Courtesy of Liberty University
Spain Park graduate Alex Close (12) was drafted into pro ball by the Kansas City Royals.
Alex Close was almost a member of the Kansas City Royals organization after his junior season at Liberty University. He decided to go back to school, get his degree and take his chances.
But the Royals liked him – really, really liked him. So much so that a year later the Royals drafted him again, selecting him in the 26th round of Wednesday's Major League Baseball first-year player draft.
The former Spain Park High star was releasing some draft-day jitters, taking hitting practice at his old high school when he got the news. Moments later, his fiancée, sister and parents pulled up in their car.
Fiancée and sis had donned Royals shirts he’d had in his closet from last year. Hugs and tears all around, a few pictures, then back to hitting before a celebratory dinner.
“I knew after last year when I didn’t sign, it wasn’t like we were on bad terms,” Close said. “It was the best thing for both sides. They had told me last year they were going to follow me again and hopefully have another chance. Honestly, they were the team I’d heard from the most so I thought it was going to be them.”
Close had just put the finishing touches on an outstanding career at Liberty in Lynchburg, Va., a Division I school in the Big South Conference.
A four-year starter, Close was named all-Big South first team after both his junior and senior years. He also was named to the Eastern College Athletic Conference All-Star team.
As a senior, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound first baseman/catcher/pitcher batted .342 with seven home runs, 46 RBIs and was 2-2 with a 2.21 ERA and a team-best six saves as a pitcher. He led the Flames in batting average, hits, doubles, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. In addition, he led the Flames with 25 multi-hit games and 13 multi-RBI contests, while reaching base in a team-high 39 consecutive games.
Close, who graduated in May with a degree in financial planning, was a two-time Capital One Academic All-American – the first such player in Liberty history. He was also picked as the top graduating senior student-athlete.
He rang up a 3.81 GPA. When you lead the team in batting, yet your GPA is still higher than your BA – and your ERA is lower than your GPA – you’ve earned the scholar-athlete tag.
With brains like that – and that big bat – it’s no wonder the Royals project him to be a catcher.
Catching is the position at which he’s had the least experience, but he’s just thrilled to get his shot.
“It don’t matter, man,” he said. “I just want to get on the field, whether it be pitching or getting in the box and hitting, I don’t care where I play.
“Definitely, I have to work on the catching. I’m just so raw back there. I’ve never really been able to focus on it because I’ve pitched as well. I think defense is a huge area I need to spend some time on.”
Hitting is his strength, and he gives credit to several coaches for helping him develop, but especially Liberty coach Matt Hagen, who schooled him his freshman year before taking another job.
There’s a big difference in being a great high school hitter and a great college hitter. Adjustments must be made, and some of that is done upstairs.
“Even to this day there’s stuff I think about he taught me," Close said.
“But really you just almost have to grow up,” he added. “The fastballs are coming in harder, the sliders are tighter. It’s not like high school where you can go up there in any given game and get three hits – there’s definitely approaches and changing with situations that comes with playing in college. I could talk to you all night about specifics, but it’s really about having to mature and deal with pitching.”
He played just one season at Spain Park for coach Will Smith after moving from Atlanta, but he made his presence felt, being named the Hoover area player of the year. He picked Liberty after attending a camp and falling in love with the school.
“It’s always going to be home now. I’m kind of sad I’m done playing there, but I’m excited for the next chapter. Coach (Jim) Toman gave me a chance and I couldn’t be more grateful to him and the coaches,” Close said.