DeJong sticks to his roots

DeJong sticks to his roots

CHAMPAIGN — The National League's most powerful shortstop visited town Friday afternoon. It wasn't his first time here.

During his successful Illinois State career, Paul DeJong's teams went 0-2 at Illinois Field. The Redbirds beat the Illini twice in Normal.

DeJong was part of this year's St. Louis Cardinals Caravan and spent Friday afternoon with fans at the Hilton Garden Inn. DeJong enjoyed the experience.

"I've got a lot of roots here, a lot of friends and family that live in Cardinals country in central Illinois," DeJong said. "I'm happy to be back."

DeJong grew up in Antioch, 53 miles north of Wrigley Field. But he wasn't a fan of the Cubs or the White Sox.

"Chipper Jones was my favorite player growing up," DeJong said. "I watched the Braves on TBS as a kid. If anything, I liked the Braves."

Now, he is all for St. Louis

Drafted by the Cardinals after the 2015 season, DeJong quickly jumped to the majors. And was an immediate hit.

On his first major league swing, at Denver's Coors Field, DeJong homered off Greg Holland. And he kept hitting the long ball, finishing with 25, the most by an NL shortstop.

His rookie home run total was the biggest by a Cardinal not named Albert Pujols.

Former Cardinals pitcher and current announcer Ricky Horton watched DeJong turn himself into a threat.

"What I saw was an incredible level of confidence, but not arrogance," Horton said. "I'm just talking about the attitude part. He knew he could play. He had a big league swagger, which I think is important."

DeJong wasn't considered a can't-miss prospect as a high school player at Antioch.

Far from it. He walked on at Illinois State and redshirted his first year.

"I think I needed college," DeJong said.

He was a reserve in 2013 who worked his way into the starting lineup. DeJong didn't homer.

In the offseason before his redshirt sophomore year, DeJong worked hard to add strength. It helped. He hit nine homers for the Redbirds in 2014 and was drafted by the Pirates in the 38th round.

DeJong returned to Illinois State for the 2015 season. Good move.

"It was a pretty easy decision to make," DeJong said.

He bumped his homer total to 14 and was picked in the fourth round of the draft.

"I had a great time at Illinois State and really valued my time there," DeJong said. "It is all a part of my journey to get where I am now. I couldn't imagine it any other way."

DeJong took the school part seriously at Illinois State, earning a degree in biochemistry.

"It was something I wanted to complete," DeJong said. "It was always a backup plan, but a pretty solid backup."

If baseball hadn't worked out, DeJong would likely "still be in school. There were a few paths that were in the running."

The baseball path is going well. His first year in the minor leagues, he was quickly promoted to the Peoria Chiefs. He moved to Class AA Springfield in 2016 and was a Texas League All-Star. DeJong opened the 2017 season in AAAptpt Memphis. After hitting .294 with 11 home runs in 46 games, he was promoted to the majors.

DeJong hit .285 with 65 RBI. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Dodgers star Cody Bellinger.

"Cody is a good friend," DeJong said. "He definitely earned that title and I congratulated him. Nothing but respect for him and how great of a player he is. I'm just happy to be in that discussion."

DeJong wants to keep getting better. How?

"It's just a constant self-evaluation, trying to figure out what your goals are and how to achieve them," DeJong said.

Yes, the pitchers will have a better scouting reprt on DeJong.

"But I've got a better read on them," DeJong said. "It's going to be a constant battle. I'm going to have to make my adjustments and stay in my zone. It's about execution."

Playing at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis was DeJong's favorite part of the rookie experience with the Cardinals.

"Under the lights on a Friday night, it was just a great feeling," DeJong said. "I just love playing in St. Louis."

Anything he didn't like?

"No, it's the big leagues," DeJong said. "Everything's great."