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INSIDE THE GAME: Hermosillo still not far from home

It seems like just a short time ago I was sitting in the first-base dugout at Ottawa High School’s baseball diamond, waiting to chat with a young man who had an hour before wrecked a Geneseo pitcher’s delivery over the press box at the softball diamond, a blast estimated at 419 feet.

Eventually, Michael Hermosillo and I discussed the clout and the game, and then talked briefly about his future. At the time he was very unsure if that would take him into baseball or football, and though he chose the former, he did later sign a scholarship offer to take the gridiron for the University of Illinois.

When we were done, I thanked him for his time and he thanked me for talking with him, a conclusion that was not unlike a similar situation we shared just this past Sunday.

You see, back in that day, Michael would look to his left in that same OHS dugout and see teammates like Tabor Griglione and Neil Hanley, then he glance to his right and see Brazen Wheeler and Fielding Lockas, with head coach Don Heaberlin checking his lineup before heading out to coach third base.

Then, in what passed like a heart beat for me but was a several-year journey for him, I’m standing in the photo well just past the visitors dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and there's Michael, clad in his Los Angeles Angels uniform some 25 feet from me, standing on the steps leaning on the rail.

“Playing here a couple times in high school all-star games and just coming here as a kid,” Hermosillo said in the tunnel outside the visitors clubhouse just before the game. “It’s always awesome to come to Chicago. I remember coming up here as a kid to go to a Cubs game or come here and thinking, ‘Man, someday I wanna play here’ and now here I am, talking to you guys. It’s crazy.”

Crazier still is that now when he looks to his left, he sees Mike Trout, the consensus choice for the best player in Major League Baseball for the last several years, and Justin Upton, a four-time MLB all-star. Peering to his right, he spies Albert Pujols, a certain Hall of Famer and without question of of the greatest baseball hitters ever to pick up a bat, and Shohei Ohtani, the former Japanese League standout and perhaps the best known baseball player in the entire world.

He will start in center field this day, informed just 90 minutes from game time that he will replace the injured Trout, and he will get his first two MLB hits of the 2019 season.

It has indeed been an incredible journey for the 2013 graduate of Ottawa High School, not all of it as glamorous or as showy as his surroundings this time, and it has come with a price. From the traveling from one minor-league stop to the next to struggling at the plate so badly he considered giving up his career, from the seemingly endless rehabbing from surgery to his abdomen to the frustration of waiting for his big break in the majors.

It is not a unique story, but it is an inspiring one.

“When you go through the realization of what you wanted as a kid and everything you dreamed of as a kid, all the goals you had, it’s hard sometimes to appreciate those in the moment,” Hermosillo said, “but at times like this (playing so close to his hometown), you want to think back and remember the times you really wanted to be here, times when you were just dying to be a Major League Baseball player.

“I think now it’s just about like enjoying every day, not even in the sense of whether I’m playing or not playing, but to enjoy every experience like being in a big-league hotel or being teammates with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, learning from them and getting to know them on a personal level, the Hall of Fame type guys. I can pick their brain and not many people get that kind of opportunity.”

And fittingly for this humble but confident young man, despite the trials and tribulations, he knows he’s lucky to be on the path he’s traveled.

“More than anything, I think back to how grateful I am to have this opportunity, and with that comes the responsibility of making the most of it,” said Hermosillo. “I know I’m from a small town like Ottawa and I know I wasn’t a first-round pick or anything, but I have high hopes for where I’ll end up in my career and how good I can be. At my talent level, there’s no reason I can’t be a big league for like, 10 years, that’s the confidence I have in myself … but I also think, ‘How are you going to stay? How are you going to find that edge to take advantage of that opportunity?’ There guys who have been playing for 10 years who were on the team last year and aren’t even in the big leagues anymore.

“Every year is a new year to prove yourself and there’s never a guarantee. And I want to make the most of the opportunity.”

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