A year ago, the only thing Clayton Campbell wasn’t missing was a meal.
A bad meal — nutritionally, anyway.
A teenager from Australia, with equal ties to his native New Zealand, was homesick for everything he had left when he signed with the Tigers in December 2021, a few months before he was bound for America and Lakeland, Florida.
Ah, but the U.S. food emporiums — Chipotle, and Five Guys, among them — were happy to soothe him with their conveyor belt of calories that eventually had a youngster 6-foot-1 hitting the scales at 246 pounds.
“All those fast-food places, and all those American sweets,” Campbell said during a phone conversation last week, taking a break from his work with the low-Single A Lakeland Flying Tigers.
“I just said, ‘No, I’m not eating any of that anymore.’ The cafeteria (at TigerTown) is a lot better.”
Campbell now weighs a muscular 228 as he prepares for a Monday birthday, his 19th, and perhaps a one-night exemption from grilled chicken and vegetables.
The Tigers meanwhile are preparing for a possible right-handed hitter with crunch becoming that most distinguished of farm prospects — an everyday catcher.
Campbell, who today is more of a third baseman than a first baseman and more of a first baseman than a catcher, is hanging in after last month’s jump from the Florida Complex League hatchery, where in 33 games he batted a robust .284/.416/.514/.930, with three home runs.
He has seen in his 12 games for the Flying Tigers how A-ball differs, which also can be deduced from his numbers: .189/.354/.378/.732.
“I was talking to my hitting coach (Nick Bredesen) about how the game here is a lot faster,” Campbell said in his Kiwi-Aussie accent. “Pitchers are a lot more efficient in the strike zone, and they work a lot quicker here.
“In the FCL, there’s no pitch-clock, so pitchers take their time. Also, in the FCL, sometimes you’re hitting against a kid 18 years old who’s throwing 96 and he doesn’t know where it’s going.
“In A-ball, the guys are throwing harder and are more in the strike zone.”
Not that Campbell has been overly thwarted there, which is a reason, for those into demographics, why Campbell could — could — become the first New Zealand native to play in a MLB game.
Campbell, as they say, can flat-out rake.
“He’s a big strong, athletic, right-handed batter who likes the weight room and who hits the ball really hard,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers player-development chief. “It’s going to take some time, but there’s real power, with a lot of athleticism. And we think there’s even more in there.”
Although he was born in Auckland, New Zealand, where he lived “until I was about eight,” Campbell moved to Sydney, Australia, with his family and was first noticed by American baseball snoops when Campbell’s team played in the Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where Campbell pitched and struck out 14 in eliminating Curacao.
He also played later in Junior League regionals at Taylor, and even made a trip to Comerica Park, which for Campbell, makes Detroit and the Tigers less than a mystery.
Tigers’ international scouts Kevin Hooker and Glenn Williams (now CEO of Baseball Australia), were tracking him during his time in Australia and 21 months ago the Tigers signed Campbell for $125,000.
His move to catcher is about to become formal during the Tigers’ upcoming instructional camp. Nothing new there, either.
Campbell caught nine games in the FCL a year ago, and five the past summer. He is fine at third base, just as handy at first, but his arm is strong enough to make catching viable. It is an evaluation similar to the 1970s when the Tigers drafted a California prep third baseman named Lance Parrish and early in his farm days moved him to catcher.
“He’s a pretty good third baseman now, and catching is new,” Garko said. “But he shows all the signs of being able to handle it.”
His manager with Lakeland understands, in multiple ways, why Campbell has as much promise as potential.
Andrew Graham is a native Australian who, yes, played catcher for the Tigers during five minor-league seasons (2003-2007) before turning to managing.
“We’re very raw coming from Australia,” said Graham, emphasizing that amateur baseball Down Under doesn’t compare with the more developed leagues and levels in America. “He needs to work on his catching, but I think — the kid for his age — has tremendous ability.”
Graham is the person to whom Campbell can, and does, go when a touch of homesickness crops up or when there are heart-to-heart conversations about what should come next in a teenager’s baseball progression. Such a discussion came last week, with Ryan Sienko, the Tigers’ director of coaching, field coordination, and catching.
It appears, for now, that once instructional camp ceases in October, Campbell will head to Seattle for dedicated training under the high-gear DriveLine development team.
Graham makes an interesting point about what Australian athletes face in the push to play big-league baseball. While much is made about cultural differences when Latin American teens arrive in Florida early in their baseball development, for most of those teens, a two-hour flight can still put them in their homeland with family and friends.
The plane trip to Sydney from Tampa can last 22 hours.
Graham knew a year ago in step with the entire Tigers development crew that Campbell needed a break from burgers and required dedicated time in the weight room. The kid followed orders almost militaristically.
Campbell plans to follow through with a repeat of last offseason’s regimen, even if he misses home, and he absolutely does.
It helps that his dad, Clayton, Sr., played professional baseball a year in Canada when Junior was young. His dad flew to Florida a year ago for a catch-up and he remains close with both parents, as well as with an older sister.
But he is an athlete, he says, an athlete who played rugby seriously, as well as Australian Rules Football, and who “fell in love” with baseball as quickly as he got to Australia. He wants this to be his career, and for now, his life.
“I have a lot of friends in Australia, but sometimes they get sloppy in the gym,” Campbell said, explaining why Seattle rather than Sydney likely will be his offseason home. “I don’t want to go on cruise mode, on holiday mode. I want to come back in the best shape of my life.”
Next spring, catching figures to be a dual focus, along with his budding bat.
“I love catching,” Campbell said, explaining that he understood why any focus behind the plate during the past summer was going to be difficult, with so many young players competing for at-bats. “It was kind of hard for me to get repetitions.”
Later this month, the regimen changes. He’ll be climbing into those catcher’s togs. Coaches will be watching and counseling — on receiving, blocking, throwing, pitch-calling.
A lot of learning is ahead. Also, a lot of work. But he didn’t ride that 22-hour flight to America in 2022 to keep Chipotle and Five Guys solvent.
He wants to make the big leagues. No more, for sure, than do his Tigers bosses.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.