Twelve-year-old Jake Taylor's prowess at pitching, hitting and running will put him on the biggest stage imaginable this week in California.
That's when the avid baseball player will take part in Major League Baseball's All-Star festivities at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. As the winner of local and sectional Aquafina Pitch, Hit and Run competitions — including the most recent at Tropicana Field — the rising seventh-grader at Azalea Middle School earned a trip with his father, Terry, to this year's events.
"I've started to pack a little bit," Jake said. "I've been to other states for other baseball games, but nothing like this."
The first trip to California for father and son points to a lifelong love of baseball, the only sport the youngster plays. He started playing T-ball in Pinellas Park in 2002 and now competes on a recreational team with Northwest Youth Baseball in St. Petersburg and with his AAU team, the Bombers.
With the Bombers, he has traveled to North Carolina and Mississippi to play. On Monday, he will be in the outfield shagging fly balls during the nationally televised Home Run Derby. An All-Star breakfast, Fan Fest and the game itself Tuesday will keep the Taylors busy during their southern California sojourn.
It also will allow them to meet some of their favorite players.
"Albert Pujols," Jake said, naming the St. Louis Cardinal when asked who he most looked forward to meeting. "I like him because he's good, but my favorite team is the Rays."
He's packing a few baseballs and cards from his collection of more than a thousand, hoping to collect autographs. Signatures from his favorite managers, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella, would be neat, he said.
Jake's father, a sergeant in the Gulfport Police Department, joked that his biggest challenge as today's flight approached was trying to fit a baseball bat in a suitcase. He recalled the three competitions that led up to the trip, when Jake had to hit a target pitching from 45 feet, run from second to home plate and hit for distance off a T-ball stand.
"His first hit on the tee at Blue Jays stadium (in Dunedin), he hit 292 feet," he said. "The second he hit was 290. The third was the regional at Tropicana Field, and the longest he hit was 288 feet."
The Taylors were told they would find out in about four weeks whether Jake was selected. He was playing with his Northwest team in Tallahassee when the call came. He said he was shocked and happy, and then he realized it was part of his goal: "Get some experience to make it to the big leagues."
That journey continues in August when he and the Bombers play in a tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His AAU coach, Ron Rhoads, isn't surprised at Jake's success, both as a pitcher and a hitter whose batting average was .526 this season.
"He's very soft spoken, almost like what you'd call a gentle giant," Rhoads said of the 5-foot-8, 162-pound player.
"He just gets up and does his business and does it well."