A scout’s notes, and some improbable timing, helped deliver Akil Baddoo to Tigers

Detroit News

What the Tigers saw last December in Akil Baddoo was a profile taken from two sources of baseball insight.

One was human: Jim Rough, a scout on the Tigers’ major-league staff, had jotted notes on Baddoo in 2018 as Rough kept tabs on big-league teams, as well as Single-A clubs in his locale. Rough could see that a kid working in the Twins system, with an exotic name that made him all the more indelible, had pluses.

Another reason the Tigers bit on Baddoo was technological: The Tigers had studied loads of video. They saw, as Rough had detected, left-handed bat speed. Fleetness. The ability to play three outfield positions, including center field. They saw a man, only four months after turning 22, who was 6-foot-1, 210 pounds.

What they also understood, as everyone from his high school coaches, to his parents, to his present-day “spiritual counselor” today testify, is that Akil Neomon Baddoo had uncommon personal comportment. This could help in a young man’s equally uncommon pathway to big-league life.

It seems skills coupled with personal traits persuaded the Tigers last December that Baddoo was the brand of player a bat-starved team might want with Detroit’s third-overall pick in the annual Winter Meetings closing ceremony, a lark known as the Rule 5 draft.

What the Tigers since have seen during April’s early days, preceded by a dazzling spring camp, is the possibility they stole treasure from the Twins as a quirky blend of timing and events made Baddoo available.

Baddoo’s first three regular-season games, from April 4-6, featured, in order: a home run on the first pitch he swung at as a big-leaguer; a next-day grand slam homer; and a game-winning single some 24 hours later to complete his three-game initiation.

Detroit’s at-large baseball camp noticed. Baddoo jerseys began slipping from hangers in the Tigers merchandise shops. Predictably, Tigers fans droned “Dooooo” as their new rage arrived at home plate, either to bat, or after crossing it following a homer.

And yet, as stunning was the debut for a player who had never competed past Single A in the minors, there is a corresponding reality that already is in process. Baseball is the most difficult of all professional sports. Mostly, it’s because hitting a big-league pitch is a monstrously challenging task. Baddoo has cooled in recent days as pitchers have been teaching the classroom’s new kid an array of hard lessons.

Still, his talents are expected to withstand what could, and should, be an often-cruel 2021 season. Unlike most Rule 5 investments, Baddoo figures to get regular work rather than a regular nine-inning seat in the Tigers dugout.

Part of the thinking there is tied to Rule 5 realities. The Tigers cannot send Baddoo to the minors in 2021 — if they care to retain him. They must follow rigid codes and timelines, or they’re obliged to return him to the Twins, which at the moment is not a decision the baseball world would regard as rational.

More: Tigers snagged Akil Baddoo as a Rule 5 pick; here is how it works

In the case of Baddoo’s move to Detroit, the Tigers appear to have caught the Twins in a bind not unknown to other MLB teams.

The Twins last autumn had a surplus of outfield prospects, Baddoo among them. They had a 40-man roster with little wiggle room. Baddoo’s resume had been affected by two events not of his doing. And they most certainly factored in Minnesota exposing him.

In early 2019, Baddoo had Tommy John surgery on his left (throwing) elbow, which wiped out much of spring, and his entire summer, at high Single-A Fort Myers.

A year ago, as he healed on schedule and got ready for a make-up year, coronavirus canceled the 2020 minor-league season. The Twins had too few roster seats for too many bodies. Baddoo was, in the parlance of sports, a last cut, something Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations, all but confirmed during a media chat last week.

“He’s right on that edge of the last guy or so that we were going to protect,” Falvey said, all while citing Baddoo’s personal pluses.

“Akil, great kid through and through — one of the greatest makeup kids we (had) in the system. Certainly, what he’s done already has been tremendous — through the course of this spring training and the way he’s gotten off to this start.

“I’m really happy for him, personally.”

More: Twins happy for Tigers’ Akil Baddoo, even as he haunts his former organization

Asked by a Twins media member if Baddoo’s lost seasons, and the reality he had never played above Single A, made him a no-go for the Twins and prime prey for the Tigers, Falvey said:

“I mean, what you’re identifying is probably a lot of the conversation we had in our room around just the potential for that.”

For the Tigers, the potential they saw all was in an outfielder who could do good things, beginning with his bat.

“The kid’s got tools,” general manager Al Avila said, mentioning Baddoo’s “pure athleticism” an hour after December’s Rule 5 lottery had wrapped up.

“If he sticks,” Avila said, “he’s a legitimate center-fielder and everyday prospect.”

Don’t bet against Baddoo

Talk with those who have known Baddoo during his growing-up years in Conyers, Georgia, and the commotion at spring camp and throughout early April adds up.

His mom and dad, John and Akilah Baddoo, were seen high-fiving in Comerica Park’s stands after their son’s first-pitch homer on April 4. They have known since he traded baby shoes for Nikes that a boy his teammates dubbed “Heavenly” for his celestial skills had a chance to be, well, unique, and maybe exceptional.

Their own backgrounds have been the product of their parents’ adventures.

John’s father, John Sr., was from a well-to-do family in Ghana before deciding at age 25 to try America, settling in Brooklyn, New York, where he became an accountant. John Jr., for the past 20 years has been a railroad engineer for CSX. Akilah works as a project manager for the human-resources firm ADP.

Akilah’s parents are from Trinidad. She was born in the New York City borough of Queens, where she and John met during high school. After some years apart, they reunited, moved to Maryland, and married. Later, after the birth of twin sons, Tequane and Shaquane, Akil arrived, ahead of two more brothers, Amir and Asan.

The family later shifted to Conyers, and to the formal beginning of Akil’s sports saga.

Initially, it included football (quarterback and running back) until he decided, during middle school, that being the every-play target of 11 tacklers perhaps wasn’t the wisest long-term sports strategy. He was gifted in basketball, also, say his parents and earlier coaches.

But by the time he got to Salem High in Conyers it was baseball. All baseball.

“When I first me Akil, back in 2015, he was a student in my government and economics class,” said Jarrod Davis, who is Salem’s athletic director. “I ended up that spring being a third assistant, and on the first night of practice I said to him:

“I’ll bet you $20 I strike you out on four pitches. Well, I think I tried to throw him a fastball and it never came down. Then I find out, lo and behold, I don’t even have $20 on me.”

Salem’s head baseball coach, Bobby Link, has a Tigers history. Link auditioned as a right-handed reliever prospect at spring camp in 1989 and was in contention until the last day of cuts. That’s when Sparky Anderson, then running the team, opted for Al Pedrique, a backup infielder. Link later damaged disks in his back and his professional baseball life ended on the Tigers farm in 1991.

He later turned to coaching and teaching and, like Davis, learned that Baddoo’s talents could be expensive.

“We used to work hard, our whole team, on hitting the ball the other way,” Link said last week. “I used to tell them: ‘Anyone can pull the baseball. The really good hitters hit the ball the other way.’

“I’d say, ‘If you can hit an opposite-field home run, I’ll give you a steak dinner.’

“Akil got two of those pretty fast.”

It might be noted that Baddoo’s first two home runs last week were drives to left field.

“I texted him after his homer,” Link said. “He’s got another steak coming.”

By the time Akil was a junior at Salem he was getting more than dinner offers. Full-ride baseball scholarships were on the table. Baddoo opted for the University of Kentucky.

There was one other consideration.

Pro baseball. More than two-dozen teams, the Tigers included, had home visits with the Baddoos as Akil’s senior season arrived and as June’s draft drew near.

The Twins took him in the second round, the 74th overall pick. They offered $750,000.

Akil signed. His parents were on board, despite their family creed, which is heavy on education.

“Education is for life,” Akilah remembers telling Akil. “You can still educate yourself throughout the years ahead. Trust and believe (in Akil’s decision) and you’ll still be able to go to college when it’s time.”

One factor in deciding to join the Twins, apart from the considerable cash, was second-round draft status. Big-league teams, the Twins being a prime example, don’t spend second-round picks on longshots. They expect that player to someday adorn a MLB diamond.

Forecasts were on hold when Baddoo two years ago had his Tommy John surgery. Scouting reports, though, of the kind Detroit had filed, were still in hand last autumn, even after a year when COVID knocked out what would have been Baddoo’s comeback season on the Twins farm.

A year spent healing from ligament surgery — especially an outfielder not as accustomed as pitchers to Tommy John possibilities — was going to be a psychological, even soulful, test for Baddoo. A second year knocked out by the historic scourge known as COVID-19 threatened to be double trouble for a talented prospect’s mind, and development.

Those who knew him best weren’t worried.

“He’s just a kid with a good head on his shoulders,” said Tim Allen, athletic director at Grace Christian Academy in Conyers, who has had a long relationship with the Baddoo family, and who is something of a spiritual coach for Akil. “His parents have done a tremendous job raising a boy into a man.”

‘Stay in the moment’

Late last autumn, as the Tigers tried to shake off another last-place ordeal, Detroit’s front office hadn’t forgotten about the guy who so impressed Rough. The Tigers had him targeted in December, not that the Baddoos had a clue.

Akil was listening to MLB.com’s live Rule 5 coverage when Detroit on Dec. 10 made its third-turn choice: Akil Baddoo.

John and Akilah were there for the news bulletin.

“He was hollering, ‘They got me, they got me,’” John remembers of their son’s announcement, which might have been heard a few houses away. “I thought he was joking.”

Four months later, the big leagues are no joke. They can be merciless — for players new, and for players seasoned. The Tigers as a team and Baddoo as a rookie have been reminded of realities there following their happy start.

The Tigers aren’t nervous about Baddoo’s psyche. Neither are his parents.

“I was saying at the same time all this (the first three games were happening), don’t pay attention to all this noise,” Akilah said. “Stay in the moment. Don’t look ahead. Don’t look back. Stay in the moment and play each game hard.”

John’s counsel to his son, a kind of mantra he has preached through the years, is: “Be competent on the field, humble off the field.”

John mentioned phone conversations he has with Akil each morning.

“It’s normal for you to be going through all of this,” he says, quoting his words to Akil on whatever struggles baseball and big-league pitchers might have posed. “You’ve done some great things and you’ll continue to do some great things.

“But we all know how this sport can be. This sport will humble you on its own.”

The Tigers understand this. To a man they understand it, no one more than a Hall of Fame-destined man named Miguel Cabrera, who especially in recent years has known more grief than glory.

It’s why a team appreciates the kid who has brought energy and decency and a promising bag of baseball tools to Detroit.

His bosses, and his teammates, will let him both enjoy and suffer this adventure. They’ve been called, also, to the big-league challenge. They’ll be there to help just as a young man named Baddoo learns further the rules that baseball in general, and Rule 5 life in particular, so necessarily imposes.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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