Joel Booker got a crash course in the business of baseball during 2016 – and proved a rather quick study.
It’s hard to envision scripting a better year than Booker enjoyed in 2016. He earned All-Big 10 Conference honors in his senior season at Iowa, hitting .370, sharing the conference lead in hits and finishing in the top 12 in eight offensive categories. He saved his best work for last, hitting a remarkable .650 over four games while leading the Hawkeyes to the Big 10 tournament championship game.
Booker’s final college at-bat – a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the eighth inning that tied the championship game before Ohio State won it in the ninth.
Drafted in the 22nd round in June by the Chicago White Sox, Booker started his professional career in the Arizona League, earning all-star honors there while hitting .296 and leading the league in steals (26-of-27) before being promoted to Great Falls of the Pioneer League. Going from the heat of Arizona to the cooler weather in Idaho didn’t ice Booker’s offense; he hit .328, stealing 15 of 17 bases while taking part in the Voyagers’ 15-game winning streak and second-half division title.
The combined stats for his first professional year? An average of .312 in 65 games, with 41 stolen bases in 44 attempts, two homers and 31 RBI.
Business was good, indeed.
“Things went better than I expected, especially with my recent history in wooden bat leagues,” Booker said.
“Everyone always told me about the grind (of the pros). I thought it would be like the college grind. In Arizona, we would show up about 12:30, get dressed and lift. Right after that we’d go practice. We’d practice until around five, then we’d have dinner, then we’d go out and play a game.
“In Arizona, we did that for four straight days, then we had the fifth day off. It’s literally a 9-to-5 job at the ballpark. I didn’t think it would be anything like that.”
On the field, one of Booker’s biggest transitions came with moving into the leadoff slot in the batting order. Having hit lower in the order throughout his college career, Booker quickly found himself being moved to the top of the order to utilize his speed.
The success rate he had stealing bases showed the wisdom of the move.
“I feel like I’ll probably be a leadoff hitter the rest of my career, so I’ve got to get used to it and be the ideal leadoff hitter,” Booker said.
The AZL White Sox squad hovered near the bottom of the Arizona League standings during most of Booker’s stint there. But when he was promoted to Great Falls, Booker soon found himself in a pennant race.
The Voyagers’ 15-game winning streak carried Great Falls to the Pioneer League’s second-half crown and included a remarkable two no-hitters. Booker appeared in 14 of the 15 games and hit safely in 13 of the 14, his bat a key factor during the streak.
Great Falls suffered a two-game sweep at the hands of Billings (Mont.) in the playoffs, but that didn’t take away from the championship chase for Booker.
“Growing up, I’d never really been a part of a championship,” he said. “Going to the pros and it actually being a big deal, that’s the thing that really hit home. It makes me want to do it year in and year out.”
Booker will report to spring training with the White Sox in March. He’ll then find out where he will open the 2017 season. Unless he is returned to rookie ball in Great Falls, Booker could wind up at one of the White Sox’ two minor league teams in North Carolina, those being in Kannapolis (Class A) and Winston-Salem (Advanced or High Class A).
No matter the location, Booker is ready for the next challenge.
“You’ve got to love the game,” Booker said. “Don’t take anything for granted, because it could be taken away at any time. You have to bring your ‘A’ game and give 100 percent every day.”