As the high school baseball playoffs kick off for three local teams this week, it is a reminder that a group of high school seniors will be closing out their organized baseball careers. While most young men start out with the dream of playing Major League Baseball, the reality is, even for the most talented players, the likelihood is very small. A recent study gave the odds of a high school senior getting drafted and making a major-league team as one in 6,600, or roughly the same odds of guessing someone’s PIN number on the first try. Niko Goodrum, a 2010 graduate of Fayette County High School, is on the cusp of making that dream become reality.
Goodrum graduated in 2010 and was the 71st pick in 2010 MLB amateur draft by the Minnesota Twins organization. The Atlanta Braves had just taken Andrelton Simmons with the pick before him. After flying to Minnesota to sign a contract, Goodrum immediately went to Florida to begin his professional career while his friends were enjoying the summer after their graduation. Since his first season, he has continued to hone his skills in Ft, Myers, Florida, Elizabethton, Tennessee, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and now in Rochester, New York, the Twins AAA affiliate.
On his journey, Goodrum has consistently improved at each step and earned accolades along the way, being named to the Midwest League All Star team in 2013, voted as having the best infield arm in the Florida State League by Baseball America magazine in 2014, and a Southern League player of the week honor last season. He has focused on becoming a versatile weapon, playing every position on the diamond with the exception of pitcher and catcher. He brings five gloves to the ballpark each day.
After a hectic 2016 season which included a nagging stress fracture that stole valuable at bats in Chattanooga and a stint with Caribes de Anzoategui in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, Goodrum was invited to the Twins 2017 spring training. It was the opportunity he had been waiting for, and he seized the moment. He played in 13 games with the parent club and hit .421 with two home runs, a three-run homer off Tampa Rays starting pitcher Jose De Leon and a two-run shot off Oriole reliever Oliver Drake. As one of the final cuts in camp, Goodrum started the season with the AAA Rochester Red Wings in the International League, just one step from the major leagues.
Goodrum and the Red Wings were in Lawrenceville last week to play a three-game series against the Gwinnett Braves. It was a good opportunity for his family and friends to drive up and see him close to home. At 25, Goodrum is one of the younger players on the veteran Red Wing roster. On this night, he would start at shortstop after starting in center the previous evening, so he took a long session of batting practice in the middle infield working on his defense before his hitting session and then finished up shagging flies in the outfield. In the dugout afterwards, he was relaxed, his smile was warm, and he exuded a confident demeanor. He looked more like the Fayette County High senior about to play a region game than a professional game against starting pitcher Matt Wisler of the Gwinnett Braves, who pitched for the Atlanta Braves last year.
He acknowledged it was good to be close to home and admitted that he had not yet gotten used to the colder climate of update New York. In terms of the differences between the AAA and AA levels, he said, “The pitchers here are more aware of your at bats. They notice little things about your swing and adjust accordingly. If they see you swing a certain way on a certain pitch, they remember that.”
When he asked if he might be in Minnesota later this season, he smiled and said, “That’s the plan. I am working towards that every day.”
The Red Wings are taking advantage of his athleticism and size by playing him in the key “up the middle” defensive spots: shortstop, second, and centerfield. That versatility is critical is today’s game, where a player who can play multiple positions like Goodrum can free up a roster spot for an additional bullpen specialist. The fact that he is a switch hitter makes him even more valuable for late inning matchup situations.
Life in AAA is not as bad as the low minors, where long bus rides are the norm.
“We flew here from Rochester, and then we are riding over to Charlotte on a bus for the weekend series before we fly back home. It’s hard to remember where you are when you wake up sometimes.”
Goodrum is extremely comfortable with his current position. In baseball, where failure is more common than success, learning to deal with the grind without losing confidence is often the make or break quality.
“I have learned to leave the good and the bad at the ballpark, to not take those things back to the hotel. I need the downtime to be ready for the next day.”
With his parents, Tim and Connie, along with other friends and family on hand for the series, Goodrum came to bat in the top of the second inning to a loud applause and didn’t disappoint. Batting left-handed against the right-handed Wisler, he pulled a 1 and 1 pitch between first and second for a base hit. While the Red Wings went on to lose a heartbreaker to the Braves, it was just another step in the entire process. Each base hit, each defensive web gem, and each stolen base add up to another step on the road to Target Field where the Twins play. When that day comes, it will be the culmination of a lot of work, patience, and adversity, but there will be a whole community back in Fayette rooting him on all the way.