Sox 2019 preview: Daniel Palka is going nowhere — and loving it
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It had been a hell of a night in Kansas City, Missouri, with an 11-inning White Sox victory and two individual milestones to celebrate. One: the first big-league managerial victory for bench coach Joe McEwing, who was subbing for Rick Renteria while Renteria was in Texas after the death of his mother. Two: another multihomer game for Matt Davidson, whose seven homers at Kauffman Stadium — belted in just three games — was a record there for an opposing player in a single season.
It was only late April, and the visitors’ clubhouse was about to erupt into a party. Taking it all in — while lying in a metal laundry cart, of all the weird and wonderful places to be — was a 26-year-old rookie who’d been called up just a few days before when regular right fielder Avisail Garcia went on the disabled list. Daniel Palka had been in the Sox’ organization for all of five months and had nary a big-league hit to his name, but that was about to change.
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One day later, in an 8-0 Sox win, Palka, a burly left-handed hitter, got his first career knock, a sharp single to left. He followed with two more opposite-field hits and capped it all — and then some — with a three-run homer to right-center.
Welcome to the Show, Palka. And welcome to your party.
There was beer, shaving cream, milk, shampoo, orange juice. There was who knows what else? Teammates piled around Palka in the shower room while he sat — in the very same cart, just maybe — with a towel over his head, struggling to breathe and loving every second of the madness. As far as he was concerned, he’d officially arrived. Mood: I’m here for the long haul, for all of it.
“That was about as fun as it could get,” he recalled at the Sox’ spring-training complex in Glendale, Arizona. “You did something good. You got the opportunity, and you can say you took it by the balls. That’s something that can never be taken away.”
When Palka arrived at Guaranteed Rate Field last April 24, there was no reason for anyone to expect a return trip to Class AAA Charlotte was anything less than inevitable. Yet, he stayed — and swung for the fences — through Game 162. Not only that, but, most improbably, he led the Sox in homers with 27 and in slugging percentage at .484. And not only that, but he did it with panache, a word that likely isn’t in the rather rough-hewn Palka’s vocabulary. He reportedly was the only major-league player in 2018 to hit at least 25 home runs and have an exit velocity of over 100 mph on all of them. In case anyone wonders where the term “Palkamania” came from, now you know.
Though his future with the big club isn’t set in stone, he figures he has earned the right to stick around.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “But I’m more confident in my game than I’ve ever been.”
Palka’s truck was dead. The battery zapped. Both front tires flat. That’s what greeted him — a guy who’d taken L trains, Ubers and mostly taxis to and from Guaranteed Rate Field for over five months — on a Charlotte parking deck the first time he returned to the city after being called up to the Sox. The 2013 black Ford F-150 had been parked there all that time.
“Luckily,” he said, “I’m a Triple A member.”
The Georgia Tech alum couldn’t traverse the 200-plus miles home to Atlanta soon enough. Talk about a place where Palka sat down and wanted to stay awhile: Atlanta is it. He and his best friends in baseball — among them Reds prospect Kyle Wren and Blue Jays prospect Dusty Isaacs — all bought homes there. There are a half-dozen or so in the tightly knit clique who were freshmen on an outstanding Yellow Jackets squad in 2011. One of them is Zane Evans, Palka’s best friend, whose townhome community hosts the gang’s regular offseason basketball games and tennis matches.
“As cool of people that you meet being a major-league baseball player, and as fun as it is meeting as many people as you can, I enjoy keeping my clique to my friends from
Day 1,” Palka said. “My friends who would bail me out of jail. My friends who’d give me some loot if I was in trouble. There were six of us sitting around last season asking, ‘Who would you call to bail you out of jail?’ It was all the same guys. It was all us.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though Palka does have a bit of a wicked side. With the help of a friend, he once updated his Wikipedia page to identify himself as a former McDonald’s All-American in basketball. As Evans tells it, Palka — a marketing major — once told a reporter with a straight face at the ACC tournament that he was studying biochemistry, biophysics, biomechanical engineering or some such over-the-top ridiculousness.
“That’s Palka,” Evans said. “You want to put it on record? He’s a terrible tennis player. He’s pretty bad at basketball, too. And he’ll say anything to anyone, at any time. But he’s good at baseball, and he’s good at hitting the ball really far.”
Palka and his crew spent the offseason together, working out daily from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. under the supervision of Georgia Tech trainers and the head of the strength-and-conditioning program for baseball, Steve Tamborra. If Palka follows up his debut season with an even more successful 2019, one of the biggest stories behind it will be the influence of Tamborra, to whom Evans refers as the crew’s “life coach.” Palka lost 18 pounds in Atlanta, dropping into the low 220s, and worked on his footwork like never before. He’s certain his defensive play in right field will show marked improvement because of it.
“You’ll see it,” Palka said. “I guarantee you’ll see it. That’s because of all the explosive stuff I did all offseason — side-to-sides with bands, tons of reps, treadmill sprints, an hour of extra work after everyone else was done. If I misread a ball now, the footwork to get back to where I need to be is night-and-day. I’m doing stuff on my feet now that I’ve never done before, period.”
Palka, a South Carolina native, has taken a shine to Chicago — making a long career of playing here would suit him just fine — but Atlanta is where some of his biggest plans reside. He hopes to marry fiancée Emily Parry shortly after this season. Palka was in his first spring training with the Diamondbacks, who drafted him in the third round in 2013, when he met Parry, then a “Rallyback” girl who fired T-shirts into the stands. Palka calls Parry, who hails from Flagstaff, Arizona, “the only invader of the circle” of his Georgia Tech pals.
Graduation also beckons, regardless of how far off it is. Palka completed three years of college and fully intends to finish what he started.
“One hundred percent — and I’m not going to do it anywhere but Georgia Tech,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in two years or 12 years. I don’t care if I’m a 40-year-old man sitting in a classroom, I want to finish.
“It was so challenging academically, I take pride in getting an opportunity to go to school there. I’d like to do as much school as I can, get my MBA, because I enjoy it. If something happened to me and I’m done with baseball tomorrow, I’ll be ready to excel in every facet of life.”
At the top of the list of adjectives current and former teammates use to describe Palka is “confident.” That’s how Palka, in a Louisville, Kentucky, hotel on a road trip with the Class AAA Knights, felt when he got a late-night call letting him know the Sox were bringing him to the majors. Well, there was a good bit of excitement, too.
“Hey, dude, I’m going to the big leagues,” he told Knights teammate Matt Skole. “Want to come to my room and have a beer?”
Skole — unbeknownst to him at the time a little more than a month away from making his own big-league debut — was happy to celebrate with a friend who’d been two classes behind him at Georgia Tech. Not all the upperclassmen on the team had been as kind to Palka and his fellow freshmen as Skole, one of the best hitters in the country. Palka and Skole lived together in Charlotte, as they have (along with Wren) in Phoenix in the spring.
“It was good to share that moment with him,” Skole said, “and, a month later, to have him share my moment with me.”
Skole was back in bed long before Palka woke up Evans with a call at 2:30 a.m. The more Palka shared his news, the more awake he felt and the more he expected to hit the ground running in Chicago. Things had clicked for him late in spring training, and he’d been feeling great at the plate with the Knights. On the plane ride from Louisville, the same words played on a loop in his head: “I’m going to contribute to a lot of wins with the White Sox. This won’t be my only opportunity.”
Before he knew it, he was in Kansas City having the game of his life.
“I got the first knock and thought, ‘This is exactly where I need to be. This is where I should be,’ ” he said.
Last season was an affirmation for a player who’d been traded and waived, respectively, by the Diamondbacks and Twins. And the future? If it’s as bright as Palka expects, the Sox might not be able to get rid of him even if they wanted to. The plan: What else? Take a load off and stay for a good, long while.
One extra ingredient Palka would like to bring to the team in 2019 is some of the leadership that’ll be needed after the departure of veteran pitcher James Shields. The effect Shields had on teammates was an eye-opener for Palka, who considers Shields one of the two best leaders he has played with. The other is former longtime major-leaguer Ronny Cedeno, an infielder who later played winter ball with Palka in Venezuela. Shields and Cedeno worked out like fiends, treated young teammates with respect and generosity and left every ounce of their effort on the field.
“That stuff rubs off,” Palka said. “That stuff even changes the momentum in games. I don’t care if I’m the new guy or the old guy. The way I’m looking at things now, that’s what I want people to see from me.”
Living in Chicago — downtown, near Willis Tower — has made an impact on Palka, too. Hey, it’s no Atlanta, right? But he digs it.
“I enjoy the city,” he said. “And I enjoy the South Side mentality, too. South Siders have a blue-collar mentality. They bring their lunch pail to work every day. They get dirty. They get stuff done.”
They’re his kind of people, it seems. It’s his kind of town. There’d be no sense at all in leaving it any time soon.