19 years ago, in the activity room of our pre-school in Monument, Colorado, I met a fellow three-year old named Steven Leonard. Does that name sound familiar? It should. It’s the same Steven Leonard that the Rockies just drafted in the 23rd round of the 2015 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Since that day back in 1996, there has always been the three of us: Steven, a buddy of mine Ethan Marks who I’ve known even longer than I’ve known Steven, and me. During those first few years of our friendship, we barely knew right from wrong. And it showed. But from what little I remember from those years and through stories I’ve been told by my parents and friends’ parents, Steven was the ringleader. It just so happened that Ethan and I enjoyed following his lead everyday. I mention the beginning of our relationship because I truly believe that our constant harmless trouble forged the friendship that has lasted for so long.
Throughout our journey through elementary school, middle school, high school, and into college, there have been times when our paths have drifted apart. But in this friendship between the three of us, there has always been one constant: our paths have always come back together. That’s why it’s no surprise to me that Steven was drafted by the Rockies, the team the three of us grew up rooting for together.
In high school, I was the one who got hurt senior year and missed my final high school baseball season. Ethan was the one who had no affiliation with the baseball team whatsoever (he was a soccer player). And then there was Steven, the four-year varsity baseball player who had oodles of athletic talent and the work ethic to match.
Throughout our three years at Palmer Ridge High School (we spent freshman year at Lewis-Palmer High School), Steven was widely regarded as one of the top baseball players in Colorado. His baseball IQ was through the roof, his athleticism was second to none, and his leadership on and off the field was one of the main reasons why Palmer Ridge baseball made a run to the 2011 state semi-finals. After that, Steven was named to the Colorado All-Class 4A baseball team and participated in the Rockies’ annual “futures game” at Coors Field.
By the time senior year ended, it was a foregone conclusion that Steven would have a great post-high school baseball career. In the fall of 2011, he enrolled at Iowa Western Community College (IWCC), a junior college baseball powerhouse. That season, bolstered by Steven’s .414 BA, IWCC won the JUCO World Series. Then, after season-ending shoulder surgery for the 2013 season, he committed to play Division 1 baseball at Campbell University in North Carolina where he started at catcher for two years and won the 2014 Big South Conference Championship.
Throughout high school, Steven, Ethan, and I would sit together in study hall and talk about the future. One thing that was always a part of those conversations was Steven getting drafted and working his way up to the Majors. We’d talk for hours about how great it would be seeing him as a professional ballplayer with Ethan and I right there with him every step of the way (picture the show/movie Entourage without the financial neediness).
That’s why it was no surprise when the Rockies drafted him in last week. We always knew that he’d get to this point. It just made it even sweeter that our favorite team growing up was the team that drafted him. Everyone who knows Steven is anxious and excited to see him start his professional career in Boise with the Hawks, the Rockies’ short season single-A affiliate.
Within a couple hours of finding out that he was drafted, I got in touch with Steven, congratulated him and asked if he would be willing to sit down for an interview for Rockies Zingers. He said yes, and after a number of delays, we finally found a time that worked for the both of us. Here’s our conversation:
Nick Tremaroli: First, I just want to thank you for doing this interview with me and for Rockies Zingers and congratulations on being drafted! I know this was a dream that we had always talked about in high school. What was the feeling like getting that call from the Rockies?
Steven Leonard: Man, it was pretty wild. I was sitting there, and Jordan (Czarniecki, Rockies scout) called me and said, “Hey, you ready to go?” and I was like ‘Absolutely.’ He said, “We might pick you here pretty soon.” So I was like, let’s get ready, let’s get the computer up to see my name go up on mlb.com. So I thought he was going to call me before they were going to draft me, but the picks rolled around and the Rockies had the second pick and they said, “The Rockies select ‘Leonard.'” And I thought oh, Leonard, that kid has the same last name as me. And then they said ‘Steven, Monument, Colorado, Campbell University’ and I just froze like, what? That’s my name? So it was pretty wild. I mean obviously it was a dream come true. You know, we’ve talked about it for hours many, many times so to make it to this point with the Rockies, nothing bad about that.
NT: Of course, we all wanted you to get drafted, but does it make it any more meaningful or any more special that it was actually the Rockies, our hometown team, that drafted you?
SL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean every time you turned on the news, you saw a lot of the Rockies and with the countless Rockies games I’ve been to, it was pretty surreal that they picked me. It meant the world that my hometown team would pick me.
NT: Have you talked to Dave Hajek (Albuquerque’s hitting coach and former Sky Sox hitting coach) at all since getting drafted? I know you had a relationship with him throughout high school.
SL: Yeah. I guess Coach Rob McCoy (2011 Palmer Ridge HS baseball coach) called him and said, “Did you get the news?!” and Dave said that he did and was all pumped up. Then I called him [on Tuesday] after I signed at Coors Field and I just thanked him for everything that he did and for putting in the countless hours with me down at the Sky Sox stadium and always being there for me. He was ecstatic and told me that this is where the real work starts. We’ve put in all this work to make it to this point but this is where you really turn it up and put the real work in. He was extremely happy and told me to call him anytime I need anything or want to talk hitting. Dave’s a great dude.
NT: Do you think he had any input on the Rockies drafting you?
SL: I don’t really know. I know that Jordan (Czarniecki) called Dave but he didn’t know that I knew Dave. I guess when he called him, he was just digging up some of my history like most teams do and when he talked to him, Dave didn’t have a bad thing to say. Dave knows me pretty well so it definitely didn’t hurt knowing him, but I don’t know how much it actually played into their decision. Jordan came out to see me play countless times so I formed a relationship with him and got to know him fairly well when I went up every time to say hello and thank him for coming out to my games. But the Rockies know what they’re doing. They do their scouting and they went ahead and got me.
NT: Did you know going into the draft that the Rockies might draft you?
SL: The day I got drafted, I talked to five or six teams that morning, I believe and all of them said, “we’re going to take you today, we’re going to take you off the board.” I guess the Angels were going to pick me in the same round, but the Rockies were up a couple picks from the Angels and so it really came right down to the wire. Then Jordan called me and said, “Alright we’re going do it. You ready?” And I said, “Absolutely.” It was awesome.
NT: How does your mom feel about you being drafted by the Rockies? I know she’s an avid Dodgers fan.
SL: Oh man, Mom, she bleeds Dodger blue and has forever, but she’s extremely happy I’m a Rockie. If it’s not the Dodgers, it’s the Rockies for her. Living in Colorado for so many years now, we were obviously Rockies fans, so she loves the Rockies. When she was a kid she was a Dodger fan so she was like, “Oh it’d be cool if my son was a Dodger, but you know if he’s not a Dodger, I’d love for him to be a Rockie.” She’s very very happy.
NT: That’s awesome. I mean I know your mom fairly well and I figured she was just happy you got drafted.
SL: Oh definitely.
NT: We’re going to switch gears now to more of a background of your college career. You started your college career with IWCC and you started it with a JUCO World Series Championship. What did that experience mean to you?
SL: Man, the JUCO World Series Championship was nuts. Definitely went in there coming out of high school and thought, you know, I’m a good player. I was one of the better players seen on the board in Colorado and I got to Iowa Western and realized that wow, all these guys are as good, if not better than I am. That was an experience in itself. I worked my butt off and we played awesome baseball. I played with a bunch of great teammates. On day one, we didn’t say we were going to win the regional title, we were going to win a super regional title; we were going to win the World Series and anything short of that was a failure. We went into Grand Junction (site of the JUCO World Series) with a 62-6 record on the year, won the World Series and it was crazy. Being on that stage helped me get to where I am now. When I played at Campbell, it helped me play on that larger stage with a lot of fans and a lot of people cheering for you and people not cheering for you, so it was a great experience.
NT: What drew you to Campbell University specifically after your time at IWCC was over?
SL: I signed to go to Campbell in the fall of my last year in Iowa and I was thinking about other schools, and the coach at Campbell sat me down and asked me, “Do you want to be a leader? Do you want to be the captain? Do you want to be someone our team leans on? Because if not, step out of my office.” And I was like, “OK, let’s do it.” I went back to Iowa Western and spoke to Coach Rardin and he asked me, “Do you want to be a little fish in a big pond, or do you want to be the big fish in a little pond? Do you want to a dude, or do you want to be THE dude?” And I said that I wanted to be the dude. So he told me to go to Campbell. He told me that I’d have a great time, they have great coaches and you’re going to win. And that’s what we did when we won the Big South Championship my first year I was there. That’s what I went there to do, so it was awesome.
NT: I know you played South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament fairly soon after their run of 3 straight CWS final appearances. What was that like playing against them?
SL: That was wild. Playing in Columbia on a Friday night against South Carolina is something I’ll never forget. I was the leadoff hitter for us against a guy that I believe went in the first round, so I’ll never forget walking up to the plate with 8,000+ people wearing that South Carolina red yelling at you. It was an experience. Their field is unreal and beautiful. Their whole facility is beautiful. I got to do the NCAA press conference on ESPNU in their conference room and it was just a great experience.
NT: I was looking at your stats for this year and saw that you ended up 1 SB behind the conference lead with 29. Pretty remarkable for a catcher.
SL: Definitely. It was awesome to have that success. I really started to understand and fit in the system and found out what the system is all about. One of the Campbell greats, the guy who wore #6 before me, got drafted by the A’s, came back and worked out with us. He led the country with 56 SB his senior year, so when he came back, he and I talked a bunch about stealing bases and he kind of got me into the mental aspect of stealing bases and what to look for and it really helped me out a lot.
NT:Have the Rockies talked to you about their plans for you? Have they considered moving you to the outfield to utilize your speed?
SL: I signed as a catcher, but I will also be playing the outfield up here in Boise is what I’m told. So I’ll be playing both positions and just try to get a bunch of at-bats and wherever I fall into the system with the Rockies is where I’m going to take it. I’m just going to work hard and show them that I want to be out there and ride it out in that position.
NT: Do you think it’s going to be hard to look at your teammates as just your teammates and not as your competition to progress through the minors?
SL: There’s always been competition among teammates in college, but this is obviously a lot different with so many teams and so many levels to go through. It’s going to be harder, but teammates are always teammates and you’re going to win as a team and you’re going to lose as a team. I mean I love winning and I hate losing so the more games you win, the better your team does, and the more the upper level teams are going to look at you and possibly call you up.
NT: How smooth do you think the transition from D1 to professional baseball will be?
SL: A lot of guys got drafted out of Division 1 that I played against this year. So the transition from D1 to short season A (Boise Hawks) should be fairly smooth. It’s just everyone’s best D1 pitcher every night. Obviously you’re going to face the best of the best from college at this level, so it’s going to be tough, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s going to be fun. I’m excited.
NT: The Rockies just announced that Tyler Matzek is going to start his road back to the Rockies in Boise with the Hawks. There’s always that chance, being that you’re a catcher, that you’ll catch him. What would that mean for you? Would you take advantage of the fact that he has the MLB-level experience or is it just another pitcher that you’re going to catch?
SL: When it comes down to it, it’s just another pitcher, teammate, a guy that’s going to go out there and he’s going to work his butt off to get back to where he was. In that moment, we’re going to be teammates, but you know, once he’s done pitching and if I caught him and reality sets in that oh this dude has big league experience, it’s going to be a pretty cool deal.
NT: One last question. It goes back to our roots at Palmer Ridge. You’re the first PRHS graduate to be drafted. Do you think that it might give some of the current PRHS baseball players some added motivation to work a little harder knowing that getting drafted is a possibility?
SL: Absolutely. I hope I can give them motivation to work as hard as they can to get to where I am and succeed. Being the first guy and the only guy drafted out of PRHS is an awesome honor and you know I want those kids to see that and I want them to know that it’s possible. With a lot of hard work, it’s definitely a possibility.
NT: Well, that about wraps things up. On behalf of Rockies Zingers, I want to thank you for doing this interview with me and we’re all looking forward to seeing you progress through the system. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with you and following your hopefully long career.
SL: Absolutely. Thank you man. Thanks for having me and interviewing me.
Even though many of us knew he would get to this point, it was a unique and special feeling seeing Steven’s name next to the Rockies logo on the draft board.
Even though every young ballplayer’s dream is to be drafted by their favorite franchise, I must say, it is just as satisfying to see one of your best friends fulfill that dream. It was a privilege and an honor to share this moment with him. Steven Leonard is a great ballplayer and a special person. I couldn’t be happier for him and his family.
Congratulations and good luck, Steven. Like Dave said, the real work begins now. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @StevenLeo06