One of the things I remind myself about when things are bad is that I am playing professional baseball for the Cardinals. There are not very many people who get to do this. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Some of these guys, especially the Latin kids, have never been to Busch Stadium. They want to know what it’s like. We know it’s incredible. And when you know what it’s like up there, it just makes you want to get there that much more.”
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