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May 12, 2009

Going the distance - Pitcher Rhett Ballard looks back on a career of ups and downs

By: Matt Kovatch

Rhett Ballard

When Rhett Ballard sits down to look back on his young adulthood, he can point out many instances that left him oh-so-close to teetering off his path to baseball stardom. And as the fifth-year senior nears the end of his collegiate career, one can argue what exactly his level of stardom is.

For one, the 6-foot-6, 244-pound right-hander will leave Virginia Tech as one of its all-time strikeout leaders – he ranked fifth, just behind current major leaguer Joe Saunders, with 249 punchouts entering the season’s final two weeks.

Also, he is regarded as one of the most durable and consistent pitchers in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He’s never piled up the wins and he doesn’t have the lowest earned run average out there, but with his sidearm, in-your-face delivery, there aren’t many teams clamoring for a chance to face him.

But maybe his success doesn’t come in the form of statistics. For a young man who’s jumped between schools and gotten into a good amount of trouble over the years, the fact that he’s still on the Hokies’ roster with a chance to go pro might be considered stardom enough.

One thing is for sure – Ballard has been through his share of ups and downs. But in the same way he trots back out to the mound each inning with no regard to his rising pitch count and no matter how intense the game situation is, he has continued to bounce back for more.

Ballard was born and raised in the Greensboro/High Point, N.C., area, and he entered Southwest Guilford High School in 2000 as a talented freshman. But about halfway through his first year there, he and his family realized that a change might be for the better.

“The high school I went to had a lot of trouble surrounding it,” Ballard remembered. “Kids were always getting arrested and a lot of kids were getting kicked out of school. I wasn’t really on the right track either, so I went to visit a few private schools around the area.”

Ballard, a phenomenal basketball talent who reportedly can still dunk any which way you ask him to, sought to play hoops at his new school, so his choice was an easy one. He settled on Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., which, with such alumni as Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Smith, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Durant, is one of the premier high school basketball outlets in the nation.

The fact that Ballard made the team at Oak Hill speaks for itself, and he certainly enjoyed going toe-to-toe with former teammates and future NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, DeSagana Diop and Marcus Williams, but one thing was missing. The baseball program at Oak Hill left much to be desired.

“The whole baseball team was basically the basketball team,” Ballard said. “I pretty much had to beg people to play just to get a team together. It’s not true high school baseball – we played mostly against junior varsity teams. We only had 8-10 games a season, I pitched almost every game my sophomore year.”

And get this – Ballard didn’t play baseball at all as a junior! Itching to get back out on the mound and to return to the diamond, Ballard decided to leave Oak Hill after his junior year, opting to return to public school and the Southwest Guilford baseball team for his senior season.

Maybe because he didn’t have many offers after disappearing from the baseball scene for a few years, and maybe because he wanted the discipline of a private Christian school, Ballard opted for Liberty University following high school graduation. Besides, he was even allowed to practice with the basketball team a couple of times per week.

But it wasn’t a good fit. Ballard ended up redshirting for the baseball season before deciding to seek a transfer. He cited a disconnect between himself and the head coach of Liberty at the time.

“I didn’t get along with my coach, and a lot of players felt disrespected by him,” Ballard said. “When I decided to leave, he assumed anywhere else that I went would be a downgrade. I just never had a good vibe with him.”

Ballard spent the following summer playing for the Kernersville (N.C) Bulldogs of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League and auditioning for college coaches. Wake Forest showed interest in him and he was set on going there, but only a handful of his college credits would’ve transferred into the school, instead forcing him to find a place that wouldn’t take so long to get back on track academically.

Ballard later came up to the New River Valley to throw a bullpen session for a coach with the Pulaski minor league team, who doubled as the head coach at St. Petersburg Junior College in Florida during the college season. Longtime Hokie head coach Chuck Hartman was in attendance for the session, and not long after that (“It was kind of a lifelong dream to play in the ACC, so I wasn’t going to turn it down,” Ballard said.), Ballard was on his way to Virginia Tech.

Rhett Ballard set a school record with 34 appearances as a junior and will finish his career ranked among the top five all time in strikeouts.

Ballard turned in a rather ho-hum freshman season as both a starter and a reliever for the Hokies, going 3-3 with a 6.22 earned run average. It was in the summer following that season that his immaturity reared its ugly head.

“I was pretty wild when I first got here,” Ballard admitted. “I guess you could say that I wasn’t 100 percent committed to baseball or school yet. I was more into the party life.”

Ballard said he routinely went out drinking during his first couple of years in Blacksburg, many times getting into fights and doing what he called “stupid stuff.”

Ballard made it clear that he had no qualms with Hartman and his staff – “Coach Hartman was a great coach,” he said. – but added that practices under Hartman were a lot more laid back than current practices under third-year head man Pete Hughes.
“I wasn’t really held accountable for anything,” Ballard said of his first year in Blacksburg. “If I didn’t do my running, it didn’t matter.”

So Ballard saw no repercussions if he went out drinking the night before a game or didn’t keep up with his schoolwork. At least until one night in the summer of 2006 – the details of which we won’t delve into – that left Ballard in prison for the next 45 days.
“That was my first wakeup call,” Ballard said. “I learned that I couldn’t go out and be wild and fight.”

While Ballard was behind bars, Virginia Tech baseball was in the process of transitioning from the retiring Hartman to the newly hired Hughes, who made his way to Blacksburg after an eight-year stint at Boston College. Since Hughes had an entire roster to evaluate, he refused to make a snap judgment on the young pitcher.

“I make my own observations and I form my own opinions,” Hughes explained. “I know that 19- and 20-year-old kids make dumb decisions and sometimes get in trouble because of them, but that doesn’t necessarily define who they are.”

Ballard returned to the team as a sophomore and wound up leading the 2007 Hokies with six pitching victories and 74 strikeouts, but things weren’t all warm and fuzzy just because of that.

“I wasn’t exactly on the same page with Coach Hughes during his first year here,” Ballard admitted. “I was still in party mode and going out a lot. I didn’t start on the right foot with him by telling him all the trouble that I got in the year before.”

“I tried to see what kind of student he was, what kind of teammate he was, and also if he could play,” Hughes recalled, thinking back to the beginning of that season. “He was deficient in all three categories – he didn’t care about academics and he was too social.”

It was a battle all year long between the two sides. While Ballard stayed out of trouble and had some success on the mound, he still didn’t embrace the big picture of being an unselfish teammate and a responsible student. That alone nearly cost him the rest of his baseball career, as Hughes contemplated booting him from the team.

“It got to the point where I was like, ‘I would throw this kid off the team in a second because he’s representing everything that I don’t stand for in college athletics,’” Hughes said. “But we were so limited on serviceable pitching arms at the time that I didn’t have any other options. I couldn’t go to the next kid down the line – we didn’t have a line to go to.”

The Hokies needed someone to be a stopgap when things got ugly on the mound, and because of Ballard’s physicality – “He’s been such a horse for us,” Hughes said. “I’ve never seen a kid as resilient as him. He never gets tired – he’s a monster.” – he was used three or four times a week out of the bullpen, eventually setting a school record with 34 pitching appearances.

Hughes said he could’ve sent Ballard packing and thrown some inexperienced positional players on the mound, but he didn’t think it would be fair to put his hard-working seniors behind the 8-ball by doing so.

“I didn’t do it for Rhett,” Hughes revealed when asked why he kept Ballard around. “I did it for the 10 seniors who I really respected and admired because I wanted to give them a chance to be successful on their way out. I don’t think Rhett knew that until I told him.”

And it’s true. Ballard says that was his second wake up call, affecting him even more so than when he was in jail.
“Coach told me at the end of the year that I needed to grow up,” Ballard remembered. “His exact words were, ‘If I didn’t like these seniors so much and want them to win, I would’ve kicked you off the team.’

“I really took that to heart. I was thinking, ‘God, if I get kicked off the team, I’m done!’ There was no other way around it. I didn’t have another option. I couldn’t transfer again or I’d have to sit out another year and I’d be like 27 by the time I got out of school.”
So Ballard turned himself around. He started holding himself accountable for his actions, he stayed out of trouble and the following semester, he put together the highest grade point average he’d ever had. Suddenly, and not so coincidentally, he had morphed into the Hokies’ most reliable pitcher, an intimidating innings-eater who was called upon midseason to switch from reliever to Friday night starter.

“As soon as Rhett figured out that all of those things correlate, he developed into a really good pitcher,” Hughes said. “I give him all the credit in the world. [Associate head coach/pitching coach] Dave Turgeon and I were really, really hard on him, and he could have said, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right, screw you, I’m out of here.’

“But he stepped back, evaluated himself and decided that he could change. Next thing you know, his grades are going up to where he’s more than respectable academically, and he’s the first guy on the field taking the tarp on and off. The personal growth that Rhett has gone through is immeasurable, and it’s definitely the most I’ve ever seen with any kid I’ve coached.”

So with Ballard winding down his collegiate career and trotting out for the proverbial ninth inning in search of the metaphorical complete game, he can only wait and see what the future holds.

Hughes was absolutely shocked that his No. 1 pitcher didn’t get selected in the Major League Baseball draft last summer, and even Ballard kind of wondered why. But after playing in the Cape Cod Baseball League – the premier collegiate summer league in the country – last year and turning in another solid season for a Tech team that has improved by leaps and bounds in 2009, the chances are good that one of the 30 professional teams will call his name. Hughes wasted no time making his pitch for the transformed young man.

“I think Rhett would tear up a wood bat league,” he said. “We sent him to the Cape last summer and those hitters didn’t even sniff him. I think he would be an asset to anyone’s organization, especially because he’s so resilient and he can throw almost every day. You could use him out of the pen to protect all your prospects, and then look up at his numbers and see some outstanding things. If he doesn’t get drafted, they’re all crazy.”

In the meanwhile, all Ballard can do is wait, but not without appreciating the eventful ride he’s been on.
“I can’t thank the coaching staff enough for the person they’ve made me today,” Ballard said. “Coach Hughes and Coach Turgeon stayed on me in the beginning when I needed it and they helped me grow up a lot. There’s no telling where I would be today without them. They changed my whole life around.”

EDITORIAL CORRECTION: In the article on baseball pitcher Rhett Ballard in the May issue of Inside Hokie Sports, it was incorrectly reported that Ballard had previously spent time in prison. Although Ballard did get in some trouble, he never spent time in prison. Inside Hokie Sports offers its sincerest apologies to Rhett and his family for the misunderstanding.