SAN FRANCISCO — At the age of 14, Joey Bart tried out for the local travel ball club in his hometown of Buford, Ga. — the East Cobb Astros. He was beaten out by Tyler Stephenson and Lucas Herbert.
Three years later, he saw Stephenson go in the first round of the Major League Draft to the Cincinnati Reds. Then he saw the Atlanta Braves take Herbert in the second.
“I guarantee you, it eats at him, and it has driven him,” said Danny Hall, Bart’s head coach at Georgia Tech for the last three years. “That was the moment where it was just like, ‘OK, I’m not going to let this happen again.'”
After winning the ACC Player of the Year Award in a first-team All-American junior season, Bart became the highest pick ever to come out of the Yellow Jackets program last week. The San Francisco Giants — who last picked a first-round, top-five catcher in 2008 — selected Bart No. 2 overall, higher than the franchise cornerstone he may very well replace: Buster Posey.
Hall has known Bart since he was 12. Bart played travel ball with Hall’s son, Carter, and roomed with him for the last three years at Georgia Tech. Hall has coached Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek and Matt Weiters. He recruited Posey. Bart, he says, is one of “those guys.”
“When we say, ‘He’s a guy,’ that’s our way of saying he’s got a chance to be really special,” Hall said. “The thing is, because of how great Buster Posey is, he’s always going to be compared to him, and that’s a tough guy to get compared to, but I think he’s right there with those guys.”
At 6-foot-3,225 pounds, Bart — a former high school running back and linebacker — is closer in size to Varitek than Posey. He also has greater power potential than both. After hitting one home run as a freshman, he hit 13 as a sophomore, and 16 as a junior.
After batting under .300 his first two seasons, Bart ground his way through the offseason, focusing on going to right field, and forming a more complete approach at the plate. He spent more time in the batting cage, hitting on the field off of a machine and spending time with Mick Nickeas, a former big league catcher who serves as Georgia Tech’s hitting coach. He also picked the brain of Weiters, who trains at the Yellow Jackets facility during the offseason.
“My first two years at Tech were good, but I knew they weren’t what I was capable of doing,” Bart said. “I think I’ve put a lot more of an approach to my hitting. I’d say that I just try to cancel out some of the strike zone, and I did that, was a lot more selective this year.”
He finished his junior year with the ACC batting title, hitting .359.
“I don’t like to compare players,” said Giants assistant general manager John Barr, “but Joey is more of a power.”
Down the left field line at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium is the John and Mary Brock indoor football practice facility. It sits about 15 feet beyond the 328-foot left field fence, and its arched roof is 65 feet high at its peak.
In the first inning against Florida State on April 4, Bart deposited a 1-2, mid-90s fastball from fifth-round pick Cole Sands on top of that building. Barr was in the stands, as part of a four-strong Giants contingent.
“Every time Joey walked up to the plate, it was a sense of, ‘What’s going to happen?’” said Barr. “People were excited see him come up to the plate.”
In late May, when Bart arrived at AT&T for a workout, it was a bit of a culmination, not just of the draft process, but also of his travel ball days. When he was 11, his team was set to play a tournament in the Bay Area, but a spate of bad weather waterlogged the fields. Flights were cancelled, and the trip wasn’t made. When he finally did arrive in San Francisco, 10 years later, he brought his father, a former pitcher for Penn State. He also brought his power.
Bart banged home runs off of the right field arcade, before meeting the Giants brass. It was confirmation: This was the guy. Though Barr was reticent to say it, one thing was very apparent: if all goes right, this is Posey’s successor.
“For my name to be put up there with his, it’s just unreal,” said Bart, who added that his two favorite players growing up were Posey and Bryce Harper. “The things he’s done in this league, and what he can do with his bat while catching a lot of games goes extremely under the radar.”
Posey was drafted in 2008 and made it to the Major Leagues by September of 2009. In October of 2010, he was the starting catcher on a World Series champion. An ACC Player of the Year like Posey, smart money has Bart placed on the fast track to the big leagues.
In two years, Posey will be 33, likely at the tail end of his shelf life as an everyday catcher. He’ll likely transition to first base, playing there more and more. That gives Bart a significant opening.
“I’d love to be that guy as soon as I can, and Buster’s one of the best in the game, so whenever he’s done, hopefully I can learn some things from him, and go forward from there,” Bart said. “I’d love to get out there as soon as possible. I think that’s what really attracted me to the Giants.”
Unlike Posey, who played all nine positions in one game at Florida State and was primarily a shortstop and a pitcher, Bart has been playing catcher since he was 10 years old.
That summer, readying to practice with his travel ball team in the 100-degree south Georgia summer, a friend of Bart’s — Max Ford, the team’s catcher and now a pitcher for Eastern Kentucky — couldn’t put on the gear. Recently diagnosed as a diabetic, his blood sugar had dropped. Bart, a center fielder at the time, volunteered to take his place.
“I love the position, I love everything about it, and I wouldn’t want to play any other position on the field,” Bart said the day of his selection.
During last summer’s talks with Weiters, he gleaned everything he could about the mental side of catching, and pitching strategy. He became so trusted by the Georgia Tech coaching staff that they let him call his own game — a rarity at the college level.
“You look at the size of this kid, and the success that he’s had, plus the intangibles, like he’s been calling his own game, that’s always nice to know that he’s got a good feel for pitching and game calling,” Barr said. “You would think someone like this would be on a fast pace.”
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