What are the odds?
In a span of six days last week, three Tallahassee-born baseball players were promoted to the Major Leagues for the first time.
Three players, three teams, one hometown.
“I am always happy when Tallahassee is represented in any way at the highest level,” said David Rossthe Chicago Cubs manager and two-time World Series champion as a player with the Boston Red Sox (2013) and Cubs (2016).
“There is a long history of great baseball players that have come from my hometown, and I think that’s a direct reflection of the people, coaches and organizations in Tallahassee. Proud of those young men and what they are accomplishing. I am sure there are many feeling proud for them.”
David Ross coverage
More with David Ross:Cubs manager Ross believes ‘different can be good’ as MLB eyes start of season
Francis Bowden (Chiles/Chipola College) of the Toronto Blue Jays, Tyler Holton (Lincoln/Florida State) of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cole Sands (North Florida Christian/FSU) of the Minnesota Twins made it to The Show in a flurry of transactions.
All three pitchers were recalled from their respective organization’s Triple-A teams (highest level in the minor leagues).
Tallahassee has a history of MLB talent
Overall, 13 Tallahassee-born players have made it to the Major Leagues. That list includes Ross, 45, who has lived in Tallahassee his entire life – his family, too. But Ross’ parents crossed state lines for three days for his birth in Bainbridge, Georgia, because of financial reasons and his mother was born there.
Jimmy Bloodworth, who was born in Tallahassee but raised in Apalachicola, was the first local to reach the Major Leagues in 1937 with the Washington Senators. Ross and Dean Palmer both attended Florida High, and Ross is the city’s longest-tenured MLB player with 15 years. He was named the Cubs manager in 2019.
Palmer played 14 years in the big leagues, followed by Bloodworth (Chapman High School was replaced by Apalachicola High in 1973) at 11 and Reggie Jefferson (Lincoln) and Bobby Thigpen (Aucilla Christian Academy) at nine years each. Thigpen set the then-MLB record of 57 saves during the 1990 season with the Chicago White Sox.
road to the show
‘Wasn’t really time for nerves to kick in’
The baseball backgrounds of Francis, Holton and Sands are intertwined.
All three were first-team All-Bend selections as high school seniors in 2015. All three played in local youth leagues, including the Tallahassee-Leon Babe Ruth League, and on the local-based summer travel team, Next Level Baseball. Holton and Sands were teammates at FSU from 2016-18.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Holton said of the trio’s promotions within days of each other.
“To be honest, there wasn’t really time for nerves to kick in. Once I got the call, I made my rounds to family and friends and had to cut that short to get ready for the game. I stuck to my routine the best I could. I will say the arm was amped up – the first several throws went all over the place warming up (in bullpen).”
Holton, 25, was promoted last Thursday and tossed one scoreless inning of relief that night at St. Louis, allowing two hits with one strikeout in the 8-3 defeat. While Holton was optioned to Reno last Friday, he remained with the club on the Diamondbacks’ taxi squad.
Although MLB has dropped its regular COVID-19 testing, each team can have up to five players as a taxi squad to accommodate the pandemic.
Francis, 26, was the first of the trio to be promoted – Monday, April 25. He threw in relief last Wednesday against the visiting Boston Red Sox, allowing one hit with a strikeout in two-thirds of an inning in the 7-1 defeat.
Francis’ journey did not end there.
He was optioned to Buffalo last Thursday but recalled again a day later by the Blue Jays. Francis drove the two hours from Buffalo to Toronto with his wife Jen and their son Booker. On Monday, Francis was optioned back to Buffalo.
Sands, 24, was added to the Twins’ big-league roster last Saturday. His family of him had the shortest journey of the trio to travel as Minnesota played in St. Petersburg against the Tampa Bay Rays. Sands’ FSU teammate, shortstop Taylor Walls, is a utility infielder for the Rays. And the Rays are managed by former FSU catcher Kevin Cash.
Sands threw the final two innings in relief in the Twins’ 9-3 win Sunday. After he allowed one run on three consecutive hits with two strikeouts in the eighth, the right-hander set the Rays down in the order in the bottom of the ninth. He got Walls to fly out to center field on the first pitch to lead off the ninth.
Sands was optioned to St. Paul Monday.
Not an easy road to travel to majors
What makes Tallahassee baseball so good? Is there a magical elixir in the water? Blind luck?
Hardly, according to baseball types. Pitchers such as Francis, Holton and Sands have also followed comprehensive arm care programs during their careers.
“It’s truly remarkable that three Tallahassee natives can be called up to the major leagues over consecutive days,” said FSU coach Mike Martin, Jr., part of a program that has sent 79 players to the major leagues. “It’s a credit to the youth/high school coaches and parents for sacrificing their time and efforts in making sure their arms were taken care of.”
Baseball features the most professional athlete opportunity, with a chance of 4% of high school players playing professionally, according to national statistics. The odds increase from the collegiate level to 9.9%, according to the NCAA. And around 10% of minor leaguers reach the major leagues, according to quora.com.
Travel baseball teams have also exploded over the past two decades, providing players additional opportunities to play against established competition.
“Competitors feed off of each other,” said Ryan Robinson, founder of the NLB organization and a former 15-year major-league scout and MLB agent. “Most cities run in cycles. When a real group of competitors come through it, it raises the bar for all the players.”
Every state in the United States – and more than 45 countries – have had at least one player make it to the major leagues, according to the Baseball Almanac. Of the more than 17,000 players from the US who have appeared in the majors, 600 were born in Florida. California tops that list with 2,381 players.
Other local players were either born in a different city or state but are part of Tallahassee folklore.
form Godby catcher Butch Bentona Tampa native, headlines that list.
Since the Major League Amateur Draft was first held in 1965, Benton is the lone player to be selected in the first round from a Tallahassee high school, according to Baseball Almanac. He was selected sixth overall by the New York Mets in 1975, making his major-league debut in 1978 with the Mets at age 21. Benton played professionally for 12 seasons, mainly in the minor leagues.
Jefferson and Palmer, meanwhile, were on the first TLBR team (15U) to win a national title in 1984.
“I think it goes in cycles,” said Jefferson, 53, a sports agent in Tampa with Roc Nation Sports, founded by hip-hop artist Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter in 2013. “It was totally different when we played. Nothing like travel baseball today. We had to basically compete against each other to get better. There was a real competitive spirit and rivalries.
“All sports in Tallahassee, in fact, there was so much competition and it made us better.”
Welcome to The Show
- April 25: Bowden Francis recalled by Toronto Blue Jays from Triple-A Buffalo
- April 28: Tyler Holton recalled by Arizona Diamondbacks from Triple-A Reno
- April 29: Bowden Francis optioned to Buffalo by Toronto Blue Jays
- April 29: Tyler Holton optioned to Reno by Arizona Diamondbacks
- April 30: Bowden Francis recalled by Toronto from Buffalo
- April 30: Cole Sands recalled by Minnesota Twins from Triple-A St. Paul
- May 2: Bowden Francis optioned to Buffalo by Toronto Blue Jays
- May 2: Cole Sands optioned to St. Paul by Minnesota Twins
Tallahassee-born MLB players
- Jimmy Bloodworth 1937 (Chapman High School in Apalachicola)
- Matt Dunbar 1995 (Dunedin High)
- Cole Figueroa 2014 (Florida High/Lincoln)
- Bowden Francis 2022 (Chile)
- Tyler Holton 2022 (Lincoln)
- Reggie Jefferson 1991 (Lincoln)
- John Nogowski 2020 (NFC)
- Dean Palmer 1989 (Florida High)
- Eric Patterson 2007 (Harrison High in Kennesaw, Georgia)
- David Ross2002 (Florida High)
- Cole Sands 2022 (NFC)
- Mallex Smith 2016 (Richards)
- Bobby Thigpen 1986 (Aucilla Christian Academy)
- Note: David Ross’ family lived in Tallahassee at the time of his birth, but he was born in Bainbridge, Georgia, for financial reasons, according to Ross.
– Info compiled from Baseball Almanac
% of NCAA athletes competing professionally
Baseball: NCAA participants 36,011; Draft eligible 8,002; Draft picks: 1,217; Drafted 791; NCAA to Major Pro: 9.9%
Men’s basketball: NCAA participants 18,816; draft eligible 4,181; Draft 60; Draft ed 52: NCAA to Major Pro: 1.2%
Football: NCAA participants 73,712; Draft eligible 16,380; Draft picks: 254; Drafted 254; NCAA to Major Pro: 1.6%
– Compiled from NCAA.com, 2020
Reach Jim Henry at email@example.com.