One of Tucker Barnhart's earliest baseball revelations came at age 7, when he and his father were watching the 1997 MLB All-Star Game.
Larry Walker, a left-handed batter for the National League team, was facing American League pitcher
Randy Johnson. The 6-foot-10 lefty with an intimidating presence and sometimes-wild control, threw the first pitch behind Walker's head. Walker responded by flipping his helmet around, getting in the right-handed batter's box and eventually
drawing a walk.
For most viewers, it was a humorous exhibition. For Barnhart, it was a learning experience.
"That's when we had the big idea for me to start switch-hitting," he says.
It's a telling anecdote for the Brownsburg (Ind.) senior, who is now rated the state's No. 1 player by Baseball America. Barnhart's entire career has been about expanding his game to maximize his ability, and the results are undeniable. He has developed himself into one of the nation's top prospects, a process that started when that light bulb went on at age 7.
A natural left-handed hitter (and right-handed thrower), he worked on developing his stroke from the other side of the plate. The effort has paid off, as Barnhart clocked 25 home runs in his first three seasons as Brownsburg's starting catcher.
"He's always looking for ways to get better," says Brownsburg coach Patrick O'Neil. "He's the type of kid that's first to practice, last to leave, always trying to improve."
Barnhart has always had baseball on the brain. He grew up with a ball and glove in his crib (literally), and his father and grandfather -- standouts in their day -- were eager to teach him the game. Besides playing the guitar, he has trouble naming many other hobbies or interests away from the diamond.
For someone whose dream has always been reaching the major leagues, Barnhart couldn't have asked for a better situation. The Brownsburg community takes its baseball seriously, and
Barnhart's 12-year-old all-star team almost reached the Little League World Series.
His pitching and play at shortstop were key to the team's success, but when O'Neil watched those Little League games, he came away with other ideas for his future star. It was clear to O'Neil that Barnhart was a natural catcher.
"He had the quick feet, strong arm, the leadership qualities -- everything you need at catcher," says O'Neil. "His skill level was so far ahead back then, you could see him as a great defensive catcher."
O'Neil served as the Midwest scouting supervisor for the Tampa Bay Rays from 1995-98, so his opinion carried extra weight with Barnhart, who even back then was looking for the best path to the big leagues.
When Barnhart arrived at Brownsburg as a freshman, he estimates he had spent five percent of his career behind the plate. But O'Neil was right in his assessment -- the transition was seamless. O'Neil trusted him to be the starting catcher from the first practice, and Barnhart repaid him by recording 26 assists on the season.
"I've always prided myself on defense no matter where I played," says Barnhart. "Playing shortstop, you have to have quick feet, good hands and be agile going side to side. All of that is the same as a catcher.
I embraced it."
At 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, Barnhart has modeled his defensive style after the similarly built Ivan Rodriguez. Barnhart once struck out 18 batters while throwing a perfect game in Little League, and he still has the big arm. O'Neil says his catch-and-throw skills are major league caliber right now, and he rates Barnhart as the best defensive catcher in the country.
His offense isn't far behind. Barnhart batted .500 last year, and he can hit for power from both sides of the plate. He drilled 11 home runs in 2008 and has a pair of three-homer games to his credit.
Barnhart spent the offseason packing 15 pounds of muscle onto his frame, and he hopes to hit for even more power this season.
"I'm never going to be 6-foot-5, 220, hitting home runs every at-bat," Barnhart says, "but I want to get the most out of myself. I just try to hit everything up the middle and drive the ball. And when you're making good contact, that's when you hit home runs."
Tucker Barnhart Favorites
TV Show: "24"
- Actor: Kevin Costner
- Musical Artist: Journey
Beyond that, there's still the matter of Barnhart's ultimate goal. He's signed a letter of intent to Georgia Tech, a school that has
produced switch-hitting catchers like Jason Varitek and Orioles top prospect Matt Wieters, but the dream of being a pro ball player may come true before he sets foot on campus.
Barnhart was selected in the 10th round in the MLB draft by the Cincinnati Reds.
"I chose Georgia Tech because of the program's history of developing players," Barnhart says. "But if a situation comes up and it makes more sense for me to sign with a major league team, then I'd like to get my career started as soon as possible. I want to play major league baseball more than anything. It's going to be a tough decision."
Barnhart says he hasn't put a number on what it would take to lure him from his commitment to Georgia Tech, but he is being advised by a Beverly Hills sports consulting firm.
It's no surprise Barnhart is weighing his options carefully. He has wanted to be a professional baseball player since he was 7 years old, watching that All-Star Game with his dad. Now, because of his willingness to adapt his game and do whatever it takes, he may have a chance to make it happen.
"Tuck's main goal is to play in the majors," O'Neil says. "He's got the bat speed and power, and defensively he's as good as it gets. If he stays healthy, he's going to be a solid major league player."
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.