Scott Van Slyke was 13, standing in the outfield during the championship game of a baseball tournament. The crowd was tense. This very well could have been the most important game of the kids’ lives. Focus was imperative.
And yet there was Van Slyke, gently trying to catch butterflies with his glove, oblivious of the pressure he was supposed to be feeling.
Now, Van Slyke is 27 and in his first full season with the Dodgers. He’s their fifth outfielder, the bearded straggler in a unit of stars. Yasiel Puig is perhaps baseball’s most electrifying young talent. Andre Either finished sixth in most-valuable-player voting in 2009. Matt Kemp led the National League in homers and led the majors RBIs in 2011. Carl Crawford is a four-time All-Star. Those four make a combined $429 million.
Van Slyke is the anomaly, the player who’s making the veteran’s minimum and could be the odd man out when Crawford returns from the disabled list. When Van Slyke plays, one of the stars sits. There’s pressure on him every day to earn his spot.
And yet when two ducks wander into the Dodger Stadium outfield, Van Slyke is the guy who pulls out some sunflower seeds and begins to feed them, as though this casual sort of encounter happens to the him all the time. He’s the one who begins prayers with ‘Dude’ and the one who can joke about playing time, even in a locker room crowded with money and the egos that come with it.
“If he had an opportunity between a pitching change to catch a Monarch butterfly or go talk to Puig, I think he would go after the Monarch butterfly,” Scott’s father, former All-Star Andy Van Slyke, said with a laugh in a phone interview.
But there was a time when Scott Van Slyke lost this relaxed approach, when he stood in the outfield, looking up at the sky, asking God to run him into a wall, get him sick, get him released — something, anything, to get him out of baseball.
He was done with striking out, done with feeling overmatched, done with spending months being fooled at the plate. This was early in the 2009 season, Van Slyke’s fifth as a professional. This game wasn’t fun, nothing like thegame he played in high school in Missouri.
He had started off the season at Class-A Inland Empire in a two-for-19 slump with nine strikeouts, after hitting only .232 the previous season. The player drafted for his power had hit a combined 11 home runs in his first four years in the minors.
Struggling brought his options into focus — start hitting or drop out of baseball.
Just days after Van Slyke prayed to get out of baseball, he found his answer. Over a five-day stretch starting April 22 against Lancaster and continuing through a four-game series against Lake Elsinore, he went 15 for 21 with two home runs, four doubles, a triple, five runs batted in and eight runs scored. Just like that, he was back.
“I was going to go one way or another, but my decision was made for me,” Van Slyke said. “I hit some home runs, but it was [almost] like five hits a game for five straight days. If I was out in front, I rolled it over for a bunt single. If it was down the third base line, I was safe. If I was beat, it was getting blooped into the outfield or right behind the pitcher. Everything was a hit. . . . I think I got my prayers answered.”
After that, the easygoing Van Slyke came back to life. Baseball was fun again.
“Do I deserve to be here, will they make a spot for me, and all that stuff — I really have never worried about it,” Van Slyke said with a shrug. “It’s not even on my radar. . . . That year I stopped worrying about baseball, and results, and what’s going to happen after baseball. It seems like it’s been working since that time.”
From the first day Van Slyke stepped on the field at John Burroughs High in St. Louis, baseball coach Andrew Katzman knew that he had things that were hard to teach. The genes are good, of course; Scott had natural bat speed and power. But it also helped that the Van Slykes had a batting cage in their basement where Scott and his three brothers held court. If they weren’t at practice, or working out with their dad, they were in the cage.
In Van Slyke’s freshman year, he hit a home run in the state championship game that cleared the bullpen in left-center field at the University of Missouri and won Burroughs the title. His senior year, Van Slyke was so feared that he was intentionally walked in all five of his plate appearances during the district semifinals, even with two out and nobody on base. Later that year, the Dodgers took him in the 14th round of the 2005 draft.
“He was feared among other high schools in St. Louis when he came to the plate,” Katzman said. “He hit some of the furthest home runs I’ve ever seen in my 25 years of coaching high school baseball, and that was from day one as a freshman all the way through his senior year.”
In the pros, Van Slyke got by in his first season of rookie ball, but he had never seen a pitch above 80 mph in high school. Things fell apart quickly.
“I remember standing at the plate thinking, ‘I have no chance against this guy,’” Van Slyke said. “They were throwing 97, 96, ball going all over the place. I didn’t think I was going to last very long, but you slowly get used to it.”
After that series at Lake Elsinore, Van Slyke’s journey to the big leagues became, in his words, a “little weird.” There was a string of promotions and demotions between double A and triple A before Van Slyke finally played some games in a Dodgers uniform in 2012. He hit only .167, though, and was left off the club’s 40-man roster. Every team had an opportunity to claim him, and every team passed. Plus, he wasn’t invited to Dodgers spring training in 2013. And despite hitting .348 with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs in 61 games with triple-A Albuquerque that season, he still had to split time between Los Angeles and New Mexico.
“I think in some ways getting beat up early is a lot better than getting beat up late,” Andy Van Slyke said. “He’s had to handle it in some ways that a lot of people don’t have to handle. I think his overall perspective is better off.”
Now, in the first season Van Slyke has begun in Los Angeles, he’s quietly making a case for playing time. His slugging percentage, .568 before Saturday, leads the team, and despite having had only 88 at-bats, roughly one-third of Puig’s total, his six home runs were third among Dodgers outfielders, behind Puig’s 11 and Kemp’s seven. Van Slyke’s .418 on-base percentage led the team, and he had a .780 slugging percentage against left-handers.
When Crawford returns, the Dodgers might have a logjam in the outfield. Right now, Manager Don Mattingly is just happy to be getting serious production out of someone who was expected to be a situational bench player.
“I just think we’re at a point where it hasn’t really been a problem, it doesn’t feel like a problem,” Mattingly said. " I think Scott is swinging the bat well enough that guys on the team know he should play against lefties. I just think we’re at the point of trying to win games.”
Whatever happens to the Dodgers’ roster is out of his hands, so all Van Slyke can do is stand in the outfield, smile, and remember that sometimes, baseball is a game that comes more easily to those who are occasionally more interested in butterflies.