CLEARWATER, Fla. - How did Scott Kingery get here? He begged. That's how the story begins, really. It wasn't pathetic, obsequious, down-on-your-knees begging, but it was begging nonetheless, and there's nothing wrong with saying that, because it worked. It helped get him here - to spring training with the Phillies, to a status as the organization's presumptive second baseman of the future - and it created, for him, a connection to a particularly famous ex-teammate of his. But we'll get to that ex-teammate in a bit. First, the begging.
A few years ago, Kingery was a pretty good shortstop at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, but he wasn't good enough, at least in the minds of any Division I coaches, to play at the highest level of college baseball. No one was recruiting him. So one summer, as he played a series of AAU tournaments, he started e-mailing coaching staffs, letting them know where he'd be and when. If you happen to be there to watch other players, he'd write, maybe you can take a look at me, too. OK, maybe you wouldn't call that "begging." But what would you call it? "Persistent requesting?"
One day, Matt Siegel, at the time an assistant coach at the University of Arizona, called him. He had seen one at-bat from Kingery in one game. It was enough. "I don't even remember what I did that day," Kingery said Tuesday before the Phillies' 7-5 victory over the Orioles at Spectrum Field. "Probably hit a ball hard somewhere." Arizona had no more scholarships left to offer, Siegel told him, but if Kingery went to Tucson, he'd be a preferred walk-on, meaning he'd have a spot on the fall roster. The rest was up to him.
He hit well early in his freshman season, but there were a couple of other shortstops on the team, and the coaches were looking for a way to get Kingery in the lineup more. They asked him if he'd ever played center field. Of course, he lied.
"So they threw me in center field," he said, "and the first game I was out there, I made a diving play. From there on out, for the next two years, I was an outfielder."
He moved to second base for his junior season, 2015, and all he did was hit .392 with a .984 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and win the Pac-12's player of the year award. The Phillies picked him in the second round of that year's amateur draft. So much for college. At Clearwater last year, he caught the attention of the entire organization: a .293 batting average, 29 doubles, and 26 stolen bases in 94 games. He moved up to double-A Reading. The transition wasn't smooth. He walked just five times in 156 plate appearances. Pitchers throw off-speed stuff in fastball counts at double A. Kingery wasn't accustomed to that.
"They're going to spread your eyes, make you swing at pitches you think you can hit, but they're their pitches, not yours," he said.
He got a little more experience in the Arizona Fall League, and the adjustments continued. Over 20 games with the Scottsdale Scorpions, he hit just .234. But he did outperform the most famous name on the Scorpions' roster, Tim Tebow, who batted .194 with 20 strikeouts in 62 at-bats after signing a minor-league contract with the Mets.
Kingery needed to write letters on his own behalf just to persuade one college coach to watch one of his at-bats. Tebow got his chance in pro ball because he is Tim Tebow: Heisman Trophy winner, former NFL quarterback, celebrity. Did Kingery at all resent the disparity in those paths?
"He's a hard worker, man," Kingery said. "Even before he came to the field, he had taken hundreds of swings. He came to the field ready to go. Took more swings. Worked his butt off in outfield drills. His work ethic is unbelievable. I knew coming in he's going to have to start at the same spot I did in baseball. It's a sport he hadn't played in, what, 11 years? He's basically just starting. He got thrown into the fire. They basically said, 'Here. Show us what you've got.' That's something that I kind of connect to because, when I went to Arizona, I'd never played D-I, but it was, 'Here. Go play. Let's see what you've got. Let's see if you can make this team.'
"For me, I always think that someone who works that hard, no matter what his status is, if someone's going to work that hard, they deserve a shot. If you have that work ethic and that drive, who knows what will happen?"
Despite his relative struggles, Kingery's performance in the Arizona Fall League did nothing to dissuade the Phillies from inviting him to spring training this year, to give him a taste of what they hope is ahead for him. On Tuesday, he went 3 for 4 with a single, a double, a solo home run, and an acrobatic catch, crediting an offseason adjustment to his swing - leaning more on his back leg for better balance and more power - and an added 7-10 pounds of muscle for the sight of a 5-foot-10, 185-pound infielder lining a ball deep over the left-field fence.
"Boy, he can really play," manager Pete Mackanin said. "I like what I see out of him."
Kingery himself said that he expects to begin this season back at double A, that it's probably too soon to jump him to triple A Lehigh Valley. That's what Mackanin thinks, too. Right?
"I don't want to get overly excited," he said, "but when you look at him, both sides of the ball it looks like he's got a good idea of what he's doing."
It was an intriguing answer, but not all that surprising if you've seen Scott Kingery play, if you think about how he got here. If you have that work ethic and drive and talent, and you're not above . . . persistent requesting, who knows what can happen?