Jim Haley made a short detour to greet some familiar faces with fist bumps through the netting behind home plate Sunday.
Haley was making his return to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park with the Hudson Valley Renegades for the second game of his professional career. He wore the same No. 38 from his days at Penn State and carried a pair of black Nike cleats, a bat and his glove while he reconnected with a trio of supporters there to see him play.
Haley then walked down the steps of the visitor’s dugout to continue preparation to face the State College Spikes. The third baseman recorded his first professional hit that night and finished 6 for 13 in the three-game series in the same ballpark where he developed into a professional prospect.
“I think that’s the reason I’m here today,” Haley said of his Penn State career. “I had an unbelievable coaching staff that developed me hitting-wise, fielding-wise, all aspects of the game so I mean that’s a huge credit to them that I’m here right now. Those three years, that’s the reason I am where I am.”
Haley hit .297 during his career at Penn State, capped by a standout junior year.
Haley became the first Penn State player drafted since 2012 when the Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the 19th round of this year’s MLB Draft. Teammate Jack Anderson was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 23rd round.
When Haley arrived at Penn State as a freshman, he went to a few Spikes games, getting a glimpse of players in the early stages of their professional careers.
At that point, playing professionally was still a dream.
“It was always a dream,” Haley said. “And then I guess this year, I started getting contacted by a few scouts and that’s when it kind of became a reality that I was hoping would happen.”
Haley was a self-described raw hitter coming into college. He didn’t have a plan for his at-bats, but over time, he refined his approach and his confidence grew.
After hitting .265 in 44 games during his freshman season, he was second on the team with a .301 batting average as a sophomore. This past season, he finished with a career-high .315 batting average, scored a team-high 45 runs and drove in 27 runs.
The San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox and Rays were among the teams to contact Haley this year.
On the third day of the draft, he heard from Tampa Bay.
“I got a text from the scout and he just texted me saying, ‘We’re working on you,’” Haley said. “Then I got a call 20 minutes later and he just said, ‘Congratulations.’ ”
His assignment in Hudson Valley meant he’d return to Penn State during the first week of the New York-Penn League season.
Haley was comfortable back at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park playing in front of former Penn State teammate Taylor Skerpon and members of Cooper’s Town, the baseball program’s student section.
Haley stepped into the batter’s box as his walk-up song from his Nittany Lion career — “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire — played before his first at-bat in the top of the first inning Sunday.
He grounded out to third base and received the visitor’s treatment the rest of the series.
“His second at-bat, they decided to play the Barney theme song,” said Brian Mastro, a Penn State senior and member of Cooper’s Town.
With a runner on first and one out in the top of the third inning, Haley lifted the first pitch from Spikes starter Steven Farinaro to the center field wall for a triple.
His first professional hit tied the game 3-3 and started chants of “Jimmy Haley” by his supporters sitting 13 rows up their section next to the visitor’s dugout.
“We all went crazy when it happened,” Mastro said.
Haley went 3 for 5 with a double the following night and 2 for 4 with a walk Tuesday night.
After dropping a single into left field for his final hit of the series, the “Jimmy Haley” cheers started again.
The former Nittany Lion felt at home during his first road trip, part of a smooth transition to pro ball so far.
“I’m living the life,” Haley said. “This is what I wanted. My dream came true.”