LAKELAND, Fla. — Sometimes, one small question can take a story in a surprising place.
I was standing outside the Detroit Tigers complex, talking to Jordan Marks, a right-handed pitching prospect. He grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, across the St. Clair River from Michigan; and his grandfather is a huge Tigers fan.
It seemed like such a cool story.
Basically, a hometown kid trying to make it with the Tigers.
“Could I call your grandpa?” I asked.
It turns out his grandfather, Alan Stocks, has health issues that would make a phone call difficult.
“Could I call your grandmother?” I asked.
Marks looked down.
“She died a few days ago,” Marks said.
His eyes got a vacant look.
“It wasn’t unexpected but — ” he said and stopped.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.
“Appreciate it,” he said.
Sometimes — no, most of the time — you don’t know what somebody is dealing with.
“It’s a tough situation all the way around,” Marks said. “When I said goodbye to them at Christmas, we all kind of knew it could possibly be the last time. So, yeah, it’s a tough, tough situation.”
His grandmother, Frieda Stocks, was 87. Her obituary described how she and Alan, her husband of 63 years, “spent many enjoyable hours cheering on their grandsons in Sarnia at the ball diamond and the rink.”
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A family dream come true
“How did you grow up in Sarnia and not end up as a hockey player?” I asked.
“Wasn’t fast enough,” he said. “I was a defenseman and couldn’t keep up with all those fast skaters and the guys with the quick hands.”
So he gravitated to baseball, becoming a pitcher like his two older brothers — Jake pitched at the University of Maine and Jesse pitched at Adrian College.
“Kind of just following in their footsteps,” Marks said. “Spent lots of time outside playing catch with the brothers in the backyard. We had a park behind our house. It would always freeze over which we could skate on for some of the winter anyway.”
After pitching for four years at USC Upstate in South Carolina — he turned down $20,000 to leave as a free agent after his junior year that was shut down because of COVID-19, betting on himself that he could do better that what was being offered in that strange five-round draft year — he was picked by the Tigers in the eighth round last year. The Tigers reportedly signed him to a $150,000 bonus.
His family, needless to say, was ecstatic.
“My family is kind of big Tigers fans,” he said. “And my grandpa is a huge Tigers fan. And yes, that was pretty cool. Lots of people in Sarnia are real Tigers fans.”
“What was your grandfather’s reaction?” I asked.
“He couldn’t put it into words,” Marks said. “It was a pretty cool moment.”
And now, when Marks is walking around the Tigers facility and bumping into former greats, like Alan Trammell, he wishes his grandfather could experience it.
“Seeing Tram walk around here, my grandfather would be over the moon,” Marks said. “And he was a big Al Kaline fan, too.”
Going up against the best
On Wednesday morning, Marks was on the mound getting ready to face three of the top prospects in the Tigers minor league system.
He threw nine pitches to Riley Greene, eventually striking him out. Marks threw several high fastballs that had a coach shouting: “There you go!”
He got shortstop Ryan Kreidler to ground out.
In a nine-pitch battle against Spencer Torkelson, Marks got the former No. 1 overall pick to hit a harmless grounder to the left side of the infield. It probably would have been scooped up by a shortstop.
Then, Marks faced Greene again and got him to ground out.
It was an impressive performance. All of Marks’ pitches were around the strike zone, which is not out of the norm. He is known for his control. In 258 innings in college, he walked just 58 batters while striking out 230.
“Where did you get that kind of consistency?” I asked.
“Probably my dad honestly,” Marks said. “He would hate walks. He would get back in the car after a game and he’d give me an earful if I walked a guy.”
Scouts say Marks has a simple, repeatable delivery with a repertoire that includes a fastball, changeup and slider.
“I use my changeup a lot,” Marks said. “I think it’s probably my best pitch. In this offseason I focused on the slider, trying to kind of make that a little bit more of an out pitch. So hopefully it works out this spring.”
To this point, everything has worked out just fine.
He looked fantastic on Wednesday. Dominant even.
As he grieved in secret.
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