Fort Mill Sports

Stepping up to the plate: The maturing of ‘KJ’ Woods

It’s a sunny Saturday in Greensboro, N.C., and Fort Mill High graduate Kevin “KJ” Woods prepares for another day on the job.

Woods, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 250 pounds, plays for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the Single-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins in the South Atlantic League. A minor league baseball system, known for its rich history, isn’t like it used to be with rundown ball parks and wooden stands.

The Grasshoppers play home games at a modernized NewBridge Bank Park, which closely resembles BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, home of the Charlotte Knights. Like BB&T Ballpark, NewBridge is set in downtown Greensboro, just a 10 minute drive from where Woods lives with teammates when he is in town.

NewBridge Bank Park opened in April 2005. The team previously played in War Memorial Stadium in another section of Greensboro, from 1979 until 2004. That stadium originally opened in 1926.

Woods, who was a South Atlantic League All-Star this season, was drafted by the Marlins two years ago on the same day as his graduation from Fort Mill in June 2013. He was taken in the fourth round and got a healthy signing bonus of more than $459,000, but now he makes roughly what every other Single-A minor leaguer makes – on average $2,500 a month for the six months the season is played.

Time for work

During home stands, the work day usually begins at 1:30 p.m. when the team plays a 7 p.m. game. Unlike high school baseball, the preparation is more intense for a game. Woods, even at 20, knows that all too well.

He admits that the biggest adjustment since high school is how fast players are forced to mature.

“A lot of things you do in high school, you can’t do in pro ball,” he says. “You live and you learn. You make your mistakes and it’s just part of the game. The ones who can minimize those mistakes are the ones who can persevere through it the longest and make it. That is the biggest thing. You just have to set yourself apart. High school (baseball) was so relaxed. You just go out there and play. Now, you have to take so much preparation before the game. The game is the easy part. Some days I am out here five or seven hours before the game starts and then we have to play the game.”

On a recent Saturday to get ready for the Kannapolis Intimidators, Woods participated in team pictures at 3 p.m. Had there not been the distraction of pictures, he would have been at the ball park 45 minutes earlier looking at his at-bats on film from the prior game and meticulously dissecting what he did wrong and what he did right.

The Grasshoppers are on and off the field in about 15 minutes for pictures. After, Woods gets into his practice gear for some work in the batting cage under the stands along the third base line.

Work in the cage last for about 15 minutes with instruction from Grasshoppers’ hitting coach Luis Quinones. Woods then emerges onto the field for live infield and batting practice at about 3:50 p.m.

When he isn’t listed as a designated hitter for Greensboro, Woods plays first base. Infield work for Woods and his teammates last a half hour, before they see pitching from their coaches and take turns hitting on the field. Woods gets multiple turns in the rotation and then heads to the field for more work at first base. Grasshoppers’ manager Kevin Randel smashes bullet-like grounders to his left and right trying to widen his range. Woods handles it nearly perfect bobbling only one grounder.

Randel says Woods brings quality play to the Greensboro lineup every game.

“He is a big presence in the box to help us out in the middle of the lineup, which is huge,” Randel says.

“He helps us out even when he is struggling. The presence still strikes some fear in the pitcher’s eyes. That is what he brings. We can plug him in to that three-four hole and he shows up every day. He gets his work in before the games, early work. He works real hard. He will give you what he has got every single day. And I appreciate the effort. He has that leadership quality in him and as he gets older and realizes that he will have a big presence in the clubhouse.”

On-field batting practice and infield work ends at five minutes after 5 p.m., and the Grasshoppers retreat back into their locker room for the next two hours.

For Woods and his teammates, the two hours before the first pitch is downtime. Woods says he normally listens to music, gets a pre-game meal and just tries to relax and mentally prepare for another game, for him the 81st of the season.

Game time

Woods and teammates start to meander onto the playing field after about an hour and a half in seclusion around 6:30 p.m. to stretch and warm up. Woods stretches and runs to get his legs loose. He then throws to get his arm ready for the game.

After about 15 minutes he finds a shady spot on the Grasshoppers bench on the third base side of the ballpark. He gets ready for the lineup to be called out. He will start at first base and bat third in the Greensboro lineup. It’s not where he would prefer.

“The three hole,” he mumbles to himself. “I hate the three hole. Four or five! That is where it’s at.”

After the starting lineups are announced and the national anthem played, the game starts exactly at 7 p.m. with the opening pitch from Greensboro starter Gabriel Castellanos. Greensboro struggles early and goes down 4-0 after the top of the first inning.

In the bottom of the inning, Woods gets his first plate appearance of the game about 7:15 p.m. Less than a minute later he is on first base after getting hit by a pitch in the left forearm, which after the game some three and a half hours later is still swollen.

Woods stays in the game and scores the Grasshoppers’ first run. The score is 4-2 after the first inning.

Kannapolis adds two more runs in the top of the second inning to go up 6-2. In the bottom of the second, Woods came back to the plate. The clock in left center read exactly 7:45 p.m. And Woods crushes a slider over the right center field fence with two on and two out for a three-run home run.

“That felt good,” he says.

In what he calls a “hitters ballpark,” he increased his team-leading home run tally to No. 16 on the season with the blast that traveled an estimated 370 feet.

“I love this place (NewBridge Bank Park),” he says. “It’s a great place to play some baseball.”

Smiling faces

As the crowd cheers and Greensboro pulls closer with the score at 6-5, two faces stand out to Woods in the crowd of 7,841 – his girlfriend Natalie Henderson and their daughter, Mia. Henderson, a former Northwestern High basketball player, and Woods have been together a little over two years and Mia turned 1 earlier this month.

Being a father, has motivated Woods more now, than anything has ever before, he says.

“It’s like a little version of you; You get to mold and shape,” he said. “I think the one thing that has humbled me and settled me down is becoming a dad. It helped me to focus on the task at hand. I would do anything for my daughter. The crazy part has been it’s already been a year and since then I have really buckled down. I got a mouth to feed now. It’s not about fun and games anymore. I have a life I have to take care of. I owe it to myself, but I owe it to her as well, because she is looking at me. I have to provide for that child.”

Henderson says Woods has taken the added pressure of being a dad, along with trying to work his way to the major leagues in stride.

“He is doing really well,” she says. “Last year was harder than this year just because of Mia coming, but he is trying to handle it all. He is doing well at it.”

Henderson and Mia live in Rock Hill and Woods does his best to get home to them as often as possible. Being only two hours away helps.

“I drive home whenever I can,” he says. “It’s fun when you are close to home because you get to see family and friends and they can come see you play. That is the beauty of it. I can just hop on (Interstate) 77 and head home.”

When Woods can’t make it back to York County, Henderson and Mia make the trip north to Greensboro. Henderson is taking classes at York Technical College, working a job and trying to keep up with an energetic Mia as well.

Henderson and Mia have seen Woods more than when he was in the Gulf Coast League in Florida or in Batavia, N.Y., as part of the New York-Penn League, in low Single-A.

“I have never really seen him play in something like this (NewBridge Bank Park),” Henderson says. “When he played the big Marlins team and hit a home run, the people went crazy. It’s weird to hear them cheer and call his name out.”

Family time

Woods finishes his night going 1-3 with the three-run home run, three RBI, two runs scored, a walk and a strikeout, and raised his season batting average to .285. Greensboro won 7-6.

The game ends three hours and 23 minutes after the first pitch. Woods gathers his things and quickly retreats to the locker room. The clock reads 10:25 p.m.

Normally after the game he meets with the press if he is requested. Otherwise, tonight it’s a quick shower and some food as Henderson and Mia wait for him outside the locker room.

Woods knows now is his time to make his mark this season and hopefully move up. But he also realizes he may just have to wait his turn. Mentally, he knows when he wants to be with the big league club in Miami – 2018.

“I have been in pro ball three years and I have moved up to three different leagues,” he says. “Every year just move on to another league.”

Woods says his family, friends and coaches have helped to prepare him for where he is today.

“They have let me know I can go a far way with baseball,” he says. “Coming from Fort Mill, it’s such a small pond. I have played all over the country and I can keep up with a lot of the best players in the world. Now I have to go out and show it. When the time comes, I feel like I will be prepared. I feel like I will be more anxious because I have been waiting for it for so long, that when I get my chance it will be second nature. Everyone gets the opportunity, but it’s who takes advantage of it and just like anything else, you have to wait your turn.”

In the meantime, Woods says he would like to play winter ball during the off season in Mexico, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, but will have to see after the season in Greensboro is over.

At 11:50 p.m., Woods walks out of the locker room for the last time that Saturday. Himself, Henderson and Mia make their way up the stairwell and down to the player’s parking lot just behind the left field wall.

“Just another day at the office,” Woods says, as he carries Mia to the car.

Mac Banks:, @MacBanksFM