CJ Funk launched his first home run in a T-ball game when he was 5 years old.
Funk saved the home-run ball, starting a collection that grew to 50-60 over the years. Funk’s power displays have moved from the Little League diamond to Bellefonte’s varsity field, where teammate Logan Mathieu said one of the freshman’s batting-practice home runs landed near the light poles in the parking lot beyond the left-field fence.
Mathieu estimates Funk’s crushed some bombs that traveled more than 400 feet.
“He looks older than me,” said Mathieu, a power-hitting senior. “Once he hit the first one out in batting practice, I was like, ‘This guy’s for real.’”
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Funk’s first seven games back up Mathieu’s assessment — the Red Raiders freshman is hitting third in the lineup and ranks third on the team with a .364 batting average. Funk is also tied for second on the team with six RBIs and leads Bellefonte (5-2) with two triples, part of a seven-game hitting streak to start his varsity career.
With Funk proving himself early in the season, Bellefonte coach Dan Fravel said Mathieu is seeing some hittable pitches in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Hitting third comes with pressure to produce as Mathieu and leadoff hitter Tyler Kreger boast on-base percentages of .567 and .536, respectively. But Funk relishes coming to the plate in clutch situations.
“If you do help out your team with hitting an RBI,” Funk said, “you just get this jolt. It feels like the whole crowd’s behind you and your whole team’s behind you.”
When Funk started playing T-ball, he took a trip to Citizens Bank Park to see the Philadelphia Phillies play. Eric Funk, his father, watched as his son took in the experience surrounded by the rowdy Phillies fans and started to develop his passion for baseball. After the trip, CJ adopted Philadelphia star Ryan Howard’s batting stance on the T-ball field — the 5-year-old liked Howard’s swagger and how he held the bat out in front of him before each pitch — where he hit his first home run.
“It was 30 feet over the fence,” Eric Funk said. “It was a pretty exciting moment. In T-ball, we don’t normally go base to base, but they allowed him to run all the way around. He actually passed the kid that was in front of him.”
The Funks captured the home run on video, and CJ said he still relives that moment when he steps to the plate.
CJ Funk wanted to be like Howard from a young age, but he also learned about Philadelphia’s Chase Utley from his father. Eric Funk told his son about Utley’s work ethic and hoped his son would model himself after the Phillies second baseman known for his hard-nosed play.
Now, Eric Funk sees those traits in CJ, who lifts weights and attends hitting lessons throughout the winter. Mathieu compliments the freshman’s hustle, saying “he plays baseball the right way.” Fravel says he competes at the plate, pointing out he’s not seeing “meatballs” as the No. 3 hitter.
Funk made a strong impression on his varsity teammates with that natural power, too.
When Funk hit his first home run during batting practice this year, Mathieu said everyone stopped and stared. Then, Funk connected with another bomb.
“After he hit the second one, everyone turned back to see where it landed and they didn’t see it land because it was so far,” said Mathieu, who leads the team with two home runs and seven RBIs.
Funk credited Mathieu and Kreger for helping him stay confident. When he gets out or makes an error, they’re quick to remind him to shift his focus to the next play or next at-bat. He’s thankful for the support as he continues to adjust to starting on the varsity team as a freshman.
He said he didn’t think he’d start right away, let alone bat third in the lineup.
“I never knew I would be able to do that,” Funk said.
But Fravel likes what Funk brings to the middle of the lineup as a threat behind Mathieu. He’s already proven he can handle tough pitching and drive in runs, but his coach thinks he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.
“When he’s really stroking, he’ll be a right-center field triple machine until his beard fills out a little bit,” Fravel said. “Then he’ll start jacking balls in the games.”