Headed to the bigs by the “grace of God”

by | June 21, 2017 4:00 pm

Last Updated: June 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm

by HALEI LAMB
Picture this. You’re 18 years old. It’s the last semester of your senior year. Graduation is knocking on your door. You’re all set for the future. Only one decision looms over your head — college. As if the process isn’t difficult enough, you’ve received multiple football scholarships from several Division I schools in the south. You tour these universities and finally make a choice. National Signing Day arrives in February and you confidently ink your intent to suit up as a Mercer University Bear.

It’s May now. You’ve just played your final baseball game as a high school athlete. In bittersweet fashion, you pull off your uniform and hand it in. It’s been a heck of a ride. Still, like everything in life, all good things must come to an end. It’s hard to be sad, though; after all, in the near future, you’ll be heading to play football.

A few weeks pass. You take your final exams and prepare for graduation. On commencement day, you say goodbye to your lifelong friends and turn the page, starting a new chapter in your book of life. All is well.

Fast forward a few more weeks (just four to be exact) and you’re lying on your living room floor, anxiously listening to the Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft. Your stomach is in knots as the rounds drone on and the picks go by. Suddenly, your whole world is flipped upside down. Your name is called. A professional team has drafted you!

Sounds crazy, right? Well, for one local athlete, it’s reality. On Wednesday, June 14, 2017, John David Durden II of Midville was taken by the Boston Red Sox in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft. He was joined by his mom, Jeana Durden; his maternal grandmother and grandfather, Beverly and Joe Stuckey; and his girlfriend, Mary Ashton Salter when the announcement was made. His dad, John, was working at the time but had received a tip from management that his son would be chosen. David’s brother, Evan, and youngest sister, Mary Katherine, were at friends’ houses when the Red Sox made their selection and didn’t find out until later that evening. Sister Zoey was at work.

We were listening to the draft on the iPad and when my name was called, I was shocked. We’d been in contact with some people from the MLB network during the draft, but it was still a little unexpected,” David said. “I didn’t know how to react. I just laid there and smiled.”

His journey to getting into the Major League circuit began when he was a child. “When David was two, he had this baseball toy and he would hit nonstop,” said Jeana. “During that time, his dad played baseball for the U.S. Air Force team. David went to every practice with them; he practically lived in the dugout. He was obsessed with the sport.”

John echoed that statement. “David was a lot of fun back then. Everywhere I went, anytime I went to practice or was around a baseball, he was right there with me. He loved playing. It came natural to him, and he had a good time doing it.”

When he became of age, David began playing with the Dixie Youth League and the Twin City Recreation Department. Over the years, he’s amassed countless hours of play, especially excelling when he played in the Georgia High School Association. David racked up on accolades in his time at Emanuel County Institute. In addition to lettering each year, he was selected as second team all-region as a sophomore, and as a junior and senior, he one-upped himself, earning a spot on the first all-region and all-state teams. Collectively, David was one of five seniors who finished their careers with a 78-34 record, winning an average of 19 games per year. He helped lead his team to a Final 4 appearance in 2014, a state championship run in 2015, an Elite 8 showing in 2016, and a Sweet 16 berth in 2017. He grabbed hitting titles as both a junior and senior, and was given the team’s MVP award as a junior as well. He completed his senior campaign with a bang, receiving the Region Player of the Year Award and signing off as a Bulldog with a .544 batting average, a .591 on-base percentage, and a slugging percentage of 1.063. Perhaps what’s most impressive, though, was that he once led the state of Georgia in home runs, belting eight his senior year.

I always told David you have to hate to lose more than you love to win,” John said. “David does everything wide open. The moment is never too big for him. He’s a leader who loves to compete.”

David’s baseball coach, Chad Harper, also weighed in, calling him a “great kid with an incredible work ethic.”

I didn’t play much my freshman year, but I used that as motivation. I started hitting toward the end of the season. That’s when I hit my first home run, actually,” David said. The reigning state champions, Charlton County, paid a visit to Twin City. In the second game of the series, Durden took the pitcher yard. “I remember it like it was yesterday. The kid threw me a fastball inside and I turned on it. When I hit it, I thought it was a single in the gap. I rounded first base and looked up. Everyone was going crazy, then I realized I hit a home run. I sprinted around the bases. It didn’t feel real.”

It was in that moment that David broke out onto the scene. “David wasn’t super talented,” Harper commented, “but he had potential. He just took what he had and made himself the ball player he is. His work ethic is what has gotten him to this point. He was always early for practice and he always stayed late.”

Harper also divulged about his talent as a hitter. “When David Durden is on, you can’t stop him. You can’t get him out. I’ve seen him hit a home run on a ball that was literally in the dirt. Those are things you just can’t coach.”

That lethal swing is much to the credit of his dad. He taught David a few fundamentals he had learned while playing at the collegiate level and on the Air Force team. David’s hand-eye coordination was superior, so much so that he skipped t-ball and went straight to coach pitch, then pitching machine. Despite his success in those leagues, John knew that if David perfected a few critical swing components, he’d fare even better in the later, more advanced stages of competition. “When he stands in the batter’s box, there’s no movement at all. He keeps his head still and stays focused,” John explained. “When the ball becomes a hittable pitch, he just explodes. His hands are incredibly fast, and his bat speed is pretty phenomenal.”

As if he wasn’t menacing enough, the 6’2”, 200 lb. centerfielder has a cannon to boot. Oh, and his 60-yard dash? 6.2 seconds flat.

Yet when the time came, David had no ambition to play in college. When the football offers began, he followed the money trail, which led him to Mercer. Needless to say, being drafted was somewhat of a shock. He wasn’t even on Baseball America’s Top 500 list of prospects.

So, how did he land himself a gig with one of the premier baseball organizations in the world? Even with the bounty of talent he has, time and exposure alike are of the essence. But to David, his being drafted is simple. When asked, his answer is powerful and wise beyond his years. “By the grace of God, that’s how I got drafted,” said David. “I have no doubt.”

As for those who need a more evidential explanation, David earned a private try-out. Five scouts, including long-time Red Sox scout Robert English, made plans to visit Twin City during the first round of this year’s state playoffs, originally scheduled for Thursday, May 4. Inclement weather pushed the series up a day, which inconvenienced the scouts. They made plans to watch a player in Atlanta and pass up David, but fate had other plans. English’s brother, a Vidalia resident, fell ill. The scout traveled to the Sweet Onion City that Wednesday to check on him and since he was in the area, he decided to make a quick stop to check out David as planned in the beginning. He played well enough that English stayed for game two, at which point he peaked the scout’s interest. English made contact with John thereafter and invited David to an exclusive work out at Mount Paran Christian School in Marietta.

Until the try out was arranged, David had never picked up a wood bat. Add in the jumble of understandable nerves and there was room for error. John worked tirelessly with his son for just 2.5 weeks to minimize that margin. He purchased an ash bat and brought it home. Together, the father and son made a trip to Midville’s old baseball field and commenced to practice. About 45 pitches into their hitting session, the bat gave out. The next day, John traveled to Augusta and purchased a maple bat, and so began their batting practice once again. They put in so much work that David developed blisters. Still, the kid wanted to work. His dad refused until the evening before they traveled to Mount Paran, at which point they hit a quick round and called it a night. “Going into the work out, I told David what I always tell him — just have fun. I told him not to put pressure on himself and to go up there and just be David,” John said.

And it worked. “It rained the entire week of the work out. They told us we’d just do a little hitting in the cages. They just wanted to evaluate our swings. Two hours before we started, the sun came out and dried the field off enough for us to hit on it. There were four other guys and they were hitting pretty good. I hit 15 of the total 40 pitches I saw that day out of the park. I mean, I just killed them. Afterward, they asked me to run a 60-yard dash. I did, and they were impressed,” David recalled. “At the end of the day, they told us they’d be in contact and what to expect… And here we are,” he said with a tinge of disbelief.

While it still hasn’t sank in for David, some folks who knew him saw it coming. From an early age, David, in keeping with most young boys, set a goal of making it to the bigs. Beverly, or “MeMe,” as the man of the hour calls her, bought in.

I’ve always wanted to play a professional sport, play on tv, be a role model for little kids,” said David. “Ever since I was old enough to pick up a baseball bat, MeMe always told me I’d play at Yankee Stadium.” As it turns out, her intuition wasn’t too far off. Her grandson will, in fact, have a real shot at playing at Yankee Stadium — just as a visitor instead.

However, there was one person who got the story correct entirely. The Durdens lived in Alaska for a while, and one of John’s friends, Ron Bokan, called it. “He was a big Red Sox guy, and he’d always tell Daddy, ‘He ain’t gonna play for the New York Yankees; he’s going to play for the Red Sox,’” David said. “When [the draft] happened, he gave Daddy a big, hard time about it.”

In any event, he’s a pro leaguer now. He departed Sunday for Fort Meyers, Fla., where he’ll spend nearly all of his waking hours doing what he loves. He’ll have approximately one week of practice before games begin on June 26.

This is going to be a job for the next few years, or at least I hope so,” David said. “When I get there, I’m going to do what I’ve always done and give it 100,000 percent. They don’t want me to change much, but I’m going to listen to whatever instruction they give me, apply it, and work up from there.”

It’s no secret that making it to the show is hard. Every year, the MLB drafts approximately 1,200 players through 40 grueling rounds. Each organization then has to whittle these prospects – along with their respective returners – to fit within either a 25- or 40-man roster. To say the least, the odds are stacked against the rookies, so there can never be too much practicality when it comes to a rookie planning their future, with or without baseball. (However, if chronology is any indicator of foreshadowed success, David is sitting alright. He was taken in the 20th round as the 611th overall pick.) In his contract, the Sox from Boston have agreed to make good on his scholarship, should a career in baseball not pan out. Basically, what they did was take his scholarship and put it in holding,” Jeana said, “so he’ll be able to go back to college.”

And in case the numbers game wasn’t intimidating, there’s a mental toughness that must be established when you’re in the midst of today’s greats. “I don’t think David will struggle physically,” Harper said. “I think the biggest adjustment he’ll have to make is the mental aspect. Baseball all day, every day will be tough, and he’ll be going away from home for the first time.”

Ironically, learning to be mentally tough is something David is accustomed to, thanks to none other than Harper and the rest of David’s respective coaches. From Harper and his assistant, Brooks Collins, on the diamond, Chris Kearson on the gridiron, and Dewayne Tabor on the court, David has been well-advised on how to remain steadfast in the face of adversity.

He attributes much of his success to the winning atmosphere fostered in the athletic powerhouse that is ECI. The rest of his success, he said, is due to his circle of support. (Of course, it also helps that he modeled his game play after one of the best in the history of America’s favorite pastime, Derek Jeter.) “I wouldn’t be where I am without my parents and my friends,” David said. “My two best friends, Clark Hall and Zac Williams, were two of the first to call me when I got drafted. They’ve always been two of my biggest supporters, along with my family.”

In the short-term, David is optimistic. He intends to make the most of the opportunity before him, no matter what it takes. The average rookie spends 4-6 years before getting called up, but he’s prepared to move forward.

In the meantime, his parents will proudly proceed alongside him, no matter where the journey takes them. David has given them every right to brag. Baseball aside, he’s quite the athlete. His football talent landed him on all-region and all-state teams throughout his 4-year career as a Bulldog. His winning ways go much further than athletics, though. David also shined in the classroom, earning honor roll status all four years of high school, and he was a member of the Beta Club and the Citizens Bank Advisory Board as well. He is a member of Poplar Springs Baptist Church, where John serves as pastor. (Again, David followed his dad’s example. Though his virtual footprint is nearly nonexistent compared to most his age, David’s Twitter feed indicates that he’s delivered a sermon or two of his own.) “He’s always been humble,” Jeana said. “He’s always been one that if his friend was having a hard time, he’d help out. He’s got a good head on his shoulders… All of this is exciting, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

As expected, John’s sentiments were nearly verbatim. “He’s chasing his dream, and I’m so proud of that. I’m also proud of his willingness to take a chance. I told him that no matter what he did, I’d be proud. I’m proud of his efforts, and I’m proud of him as a person,” John said. “I can’t use any other word except ‘proud.’”

David, in his own words, is excited with a little nerves. “It’s been a pretty overwhelming experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Only about 1,000 people get drafted, and I’m one of them. I’m so grateful for all of the support, and I hope I make everybody back home proud.”

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