By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Like thousands of Alexandria athletes before him, Tyler Ratliff played Little League baseball, while dreaming of someday making the pros.
Unlike most players, though, Ratliff’s aspiration was realized in June when the Texas Rangers drafted him in the 17th round of the 2017 MLB draft.
In between dream and draft there were years of hard work.
“He just had a passion for it,” said his dad, Eric Ratliff. “He’s been doing it since he could walk. He started with t-ball, then coach pitch, then to regular Little League baseball. That was his thing. He was all about baseball.”
Tyler Ratliff, who is now 21, said professional baseball was “definitely one of my goals when I was really little, when I first started playing – when I was like five or six.”
Eric Ratliff said Tyler took after his wife Connie’s side of the family with his overall athleticism. But it was Tyler who worked to refine that innate ability into baseball skills.
“He played baseball in the spring, then did the summer season,” Eric Ratliff said. “Then he played again in the fall and worked out all winter.”
Along the way, Tyler attended Alexandria City Public Schools. He went to Samuel Tucker Elementary School, Francis C. Hammond Middle School and T.C. Williams High School. While an 8th grader at Hammond, Tyler played for the T.C. junior varsity baseball team and then made the varsity squad as a freshman.
Tyler teamed up with T.C. pitcher Alec Grosser, who was one year ahead of him, to lead the Titans to several successful seasons.
“He and Alec worked out together and played together,” Eric Ratliff said. “The two of them ended up getting drafted. Previous to them there was about a 30-year stretch since any one [from T.C. Williams] was drafted.”
At T.C. Williams, Tyler Ratliff hit .350 as a sophomore, .401 as a junior and .425 his senior year, when he won all-region and all-district honors.
Along the way he maintained a grade point average of 3.95 and made the honor roll all four years.
Rob Riley, Ratliff’s hitting instructor for the past six years at R&D Baseball, an academy that helps develop top players in the D.C. metro area, said he was astounded that Ratliff wasn’t recruited out of high school.
“We saw Tyler’s talent early on. We always saw the skill set and we knew the type of kid he was and the type of competitor he was,” Riley said.
Riley said he and Dan Olds, co-owner of R&D Baseball, began working with Tyler in 2012, the summer after his sophomore year in high school.
“We’ve watched Tyler grow up over the last six years,” Riley said. “It’s been fantastic to get to know him and Eric and Connie and their whole family… We trained him as a pitcher and a hitter and on overall athleticism and explosiveness.”
Riley said he continued working with Ratliff after he left to play baseball at Marshall University, where he spent three years before being drafted.
“I talk to Tyler at least weekly. We talk about his week and how he’s doing. We want to help him get to the big leagues,” Riley said.
Wowing the scouts
Each winter, R&D Baseball hosts a scout day when a handful of their top players work out in front of professional scouts. Riley said that day in January was a good one for Tyler.
“We give our future draft picks an early look by scouts,” Riley said. “The scouts came in and Tyler put on a show with the bat. That got him on the map with a lot of [scouts] and they tracked him all spring… and the Texas Rangers fortunately gave him an opportunity.”
Ratliff said he didn’t know what to expect when draft day arrived.
“Honestly, you never know [in what round] you’re going to get drafted,” he said. “People say you’re going to get drafted here, you’re going to get drafted there. People say a hundred different scenarios.”
In the weeks between finishing his junior year baseball season at Marshall in May and the MLB draft in June, Ratliff traveled around the country working out for various teams. In addition to Texas, he worked out for the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees.
“It was a cool experience,” Ratliff said. “You get to hit in a big league park with big league baseballs. It was just like taking batting practice.”
Unlike many players, Ratliff has not had a difficult time with the transition from metal bats in college to the wooden models used in professional baseball.
“Honestly, I didn’t like swinging metal bats in college. Metal bats don’t show you who the real hitters are,” he said. “You can get away with a lot of cheap hits. When we practiced and took batting practice in college I never used a metal bat. I always practiced with a wood bat. I did it because honestly an aluminum bat is kind of like a cheater bat.”
Lessons from Marshall
Ratliff’s college coach at Marshall, Jeff Waggoner, said Ratliff struggled while starting out as
a freshman, as many do, but three-fourths of the way through that year he beat out a senior to become the team’s starting third baseman.
He then wound up playing in virtually every game for three years.
“His work ethic was really great…He came in with tools, but you could see his body getting better every year. He got stronger and faster…that’s a tribute to his work ethic,” he said. “…The other thing that set him apart is he’s a really smart baseball player. He’s a guy who picked up things really quick.”
Waggoner said Ratliff’s improvement while at Marshall is something he can draw on as he plays professional baseball, so that he continues learning and developing.
“I think all those things are going to help him continue to get better and better. Even in pro ball, he knows he’s still got a ways to go and that’s going to help him to keep learning and keep improving as he goes through each level of the game.”
In the pros
Ratliff got off to a sizzling start in professional baseball.
After signing with the Rangers, he was assigned to their Arizona rookie league, where he hit .500 while driving in nine runs in only eight games.
He then was promoted to the Spokane Indians, the Rangers’ short season A affiliate in the Northwest League, where he made the all-star team.
“He play[ed] with all of the best players in the league, including a couple of number one draft picks,” his father said. “That was a real good experience for him.”
Although he didn’t start the all-star game, Ratliff ended up going one for one, with a single and a walk and wound up scoring the winning run. Last week, Tyler also had a walk-off hit for Spokane.
“I wasn’t playing in that game,” Tyler said. “They asked me, ‘Can you get an at bat for us?’ And I had a walk off hit and helped keep us in the playoff hunt. It was a lot of fun.”
Tyler’s parents made the journey out to Washington State last week to see their son play professionally for the first time.
“My wife and I are loving that we got to come out [there] and watch him play,” Eric Ratliff said.
Tyler said, until he went away to college, his mom Connie had never missed a single game
he played, from Little League through T.C. Williams, home or away.
“I don’t think she ever missed one,” Tyler said. “I think she made every one from t-ball until my final travel game before my freshman year in college.”
Spokane’s season ends Sept. 3, though there may be a few additional games if the team makes the playoffs. After that, Tyler will travel to Arizona for three weeks of instructional work before heading home to Alexandria for the winter.
He will report to spring training in early March, and, after that, the Rangers will decide which affiliate Tyler will play for in 2018.
As for the future, his coach at Marshall, Waggoner, believes the best is ahead for Ratliff.
“We’ve had quite a few guys get drafted and make it to the big leagues [out of Marshall], and he’s got a chance to be better than all of them,” Waggoner said.