For the first month of the season, the Tri-City Dust Devils had a great deal of youth in the clubhouse.
Not just the players, who are often fresh out of college, so much as the children of the Dust Devils’ coaching staff.
Long days of practicing under 90-plus degree heat will surely sap any player’s energy, but watching the kids do their thing has a tendency to keep you young.
“My little guys (Logan, Marcus and Troy) were playing ball every day, making up their own rules. All the players kept saying that’s when the game was easy. And fun,” Tri-City hitting and outfield coach Anthony Sanders said. “A lot of these guys, when they were having the most fun and at their best was when they were playing stickball or home run derby as a kid.”
Dust Devils outfielder Kyle Von Tungeln remembers his childhood and how much hope and enjoyment he got from playing in the sandlots of Sugar Land, Texas.
“I grew up in a family of baseball players. My dad played. All my friends played. It was the same thing every weekend out on the sandlot,” Von Tungeln said. “I always loved Barry Bonds. Him and Ken Griffey Jr. I always used to imitate their swings.
“Now I try to mimic guys who play a similar game to me. Jimmy Rollins is actually where I got my swing and what I compare it to whenever I’m struggling.”
That hasn’t been very often for Von Tungeln, who arrived in the Tri-Cities a few weeks after being drafted in the 13th round by the Colorado Rockies out of Texas Christian University. Von Tungeln singled in his first game on July 2 and started his pro career with a seven-game hitting streak, batting .435 over that stretch.
“A lot of times, new guys will come in and try to impress us right away and try to do too much,” Sanders said. “From Day 1, he’s been really patient at the plate. His job is to get on base, and he’s good at it.”
He’s so good that his on-base percentage of .452 is 22 points above Northwest League leader Christopher Taylor of Everett. The only reason Von Tungeln is not recognized as the top on-base man is because he missed eight games in late July with a virus, and doesn’t have enough at bats to qualify.
But things aren’t always going to go smoothly in pro baseball, a fact for which Von Tungeln was already prepared.
“I’ve played a lot of baseball, but it’s what I chose to do,” he said. “It’s a grind, but you’ve got to stay mentally tough and push through the days that you may not feel that great.”
For the days he doesn’t, he reminds himself of what it was like to be a child in awe of the world of professional baseball. As a former batboy at the University of Houston, he soaked in words of encouragement and advice from the players there, including his father, Rob, a former Cougars’ right fielder.
“That meant a lot to me, the guys who would talk baseball with me,” Kyle said. “With your parents, you’re hard-headed, but when (players) tell you something, you think, ‘Well they know what they’re talking about.’ ”
The lessons have gone a long way, and not just on offense. Sanders considers Von Tungeln a solid defensive outfielder who can confidently play in center.
“He’s aggressive and has really good range. He comes in and can go back on balls well,” Sanders said, tipping his hat to the coaching staff at TCU for preparing him well for pro ball.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the college coaches for teaching the game the right way, in my opinion,” Sanders said. “At that level, there should still be a lot of development going on and not such an emphasis on winning. There’s a lot of great teachers down there.”
Von Tungeln has done his best to pass on a legacy of learning to the younger generation, sharing his time and expertise about the game with anyone willing to listen. One of his favorite promotions is the “Baseball Buddies”, when a group of young players are selected to run out with the Dust Devils players to their positions before the game.
“A lot of them are kind of shy, but I try to ask them their name and what position they play to try to relax them and let them know I’m just another person like they are,” he said.
“I went back to visit my select team coach, and he was coaching a 13-14-year-old team. At the end of practice, he opened it up for questions. Everybody was really shy, so he asked me what was the key to being successful,” Von Tungeln said. “I told them that the biggest thing you can do is get one percent better every day. There’s always somebody else out there working at the same position who wants it just as bad. They’ll be working just as hard as you.”