Scout’s trip to West Point was one to remember – for the beauty of the campus and for signing Ross Friedrick for Cardinals

By Rob Rains

During his six years as the Cardinals’ area scout responsible for evaluating amateur players in the northeast portion of the country, Jim Negrych never had a reason to go to a game at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point – until this spring.

He came away impressed – and glad that he made the trip.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” Negrych said. “It might be the nicest campus I’ve been on. The view of rivers merging combined with the history of West Point … it was really something.”

As much as he enjoyed taking in the sights, however, Negrych was there for another reason – to watch a power-hitting first baseman, Ross Friedrick, who was on his way to breaking the Army record for most home runs in a season.

Friedrick also was on his way to establishing himself as a prospect, one Negrych and the Cardinals signed as an undrafted free agent just days after this month’s draft.

The fact the Cardinals were able to sign Friedrick, who already has begun his professional career with the Palm Beach Cardinals, was due in part to all of the work that Friedrick put into the long and detailed process of applying to have his active duty commitment to the Army deferred following his graduation in May so he could pursue a baseball career.

It also was due in part to Friedrick’s family having a St. Louis connection, and a friendship between a St. Louis businessman and Cardinals’ executive Matt Slater, both of which were years in the making.

Growing up as a Cardinals fan

Friedrick called it a “surreal” feeling when he first put on a Cardinals’ uniform to begin his professional career – joining the team that he has cheered for all of his life.

His family moved several times because of his dad’s job, but during his childhood years, they lived in Chesterfield and Friedrick made several trips to Busch Stadium and also to spring training in Jupiter, creating a lifetime of memories.

“My Dragons T-ball team got to walk around the field and get autographs,” said Friedrick, who listed Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter as his favorite players. “When I got here to Jupiter, I remembered standing outside the parking lot to get autographs and seeing all of those guys. Now I’m here.”

A framed Molina jersey hangs on a wall at the family’s home.

When they lived in Chesterfield, Friedrick’s family became close friends with the family of Steve Gross, and the families remained close after Friedrick’s family moved when he was in the fifth grade. In fact, the Gross family were special guests at Friedrick’s West Point graduation ceremony.

Gross had constantly monitored Friedrick’s baseball career at West Point, and through his friendship with Slater, made certain the Cardinals knew about him as well. Slater passed along the information to Negrych, who already was aware of how well Friedrick was playing.

Because he was a senior at West Point, however, more than just Friedrick’s baseball ability was going to be involved if the Cardinals, or any team, wanted to try to either draft him or sign him as a free agent. They knew that his graduation carried with  it a commitment to active duty that follows all of the cadets and all of the graduates of a military academy.

The Cardinals had drafted two players from military academies in recent years, both pitchers, Mitch Harris out of the Naval Academy and Ben Yokley from the Air Force Academy. Harris had to serve his full five-year commitment before the Navy allowed him to join the Cardinals, while Yokley was able to play briefly in between his service commitments.

What Negrych learned, however, was that Friedrick had been able to obtain a deferment of his active duty commitment, freeing him to join an organization following his graduation.

“Delaying a commission in the Army, that’s a big deal,” said Army coach Chris Tracz. “It’s obviously a bet on himself in so many respects. Ross’s dream is to play professional baseball but he also knows that his responsibility to the Army at some point will be to be an officer. The pro option right now allows him to accomplish both.”

The process of receiving approval for his deferment began last fall – an eight-month process of creating a packet of memorandums and statements that had to be passed up the chain of command – starting with his coaches, through the administration at West Point, on to the Secretary of the Army, then the Department of Defense. All had to sign off on the application.

“One, he deserves it, and two, for our program and for all of the academies, having guys being able to go out and pursue a professional career is huge,” Tracz said. “We have a football player who signed with the Vikings and now Ross. I don’t think there’s a better show of the type of players and people we have than these guys going on and playing professionally.”

Friedrick said receiving word that the deferment had been granted – which came the same week he graduated with a degree in Systems and Decision Sciences – was as good of a feeling as the ceremony itself and “the ceremony was pretty awesome.”

“I was passionate about both so I’m glad I get to pursue baseball first and do my service afterwards,” said the 22-year-old Friedrick, who also delayed his commission as a Second Lieutenant.

The deferment can last as long as Friedrick’s baseball career unless a situation comes up that requires him to be recalled to active duty, where he was set to become an artillery field officer.

If he wasn’t playing baseball, Friedrick would have spent this summer and fall working as an athletic intern for the baseball team at West Point, then would have reported to Fort Sill, Okla., in January for an officer leadership course and an assignment to the 75th Field Artillery Brigade based at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla.

It wasn’t until his junior year at West Point that Friedrick began to think playing professional baseball was an option he could pursue.

“I wanted to keep playing the game that I love and try to pursue that dream that I’ve always had since I was a little kid,” he said.

The desire to do what it took to make that possible, as well as being voted the captain of the Army team, were both facts that Negrych appreciated as he got to know more about Friedrick.

“He checked off every box that mattered and we definitely felt good about him going out and being able to give everything he’s got and then do his service afterward,” Negrych said. “He’s a good player, a good hitter, is strong, and has all the tools where if it clicks and he hits enough he can work his way up the organization.

“He’s a worker, extremely disciplined on and off the field. He’s going to do everything in his power to maximize his ability and that’s all you can really ask for as an organization.”

After joining the other recent draft selections and free agents who signed after the draft for workouts in Jupiter, Friedrick realized that for the first time in his life, playing baseball was all he had to worry about.

“The challenges that these guys go through are real,” Tracz said. “When you can eat, sleep and drink baseball with some guys that untaps so much potential. Ross has proved it over the course of four years that he’s a really good player but I think like anybody to not have classes to go to, to not have some of the commitments that any college has for their student athletes, I think there is some definite growth steps you can see immediately and hopefully long term too.”

While other college players got to add games and experience each summer, Friedrick was going through military training.

“I’m excited to invest and focus on baseball year-round and see how high I can take my baseball career,” Friedrick said. “I think it’s going to allow me to get stronger and be in better shape. Being able to play year-round is going to help me learn and grow and overall just be a better player.”

Setting the home run record

Friedrick was able to take a major step forward in his career during his senior season, when he saw his home run total jump for six as a junior to 17, breaking the previous school record of 13 homers in a season. Included in that total was a two-home run game at Navy.

“I figured I needed a little more power, not that I was necessarily trying to hit more home runs,” Friedrick said. “It ended up working out. I got stronger in the summer going into my senior year. I just emphasized having fun that year and not pressing about things I couldn’t control. It ended up working out.”

Friedrick posted a .368 average, drove in 59 runs and scored 58 runs in 56 games. A 6-foot-4, 230-pound lefthanded hitter, Friedrick also had a .443 on-base percentage.

“He devoted himself to flexibility and strength training and really preparing for a 50-game season,” Tracz said. “He was healthy the entire season and felt good or better than his three previous years.

“Like anything power and the ability to drive the baseball comes with time and I think he was kind of ready to unleash it a little bit. He always had good bat-to-ball skills but he really did a good job when he had a chance to open it up and drive the baseball. He was ready.

“He kind of went on a natural progression in a sense. This year he was able to take advantage of some real good situations. As a team we were pretty good offensively and he was around other good hitters.”

This was the first season for Tracz as Army’s head coach, but he has been an assistant at West Point in the past – and always has appreciated the type of people that the program attracts – even more than their baseball ability.

“You hope it goes without saying that if you get a guy from an academy that they are going to do the right thing, that they are going to be willing and able to be a leader and somebody who you know is going to show up every day and do what they are supposed to do and work their tail off,” Tracz said.
“Ross is one of those guys.

“This place means a lot to him and it’s given him so much and he invested back into it. When you do that you see guys kind of lift the ceiling. That’s a really, really neat thing about this place – these guys learn to understand that the ceiling and the limits that people can put on them are actually limitless.

“Whether Ross plays for a month or a year or 10 years, what he’s accomplished and what he’s set up to do in the future is pretty great. This place has always been about people and he’s learned from a lot of great leaders. He’s been around a lot of great people.”

Joining the Cardinals

The Cardinals were not the only team interested in Friedrick. On the day he was at West Point, Negrych said “15 or 16” other scouts were there. Friedrick also had conversations with other teams before the draft, and was told he might be selected late on day three or to expect interest from teams as a free agent.

But when he wasn’t drafted and could pick where he wanted to sign, the Cardinals were an easy choice.

Tracz said  that even before Friedrick signed, he saw him wearing a Cardinals’ jersey.

“At one point I was like, ‘Why does he already have a Cardinals’ jersey?’” Tracz said. “When you go to games growing up and this is your team, that’s a pretty special thing.”

Friedrick made his pro debut last week, getting singles in his first two at-bats. His first home run came in his third game, on Saturday, pulling a pitch over the right field fence in Port St. Lucie against the Mets.

“Getting to see more and more live pitching has allowed me to get more comfortable in the box,” Friedrick said. “I’m seeing it well. On the home run, I knew I got it good off the bat. It was a fastball low and in and I put a good swing on it. It felt awesome.”

Negrych hopes it’s the first of many home runs for Friedrick.

Negrych had a conversation with Friedrick over the telephone in the weeks leading up to the draft and came away glad that he had finally made a trip to see a game at West Point.

“The kid himself is so impressive,” Negrych said. “To know what those guys have to go through on a day-to-day basis to accomplish something and then you are also giving up some time that most people think belongs to them to serve your country … it’s unbelievable.

“It was almost to the point where at 38 years old, I was speaking to this young man and he was so impressive that you almost felt the roles were flipped at a certain point in the conversation.”

Negrych’s reaction did not surprise Tracz.

“The best part of this job for me is the uniqueness of it, but also the people you get to be associated with,” Tracz said. “Ross will be a successful baseball player. I think he’s going to do great. When you get to know him and the drive and determination he has, you just can’t be more proud of him and I’m grateful I was able to coach him.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photos courtesy of Army athletics

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