Former Benson standout comes home for the summer to play infield, improve as a player with the Portland Pickles

TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE BRANDON - Kelechi Anyanwu came home this summer to play for Portland PicklesThey have come from California, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey and even Australia.

But one of the 2017 Portland Pickles grew up only seven miles from the team's home field, Walker Stadium.

Unsung coming out of Benson High, Kelechi Anyanwu was playing this spring for Clark Atlanta University in Georgia when he gladly accepted the chance to come home for summer season wood-bat baseball.

"Being able to play here again is pretty exciting," says Anyanwu, a middle infielder for the Pickles, one of six teams in the Great West League.

Anyanwu grew up in Parkrose. He played Little League baseball there and went to school in that district until he chose to follow a sister to Benson. He has four siblings, all girls. One of them, Erica, played outfield in softball this year for the Parkrose varsity.

Kelechi's mom, who is a registered nurse, ran track when she was younger. His dad, who grew up in Nigeria, is a real estate broker who played soccer.

But baseball was Kelechi's favorite almost from the get-go.

"It's a real team sport," he says. "It teaches you to learn to work with people. It's one of the only games you can't do all by yourself. And I've never been an 'I' guy."

The 5-10, 160-pound Anyanwu got some Portland Interscholastic League notoriety with Benson, but the Techmen were at the bottom of the PIL standings, so wins and attention both weren't easy to come by.

Anyanwu started his college career at Grambling State in Louisiana.

"That was a culture shock," he says.

He didn't get to play much. "This didn't work out," he says.

The move to Clark Atlanta has been beneficial. This year, as a junior, Anyanwu hit .375, with 21 RBIs in 25 games, all starts for the Panthers.

Meanwhile, the coach at Benson his freshman year, Jackson Gillett, got on with the Pickles as one of manager Jeff Lahti's assistants for this summer.

Gillett contacted Anyanwu to see if he would suit up for Portland — and not just because the coach wanted to be nice to one of his former prep players.

"We don't give away spots," Gillett says. "But when a guy hits .375 at the Division II level, you know he can play."

Gillett has known that all along, though.

"He came to Benson as this really small kid. Physically, he wasn't ready for varsity baseball," Gillett says. "But we'd lost our second baseman and didn't have a boatload of players. And 'KC' opened all our eyes about his abilities as a ballplayer. He was able to hit the ball all over the field. His bat kept him in our lineup. He hit .300 as a freshman and was honorable mention all-PIL."

The Pickles, like most summer college teams, have a large roster and do some shuffling of personnel. College coaches want their participants to see some action, so lineups change — the top eight players don't start every game in field.

So, Anyanwu hasn't been able to play every day. And his batting average, .222, probably reflects that. He's played mostly second base, which is probably his best position for the long-term, although he was the regular shortstop in 2017 for Clark Atlanta.

"He's got amazing range and quick hands," Gillett says. "Defensively, he's outstanding, and he's a great base runner. He still needs to work on his bat a little against better pitchers, but he'll get there."

"I'll play wherever. I just want to win," Anyanwu says.

Some compare his look and playing style to Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, who is 5-11 and 170. But Anyanwu says his all-time favorite players are shortstops Derek Jeter and Ozzie Smith. Especially Jeter.

Anyanwu sat in front of a TV and watched the entire Jeter jersey retirement ceremony by the New York Yankees earlier this year, and tries to model himself after the 14-time All-Star.

"I loved the way he played. I love the way he carried himself, the way he went about his business, day in and day out," Anyanwu says.

The long bus rides the Pickles take to play the other teams in their league — Medford, Chico, Lincoln, Marysville and Yuba City — don't faze Anyanwu.

With Clark Atlanta, bus trips to opponents in South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee were common, he says.

"The big adjustment for me down there was the humidity," he says.

The goal as a Pickle is to get better for his senior season, and then see what might happen next.

"I've always been under the radar," says Anyanwu, 22. "But I've always kept the faith.

"I'm taking in everything I can get, every day, and want to become more consistent."

His other interest is physical therapy. An injury in high school required him to work with a physical therapist, and ever since then he's been interested in that as a possible career.

His love of the game should take him somewhere in baseball, Gillett says.

"Great attitude — he's an absolute grinder who loves baseball," Gillett says. "He's just a ballplayer, the kind of guy who's going to be around the game for a long time."

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