A little over a year ago they were attending their high school graduation. By September, high school seemed a distant memory and, oh, how life had changed. Bourne Braves pitcher Andrew Carignan will celebrate his 19th birthday next month. Cotuit Kettleersí third baseman J.P. Padron just turned 19. This summer the University of North Carolina and Louisiana State University freshmen are playing in the Cape Cod Baseball League, a far cry from just 12 months ago when they were playing for their high school team.
- David Caolantuono / Enterprise
The differences between high school baseball and the game at the Division I college level can be mind-boggling. Suddenly everything is faster, intensely focused; your teammates are driven hard to succeed and you find yourself surrounded by some of the best ballplayers in the country.
Add to that the fact that you may be away from home for the first time, learning how to live on your own. Youíre in an unfamiliar part of the country, a long way from home, family, and friends and find yourself thrust upon a stage the size of which youíve never played on before. And, on top of it all, the academic workload can be crushing.
A Division I baseball program would not recruit a player if that kid didnít have the talent and athletic ability to play the game. Still, the learning curve is steep and one of the first things many players learn once they get to the college level is just how much they donít know about the game.
"Everyone is just so much better and there is so much more knowledge about the game," Carignan said. "Division I baseball is just a step away from the pros. In high school, you might have had to worry about the three or the four hitter, and to be honest Iíd throw fastballs right by them. Thatís not the case when you get to college.
"You can throw the best pitch youíve thrown all day and they can hit it 400 feet over the center field fence. At the college level, youíve got to know the hitters, youíve got to concentrate on the scouting reports and attack their weaknesses. There is a lot to learn."
After facing high school pitchers, Division I college hurlers can be a nightmare for hitters. "It is definitely a big adjustment," Padron said of stepping in against a top Division I pitcher. "They hit their spots and can nibble away at the corners. Itís harder to find a pitch to hit. It is a totally different game from what youíd see in high school."
Training his body to play 56 games in college as opposed to 20 at the high school level was one of the hardest things Carignan faced.
"Itís an every day, grueling long season. It starts as soon as you get to school in the fall. You begin preparing yourself so you can last all year," he pointed out. "The competition is amazing. I was playing against kids that were drafted in the first round and could be in the major leagues in three or four years. In high school, you never imagine that youíll be playing against these types of players. Itís pretty impressive."
A ballgame isnít a quick seven-inning affair in front of parents and friends as it was in high school. At the Division I level, large crowds can fill stadiums to see games. "We probably had 3,000 fans a couple of times at our place," Carignan said, "but you go to Florida State or Clemson, and theyíre packing the house with almost 6,000 people. Itís definitely another thing that you have to deal with."
"We have a paid attendance of 6,000 to 7,000 for every game," Padron said of the LSU Tigers. "Once you get used to all the people, you love it, and find a way to let it motivate you into playing better."
At Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut, Carignan was an all-star player. He received the Gatorade and Connecticut Coaches Association State Player Of The Year honors as a senior and was twice an all-state selection. He was also a high honors student, but what hit him when he arrived in Durham, North Carolina, last September was the greatest challenge he had faced in his life.
Padron, too, received his share of athletic awards. Baseball America identified him as Texasís best "raw power" hitter while in his junior year at Clear Creek High School in Houston. He also received all-county and all-district recognition and was selected to the Nike All-Star team. Padron, like Carignan, was also a top high school student.
Most schools and athletic programs recognize the fact that they are asking a lot of an 18-year old and provide special academic assistance. Teams and coaching staffs provide support and attempt to recreate a sense of family. But two things that can never be replaced are sleeping in your own bed and Momís home cooking.
"Iíd never been away from home for extended periods of time," Carignan said. "Now Iím 12 hours from home. There was always food around the house, but now when Iím hungry I have to walk to the dining hall. Everyone knows how the food is at school. In high school, you may have been used to eating lunch at school, but now itís three meals a day at school."
Padron, who is about four hours away from home, also found himself on his own for the first time in his life last September when he arrived at LSU.
"I didnít know anybody," he said of his arrival on the Baton Rouge campus. "I had to get to know new people and a new town. I had never been away from home before for more than a couple of days at the most. At school, you donít come home to a home-cooked meal, and you do your own laundry. Itís definitely the time to grow up."
Both Carignan and Padron played more than one sport in high school, and the lessons learned in time management, balancing athletics and academics, served them well.
"In high school you lived at home. You got up at the same time every morning and you got out of school at the same time." Carignan said. "You went to practice and then you went home, did your homework, and you had plenty of time to do things. At school this year, I had three classes in the morning, then practice for possibly four or five hours, and after that all you want to do is go back to your room and lay in bed and watch TV, but youíve still got three hours of homework to do. The hardest part is finding that little bit of time for yourself, and thatís really hard to do. Youíre going constantly. You could be in Florida over the weekend and youíd leave Thursday, missing classes on Friday. Sometimes youíll play a game four hours away on a Wednesday night and you might have a big test Thursday morning."
Padron experienced the same hectic pace of classes, practice, travel, games during the week and on weekends and long bus rides at LSU.
"Even when we donít play, like in the fall, weíd have 6 AM workouts," Padron explained. "Youíd get up at 5:30 AM, get there, and work out before school started. Then weíd have three one-hour classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and as soon as weíd get out of class we head to the field for hitting. Then weíd play a nine-inning intrasquad game, go get some dinner, and then study. I had a good schedule where I sometimes had an hour during the day to have a nice lunch, but itís real tough, a lot busier than I thought it would be."
All the adjustment and hard work does have its benefits and being offered the opportunity to play baseball at the top college level is at the top of the list.
"The friends Iíve made and playing at this level is something," Carignan said. "When youíre a part of the team, itís like you have immediate friends."
The academic workload along with practice and game schedules runs non-stop from September until the end of May. It is a test of every playerís character, stamina, and determination. The workload pushes the limits of what they are capable of handling and in and of itself becomes a part of the test of whether or not they have what it takes to continue to the next level.
"There are times you wonder about it," Carignan admitted, "especially when you get those running test days in the fall and maybe five games in a row. Youíre just beat and you lay in bed at night and question whether youíre doing the right thing, but it always comes out yes. You do it because you want to. If you go at it half-hearted, it will just eat you alive. You really have to work at this and, if your heart isnít in it, you wonít be successful."
Rather than take the summer off, they both elected to play in the Cape League this summer because theyíre baseball players, and thatís what they do.
"I donít regret any of it," Padron smiled. "Sure itís a lot of work, but I take it day by day and Iím soaking in every minute; I absolutely love it."