How a metal dog tag is guiding Detroit Tigers prospect Jace Jung through first year as pro

Detroit Free Press

The dog tag dangles from a chain around Jace Jung’s neck.

The metal surface is scratched and worn.

A gift from Carolyn Jung, Jace’s late grandmother.

Jace’s initials are on one side. The other side reads: “My dear grandson. Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you know and smarter than you think.”

Carolyn Jung, who was known as Oma, died from lung cancer on Feb. 22, 2021, when Jace was a sophomore at Texas Tech. She was 77.

“I wear it to honor Oma,” said Jace, one of the Detroit Tigers‘ top prospects, looking down at the tag.

So, when the hits aren’t falling, or the strikeouts start to pile up, or the frustration builds up as he tries to figure how to play professional baseball, he can look at that dog tag, read those words and draw on her wisdom.

Yes, there have been times when he has needed that advice this season playing second base for the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ High-A affiliate. He struggled through April and May, hitting .229 in 40 games, striking out 47 times with 27 walks.

But he has heated up, as the weather has warmed up.

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During a 28-game span that stretched from the middle of May through the middle of June, Jace hit .303 with six homers and four doubles for a .949 OPS.

“I’m not trying to force things as much,” Jung told me in May, right before his numbers started to improve dramatically. “I’m kind of just staying in control and relaxed in the box and getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it, trying to do damage; and then, if it’s not there, letting it go.”

If you can hear Tigers president Scott Harris echoing through Jung’s words, that’s by design.

This is how all the Tigers prospects talk now.

A year of transitions

The Tigers took Jung in the first round of the 2022 MLB draft, giving him a $4.59 million contract, which was slot value for the 12th overall pick.

But this has been a season of struggles and transitions, cold spells and tantalizing hot streaks, which is typical, if not expected, for a 22-year-old in his first full season of professional baseball.

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Jung is learning how to adjust to long bus rides.

Learning how to live out of a suitcase.

Learning to hit against professional lefties.

Learning that a six-game series against one team in one city can be brutal, if you are struggling against a certain pitch and the other team figures it out.

Learning how to make adjustments on the fly, instead of during the slow, relaxed off days of a college season.

Heck, just learning how to play in cold weather was a transition.

The Whitecaps’ first few games in April were played in 40-degree temperatures.

Maybe, for a long-time Michigander, that doesn’t sound so bad.

But not for a kid from south Texas.

Jung grew up in San Antonio, which has an average temperature of 63 degrees … during the winter.

“It was definitely a new experience,” Jung said. “I was talking to Ramon Santiago, one of our infield coordinators, about it; and he was like, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s different playing in the cold.’ ”

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This is the side of the minor leagues, of player development, that doesn’t get mentioned very often. Fans tend to look at the numbers and jump to conclusions without knowing what these players are dealing with.

And these prospects have to adjust to so much more than just baseball.

In April, Jung hit .243 because, well, it’s hard to swing a bat when you are shivering.

In his entire life, he had never played a baseball game while wearing sleeves.

But he decided to start wearing them because he couldn’t warm up: “It got to the point where I was like, ‘Dang, this is freezing, I gotta put something on or I’m gonna freeze my butt off.’ ”

He did not offer these details as an excuse.

It was just an honest, revealing discussion.

“As (director of player development Ryan) Garko says, ‘You gotta get used to playing in a cold because Detroit’s not warm,’ ” Jung said, smiling. “Especially to begin the season, especially postseason time.”

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Chip off the old block

For most families, having a kid become a first-round pick would be unusual.

But not for this close-knit, highly athletic, highly competitive family.

Jace is following in the footsteps of his older brother, Josh, who was a 2019 first-round pick of the Texas Rangers.

But Josh will offer advice to Jace, only if he asks.

“You gotta go through it first,” Josh told me in late May.

Josh was standing in the visitor’s clubhouse in Comerica Park. Then, Josh went out and raked against the Tigers. In a three-game series, he went 6-for-12 with three extra-base hits, scoring four runs and driving in a pair of runs.

“You can give advice and tell somebody something and lead them to water but they have to experience something before they can understand it,” Josh said.

Clearly, the Jung boys are extremely close.

Not to mention extremely competitive.

The two brothers spent the offseason training together, as well as competing against each other.

Because neither was happy with how they had finished 2022.

After the draft, Jace played in 30 games at West Michigan and hit .232 in 108 at-bats.

Josh made his MLB debut in 2022 and hit .204 in 26 games for the Rangers.

So, they went to work, trying to fix their flaws.

“Training with each other is a lot of fun,” Josh said. “We played video games and were hanging out at the house. We lived together. It’s just a lot of fun to be around each other. It’s like we were kids again. We just made up our minds that we’re gonna get after it in the offseason, whether that’s in weight room, everything’s kind of a competition. Friendly, but it’s always been. So we get after it.”

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Josh and Jace played one season together.

Josh was a senior in high school and Josh was a freshman.

They were coached by their father, Jeff, who has since retired after a 31-year coaching career.

Jace played second base and Josh played shortstop for that magical season.

“They batted two and three in the order,” Jeff said. “So it was a special year for me as a coach.”

There was one place where Josh and Jace could be normal kids. At the family ranch.

Their grandmother, Carolyn, and grandfather, Patrick, lived on a ranch in Doss, Texas, a small German community.

“It’s out in the middle of nowhere,” Josh said.

Oma would cook up a storm, making all kinds of food.

“We’d go out there and we would hunt and work out on the ranch with all the different animals and everything,” Jeff Jung said. “That’s where I grew up. I wouldn’t say it was a refuge, but it was just a place to get away from everything and kind of reset yourself.”

It was a place for these boys to be normal.

To escape from all the pressures of being future first-round picks.

Oma had a way of grounding the boys.

“She was a force,” Jeff said. “My mom was just like the regular grandma. She made all the special meals and they had their favorites. The cookies and chicken-fried steaks and the barbecues.”

But Oma started coughing.

A cough she couldn’t shake.

“She was diagnosed with lung cancer, never smoked a day in her life,” Jeff said. “I have no idea why or what happened or anything. She just kind of started having a cough in the late summer months. When you’re in hill country out there, you get all kinds of stuff blooming all the time. So didn’t really think much about it and finally got to the point where she just couldn’t get rid of it. A couple of weeks later, she was diagnosed with Stage 4. So it had advanced, well past anything that was going to be able to be rectified.”

Eventually, after his wife retires from teaching, Jeff is planning on moving back to the ranch, and he plans to put up a batting cage.

So his boys have someplace to hit when they visit.

Pressure? The Jungs don’t believe in it

While Jace’s batting average has fluctuated, his power has been consistent.

He had 10 homers and 10 doubles through his first 51 games.

A left-handed bat with power? Yes, please.

But he needs to improve against lefties. He started this season hitting .272 with nine homers in his first 158 at-bats against righties. But he hit .214 in a much smaller sample size against lefties (9-for-42).

Clearly, he’s a work in progress.

And for Tigers fans, watching the Tigers struggle offensively, Jace can’t arrive soon enough.

As a first-round pick, the pressure on Jung could be incredible. The Tigers need him to develop (but are willing to let him do so at his own pace).

There are a handful of players who could turn this entire organization around, and he’s one of them.

But pressure is not a word the Jung family uses.

“I don’t believe in pressure,” Jeff Jung said. “I think pressure is something that you create and put on yourself. So that’s something that we’ve always talked about. I don’t like using that particular term, I think it’s about how you can create and handle the anxiety more than anything else.”

Yes, this family is full of mantras. Full of inner strength and confidence.

Spoken and repeated from generation to generation:

Braver than you believe.

Stronger than you know.

Smarter than you think.

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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