If not for some late decisions in their high school careers to stick with baseball, Giancarlo Stanton might have ended up catching passes in the NFL and Dee Gordon could have been dunking in the NBA instead of on his Marlins teammates.
J.T. Realmuto never had to choose baseball over something else.
But had he wanted to wrestle, play quarterback or do just about anything else in life, his former athletic director and football coach at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City, Oklahoma, is convinced the Marlins’ 24-year-old catcher would have succeeded.
“Best multi-sport, all-around athlete and student-athlete I’ve ever been around in my 41 years of coaching,” said Gary Rose, who also taught Realmuto’s uncles, four of whom became NCAA wrestling champions, including one, John Smith, who won a pair of freestyle wrestling gold medals in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.
“I’m not sure J.T. ever had a ‘B’ on his report card either,” Rose continued. “I know he scored over 30 on the ACT, 4.0 GPA. Every college coach who came in here wanted him. The best part besides all that athleticism and talent is that J.T. is humble, very coachable, without an arrogant bone in his body.”
The Marlins, off on Thursday before opening a three-game series Friday at home against the Phillies, obviously thought the same of Realmuto.
They took him with the 104th overall pick in the 2010 draft and believed they could convert him from a 6-1, 205-pound rifle-armed shortstop with a baseball scholarship to Oklahoma State into an athletic, everyday big-league catcher.
After setting national high school records with 88 hits and 119 RBI in 42 games as senior and winning three state titles (one in football as a quarterback; two in baseball as a shortstop), Realmuto bought into that vision.
“I caught maybe four games my entire life when [Marlins scout] Steve Taylor showed up to one of them and saw me catching,” Realmuto said. “Our everyday catcher was pitching that day and they needed to throw somebody back there, so I went.
“After the game, [Taylor] told me he liked my tools and asked me if I would be willing to give it a shot. I said, ‘Yeah, whatever is going to give me the best chance to get to the big leagues.’ ”
From that day forward, the kid whose father played baseball at Southwest Missouri State and two older sisters caught in college (Ryan at Oklahoma State; Amanda at Northwestern State) has tried to learn all he can about the position.
Former Marlins minor-league catching coordinator Tim Cossins, who is now with the Cubs, was his mentor for three years. Realmuto said he and Cossins still keep in contact and he reaches out to him for advice.
“The main thing he always said to me was go 1 for 4 with a win,” Realmuto said. “You go 1 for 4 with a win you’re going to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues for a long time.”
A dozen starts into his new job as the Marlins’ everyday catcher, that’s what Realmuto has done. He’s hitting .239 with three RBI and the Marlins are 7-5 with him behind the plate. The starting rotation over the past eight games has also been excellent.
Last season at Double A Jacksonville, Realmuto hit .299 with eight homers and 62 RBI and made strides behind the plate. His ascent factored into the Marlins’ decision to designate Jarrod Saltalmacchia for assignment Monday and sacrifice the $15 million owed to the struggling catcher.
“He’s known for the last couple years that this day was going to come,” manager Mike Redmond said of Realmuto’s promotion. “The two years I’ve been here, he’s continued to get better. Catching in the big leagues is a lot of work. It’s a lot of prep. A lot of it is experience, getting back there behind the plate, seeing the hitters, learning the pitchers, situations, when to come inside, when to not pitch. And he’s handled it really well.
“There’s definitely in-game conversations, but what you want to do is see how a guy gets the information and takes it into the game, and he can really do that. It’s been fun to watch him.”
Said backup catcher Jeff Mathis: “It’s impressive to see his athleticism. You can definitely tell he had a little bit of middle infielder in him ‒ the way he moves, gets down the line fast.”
Realmuto says there’s still plenty to learn. Before Saltalamacchia was released, Realmuto said he was helping him pick up on some different tendencies he was showing opposing hitters and runners while setting up for off-speed and fastball counts. “I really appreciate the way he was helping me,” Realmuto said.
Eventually, Realmuto’s friends and family back home feel it won’t be long before he gets comfortable and starts dominating like he did in high school.
“He’s going to be a star,” Rose said. “Everybody around here is following the Marlins and what J.T. does. We’re all real, real happy for him and very proud.”