BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Doggone it if little Nick Madrigal didn’t claw and climb his way to the very pinnacle of college baseball in 2018, and we mean that in essentially every imaginable way.
The capping moment came last June 28 in Omaha, Nebraska, in the immediate aftermath of Oregon State’s national title-clinching 5-0 victory over Arkansas. Sweet, delicious mayhem occurred in the form of the sort of dogpile a baseball player gets to experience once or twice in his life if he’s lucky. Somehow, the Beavers’ smallest and best player — all 5-7, 165 pounds of him — ended up on top of the mass of humanity, like a star on a Christmas tree.
“That whole college experience was the best time of my life,” recalled Madrigal, the White Sox’ first-round draft pick a year ago, who is lighting it up these days as the second baseman for the Class AA Birmingham Barons. “I got so close with those guys, they’re like my brothers now. I keep in contact with them all the time.”
But the Northern California native doesn’t have his head stuck in the past. After befriending several Sox players — James McCann, Adam Engel and Tim Anderson among them — at spring training, Madrigal typically ends his nights in the Southern League by catching up on Sox highlights. It doesn’t take much of an imagination for a player who flew through Class A Winston-Salem and was batting over .400 through 10 games at Birmingham to picture himself alongside them.
There’s at least a chance the Sox will make Madrigal’s big-league dream come true with a call-up in September. The 2020 campaign may be more likely. But, hey, why wait?
“If they called me tomorrow, I feel like I’d be ready,” he said. “I know it’s out of my control, but I feel like I’m ready. I know I can compete with anyone out there.”
Madrigal happens to be the Barons’ smallest player, too, about which he frets not one bit. There’s no Napoleon complex when it comes to this guy, no proverbial chip on the shoulder. He thanks God, as a matter of fact, for “blessing” him with his diminutive stature.
But being small does, in Madrigal’s case, mean playing the game without thunderous pop in his bat. The Sox have a middle infielder of the future who might sniff 15 or even 20 home runs, according to Barons manager Omar Vizquel, in a best-case-scenario season. Otherwise, it’ll be small ball. Vizquel, who played into his mid-40s in the big leagues and belted only 80 career homers, sees no problem with that.
“You’ve got to believe in your game, and you’ve got to know what your game is,” Vizquel said. “He’s a very smart guy who knows how to play the game and can make a difference [on] any team.
“I still believe he can fit any team. Plays the game smart. Great defense. Can get on base any time he wants to; can bunt, hustle, walk, has a great eye at the plate. I still believe he can fit in on any team. Take a look at baseball in the ’70s or ’80s and you know these were the types of guys who were needed on teams to win.”
Although he was small, Madrigal began playing in travel ball at age 10. As a high school freshman, he was a varsity starter. By 15, he could beat brother Zack — five years older and then a fleet-footed junior-college outfielder — in the 100-yard race, at a park near the family’s Sacramento, California-area home, that for them was, for some inexplicable reason, a Mother’s Day tradition.
“I was pretty quick,” Zack said. “But right then I knew it was time to retire from racing against him.”
Years before that, mom Angie learned what it was like to be on the business end of Madrigal’s ahead-of-its-time athleticism. Little Nick was all of three years old when — on Easter — she made the mistake of pitching to him in the backyard. Who knew a Wiffle ball could blacken an eye like that?
After the Sox took Madrigal with the No. 4 pick last spring, general manager Rick Hahn made it clear the team considered him the best all-around player in the draft. To Madrigal, it’s the ultimate compliment — not to mention an accurate one.
“There are a lot of different ways to help a team win, and I can definitely envision myself in those situations with the White Sox,” he said. “It’s not something that feels far away at all.”
As Madrigal sees it, there’s another dogpile coming with his name on it.
“Hopefully, I’m on top of it somewhere after winning the World Series,” he said. “I look forward to being on a team that’s right in it every year. Five years, 10 years — if not one ring, then a couple or more. That’s my main goal.”