People who excel in athletics are different from the rest of us. Like musicians, mathematicians, or even a good shade-tree mechanic, their skills are partly intuitive: velocity, distance, time, arc, and force…they read the world around them on a different plane, and have the talent to respond in ways we others can only admire.
From his earliest days with a Wiffle ball in his hand, that’s how it’s been for Josh Anderson, 21, of Eubank, a community outside Somerset in Pulaski County.
“Josh was naturally gifted,” recalls his dad, Allen. “Plus, he had the love for sports. Even in the snow, Josh wanted to be outside playing ball. It’s something he’s had a deep passion for all of his life.”
Lucky Josh. His passion is now his living.
On June 3, 2003, the Houston Astros chose him in the fourth round of the Major League baseball draft. Almost before he knew it he flew to Troy, New York, where he spent the summer playing centerfield for the Tri-City ValleyCats in the short, 70-game season of the New York-Penn League.
The experience was perhaps only the beginning of an odyssey that may take him to Major League baseball—the highest level in the sport he loves most.
Tall, trim, and fair-haired, Anderson has already taken steps in that direction. His performance last summer caught the attention of Baseball America, an industry publication, which named him the “best athlete” and “best pure hitter” in the Astros’ 2003 draft.
The Astros noticed, too. The team invited Anderson to the fall instructional league, where select prospects spend a valuable month working with coaches on specific skills—in Anderson’s case, base stealing and patience at the plate.
After a winter break at home, the former All State outfielder with the Pulaski County High School Maroons went to Kissimmee, Florida, in March for his first spring training camp. There, he learned he would stay in Kentucky this summer to play for the Single A Lexington Legends.
Besides the honor of being the first Kentucky native to play for the Lexington team, it’s a good career step. The Legends play in the South Atlantic, or SALLY, League, with a longer, 142-game season. And a Single A team is the next step toward Double A, then Triple A—the last stop before the Major Leagues.
“This is exactly what I wanted,” Anderson said excitedly after hearing the news. “Any time you move up in the system, it’s good. I’ll get to play a full season and I’ll be a lot closer to home. I’m tickled!”
According to www.Baseball-Reference.com, an Internet site with exhaustive statistics on Major League ballplayers, 251 native-born Kentuckians have played big-league baseball in its century-plus of existence. Kentucky being a largely rural state, no doubt some of those players grew up in households served by electric cooperatives.
However, Josh Anderson may be the first big-league prospect whose father is the CEO of an electric co-op.
Allen Anderson was raised on a 145-acre dairy and tobacco farm in Walnut Grove in Pulaski County. He went to work for the co-op that had served his family, South Kentucky RECC, as an energy conservation advisor in 1978. After 23 years of steady advancement the board made him CEO of the 59,000-member co-op in 2001.
Working for the co-op has always required dedication and commitment, but Allen and his wife, Patti, were equally dedicated to their sons, Josh and Jon (the younger brother by two years). Hard as it is to imagine, through T-Ball, Little League, Babe Ruth League, high school, American Legion ball (Post 38 in Somerset), and in a three-year college career at Eastern Kentucky University where he became an All-American, Allen and Patti Anderson rarely missed any of his games. Even when Josh spent the summer of 2002 in Canton, Ohio, getting his feet wet in the Great Lakes League, the Andersons always showed up to cheer him on.
“As he grew up,” Allen says, “we could see him in comparison to other kids in the county, the state, and out of state. Honestly, he was right up there, as good as anyone. We started allowing him plenty of time away from the chores to practice and be as good as he could be. What I said to both boys was, ‘You make your own choice of what activities you want to do, but once you make a commitment I will not allow you to quit in the middle of the year. Stick it out and do your best.’”
They needn’t have worried about Josh Anderson and sports. Coaches all along have attested to his work ethic. In high school he was All State in both baseball and basketball. His American Legion team honored him by retiring his number. At Eastern Kentucky University, where he played for three years before being drafted as a junior, he led the nation in NCAA Division 1 baseball in 2003 with 56 stolen bases.
Not surprisingly, Major League scouts started showing up and making overtures to the young player. With all the attention he received, Anderson knew he was going to be drafted last June, so he did what any aspiring young ballplayer might do under the circumstances: he got married! His bride was fellow student Heather Barnes.
“We got married as soon as my junior year season was over, and went on a short trip to Gatlinburg,” says Anderson. “We got home just in time for the draft.”
Family and friends gathered in the Andersons’ garage around a computer and a large projection screen, grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and waited to see when Josh would be picked. He was hoping to go by the third round, but had to wait until the fourth. Anderson pronounced himself delighted with the results.
“To go anywhere in the top five is a good achievement,” he says, “and the Astros are an excellent organization. It’s a dream come true.”
Professional baseball has opened new worlds to the Pulaski County boy, whose family still farms on a limited basis (beef cattle and “a few horses”). The first shocker was taking centerfield for his first game with the Tri-City ValleyCats in upstate New York. Single A facilities seem modest and quaint when you’re seeing them from the stands, but for young players the aspect is quite different.
“In all my life I might have played in front of 50 or 100 people in a game,” says Anderson, “and here I was going up there and playing for 6,000 or 7,000 people. That was the most intimidating thing. Now I joke with my parents that every time I smell hot dogs and hamburgers I get butterflies in my stomach.”
As his team’s lead-off hitter, Anderson didn’t have much time for the jitters. He got three hits in four times at bat that day, which buoyed his confidence.
The crowds weren’t the only new experience pro ball had in store for Josh Anderson.
“I was playing not only with guys from all around the country, but with guys from the Dominican Republic who spoke Spanish. I’d never been around that kind of environment. It was like, man, this takes some adjustment. But after a few weeks you get to figuring people out and making friends. It was fun, meeting all these different kinds of guys.”
Yet the biggest challenge for Josh, as for all young ballplayers, was endurance—mental, physical, and emotional. You play the game day in, day out, and do it again the next day.
“Under that kind of pressure you have to learn to channel your emotions,” says Anderson. “Baseball is unlike any other sport. If you fail seven out of 10 times (at bat) you’re a winner—which means you’re going to fail most of the time. You have to learn to stay positive. As a baseball player, I think that’s the hardest thing.”
Anderson had a good season last year, finishing with a .286 batting average and coming in second in the league in both hits (85) and stolen bases (26). He was named a New York/Penn League All Star.
But every rung up the ladder to “the bigs” provides lessons in life as well as baseball. When he joined his previous year’s teammates and other minor leaguers at Houston’s spring training camp in March, things went well for Josh but not for everyone. Baseball, it turns out, can be a cold-hearted business.
“It’s tough to see guys get cut—guys you’d gotten to know,” he says. “Basically, they’re losing their jobs. You go to the clubhouse and you never know who’s going to be next. That’s why I don’t take this experience for granted. It puts it in perspective.”
Josh Anderson’s perspective now is one of looking up from the minor leagues to the Majors. It’s a journey he hopes to complete in three or four years. By his third year he’d love to at least make the Astros’ 40-man roster, which provides added financial security and protection from predatory scouts from other teams. But he knows anything can happen, including injuries that turn dreams to dust.
“I’ve been given a great opportunity,” says Anderson reverently. “I’m thrilled to be sent to Lexington. It’s only an hour and a half from home, and I love home more than anything.”
JOSH IS HOT
Josh Anderson may be “thrilled” to be playing close to his Pulaski County home for the Lexington Legends. But the Legends have reason to be thrilled to have him.
By May 19, Anderson led the South Atlantic League in runs (40) and stolen bases (34). The Legends’ stolen-base record stood at 46.
“He’ll top that by the All Star break,” predicted announcer Larry Glover—especially with days like April 25, when he stole 4 bases (while going 6 for 6 at the plate and scoring 5 runs!).
The first Kentucky native to play for the Legends, Josh was batting .335 in mid-May, with 15 multi-hit games. The centerfielder and lead-off hitter from Eubank had played in all 38 games, helping the team to first place in its division. Okay, he’d cracked just one homerun. But his timing was exquisite: it was Somerset Night at the ballpark, with the stands filled with family, friends, and co-op members from South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative.
“To quote Reggie Jackson, he’s ‘the straw that stirs the drink’ on this team,” said Glover. “With his speed on the bases he has the ability to control the game, which is very rare. And he’s such a good defensive player; he gets to almost anything in the alleys.”
Glover said Josh had earned his teammates’ respect. “He doesn’t have an ego, he works hard, and he produces on the field. (Leadership) is a natural step for him.
“Plus, he’s absolutely one of the best kids I’ve ever encountered.”