By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Growing up in Cobb County just outside Atlanta, Clarke Schmidt has always been a Braves fan. But that changed instantly on Monday night.
"Definitely the Braves growing up in Atlanta. But I'm the biggest Yankees fan in the world now," Schmidt said Thursday, three days after being drafting in the first round of the MLB Draft.
Schmidt, South Carolina's ace starter before suffering an elbow injury that ended his season in April, was taken 16th overall by the Yankees, earning a guaranteed contract of more than $3 million and starting a process that could lead him to the big leagues in a few years.
Getting drafted in the first round Monday night capped an emotional journey for Schmidt, who was having an All-American season for South Carolina (4-2, 1.34 ERA in 60.1 innings) when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during a start against Florida on April 20, requiring Tommy John surgery. Schmidt had been projected to go in the top 10 in the draft, but after the injury various projections had him falling to the middle- or late-first round.
As it turned out, he went higher than expected and didn't fall far from initial projections.
"There was obviously some times when you are like, I wonder what will happen and I wonder if I still will get drafted high," he said. "But to still be drafted in the first round is special."
Schmidt had talked to the Yankees and knew they were interested in him. He was at home near Atlanta with about 25 family members and friends when his name was called.
"When you first hear, it's a whirlwind of emotions," Schmidt told Spurs & Feathers on Thursday. "It's kind of like a weight lifted off your shoulders when you hear your name called. It's a really, really special moment to be able to spend it with your family and friends. It was a big moment."
Schmidt had surgery on May 3 and got his brace off about two weeks ago. He has started rehab, which he will continue with the Yankees staff in Tampa, Fla., and is on track to begin light throwing in about two months.
After some anxious moments and uncertainty the past month, he admits he was relieved to hear his name called Monday night.
"I was definitely relieved," he said. "With the injury, I knew my draft stock might drop. I knew it was going to make me fall, but I didn't know how much it would make me fall. It didn't hurt me too bad. To be picked by the Yankees, such an amazing franchise and a first-class organization, is special. I am thankful I ended up with them."
Schmidt is the fifth Gamecock drafted by the Yankees in recent years. Left-hander Jordan Montgomery cracked the Yankees rotation this year and is pitching well in New York. Tyler Webb is also quickly climbing the ladder, pitching out of the bullpen in Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
Reliever Tyler Widener is in High-A Tampa and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams was drafted in the fifth round by the Yankees last year. The former Gamecocks reached out to Schmidt Monday night and he may wind up rooming with Widener in Tampa.
Schmidt's brother, Clate, is also pitching in the minors. He was drafted by the Tigers last year, about a year after resuming his career after a battle with cancer. Clarke was with his brother last year when he got the call that he had been drafted by Detroit.
He was on FaceTime with Clate when the Yankees called Monday night.
"It was really good timing," Clarke said. "It all came full circle. Having him be there was pretty cool and to hear his voice while we were going through the draft."
Clarke and Clate grew up playing together on the same travel ball teams and at the same high school, so they never faced each other as kids. Clate went to Clemson, Clarke to South Carolina, but they never squared off against each other in the same game. A year ago, Clarke hurled a shut out against Clemson on Friday night, and Clate returned the favor against South Carolina the following afternoon.
Clarke looks forward to possibly squaring off against his brother one day.
"That would be both of our dreams," he said. "We were very competitive guys and we like to go at each other, so to be able to play against each other would be a dream come true."
Former South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook, who resigned on June 6, texted Schmidt Monday night to congratulate him on being drafted. Athletics Director Ray Tanner had also been in touch with Schmidt to talk to him about Holbrook stepping down and the upcoming draft.
Schmidt, an All-American as a junior and a Golden Spikes Award nominee before his injury, is grateful to Holbrook for giving him the opportunity to play at South Carolina and for helping develop his career.
"He is the one who gave me the opportunity to wear the garnet and black," he said. "Without him, I would probably be in a whole different course of my college career. For him to recruit me and put me in the position I was, I will always be thankful to him and I will forever owe him for that."
Schmidt, an athlete of strong faith, also gives thanks to God. He has relied on his faith throughout his career and says it has helped him deal with his recent injury.
"God has given me so many wonderful things in my life and this is just another thing that he has blessed me with," he said. "To be able to be put in this position and to still be drafted in the first round and for the Yankees to think this highly of me and give me this opportunity, it is definitely a blessing."