State College Spikes

State College Spikes’ Fennell doing flips over life in baseball

Some day it’s going to happen, so State College Spikes fans should be sure to keep watching.

It might be for pregame introductions, it might be some other point in the game. Who knows? It might be when Mick Fennell is heading to the plate. But some time this season, the first-year pro hopes to do a roundoff — a cartwheel — followed by a backflip.

“I’ll have to maybe break it out someday,” he said with a grin. “Gametime decision on that.”

It would add even more to a year that has already been filled with thrills.

He has been dreaming of playing professional baseball nearly his entire life.

“There’s so much pride as a father,” his dad, Jay Fennell, said. “This son worked so hard and he never wanted to do anything else, and when you see him turn into a man and achieve a goal, he knows what he wants and he’s capable of getting it.”

And one of the best parts is he gets to live the dream close to home.

The Butler native played at California (Pa.) University, and was the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Player of the Year before getting drafted in the 22nd round by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The path should sound pretty familiar. Philipsburg’s Matt Adams, the Cardinals’ first baseman, was also the PSAC Player of the Year at Slippery Rock and was picked in the 23rd round.

“It’s been my dream since I was 3 years old to play professional baseball,” Fennell said. “Through Cal, I definitely had my mind set. My chances weren’t as high as in Division I, but at the same time, anything can happen.”

He is just the second member of the Vulcans’ program to be drafted in the last two decades, following Kyle Petty in 2013 by the Seattle Mariners.

During the third day of the Major League Baseball entry draft in June, Mick Fennell found out early in the afternoon who picked him, then everyone anxiously waited to find out where the team would send him to start out in the minors.

“When he was drafted by St. Louis, we were all pleading, ‘State College, State College, State College,’” Jay Fennell said.

The family had a party that night, along with another friend who was drafted, and Fennell got a text from a Cardinals scout with the good news.

“We all cheered for that one,” said his mom, Ria Fennell-Lachesky, who has made it to all but one home weekend series so far this season.

Getting to see him so much in his first year as a pro is a bonus. She was going to see him play no matter what, but a couple hours in a car on Route 422 beats a plane trip to Florida or some other possible destinations.

“We just feel so blessed to be able to drive just 2 1/2 hours from our home for the first experience that he’s having,” she said. “The night he was drafted, we were in disbelief that he was going to be in State College.”

Mick Fennell couldn’t complain either.

“It was nice being able to pack up my car instead of getting onto a plane,” said Fennell. “Couldn’t be in a better spot.”

He had been dreaming to make it for so long because he wanted to follow his brother’s footsteps. Jason Fennell was picked in the 45th round by the Chicago White Sox in 1995 and played in the minors until 2002, though he never rose above high-A ball.

There also had been some pretty good tutoring at home. Jay Fennell is a hitting instructor for Nothing But Baseball and the Steel Town Maulers in the Pittsburgh area.

“I felt a lot of pressure with this boy because there’s nothing this son wanted to do except play baseball,” said Jay Fennell, whose group also helped Adams with his swing. “He didn’t want anything.”

Mick Fennell is doing fairly well this season for the Spikes, who hold the New York-Penn League’s best record. He’s batting .268 with five doubles among his 15 hits and four RBIs heading into Saturday night. He also has a .397 on-base percentage, though he was hampered early in the season, missing two weeks with a hamstring injury.

Manager Johnny Rodriguez thinks Fennell is still not quite 100 percent.

“That was a huge loss when he got hurt,” Rodriguez said. “That’s another speed guy. … He’s a solid player. He’s on top of everything.”

As thrilling as it was to get drafted, however, it was a little tough for some to embrace a rival team.

“A quick 180 turning from Pirates to Cardinals,” Fennell said. “A lot of friends and family heckled me about it too — ‘I don’t know if I can root for you as much now.’”

His mom, however, hasn’t had any problems switching sides.

“I have about 10 Pirates shirts,” Fennell-Lachesky said. “I have not been able to put one on since Mick got drafted. I am not kidding. I have not worn Pirate gear. I’m not feeling it anymore.”

She and the family are now waiting to see her son do his flip.

Fennell had taken some gymnastics when he was very young, and a few years later he started doing the roundoff and backflip — just like legendary Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith.

“He did them in the yard and made me nervous,” Fennell-Lachesky said, “but he did them.”

He didn’t break it out for a game until his senior season at Cal. He was usually the leadoff hitter, the first introduced for home games, and early in the season he decided to make the dramatic entrance. At the encouragement of teammates, he kept doing it, and his mother shot a video of it that got picked up by St. Louis media after draft day.

Fennell wasn’t sure if all of his current teammates know about his athletic abilities, but his manager definitely does. Rodriguez is encouraging Fennell to give it a shot, joking he should list Fennell as the starting pitcher so he does it on the way to the mound.

Until that happens, Fennell has been doing flips figuratively over his life in baseball.

“First year,” Fennell said, “livin’ the dream.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT