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By MIKE CAPSHAW
In the past month, Jiwan James’ stock has soared as a minor league baseball prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization.
The Williston native even had the waitress at Appleby’s recognize him as “The Jiwan James” on a recent trip to the chain-restaurant in Clearwater, where he’s been swinging a smoking-hot bat for the Threshers, an Advanced A team.
“Her boyfriend was an autograph seeker, though, so that was kinda bad,” James said.
James lives more of a carefree life than most 22-year olds, an age when others may be just finishing college and/or starting a career. He wakes up at “9ish” most days, eats breakfast, then goes back to sleep until about noon before heading to Bright House Field about 12:30 or 1 p.m. to begin preparations for that night’s game.
A $150,000 signing bonus convinced the 22nd-round draft pick to turn down a scholarship to the University of Florida in 2007, and he’s never looked back. At this early stage of his career, James said he’s not even thinking about life after baseball.
“I’ve never regretted that decision. Not at all,” James said. “I still keep up with (UF baseball coach Kevin) O’Sullivan and go up to UF and work out there during the offseason. And there are no hard feelings from coach O’Sullivan. He understood the decision.”
Another decision since joining the professional ranks has transformed James from a pitcher into a switch-hitting center fielder who bats leadoff for the Threshers. James’ batting average was .330 in the month of July, and MLB.com ranks him the eighth-best prospect in the Phillies’ organization.
A stress fracture in his right forearm occurred late in his first season and ended up costing him the following season. That’s when James asked coaches if he could switch from pitching to hitting. Because it hadn’t been long since he had swung a bat in high school, the transition wasn’t too difficult. Last season, he set a record at Class A Lakewood with a 24-game hitting streak during the month of July.
“Hitting was still fresh in my mind, so it wasn’t that big of a deal,” James said. “And I was playing short season A ball (for 30 games in Williamsport, Pa.), so I got to see some rookie-type pitching.”
Even “rookie-type pitching” at the pro level was quite a change from the pitchers he faced as an all-stater at Williston High, or even while travling on the Perfect Game showcase team that featured top talent from all over the country.
“It’s totally different,” said James, who’s batting .281 with 24 doubles and leads the team in triples (6), runs (65) and stolen bases (22). “In high school and on the showcase team, you might see one guy that throws in the low 90s (miles per hour). Once you get here, everybody is throwing in the high 80s and low 90s. A guy throwing 91 or 92 is just another day at the ball park.
“And then the other day this guy for the Cardinals was throwing (between) 97-99, so that was tough.”
The next stop for James could be in Reading, Pa., where the Phillies’ Double-A team plays. He’s been hot, “But to make the Majors, he needs to get hot at the plate more than in just one month.” wrote MiLB.com’s Guy Curtright in a recent article. James said he mainly needs to improve on batting from the right side of the plate, something he’s certain his organization won’t rush.
The worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, already has three guys James played against on their Major League roster.
“I love (the Phillies),” James said. “They want you to take your time and develop you the right way. It’s not a rush-you-up-there-type franchise, so that’s really great to be a part of.”
During the season, James said he tries to visit Williston about once a month. He keeps up with Red Devils sports — he also was an all-stater in football and basketball — by calling current players and coaches while also catching a few WHS hoops games during the offseason.
James even tossed out advice to any young Levy Countians wanting to follow in his cleats.
“Stay out of trouble, stay focused on what you’re doing and stay in school,” James said. “Keep playing together as a group and not try to be an individual. Most of all, keep having fun. We’re playing sports and when you play just to have fun, everything else will take care of itself.”