HUNTERSVILLE – Michael Russell’s dreams of professional baseball have been dancing in his head for a long time.
They’re now a reality.
“I always wanted to play baseball professionally and would tell people that when I was small,” Russell said. “The dream isn’t over yet, but it’s fun getting a little bit closer.”
Russell, a Huntersville native, had a star prep career at Hopewell High. He followed that with three standout college seasons at North Carolina.
The culmination came last month when the Tampa Bay Rays drafted Russell, a shortstop, in the fifth round of the Major League First-Year Player Draft. He was the 157th pick overall in a draft that included. His signing bonus was close to $250,000, according to MLB.com, which tracks signing bonuses of drafted players.
The good news for Russell, 21, is he’s a bona fide professional player. The bad news is he’s not playing because of a lingering injury from the college season.
Russell developed a stress fracture in his back during the college season. The daily grind prevented him from fully healing. He was healthy enough to play, but too active to allow it to heal.
“I just played through it,” Russell said.
It was hard to tell Russell was ailing, based on how well he played for the Tar Heels. He led North Carolina in batting average (.339), on-base percentage (.424), slugging percentage (.496), doubles (20), runs (43), hits (78), triples (two) and stolen bases (13). He slammed four home runs and helped the Tar Heels to a 35-27 record and a spot in the NCAA Gainesville (Fla.) Regional.
Russell was named a third-team All-America performer by Baseball America and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. He was a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy (the nation’s top player) and the Brooks Wallace Award (the nation’s top shortstop).
Tampa Bay knew about the injury but didn’t hesitate to nab Russell early in the draft. He’s spent the past month working with Rays trainers and coaches at the team’s Port Charlotte, Fla. facility, where it has a rookie-league team. The plan includes a lot or rest, some core-muscle training and other light conditioning activities for now.
Russell said the Tampa Bay organization wants him healthy before launching into a play-every-day schedule.
“They will be re-evaluating me in a couple of weeks,” he said. “I probably won’t play this season (which concludes at the end of August).
Russell will most likely debut in the fall instructional leagues that most first-year players participate in after their rookie debuts.
“You’re definitely always itching to play,” he said. “But I was in a lot of pain in school, and we want to get that healed.”
After selecting four consecutive pitchers, Russell was the first position player Tampa Bay drafted. Here’s what the team’s website said about the pick:
“A good indicator of his grit came in the Tar Heels’ recent 5-2 win over the University of Florida that eliminated the Gators from the Gainesville Regional. In the bottom of the second inning, Russell got hit in the head by a fastball from Bobby Poyner. He ended up leaving the game, but not without protesting the decision.
Because of his work ethic, the way he plays the game, his athleticism – he played basketball and football in high school – and his versatility, he could become a quality utility man. If that's the case, he's in the right organization since the Rays value having multiple players on their roster who can play different positions.”
Russell was watching the draft with his parents and a friend on television. He said several teams had contacted him earlier in the day about the feasibility of signing him. Tampa Bay had called about 10 minutes before the Russells heard the official announcement.
“It was pretty much pandemonium after that,” he said, laughing.
Russell said the adjustment to professional baseball might not be as arduous as it seems from the outside. Now, instead of worrying about the rigors of a college classroom workload, he can concentrate solely on baseball.
“It might be a little less stressful that way,” he said. “But, yes, it’s been fun so far.”