He’s 6-foot-5, and yes, Jacob Stallings once played basketball, the sport his father coaches.
“I was OK,” he said. Next comes the honest assessment, three telling sentences that offer glimpses into Stallings’ background.
“I just ran around the 3-point line and shot threes,” he said. “My baseball abilities far surpassed my basketball ones. I wasn’t just quite fast enough or athletic enough to play at the next level for basketball.”
Stallings’ father, Kevin, coaches Division I basketball at Vanderbilt, where he has constructed a top-25 program.
Basketball is a big part of the Stallings’ lives. Jacob earned all-state honors as a senior at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy.
But it’s another sport that has a strong grip on Jacob and his father.
When Jacob reached the later stages of high school, Kevin started realizing weeks such as this past one might be possible. Jacob launched his professional baseball career as a catcher with the State College Spikes last Monday, and Kevin escaped the demands of his job to watch the team’s first two games. In fact, Kevin stopped in Raleigh, N.C., last week, and drove his son’s car to State College.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than watching my kids do something, whether it’s playing baseball or playing music or dancing, whatever the case might be,” said Kevin, who also has two daughters. “My wife is the same way. I’m fortunate to be here.”
Kevin is from southern Illinois, and considers the Stallings a baseball family, although he played basketball at Purdue and has led the Commodores since 1999. A lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, Kevin makes regular treks to Busch Stadium.
“I would tell you we are a baseball family that makes it’s living in basketball,” he said.
Kevin is close friends with successful Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin. Former Vanderbilt baseball stars Pedro Alvarez and David Price are also family friends. After the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Jacob in the seventh round of this month’s Major League Baseball Draft, Alvarez congratulated him via text message.
But Jacob left home for college. He received offers from multiple Division I programs, but trimmed his list to Vanderbilt and North Carolina. He selected the Tar Heels because they had openings at his position.
“Coach Corbin is one of my dad’s really good friends,” Jacob said.
“He couldn’t have been any nicer to me throughout the years when I was being recruited. Honestly, I never envisioned myself going anywhere but Vanderbilt. But Vanderbilt had a lot of catching when I was being recruited. North Carolina only had one catcher, and North Carolina had a better program. I wouldn’t have traded the decision for anything.”
Here’s the condensed version of Jacob’s North Carolina experiences:
•He appeared in two College World Series.
•He caught a slew of talented pitchers, including first-round draft picks Alex White and Matt Harvey.
•He played for the Chatham Anglers of the prestigious Cape Cod League.
•He got noticed by professional scouts.
The experiences are already helping in State College. In his first week as a professional, he caught consecutive shutouts started by teenagers Luis Heredia and Clay Holmes, a pair the Pirates signed for a combined $3.8 million. Neither pitcher allowed a run in their New York-Penn League debuts.
“All of the sons of coaches that I have had have that similar demeanor and they are hyper-competitive but you wouldn’t know it,” Spikes manager Dave Turgeon said. “The other thing is that he has been in the fire for four years now. He played in the College World Series front of 30,000. He has caught a lot of good pitchers, and you can’t underestimate what experience adds to that.”
Turgeon worked as Virginia Tech’s associate head coach and pitching coach from 2007-10. The Hokies competed against the Tar Heels in the ACC, and Turgeon said Stallings also flashes offensive tools. Stallings hit .293 and walked 112 times in 200 college games.
“He’s a guy that comes to beat you every day,” Turgeon said. “He brought stability to the pitching staff every day, and if you forgot about him offensively, he would pop one on you.”
Defense runs in the family. Kevin played and worked for legendary Pur-due basketball coach Gene Keady, and his Vanderbilt teams are built around gritty play. The Commodores allowed an average of 52.7 points in their three SEC Tournament games. They defeated eventual NCAA champion Kentucky 71-64 in the final.
The Commodores’ biggest fan was on a baseball field in Clemson, S.C., when Vanderbilt won its first conference tournament since 1951. North Carolina played an important non-conference game at Clemson on the same day.
Jacob went 3-for-6 with a double and homer to help the Tar Heels edge Clemson 6-5 in 11 innings. Jacob admitted his focus wavered during the game.
“My roommate, who’s actually a manager on the team, was updating me on the phone,” Jacob said. “I was on the field when the game was over and he gave me a big thumbs up. I couldn’t believe it.”
Kevin is 261-159 in 13 seasons at Vanderbilt. Even somebody as physically tough as a catcher considers each loss a painful experience.
“We kind of always joke that he cares about my games more than I do and I care about his games more than he does,” Jacob said. “We have a great relationship. He’s going to be best man in my wedding. He’s someone I can go to about anything and he loves to be here. I’m blessed.”
The feeling is reciprocal. “I think all the guys that have this opportunity are fortunate, and I think he counts himself lucky to have this kind of chance to play baseball professionally,” Kevin said. “ He's excited about it. It's like anything, if your children are happy, you're happy.”
Follow Guy Cipriano @cdtguy on Twitter.