Former Beaverton baseball star Kevin Watson Jr. is loving professional baseball

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Former Beaverton High School outfielder Kevin Watson Jr. signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is currently playing in rookie ball this summer. Watson Jr. was first-team all-state for the Beavers as a senior.

Minor league baseball is not easy.

It's not for everyone.

Long bus rides with uncomfortable seats to unfamiliar cities and towns around the nation. Extended road trips that span two weeks with a just a single day off in-between a dozen or so games, living out of a suitcase. Months at a time away from home, staying in hotels and motels. Unfamiliar teammates, some of whom use English as a second language.

Professional baseball has chewed up and spit out many a well-regarded prospect in the hard scrabble minor leagues. Washouts are far more common than success stories.

But in a sense, Kevin Watson Jr. is wired for this.

The 140-game slog of a minor league season is music to his ears. The process of learning to be a professional, going to the park every day, practicing in the afternoon, playing at night, putting in your own time to improve that some find tedious and taxing, Watson Jr. finds invigorating. It's a lifestyle he's long been infatuated with. Surely, there are sacrifices to be made along the way and occasional discomforts, but it's baseball, the sport that his world has revolved around from the time he was toddler toting around an oversized yellow plastic bat with a chewed up whiffle ball lodged in his pocket.

To make it his livelihood is all he's ever wanted.

Understanding Watson Jr.'s love of the game makes interpreting his decision regarding his baseball future fairly simple. When the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Watson Jr. in the 18th round of the Major League Baseball Draft and offered the former Beaverton High outfielder a shot to jumpstart his childhood goal and become a professional player, he took it. After negotiating back-and-forth with Arizona on contract terms, Watson Jr. decided to forgo his commitment to Oregon State University and sign with the Diamondbacks on July 7, paving the way to the pro ranks.

The next day he passed the league-mandated drug test. And on July 9 the former Beaver was on a Phoenix-bound plane headed for the Arizona Rookie League, where's he played for the past month.

"I'm somebody who's obsessed with the grind of baseball," Watson Jr. said. "I'm always striving to improve and be the best player I can every single day. Professional baseball is baseball every single day. It's exactly what I want. School wasn't really my thing ... I wanted to focus on what I love and that's baseball and have that be my only responsibility. It's my job now."

There's an industrial maturity about Watson Jr. that sticks out whenever you converse with him. He's 18 going on 26, a teenager who emanates a certain level of professionalism already, even in the beginning stages of his baseball career. His work ethic and preparation are first-rate. Baseball is his vocation and already he's treating it as such.

Watson Jr.'s dad, Kevin Watson Sr., was a minor league outfielder in the San Francisco Giants' system for three-and-a-half seasons and helped foster a love for the game in his son, as well as a diligence to the pursuit of playing beyond the high school ranks. But on his own, Watson Jr. cares incessantly about his craft, which is still is an indefatigable passion, only now he's paid money to indulge in it on a day-to-day basis.

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Former Beaverton High School outfielder Kevin Watson Jr. signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is currently playing in rookie ball this summer. Watson Jr. was first-team all-state for the Beavers as a senior.

Taking the pro route

The $400,000 signing bonus Watson Jr. inked was a sweet incentive to skip the college ranks, as was the Diamondbacks agreeing to pay for Watson's college education, including his master's degree, down the road. Yet, Watson Jr. is a baseball junkie. Whether it was straight out of high school or after three or four years in Corvallis, there was no doubt in his mind he'd be a professional player.

And if he had to play for close to nothing he would've been more than happy to do so. That amount of money is life-changing, but it won't alter Watson's single-mindedness toward his ultimate ambition. He's more blue collar than blue-blooded. The zeroes on that check are more of a reflection of what Arizona thinks of Watson Jr. as a prospect and how he fits in their long-terms plans as an organization.

During the negotiating process, the Diamondbacks made no bones about what they anticipate from their prized outfielder in the next handful of years or so and backed up that confidence by agreeing to the six-figure price tag.

With a powerful, compact left-handed swing, a big-time right arm that's a defensive weapon, speed for days that plays well in the outfield and on the bases, as well as the mental makeup needed to only withstand the toil, but further spin his skills forward, Arizona has high hopes for Watson Jr.'s future.

Watson Jr. is not a player the Diamondbacks envision as a lifelong farm hand filling out their minor league system as evidenced by their financial commitment. Rather, Watson Jr. is a player Arizona wants to put on the accelerated curve toward the highest level of baseball.

"They see me as a big leaguer," Watson Jr. said. "And, I believe in that 100 percent. I'm gonna pursue exactly what they said and work my tail off to get there. (The signing bonus) made me feel pretty good about myself and gave me some pride. But it also gives me even more motivation to work harder than I ever have. The only thing that'll get guys through the ranks are the ones that have passion and the guys that hustle and don't take things for granted. I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity I have to get there.

"I want to get to the big leagues as soon as possible," he added. "Whether that's three years, five years, whatever it may be, I want to get to there as fast as I can and contribute to the Diamondbacks winning a World Series ring."

A family thing

Watson Jr. doesn't have to venture far to get a sense of what his life will look like for the next three to four years or so. All he has to do is dial up his dad, Kevin Sr., who played single-A ball for nearly four seasons before hanging up his spikes for good. Watson Sr. played for Everett in the Northwest League, a single-A conference that's incredibly supportive of its teams and players. But, just like any minor league club, there's ample travel time on the bus, long nights mixed with early days, tons of tedious games, not to mention the allure of the off-the-field outside-the-game pitfalls of being a pro.

Through the years, Watson Sr. witnessed some teammates succumb to the perils of the road, the "bar life," as he called it, or the extra free time that lends itself to instability and poor performance on the field. Other players were talented, but content with reaching some level of pro ball and plateaued.

Watson Jr. is a different breed. He boasts a consistency in his approach and mentality you just don't see among young players. In high school, Watson Jr. would often decline social gatherings and group outings on Friday nights, drive to the park and hit off the batting tee in solitude. To Watson Jr., that's the only way to the show: working tirelessly in the cage, in the weight room, out on the field shagging fly balls.

"He gets his satisfaction in life through the game of baseball," Kevin Watson Sr. said. "He's not distracted by external forces, if you will. For some guys that just had something talent-wise, maybe a little extra juice on his fastball or the ball just jumped off his bat or he sees the ball so well at the plate. But the focus side of things plays a very large role. A lot of guys get caught up in the fun and experience of it all. Some of them are OK if it all ends tomorrow because at least they got (to the minors). Others aren't satisfied until they get there and you can see it in them. They're the ones who are there early every day, hitting off the tee or asking the hitting coach for extra hitting on a daily basis. They're not the ones you see out at the bars at 1 in the morning. They're just zeroed in and I think that's where (Watson Jr.) falls. In his mind, his goal is to make it to the Major Leagues and he won't be derailed."

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Former Beaverton High School outfielder Kevin Watson Jr. signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is currently playing in rookie ball this summer. Watson Jr. was first-team all-state for the Beavers as a senior.

A tough choice

The decision to spurn OSU and forego his collegiate eligibility was admittedly a difficult one. After not being selected in the first 10 rounds or so of the MLB Draft, Watson Jr. was more than happy to suit up for the Beavers and play there for at least three seasons.

Watson Sr. played under OSU head coach Pat Casey in the early 1990's when Casey was at George Fox, so the familiarity with his style and penchant for grooming players was clear. In fact, when Watson Jr. agreed to terms with Arizona, he was playing summer baseball for the Corvallis Knights.

But when Arizona extended the sizable monetary figure and offered Watson Jr. a chance to skip school and focus only on getting on the fast-track to the big leagues, the ex-Beaver bit.

College baseball comes with its pros and cons, as any D1 sports does. Some have said playing college athletics at such a high level while going to school is like balancing two full-time jobs simultaneously. There are full class loads, study halls, homework, papers, assignments on top of practice and all the on-field demands of the D1 level.

And while Watson Jr. was thrilled to play ball for the Beavers, such requirements would've diverted Watson Jr. from his one true desire.

The team that negotiated the six-figure signing bonus, and came to terms in early July, included family and those in the know: Watson Jr.; Watson Sr.; Watson Jr.'s stepmom, Jen; his mother, Eileen; and Watson Sr.'s childhood best friend, Brady Clark, who played nine years in the Majors.

"I wanted to get pro baseball it right away," Watson Jr. said.

Before his senior season, Watson Jr. said if he could play baseball all day every day for the rest of his life, he would jump at the opportunity. Now he has his chance. Playing rookie ball for the Diamondbacks in the ARL, Watson Jr. leaves his room at the Days Inn Suite Hotel that's right across the street from the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, arrives at the field at 1 p.m. and plays all day in the triple digit temperatures with and against fellow rooks cutting their teeth. The opposing pitcher is better and faster than anything Watson Jr. has faced regularly in his career. Watson Jr. hit .468 with a .580 on-base percentage with 40 stolen bases and six homers as a senior at BHS en route to the Class 6A semifinals. In high school, Watson Jr. struck out four times in two seasons.

Yet, such success won't come as easily, at least early on, according to Watson Sr. And that's perfectly fine.

"You have to accept failure or you'll never make it because if you get caught up in needing to succeed every time, especially in this transition period, you're going to drive yourself into the ground mentally," Watson Sr. said. "The Diamondbacks expect him to struggle. They're looking at him and his potential for down the road. They understand what's going on and it's that psychological side of things that we're working on now. Once he figures that out, the sky's the limit for him."

Early success, then back home

Watson Jr. bagged his first professional hit in his first game on July 20, a hard line drive back up the middle with two outs in the ninth inning. He's played in left and right field for Arizona and recorded seven putouts and an outfield assist in just three games.

There's a chance that Watson Jr. could end up joining the Hillsboro Hops — Arizona's minor league single-A affiliate — sometime this month. In that case, the former Beaverton star would get the chance to show out in front of family, friends, former teammates and coaches, all of whom had a hand in his development growing up.

Regardless of whether Watson Jr. suits up as a Hop this summer or not, he'll be back in Beaverton this fall during the off-season, locking himself in the batting cage, putting in hours on his trusted batting tee, sticking to the habits and routine that got him to this point. He's unfazed by the punishing pace of minor league ball and more focused on using the lower levels of baseball as stepping stones to one day roaming the lush green grass at Chase Field as a Diamondback.

"I'm literally living my dream and enjoying every single moment of it," Watson Jr. said. "This is the goal I've been working for my entire life. Now my goal is just to make it all the way up top. I'm never gonna stop working hard at it. I'll always believe in myself and figure things out."

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