By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
Brent Rooker is three months into his first season of Triple-A baseball, three months into being just one step from the majors.
A desire to take that one more step is why the Rochester Red Wings rookie outfielder is at the ballpark every day, hours before first pitch.
He’s swinging a bat in the cage to improve his already-solid hitting. He’s partaking in drills on the diamond to better his defense. He’s in the video room studying his every batter’s box movement as well as the delivery and pitch sequence of the opposing pitcher.
If there’s an edge to gain somewhere, Rooker plans to find it.
It’s all part of the pursuit of perfection. All part of a chase he admits he very likely won’t win. After all, how can you achieve perfection?
“You wonder how many guys actually reach that end,” Rooker said. “Some have, I suppose. The very best; guys in the Hall of Fame.
“But if you ever think you’re there, you lose motivation, the will to keep working, the will to keep getting better. And you keep working with the knowledge you’ll probably never get there.”
Ah, baseball. The game where failure in seven of every 10 times at the plate makes you an All-Star.
Meet Brent Rooker, Triple-A All-Star. The Germantown, Tenn., native will represent the Wings in El Paso along with catcher Tomás Telis and pitching coach Stu Cliburn. MLB Network will televise the game (9 p.m. Wednesday).
He ranks seventh in the International League in on-base percentage (.406) and OPS (.956). He hit the All-Star break hitting (.286) with a team-best 14 home runs (14) and 47 RBI.
Considering he was hitting .222 on May 16, those statistics are even more impressive. Which brings us back to the reason Rooker is at the yard early; why he’s hitting off the tee in the cage, why he’s dissecting every element of his swing on video with bullpen coach Mike McCarthy.
Since June began, he has been more patient, more selective. As a result, he is finding himself in hitter’s counts more often.
“Just like a pitcher needs to command the strike zone, so does a hitter,” Wings manager Joel Skinner said. “A lot of it is what he’s swinging at now. When you’re able to swing at higher-percentage pitches, you’re going to have more success.”
Said Rooker: “Seeing improvement is pretty satisfying. I haven’t mastered anything but to be able to struggle when them less, there’s satisfaction there.”
That’s the thing about the climb up baseball’s development ladder. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, just when you put together a 12-hit week, you strike out three times and hit a dribbler back to the mound.
“You can get four hits one night,” Rooker said, “and the next night go 0-for-4, look completely clueless and you have no idea how you got four hits the night before.”
To survive, and to thrive, it’s necessary to stay on an even keel. Sometimes, however, you need to give yourself a pat on the back. Like when you hit a ball over the video board in left field at Frontier Field and it lands on Plymouth Avenue. He did that on July 1, hitting a two-out, two-run homer off Paul Sewald to give the Wings a 9-7 win over Syracuse.
We have no idea where this ball landed. There’s been reports it cleared the stadium. 😮💥 pic.twitter.com/ztgqrD6c5k
— Rochester Red Wings (@RocRedWings) July 2, 2019
“Obviously I had a very specific plan and everything came together,” Rooker said. “It was kind of one of those moments where you derive satisfaction, where all that work comes together.”
A competitive balance first-round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins in 2017 out of Mississippi State, Rooker is fast-tracking his way through the system. He went from rookie ball to advanced Class A in 2017, spent all of last season with Double-A Chattanooga and was assigned to the Wings out of spring training this year.
The success was expected. He was the SEC Player of the Year in 2017, becoming just the second player in the history of the conference to win the hitting triple crown. The only other player to lead the SEC in hitting, homers and RBI: Rafael Palmeiro.
He was also a bit of a YouTube star during his time in Starkville. OK, maybe not a star, but he was the featured guest in the school’s Christmas edition of Carpool Karaoke. The 13-minute video features Rooker and Bob Carskadon, at the time a member of the school’s media department and the mastermind behind the James Cardon series parody.
“He was always coming up with creative ideas for different sports to get the community engaged, to get the fans engaged,” Rooker said. “I’m under no illusion I’m a good singer so I didn’t mind embarrassing myself.”
That’s something he doesn’t need to worry about doing when he’s in the batter’s box.