Life of no regrets for USF outfielder Chris Chatfield

South Florida outfielder Chris Chatfield (24) is congratulated by third base coach Chris Cates after hitting a three-run homer in the third inning during their American Athletic Conference game against Tulane Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in Clearwater. The Bulls won 7-6.
South Florida outfielder Chris Chatfield (24) is congratulated by third base coach Chris Cates after hitting a three-run homer in the third inning during their American Athletic Conference game against Tulane Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in Clearwater. The Bulls won 7-6.
Published June 2, 2017

TAMPA — He sits in a dugout bench on a muggy morning, awaiting his turn at batting practice. At least the pitching machine will deliver them straight and sure, on course for that coveted rendezvous with the sweet spot of his bat.

Truth be told, he lives for that sound, the unmistakable ping of ball striking his 34-inch Rawlings Velo.

Division I-A baseball, on the other hand, hasn't always come so easily to Chris Chatfield.

"Tough," the sophomore outfielder says when asked to assess his USF career to this point. "I was kind of raw coming into college, so there were a lot of things I needed to develop."

One can't help but ponder the alternate trajectories Chatfield's life could have taken. Had he stuck with football at Spoto High, former Spartans coach Dale Caparaso says "without a doubt" Chatfield — at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds — would have evolved into a Division I-caliber receiver.

Had he signed with the Padres, who drafted him in the 23rd round in 2015, he might be a rung or two closer to the big leagues. Heck, many told him he would have gained more exposure — and possibly a better draft fate — had he attended a more established baseball school such as Bloomingdale or Newsome.

A 20-year-old with lesser fortitude might have drowned in this sea of would'ves and could'ves by now. But as he walks toward the left-handed batter's box for his first round of cuts in this makeshift cage, Christopher Malik Chatfield sure seems like a guy with no misgivings. Even when there are no guarantees.

The first pitch he swings at sails over the rightfield fence.

"I don't have any regrets at all," Chatfield said.

"He always tells me, 'Mom, this is a game of life. You're gonna have your ups and you're gonna have your downs,' " Maureen Chatfield said. "He's been pretty good dealing with the ups and the downs."

Chatfield heads to this weekend's Gainesville regional with a .234 batting average, 50 points higher than his freshman-year average. He's tied for second on the team in home runs (seven) and ranks third in strikeouts (54). His on-base percentage (.341) ranks next-to-last among USF's regular starters.

At last week's American Athletic Conference tournament, he hit two home runs and struck out five times. Yet his physical upside and noticeably improved defensive chops (one error all season) still make him one of the most intriguing 2018 draft prospects on the team.

"His hitting is still a work in progress," said coach Mark Kingston, whose club (41-17) is the region's No. 2 seed.

"There are days he looks like a future first-rounder, and there are days he struggles with timing or his swing getting too long. Chris is a tremendously hard worker with great makeup that we continue to see getting better and better, he's just still not a finished product."

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Yet baseball's in his blood, always has been. Football may have been his first sport — Chatfield was playing for the Riverview Raiders of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League before he had learned long division — but baseball was his first love. To this day, Ken Griffey Jr. remains his favorite athlete.

"The thing I like the most is just the bat hitting the baseball," said Chris, the youngest of Maureen and Keith Chatfield's two boys. "When you hit the sweet spot on the bat, there's no better feeling than that."

Maybe that explains his resilience; as a devotee and pupil of the game, Chatfield understands its ebbs and flows, and the necessity of navigating them with a steady mind-set. He leans heavily on his deep-seated Christian faith, and says prayer has preceded his toughest career decisions.

It came before he chose to remain at Spoto, where he had made a collection of friends. He did it diligently before choosing to attend USF on a partial baseball scholarship instead of turning pro.

"I just felt like I needed to develop a little bit more," Chatfield said. "I didn't think I was quite ready for minor league ball yet."

And he did tons of it before nervously approaching Caparaso — a burly guy with the rasp of a Maine lumberjack — prior to his sophomore season to explain that he was dropping football and track to focus on baseball year-round.

Caparaso already had pegged Chatfield as the heir to equally lanky receiver Geronimo Allison, now with the Green Bay Packers.

"He had Geronimo Allison skills," Caparaso said.

"When he left, as he was walking down the hallway I looked at him and just said, 'Chris, don't ever forget, if things ever change in your life, that (football) door is always open. … You handled it just like a man.' "

Who's to say when — or if — consistency and talent will converge for Chatfield. Perhaps he puts it all together this weekend, on a national stage of sorts. Maybe it happens next spring, following another offseason of toil and repetition.

Chatfield can't predict the course, he can only choose it and stay on it.

"I've seen him grow, I've seen him mature," Maureen Chatfield said. "He's had some great moments, and he had some moments that were not so great. But he's always stayed even and he always seems to have his eyes on the prize."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.