By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
Alec Grosser was a typical high school senior last year — looking forward to graduation and moving on to George Mason University.
But barely a year later, he found himself instead on a pitcher’s mound in southern Florida, facing off against a two-time Major League Baseball all-star named Jhonny Peralta.
Suspended for violating baseball’s substance abuse policy, Peralta, then with the Detroit Tigers, was on a rehab assignment in the Florida Instructional League. The Detroit newspapers and baseball trade press covered the shortstop’s every move.
By contrast, Grosser, 18, was just one of hundreds of players in Florida from all over the world launching their professional baseball careers. Selected in the spring by the Atlanta Braves in the 11th round of the MLB Draft, the hard-throwing, 6-foot-2 right-hander was a former star at T.C. Williams.
Hardly any ballplayers ever start out in the majors. Instead, they spend years clawing their way up through the minor league system, trying to advance to The Show.
Peralta, 31, who has played in the majors for a decade and just signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, faced Grosser twice. He walked once and hit into a double play.
“It’s an honor and a big opportunity,” Grosser said in a phone interview last week. “There are a lot of baseball players who would like to get an opportunity to pitch to a guy like that. At the same time, my roommate says you want to act like you’ve been there before.”
Grosser hasn’t been there before, but there are early indications that he may just be on his way. In his Gulf Coast League debut, Grosser put up impressive numbers.
In 29.1 innings, he finished with 23 strikeouts, 15 walks and gave up a dozen hits. What’s more, he finished the season with a 2.15 earned run average.
He’s back home in Alexandria now. While he’s giving his arm a rest, he spends his days working out, following a conditioning program put together for him by the Braves organization.
A few weeks ago, he stopped by the Alexandria Sportsman’s Club, an organization that’s been around since the 1940s and hands out awards and scholarships to local high school athletes. The club also invites guest speakers, such Washington Nationals and Redskins players, to talk about their careers, lives and the importance of athletics.
Club official Allan Kaupinen said the organization wanted to hear from Grosser because nobody knew what happened after his signing with the Braves.
“You see and hear about these athletes, but then they leave and move on, and you wonder what became of them,” Kaupinen said.
After speaking for a few minutes, Grosser fielded questions from the audience. In a nod to the caliber of high school baseball in Northern Virginia, he told his audience that Lake Braddock’s lineup last season was every bit as tough as many of the rookie league batters he faced in the Gulf Coast League.
Grosser also said that he was surprised by how quickly he seemed to fit in after reporting to camp. Players just like him — 18- and 19-year-olds from across the country — surrounded him.
“Going down there I didn’t really have expectations as far as stats,” he said later. “I just wanted to compete. Those first few innings, you’re a little uneasy. There are guys there from all over the country. But overall I felt I pitched well. Obviously there are things I want to improve on, but I have good teachers and I’m happy.”
Grosser had a roommate who talked about how he’d dreamed from a very early age about playing in the majors. But Grosser was different. He came up through the Alexandria Little League system and then played at T.C. under coach Jim Blair.
“I didn’t really ever think about it,” he said, when asked if he had professional aspirations as young player. “I was just playing to have fun.”
On the day he found out the Braves drafted him, Grosser returned to Simpson Field, where T.C. plays and where he’d learned the basics in Little League. Though suddenly a professional ballplayer, Grosser suited up for a job he’s had since age 14 — calling balls and strikes as an umpire.
“That’s where it all began,” he said.