July 20, 2017
by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Anyone who has ever done a jigsaw puzzle knows about holding a piece that should be a perfect fit in one place yet isn’t, but DOES fit somewhere else and is key to completing the overall puzzle.
Georgia Tech junior catcher Joey Bart may not be a fan of jigsaw puzzles but knows the feeling, having lived it over the summer. Bart had what should have been the perfect piece to connecting his college career to the pros — a spot at the USA Collegiate National Team Training Camp. Making the team would mean playing with some of the nation’s top underclassmen in games against teams from China, Cuba and Japan.
But after a week, instead of living the dream and getting to showcase the talents that put him on the 2017 Johnny Bench Award watch list, Bart found that when it comes to opportunity, being in the right place doesn’t really matter if it’s not the right time.
“I kind of had an idea after coming off last summer that I could be a candidate to catch for that team after talking with (USA Baseball General Manager, National Teams) Eric Campbell,” Bart said. “Then it went from that to breaking my thumb. I went to the trials and then ultimately, just rushing back into things with USA I just wasn’t ready to go. They’re looking for results now and I totally get that. Me breaking my thumb and stuff just kind of took me out of it.”
Bart, who was larger than life for the Jackets in 2017, leading the team in homers (13 — he led the nation for a while), RBIs (43), and slugging (.575), and ranking in the top-five in batting average (.296, fourth), on-base percentage (.370, fifth), total bases (107, third) and even stolen bases (four, third, he was 4-for-4, no less), with the fourth-longest hitting streak (10 games) and two of the club’s three five-hit games, suddenly found himself mortal.
Right place, wrong time.
But this mortality wasn’t all his fault.
In a case of the “When it rains it pours,” Bart was caught in a hurricane of just plain bad luck that only now is finally starting to lift. Typical was the fluke injury he suffered in May, breaking his thumb in a pregame bullpen while warming up Tech’s starting pitcher.
“I’ve never been hurt in my life so I didn’t really know how to deal with it,” Bart admitted from his room in Harwich, Mass., where he’s playing summer ball with the Mariners in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL). “I came back and my swing just wasn’t there.”
The broken thumb was the coup de grace of this spiral, but, in this hurricane of misfortune, as with most hurricanes, there also was harm found in the eye. An unexpected mix-up weeks before the broken thumb actually may have been where the downward spiral began.
An issue with contact lenses led to him suddenly not making contact — or, as with his thumb, the wrong kind of contact.
“I could not see. I would be on pitches that I thought I was about to hit, even in batting practice and I was swinging and missing,” he said. “I was like, ‘There’s just no way. Something’s not right.’
“My eyes are weird,” he added. “I got contacts that never were real comfortable with contacts in my eyes. I always just thought, ‘Oh, I need to get them adjusted.’ So I wore them for a little while and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just still adjusting. It’ll be alright.’ Then I got hurt, so I didn’t wear them.”
Bart, hit .257 (9-for-35) over his final 10 games, and even THAT is misleading as five of those hits came in the first of those 10 games. He hit .133 (4-for-30) over his final nine games.
Then came the season-ending broken thumb.
Using eyewear he still didn’t know was faulty and being rusty after sitting six weeks led to continued struggles on Cape Cod, where he’d been an all-star the previous summer. With USA tryouts approaching, he detoured, stopping in Atlanta to finally see his eye doctor and get the contacts issue corrected.
“I was supposed to fly from Boston to Raleigh. I had to take a flight from Boston to Atlanta to see my eye doctor then I drove up to Raleigh for USA,” he said. “It’s been crazy.”
While his contacts were corrected contact took longer. He wasn’t helped by the numbers game with USA, as he only played in parts of two games against teams in the Coastal Plain League in his week in camp.
“There was one locked spot, which is Nick Meyer from Cal Poly, and then there was me and Grant Koch from Arkansas,” he recalled. “Grant tore it up. Hats off to Grant. That’s the direction they went. I understand.
“USA was an interesting experience to say the least,” he said. “I respect (UCLA head coach) John Savage and (Long Beach State head coach) Coach Buckley, the pitching coach. The players are great too. I met some cool guys. Unfortunately things didn’t work out but it was a great experience putting on the USA jersey and traveling and playing different teams. It was an honor. Best of luck to those guys. It was fun being there for a week, but it was probably best for me to go in another direction.”
That direction was North back to Cape Cod.
“I needed to get some at-bats,” he said. “I wanted to play, get my reps and get back into the flow of things. With USA I got six at-bats in a week. I’m thinking, ‘This is a three-week thing. I don’t want to come out with 25 at-bats.’”
The road back to the Cape included another stop in Atlanta to fine-tune his swing.
He hooked up with Brad McCann, who runs McCann’s Windward Baseball Academy with older brother, Houston Astros (and former Atlanta Braves) catcher and seven-time MLB All-Star Brian McCann. The session was just what Bart needed.
“Coming back out of an injury and going to USA, trying to do too much, mechanics just needed to be settled down. I’ve always heard great things about him,” he said. “He taught me some things that he works with his brother on, he works with (Chicago Cubs and former Brave) Jason Heyward and all these guys. It worked for me. He wasn’t trying to change me up. It was just kind of take a few minor things. I’m looking forward to hitting with him again. He really knows his stuff and he’s a really cool dude. He told me he played at Harwich as well, small world.”
Bart is back with Harwich, and, while the injury bug apparently hasn’t completely left him — he tweaked his groin which has caused him to sit a little bit — he’s optimistic that he’s on the sunny side of the street and is enjoying summer, back in what has become his comfort spot.
“I was in Wareham last summer and I loved it. I crushed it. I was an all-star. I had so much fun I decided I had to come back,” he said. “Especially after that injury, I was real serious about getting it back. I wanted to get my at-bats and get some time behind the dish up here. Up here in the Cape, seeing and doing this daily grind and playing it really helps your game. I figured I’d be missing out if I didn’t come back up here and enjoy things.”
Bart is looking forward to 2018, where he doesn’t figure to miss games or pitches, as everything is right, especially his swing. He’s ready to return to being a difference-maker for the Jackets, who were 22-18 with him behind plate, 5-10 without him.
“It’s back to normal. It feels great,” he said. “It just took some time for my swing to come around. I had to go back to the basics. Ultimately, it was most important for me to get my body healthy and put myself in the best position for the fall and the spring coming up.”
There’s also the 2018 MLB First Year Player Draft.
While Bart’s mum on the subject others are not, especially Baseball America, which projected him as its No. 8 overall pick in its 2018 MLB Draft watch list, saying, “Catchers with power who can catch generally fly off the board.”
After this past spring and summer Bart isn’t taking anything for granted. He’ll simply take a run of good — or simply just not BAD — luck. It’s a run that’s overdue.
“No kidding,” Bart said, with a laugh. “Knock on wood.”