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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Following in Hellickson's footsteps

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – One of the faces staring down from a large banner that hangs in the batting cage area of Perfect Game’s indoor facility here belongs to Jeremy Hellickson, a Des Moines native and Tampa Bay Rays right-hander who won the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Other faces on the banner belong to current big-leaguers Joel Hanrahan and Ryan Sweeney, a couple of other native Iowans and Perfect Game alumni that are enjoying success at baseball’s highest level.

Keaton McKinney has had the opportunity to look up at that banner on several occasions over the past three-and-a-half years and contemplate a scenario in which his face may appear there one day. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-handed pitcher and first baseman from Ankeny, Iowa – a Des Moines suburb – is well on his way to making that happen. And it would be especially appropriate if he could wind up sharing a space right next to Hellickson.

“It’s always been my goal to play professional baseball,” McKinney told PG Sunday morning. “I’ve been real good friends with Jeremy Hellickson, and just watching him being from Iowa and all the obstacles that we all have to deal with. Just seeing that he’s been able to do it, it’s been real good for me to watch him.

“I talk to Jeremy a lot … and he’s a real good role model for me and all the kids coming from Iowa who have the dream to be a professional baseball player.”

McKinney spoke Sunday while in attendance at the 14th annual Perfect Game Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase, although on this day he neither pitched nor caught. He instead got in the cage and took some cuts against four of the top arms in attendance.

“I wanted to come over get to hit against some good pitching,” he said. “I’ve just been working on my hitting so far this year and want to get out here and get working and get out here and hit.”

A member of the West team at the 2013 Perfect Game All-American Classic in August – he pitched one inning and struck out three while walking one and flashing a 93 mph fastball and an 80 mph change-up – McKinney  is ranked the No. 37 national prospect in the class of 2014 as a pitcher.

He didn’t pitch on Sunday but said he is on a throwing program that he started after the first of the year; he’s logged a couple of bullpen sessions as he prepares for the Perfect Game Iowa Spring League that kicks off on March 22. He said he didn’t want to throw at the PG P/C Indoor because if he had, he would have had a layoff of more than month before throwing again in the Spring League.

He has been doing his winter workouts with his personal coach, Chris Stapleton, at Flying Spikes Baseball Club in West Des Moines, the same facility where Hellickson works out when he returns to the Des Moines area. Stapleton also worked with Hellickson when the latter was in high school.

McKinney has an older brother, Kalvin Johnson, who graduated from Ankeny High School in 2005, the same year Hellickson graduated from Des Moines Hoover High School. Johnson and Hellickson became good friends and played a lot of baseball together not only on opposing high school teams but at Perfect Game events.

They were teammates with the Des Moines Navy Seals during the 2003 PG Iowa Spring League and again with the Kansas City White Sox at the 2004 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation tournament, and with PG Iowa White during the 2005 Iowa Spring League.

The two Central Iowa standouts also attended the 2003 PG Spring Showcase and the 2005 PG Pre-Draft Showcase together – both events were held at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. McKinney was always there with the older boys, taking in the action.

“Ever since he was a little kid he was always the little guy out there,” his father, Todd McKinney, said Sunday. “In between games he would have Chris (Stapleton) throw him buckets of balls (to hit), so he’s always loved it and he’s always had a passion for the game.”

Stapleton, who joined Keaton and Todd McKinney at the PG P/C Indoor Sunday morning, describes himself as a “baseball guy” who has been working with youngsters in the Des Moines area for the last 20 years, simply because he enjoys the game so much.

“I was lucky enough to have Jeremy Hellickson for six years and Keaton McKinney since he was 2 or 3 years old,” Stapleton said with a laugh. “With Keaton, we’ve worked with him being versatile – always. Hitting, pitching, playing defense, he brings all those things (to the table). He has a great work ethic, great character and a great passion for the game – a lot of the intangibles that you want.”

Stapleton has almost daily contact with McKinney and tries to emphasize the same intangibles upon the budding prospect that he did upon Hellickson a decade earlier.

“I always tell them attitude, effort, respect , hustle, sportsmanship – those are the things they can control,” he said. “Part of our coaching is to always make the right decision. You’re going to make a decision every day, and if it’s not in baseball it’s going to be with something else. That’s the number-one thing. And then have fun and keep trying to develop. We just really try to make the game fun.”

When McKinney walked through the door at the Perfect Game facility Sunday morning, it marked the 29th PG event at which he was scheduled to attend since he debuted as a 14-year-old at the 2010 Midwest Underclass Showcase at Perfect Game Field.

At the conclusion of that event, a Perfect Game scout called the 6-foot-3, 197-pound McKinney a “versatile two-way prospect”  who “showed good strength in his swing and flashed good bat speed." He also showed “good upside on the mound; good, quick, compact arm action.” The report concluded with the words, “very interesting prospect to follow.”

McKinney's long PG history includes several seasons playing in the PG Iowa Spring and Fall Leagues and 11 appearances at PG showcases, including the 2013 PG All-American Classic, 2013 PG National Showcase and 2012 PG Junior National Showcase. This was his second appearance at the PG P/C Indoor, an event Hellickson attended nine years ago in 2005 (in another parallel, Hellickson was a PG All-American in 2003).

“It’s been a great experience,” McKinney said. “I’ve been playing Perfect Game for awhile now and the last three-and-a-half years have definitely shaped who I am today as a ballplayer. Just getting better and doing all these events, and getting to play against the good competition … has just helped me a lot.

“I’ve met a lot of great people and made a lot of friends who I wouldn’t have met if I wouldn’t have been to all these things,” he continued. “Just being around these events I became really good friends with A.J. Puk and Derek Burkamper and a lot of those guys; just a lot of friends through these things.”

Puk is now at the University of Florida and Burkamper at the University of Nebraska. Those two prospects, along with Hellickson, Hanrahan and Sweeney, are also alumni of the PG Iowa Spring and Fall Leagues.

“The Spring Leagues are real beneficial because you get to play against best competition across Iowa before our (summer) high school season starts,” McKinney said. “Iowa has a lot of talent despite all the (lousy) weather and everything … and the Spring League has had a lot of guys who have gone on and played real well at the college and pro levels now.”

McKinney has signed a national letter of intent with the University of Arkansas, another indication of how far his game has progressed. His father, for one, realizes it hasn’t come without investing a lot of sweat equity into the equation.

“It’s been really fun to watch him progress and get better,” Todd McKinney said. “That’s all he’s been trying to do is just get bigger, stronger, better. … His work ethic is just unbelievable – he’s probably one of the hardest working kids around.”

McKinney is ranked the No. 79 overall prospect (college, junior college, high school) in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft; if that ranking holds, it would mean McKinney could be snatched up late second-round or early third-round.

He could also become the earliest Iowa high school prospect selected in the draft since Kellen Sweeney from Cedar Rapids was chosen by the Toronto Blue Jays in the second round of the 2010 draft with the 69th overall pick.

“I try not to think about it as much as possible,” McKinney said. “I’m just trying to get better in the offseason; work hard and get better with my all-around game. We’ll just see what happens after this spring. I’ve just been taking it year by year and setting out plans and goals for where I want to be at next year.

“I’ve been pretty pleased  with where I’m at to this point from where I was three-and-a-half years ago, just seeing where I was and seeing what’s happened. It’s been pretty fun.”

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