It’s 89 degrees, a Sunday evening crowd still filing in, as Joel Booker settles into the batter’s box at Smokies Stadium.
It’s the fourth of five games for Booker’s Birmingham Barons against the Tennessee Smokies and the 18th straight in a brutal stretch in which the Barons will play 39 games in 40 days.
None of that matters to Booker as he settles in for the opening pitch of the game from Tennessee’s Thomas Hatch, the Chicago Cubs’ third-round draft pick in 2016 who is considered one of the organization’s top minor-league prospects.
Hatch gets two quick strikes on Booker, who takes a couple of close pitches and fouls another off in working the count to 3-2. Booker then pokes the 3-2 pitch into right field for a leadoff single and scores the game’s first run moments later on an Alex Call double.
The 24th game of Booker’s Double A career is off to a good start.
The first half of the 2018 season proved very good for Joel Booker.
The former Polk County standout proved one of the breakout stars of the half for the Winston-Salem Dash, the Advanced A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Booker hit .297 for the Dash, earning a spot on the Carolina League All-Star squad.
He also garnerned national attention for his walk-off steal of home on April 12, sliding in with the winning run in Winston Salem’s 10-inning 3-2 win over Carolina. The steal earned recognition on ESPN and continues to pop up in social media channels.
Booker capped his first half by homering and earning Most Valuable Player honors at the Carolina League All-Star Game. He then packed his bags and headed for Alabama, where he joined the White Sox’ Double A affiliate in Birmingham.
The Barons concluded their season on Monday with a 6-4 win over the Biloxi (Miss.) Shuckers; Booker finished his second full year of professional baseball with an 0-for-5 effort, leaving him with a .266 average for the half-season in AA. It proved a marked contrast to his start at Birmingham, when he had eight hits in his first 18 at-bats.
The opposites, though, were part of the learning experience at the Double-A level for Booker.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Booker said after that July appearance in Tennessee. “Came in really hot, did well. I’ve kind of been down, playing kind of bad here lately, even striking out a lot. Been seeing a bunch of guys who can command their offspeed and their fastballs whenever they want and they do a really good job of mixing stuff.”
The roller coaster, though, has lifted Booker to new heights, and not just the move from Winston-Salem to Birmingham. Outsiders previously barely mentioned Booker when talking about the top prospects in the loaded White Sox farm system. That has changed throughout the season, and Booker is now routinely in the discussion of what White Sox outfielders could eventually reach the south side of Chicago.
“He’s got a tool that plays in the major leagues, and that’s obviously his speed, and he has some contact ability,” White Sox director of player development Chris Getz told NBC Chicago. “If he continues to do what he’s doing, and I don’t mean put up a slash line that he’s been doing, he’s going to find himself knocking on the door of the big leagues, just based on the fact that his speed plus the consistent at-bats that he’s given us.”
Booker gets a second at-bat against the Smokies in the second inning and flies out on a shallow popup in foul territory down the first-base line. He gets a third at-bat in the fourth inning and drops a two-out 0-2 pitch into right field for a single.
With the Barons up 6-0, Booker gets the green light and races for second, his trademark speed and a headfirst slide beating the throw from the plate for a stolen base. Alex Call, though, strikes out to end the inning, stranding Booker.
Booker also contributes a key defensive play in the bottom of the fourth, racing to catch a one-out line drive by Tennessee’s Jesse Hodges with the bases loaded. The Smokies score a run on the play, but Booker’s speed helps prevent the ball from falling for a hit and doing more damage.
The accolades, the national attention, the All-Star honor – for Booker, those are nice, but what matters most to him is his effort on the field.
It’s that work ethic, along with an ability to avoid getting too excited in the good times and too low in the bad, that has served him well this season.
“I mean, at the end of the day, it’s still baseball,” Booker said. “You’ve got to go out and perform and it’s all up and down. You know that’s the way baseball goes. You’re going to be hot at times and you’re going to find yourself in a cold streak or in a slump. It’s just how long you stay in that cold streak or in that slump determines how good of a player you are.
“I just go out every day and every day I see my name in the lineup I go out and play like it could be my last day because you never know what can happen.”
Across both halves of his season, Booker posted a .279 average, hitting seven homers and stealng 26 bases. The 119 strikeouts – 77 in 267 at-bats in Birmingham – concern Booker, though he began to strike out less in August and boosted his batting average up to .274 before dropping eight points in the final weekend.
Those numbers emerged after an offseason swing change. Booker spent a week in January with a select group of White Sox minor leagues at a team facility in Arizona, rebuilding numerous aspects of his approach to hitting. He admits that the swing remained a work in progress throughout much of the 2018 season.
“It’s not where I want it to be completely yet,” Booker said. “I’ve had success with what I’ve done and the changes I made so far, but hopefully I can make a couple more changes and get it to a point where I’m making consistent hard contact and hopefully it gets me to the level I want to play at.
“When I first got drafted I wasn’t that selectable a hitter. This offseason, I actually worked on seeing more pitches and not swinging at everything and it paid off quite a bit. It actually helped me better with pitch selection and swinging at better pitches in the zone so far.”
Tennessee rallies with five runs in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game at 6-6. In the top of the seventh, Booker leads off against Tennessee’s Daury Torrez. With the count at 1-2, Booker gets a pitch in the zone, swings and sends a high fly soaring toward left field. Two voices in the Tennessee press box immediately shout “Gone.”
Not convinced the ball is a lost cause is Tennessee left fielder Charcer Burks, who sprints to the fence, leaps, leans over the top of the fence and snares Booker’s drive, robbing him of a go-ahead homer.
As Booker rounds second base on his way back to the dugout, he glances out at Burks for a few seconds before shaking his head.
“Honestly, I just thought it was a line drive,” Booker said. “And then I looked up and next thing you know, he’s jumping into the fence and robbed me of a home run. But you’ve got to tip your hat to him, too. It was a great play, a very athletic play.”
The outfield prospects in the White Sox organization are considered some of the best in the minors. Names such as Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Blake Rutherford and Luis Alexander Basabe are well-known to not only Chicago fans, but minor league followers in general.
Booker has played with nearly every outfield prospect in the organization and has held his own, putting up solid numbers at all five of his stops to date. He has stayed on target with his goal of moving up a step in the organization at the midpoint of every season. He knows continuing that progress, especially with the White Sox’ depth, will not be easy.
But Booker chooses to focus not on those oft-mentioned prospects but himself, looking at what he can do every day to move closer to his goal. That approach also proved useful during the seven-week stretch in late June, July and August in which the Barons had just one day off.
“If you look at it as in I get to play the game I love every day and I get to do something fun for a living, then it kind of takes that pressure and that grind off of you,” he said. “You’re just going out there and having fun and playing something that you’ve always done.
“Even days when you’re going bad, you’ve got to look at yourself and say hey, I can only go up from here.”
Going up – Booker thinks he’s still on a path to do so, hopefully making his next move to Charlotte, the White Sox AAA franchise, sometime in 2019.
“I feel like it,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep that track going.”
Burks, the Smokies’ leadoff hitter, singles with one out in the bottom of the ninth, then moves to second on a wild pitch. Trent Giambrone follows with a line drive that hugs the left-field line. Booker sprints at full speed toward the line, then hurtles himself toward the ball as it falls. It lands just out of his reach, just inside the foul line, and Burks races home with the winning run.
The Barons trudge toward the visitors’ locker room and a long postgame talk with manager Ryan Newman.
It will ultimately prove to be one loss in 34-36 second half of the season for the Barons, who place third in the Southern League’s North Division.
The finish means that Booker will end the season without a playoff appearance for the first time in his minor league career, though he did help the Dash win the first-half title in the Carolina League.
The numbers over Booker’s two and a half seasons in the minors: 1,194 at-bats, .284 batting average, 14 homers, 113 RBI, 90 stolen bases.
What the numbers don’t convey, though, is the desire and drive the former Polk County standout has to reach the major leagues.
He got a taste of that life in the spring, taking part in some exhibition games with the White Sox. He is ready for a larger course.
“It’s like when you’re a baby and they give you candy for the first time,” Booker said. “You’re like, ‘oh wow, I like that I want some more of it.’ So it’s definitely a motivation to be there and experience that and something I want to get to one day.
“Ultimately my main goal is to make it to the big leagues and have a long successful career there.”