DDHS grad climbing pro baseball ladder
Baseball players know the odds are overwhelmingly against them. But that doesn't matter when the dream is all about reaching The Show — the major leagues.
That goal remains within the realm of possibility for 2012 Delavan-Darien High School graduate Bryce Skelton.
Three days after getting his degree in May from Lakeland College in Sheboygan, he joined the Roswell Invaders, a New Mexico franchise in the Pecos League, which also features teams from Colorado, Arizona, Texas and Kansas.
That's about 1,300 miles and a 19- to 20-hour drive from home. But the 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound catching prospect already knows what that's like because the Invaders have taken a bus ride to Winnipeg, Canada.
Welcome to professional baseball.
However, Skelton said the scant pay — about $50 per week — and long trips are worth it, at least for now. Because even though he is on a lower rung of independent ball, he's still on the ladder.
“Some of these bus rides can be brutal, but you can't worry about everything like that,” a groggy Skelton said on a recent morning after the Invaders played for a 46th consecutive day. “It's all about winning games and getting noticed or picked up by a higher league. I'm getting paid to play baseball.”
So, the right-handed hitter continuously works on his game, which mostly had amounted to spot starts and pinch-hitting duties early because the team included two more established catchers.
“In college you might have seen a team with one quality pitcher, while here you see a bunch of aces, and the hitters are a lot better,” Skelton said in comparing the competition he saw at the NCAA Division III level. “It's been a pretty big learning curve. Here you have to have an idea what the pitcher is doing and what approach you need to take. You have to be patient. It's a lot different than 'see ball, hit ball' from in college.
“It's all about keeping hitters off balance and not being predictable,” he said about his work behind the plate. “It's much more about the mental side of the game than the physical.”
Invaders' manager Bryan Kloppe said Skelton has taken positive steps since his arrival.
“He's been a great guy on and off the field,” Kloppe said. “We have two All-Star catchers ahead of him, so it's been tough (to get playing time). He's gotten spot starts and done a great job defensively and shown a good bat. He's gotten some big, clutch hits for us, including July 4 against rival Tucson. I believe he's got a bright future.”
Skelton's big hit was a full-count, three-run double during a five-run eighth inning that propelled them to an 8-4 win.
Another person who knows all about Skelton's strong work ethic and intangibles is Paul Yanko, who has taught in the Delavan-Darien School District for 20 years and coaching the Comets varsity baseball team for nine years until taking over the JV team this past spring.
“I can go back to when I taught Bryce in middle school, he was all about baseball and took the game seriously,” Yanko said of an athlete who became a varsity player as a sophomore. “We had a pretty good group of seniors that year, but he played a little at first, second, even pitched. He was versatile and was like a utility guy for us, and I was confident he could do what was asked of him.”
Skelton then took over as the starting catcher and was named a captain, earning team most valuable player honors his final two years while making the Southern Lakes Conference's first squad as a senior.
“Bryce took over a leadership role and always led by example,” Yanko said. “He was our No. 3 or 4 batter who hit for a high average, had some power. He was the RBI guy in the middle of our order who came through in the clutch. He was an intelligent player who helped coach our Legion team a couple of summers while in college.
“But baseball is a tough game and you get a lot of bumps along the way,” Yanko added. “Bryce had that mental toughness to overcome. It's always good to see a player so motivated to chase his goals and dreams. It would be nice to see him play at the highest level he can.”
It helps to have connections within the game. Lakeland College assistant coach Sean Repay coached in the Pecos League in 2014 and was with the Gary (Indiana) SouthShore RailCats of the American Association last year, which got Skelton a job as the upper-level independent team's bullpen catcher.
“I spent the whole time just catching pitchers and not playing,” Skelton said of the grind. “But it was amazing getting to know a lot of players and making lots of connections, including guys who got drafted. It was part of another year of improving.”
And it's that experience and continually working on his craft that keeps Skelton motivated. He has a criminal justice degree to fall back on, but coaching could be his ticket at some point.
However, those options remain on the back burner while Skelton keeps climbing the baseball ladder.
“I have to give a lot of thanks to my college coaches for getting me this far … I guess I was a late bloomer,” he said. “I just have to keep working and stay focused so when my name is called I'll be ready.
“I would come back here again, but the hope is to get picked up by a higher independent team or get an offer from a minor league organization.”