Several years before Kyle Seager established himself as one of Major League Baseball's elite third basemen with the Seattle Mariners, he was a jock for all seasons in his native North Carolina. The calendar flipped summer on the baseball diamond to fall on the soccer field to winter on the basketball court, where he spent most of his time launching jumpers from the perimeter and avoiding stray elbows in the lane.
During a high school Christmas tournament about a decade ago, Seager and the Northwest Cabarrus Trojans crossed paths with the Charlotte Christian Knights and a spindly guard with dazzling shooting and ballhandling skills.
"He won't remember me as much as I remember him, let's put it that way," Seager says. "He kept going further and further away from the basket, and I kept thinking I was doing a good job of defense making him shoot that far away, and he kept making them and they beat us pretty handily.
"I guarded Steph Curry in high school. That's my claim to fame."
Mariners fans and fantasy owners might beg to differ. Seager, an All-Star and Gold Glove winner with four 20-home run seasons on his resume, bats fifth behind Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz for a Seattle team that's in turnaround mode. The Mariners placed a big bet on his future when they signed him to a seven-year, guaranteed $100 million contract extension in December 2014.
The financial windfall set up Seager and his family for life. It also ensured he would be stuck with the tab whenever he went to dinner with his two younger brothers in the Cactus League this spring.
Life brings a new adventure every day for MLB's burgeoning first family. Corey Seager, 21, is starting shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League Rookie of the Year favorite and a staple atop baseball's top prospects rankings. And middle brother Justin Seager plays first and third base for Seattle's Double-A farm club in Jackson, Tennessee. If Justin is able to shed his label as an organizational player and reach the majors, the Seagers will join a list of nearly 20 MLB brotherly trios ranging from the acclaimed (the Alous, Boyers, DiMaggios and Molinas) to the obscure (Bob, Ed and Ted Sadowski).
Bros will be bros, and the respect Kyle engenders as the family's elder statesman is tempered by jibes. Although his siblings love and respect him for the wisdom and experience he provides, they routinely remind him that he's the shortest of the group at 6 feet tall.
"We gang up on him about the height thing," Justin says. "He doesn't like to hear that very much."
Out of self-preservation, Kyle refrains from taking himself too seriously. Several times in spring training, he had finished taking his hacks in the cage and was en route to another destination at Peoria Stadium when an autograph seeker tried to flag him down with shouts of "Corey!"
"I get it all the time," Kyle says. "Lots of people are looking for him, I guess. I'm like, 'You found the wrong one."'
Jeff and Jody Seager's three sons are 6½ years apart from youngest to oldest, but the age gap has done nothing to dull their competitive spirits. Most conversations inevitably drift toward which brother is the best at one non-baseball endeavor or another.
Corey is the foremost pingpong player, golfer, and has the best head of hair of the three. Two years ago, in an interview at the All-Star Futures Game, he joked about his brothers' receding hairlines and immediately sent Kyle a heads-up. "You're going to like this," he texted.
"Don't let Corey fool you too much," Kyle says. "That's the thing about the quiet guys. They sit in the background and don't say too much. Then they kind of zing you, so you've got to be ready for it."
Justin, 23, played college ball at UNC-Charlotte and went to Seattle in the 12th round of the 2013 first-year player draft. He was the best basketball player in high school and is hailed by his brothers as the most sociable and outgoing of the group.
"To be honest, I don't think it's very difficult to be the most social compared to those two," Justin deadpans.
Kyle, 28, warrants respect as the repository of life lessons and the first to every signpost. He blazed the trail to professional ball and showed his brothers that anything was possible with talent and personal commitment.
The Seager boys grew up about 20 miles from Charlotte in Kannapolis, North Carolina, an old textile mill town that's known primarily as the home of auto-racing royalty, the Earnhardts. Kyle played travel ball with future big leaguers Chris Archer, Lonnie Chisenhall and Alex White and is part of an impressive array of North Carolinians in the majors. Throw Madison Bumgarner, Josh Hamilton, Wil Myers, Seth Maness, Carter Capps, Chris Hatcher, Greg Holland, Alex Wood and Tyler White into the equation, and the state is more of a baseball hotbed than its reputation suggests.
Home turf for the brothers was a 10-acre farm, where they helped out with enough chores to appreciate the value of hard work and calloused hands. When they weren't playing sports, they picked the garden, trimmed the bushes and tended to a small menagerie of cows and pigs. As a little boy, Corey pestered his parents to add some chickens to the mix. The Seagers built a coop, and everything went smoothly until Corey discovered he was petrified of them.
"They're cute when they're little, but when they grow up, not so much," Jody says of the chickens.
Jeff and Jody Seager stressed the importance of academics and multi-tasking, and they decreed their sons would not be baseball robots who spent half their waking hours in a batting cage and burned out from overexposure. So Kyle played soccer, and all three played hoops, and they learned to love the outdoors while hunting on some family land in upstate New York during vacations. They became well-rounded athletes with a perspective beyond the baseball diamond.
"I do think it's valuable," Corey says. "You get away from baseball and get that desire back. If you play one sport your whole life, you can get tired of it. Basketball was a fun sport that got us in shape and helped us kind of regroup."
The boys could be rambunctious, and they collected their share of war stories. When Kyle was 11, he accidentally clocked Justin in the back of the head with a brick. Years later, when Kyle was playing for Northwest Cabarrus, Justin and Corey would gather with friends behind the fence, wad up paper drink receptacles and play impromptu games of "cup ball." The inevitable spats ensued.
"They'd have what I call some 'exchanges' during games," Northwest Cabarrus coach Joe Hubbard says. "Corey would come off and say, 'Tell him to be quiet,' and Justin would say, 'He needs to do what he's supposed to do,' so you'd have to walk that fence. They're typical brothers. It's one of those things where they can pick on their brother, but you better not pick on their brother."
Special families require the occasional accommodation, and Hubbard played a pivotal role in the boys' growth curve. With the school's blessing, he gave the Seagers a key to the baseball field and told him where a second key to the light box was hidden. Weather permitting, Jeff Seager spent many a December night throwing batting practice to his boys while no one was watching.
After Kyle gravitated to Chapel Hill, his younger brothers bonded around the middle infield. Justin suffered a devastating injury as a high school junior when he broke his back lifting weights, and Corey was summoned to the varsity to fill the shortstop void as a freshman. The following year, Justin rejoined the team, and Hubbard installed him at shortstop while Corey moved to second base.
"Corey was probably the better shortstop, but I think our coach let me keep the job because I was a senior and he was my little brother," Justin says. "He probably did me a little bit of a favor. But it still worked out pretty well."
Once Justin went off to college in the fall of 2010, Corey became the sole focus of attention. Scouts flocked to Northwest Cabarrus games and (unsuccessfully) pestered Hubbard to let the kid skip his 2:30 p.m. English class to take some early swings in the cage. After the obligatory pre-draft machinations, the Dodgers chose Corey with the 18th pick in the 2012 draft and gave him a $2.35 million bonus to dissuade him from accepting a full ride to South Carolina.
Four years later, Corey Seager is turning double plays with six-time All-Star Chase Utley at Chavez Ravine, and manager Dave Roberts and the L.A. veterans marvel at his composure. The slow heart rate is a gift, and the opportunity to tag along with Kyle and Justin led to benefits he couldn't measure.
"When you're always around older kids, you learn the game faster and mature faster in the game," Corey says. "They teach you at a faster pace. You're never playing with your peers. You're always playing with them, so you get comfortable being at a higher level."
Sacrifices and rewards
The Seager family living room in Kannapolis looks like a miniature version of the MLB replay command center in New York. One television rests on top of another in case Kyle and Corey are playing simultaneously, and a computer is at the ready to follow Justin's games on the internet.
Jeff, who works for a Charlotte bank, and Jody, an elementary school teacher, take a tag-team approach to monitoring late West Coast games. Jody keeps a vigil while Jeff drifts off to sleep, then nudges him awake when one of the boys comes to bat. Or vice versa.
Road trips are a constant part of the dynamic. On Friday, Jeff and Jody drove 16 hours round-trip to Jackson to watch Justin and the Generals play the Montgomery Biscuits in a weekend series. Atlanta is a convenient stop when Corey and the Dodgers head east, but the Seagers are just as willing to plan a 4,600-mile roundtrip excursion to see Kyle at Safeco Field.
It's a more glamorous version of the life they lived when the boys were playing for the First Assembly Church team in Kannapolis or taking part in Dixie Youth Baseball, and everyone grew accustomed to eating meals on the fly in the family vehicle.
"When Corey was a baby, he pretty much thought the car seat was his crib," Jody says. "He'd be at the other boys' games all the times. He slept there and he ate there."
Baseball fame has its perks. The Seagers attended three College World Series in Omaha when Kyle was a UNC Tar Heel and traveled to the Pan-Am Games in Mexico with Corey in 2010. And many other indelible moments sprang from seemingly innocuous circumstances.
In the summer of 2011, Jody Seager was lounging on the sand in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when Kyle called to tell her he had been called up to the majors. After scaring her fellow beach goers with shrieks of joy, she regained her composure and scheduled a 6 a.m. flight to California the following day. Jeff, Jody, Justin and Corey Seager were all in the stands to watch Kyle go 0-for-4 against the Angels' Jered Weaver in his Mariners' debut.
In the Seager family dynamic, it's more about mutual support than individual glory. Justin Seager has a .230 batting average in four minor-league stops and is realistically a long shot to reach the majors. But he's free from any resentment or jealousy in the Mike Maddux-Chris Gwynn-Billy Ripken "other brother" role.
"A lot of people ask me that question, but I really don't look at it like that," Justin says. "If I get compared to those two, it's a compliment in my eyes. My older brother is the starting third baseman and an All-Star and a Gold Glover for the Seattle Mariners. My little brother was a first-round draft pick and he's now the starting shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's surreal."
If that attitude sounds selfless, it reflects Justin Seager's faith in his brothers and his sense of personal security. When Kyle and Corey have productive days at the plate, he is usually among the first to call or text with congratulations.
"Justin is very proud and happy for his brothers," Jeff says. "He hasn't gotten the same level of recognition, and I'm sure he wants some. But he's absolutely remarkable. He's been like that for a very, very long time."
During the offseason, the three brothers continue to push each other in group workouts at home in Kannapolis. Jeff throws batting practice, just like in the formative years, and Kyle's 2-year-old son, Crue, tags along to keep things interesting. Crue has a sweet swing from the right side, and by all accounts, he's turned his two uncles into complete pushovers.
The family workouts feature games within a game and little side wagers to make things interesting. The Seager brother who hits the most line drives into the back of the net gets a free lunch, the loser has to buy lunch, and the innocent bystander fends for himself.
"Corey's philosophy has always been, 'I don't have to be the best, just as long as I'm not the worst,'" Jody says.
Amid the sound of bat hitting ball, laughs and reminiscences abound. Replace the bats with pingpong paddles or nine irons, and the love of competition for competition's sake would be the same. In the evolution of an American baseball family, every day brings a new memory to share.