PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – President Teddy Roosevelt would have liked 14-year-old Joe Schulte. The young man from Monroeville speaks softly and carries a big stick.
“The most humble down to Earth child,” says his mother, Jeanne Schulte. “He is an excellent athlete, but he doesn’t gloat. He is not showboaty. He is there for himself and his team.’
These days, when the rising freshman at Gateway High School swings a baseball bat, things are rarely quiet.
Schulte is one of eight young men to qualify for the 14-Under division of the Junior Home Run Derby at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Miami.
Joe admits he hasn’t always been a slugger.
“I didn’t really start hitting home runs until last year,” he said.
Yet once he started, he hasn’t looked back. We asked Joe what has changed about his swing.
“I started working out a little bit, and trying to go for bigger hits,” he said. “I guess it just paid off.”
Schulte has it figured out well enough to qualify for the event that will be held on Monday. As a national finalist, Schulte will be trying to hit as many home runs as he can over a 210-215 foot fence on 20 swings. The pitches come from a pitching machine, and each player in the contest will get the same number of swings.
Before he heads south to Florida, we wanted to give him a little help and make sure he was ready to go.
Last Thursday, KDKA-TV’s Rick Dayton met Joe and his mom in the shadows of the Honus Wagner statue at PNC Park. They walked inside and met Terry Rogers from the Pirates. He took them down into the concrete hallways under PNC Park and walked in the direction of the Pirates’ clubhouse.
Wide-eyed Joe couldn’t believe what was in front of him as he walked into a large room just past the visitor’s clubhouse. It was the team’s gigantic indoor batting cages.
Dayton told Joe to put on his batting gloves and get his bat as Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson walked into the cage.
Dayton introduced Joe to Coach Branson and explained what he does with the big league club. Dayton told Joe that part of our surprise was to have the coach work with him on his swing before he heads to Miami.
“Well, you won the home run derby, so I don’t think there’s much to be working on,” Branson joked.
Then, the pair got to work.
The entire lesson was conducted by Schulte hitting a stationary baseball placed on a hitting tee.
Branson gave him a couple of pointers and then explained some physics of why some hits fly over the fence and others are just fly balls to the outfield.
“If we try to lift the ball in the air, now the backspin goes straight up this way,” Branson said. “So, your home runs actually end up line drives that carry and back-spin over the fence.”
Schulte was obviously nervous and he pounded a few week grounders into the field turf surface of the batting cage.
Branson told him to take a deep breath and to relax — reminding him that he didn’t have to do too much and didn’t have to impress anyone. As coach and student worked together, each swing improved.
“There you go, Joe. Yeah! Think about hitting the bottom half of the ball. How about one more? Bottom half of the ball, OK?”
With a loud crack, Schulte’s bat compressed the baseball and it rocketed off the tee toward the back wall of the cage.
The two worked several other finer points of the swing for about 15 minutes. Before they wrapped up, Branson wanted to know what Joe was going to focus on when he steps in the box in Miami.
“I’m going to get my legs into my swing,” Joe said confidently.
The coach paused a moment, then said, “Ok, but the biggest thing is what?”
“Finishing,” replied Joe — meaning he needed to finish every swing and keep the barrel of the bat driving through the ball as long at possible.
A big smile appeared on the coach’s face and he nodded. “Make sure you finish. Make sure you finish.”
The pair shook hands as the coach raced off to a meeting a couple hours before the Pirates were to take the field.
The batting cage session wasn’t the entire surprise.
Next, we took a short walk down the hall to a long staircase between the cinder block walls of PNC Park.
It is the same set of steps the Pirates walk to get from the clubhouse down to the home dugout and to the field at PNC Park. As we walked around the corner at the end of the steps, we could see several of the Pirates already on the field working out.
“Is that Josh Bell?” Joe asked.
Dayton nodded, “Big guy, isn’t he?”
Joe was amazed. He had a front row seat to watch big leaguers work before his time in the sun.
Joe and Rick took a seat on the upper bench of the Pirates dugout, the same place he had seen Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole and Jordy Mercer sit during games.
Rick asked Joe if he had ever been to Florida.
The response was honest, candid, almost matter-of-fact.
“I have never been to Florida before,” he said.
“Have you ever flown before?” Rick asked.
Joe shook his head, “I have never been on a plane before.”
The young man who is pretty good at hitting home runs was about to get on an airplane, fly to Miami to where the Marlins play and make an appearance in the All-Star Game Junior Home Run Derby.
Had it occurred to the young man exactly what was happening because of his ability to hit a baseball very far?
He simply shook his head twice and said, “A lot of big changes.”
Rick and Joe talked about baseball, about hitting home runs, about how amazing the field at PNC Park looks. Then, Rick told Joe about the rest of our surprise.
Before our meeting at PNC Park, Rick made a phone call to Louisville Slugger. They are one of the best-known manufacturer of baseball bats and have been around since the 1800s.
Rick told Joe that Louisville Slugger heard about his success and is sending him two of their Prime Hardwood bats, the same kind that will be used by Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison when he plays in the All-Star Game in Miami.
The company is also sending Josh some batting gloves and a metal bat he can use next year in high school.
Schulte could barely contain his excitement as we flipped through the Louisville Slugger website, picking out the exact kind of bats he wanted to order.
They hung out in the dugout for a little while watching his big league heroes warm up for their game, and then walked down the tunnel, back up the steps and out of the stadium.
When they stepped into the bright summer sunshine along General Robinson Avenue outside the stadium, Rick asked Joe if he liked his surprise.
The teen slugger gushed about the experience. His mom did too.
“That was phenomenal. I thank you guys, and I thank all of them (the Pirates),” Jeanne said. “That was awesome. And I think it was a shellshock when he saw a coach give him some practice.”
Joe and his family will head to Florida on Friday. He knows he’ll be anxious Monday, but his bags are packed and can’t wait to see each pitch and try to make a good swing.
“It makes me a little bit nervous,” Schulte admitted. “But, I just know I am going to do my best and try to win it.”
Just like he did in the local qualifier and then a regional championship in New Jersey.
It is safe to say that all of Pittsburgh, the Pirates and their hitting coach will be cheering for him.