In 2014, Willie Calhoun was at his lowest point, contemplating never picking up a bat again. A few years later, he’s within striking distance of wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform.
Calhoun’s story is one built upon failing in order to find success. His story is one that’s placed an everlasting chip on his shoulder. His story is the reason he’s evolving into a major league baseball player.
A few minutes after our scheduled interview time, Calhoun sent a text.
“Okay on the phone with Joc will give you a call in 10,” it said.
Indeed, that was Joc Pederson, the 24-year-old Dodgers center fielder who was once in a position relatable to the 22-year-old Calhoun. Pederson has become a mentor for Calhoun as he braves the challenges of ascending through a minor league system.
“He’s someone I really look up to,” Calhoun said. “He’s like a big brother to me. Just teaching me the ways as I go through the system. So he’s someone who checks in on me to make sure I’m doing everything right, doing it the right way.”
Talking w big bro @yungjoc650 got me hyped for camp this year ??
— June Calhoun (@11WillieCalhoun) February 1, 2017
2017 is already blossoming into a milestone year for Calhoun. He’s been invited to Dodgers spring training, where he’ll be able to play with Pederson, Corey Seager and the other organizational building blocks.
“It was very exciting, a blessing,” Calhoun said of the invite. “Going to compete with all the big leaguers, being around them and learning from them. Seeing how they go about their day, that’s quite a blessing in itself. Definitely being able to hang out with them and learn from them is something I’m looking forward to.”
The invite was well-earned. Calhoun hammered 27 home runs with 88 RBI in 132 games for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers last season. The breakout year placed him at No. 4 or 5 (depends on who you ask) in the Dodgers’ prospect rankings. He cracked MLB Pipeline’s preseason top 100 at No. 82.
“At the end of the day, it all comes down to the player,” he said. “I believe that I can be better in all aspects of my game. I have to go out and show them why I think I’ll be better. I have to go out and back it (the ranking) up and I think I will. No. 82, it’s just a number. I’m just trying to go out there and play with a chip on my shoulder as I always have been … Playing with a chip on my shoulder really helps because it always makes me feel like I always have to prove something to everyone. I’m a very competitive person. Having to prove something to a lot of people is what I want to do.”
While placing in the top 100 is an accomplishment, Calhoun has faced an uphill battle his whole life. He was “kicked out” of the University of Arizona for what he called “poor choices.” He said he cut class and was suspended for 25 percent of the season. Coach Andy Lopez advised him to find a new school. Calhoun settled at Yavapai Junior College in Prescott, Arizona, and has played with extra motivation since.
“I wasn’t able to be myself there,” he said of Arizona. “That was honestly the best thing for me, getting out of the University of Arizona. I was able to find myself, find my swing again.”
From there, Calhoun impressed the Dodgers’ scouts enough to be selected in the fourth round of the 2015 MLB draft. Calhoun called it “one of the best day of my life” and recalled the joy on his parents’ faces. He received a $347,500 signing bonus and went to work, though it hasn’t exactly come easy.
Everyday is a chance to separate yourself… pic.twitter.com/6OURVQBnLw
— June Calhoun (@11WillieCalhoun) February 3, 2017
Criticism comes with the territory. Calhoun said all his life he’s heard he’s too small, weak and slow. Listed at 5’8,” 187 by Baseball America, the “small” tag won’t go away. Even then, it’s not the most prevalent knock on the slugger.
Calhoun’s defense is usually the first listed weakness on scouting reports. He said he’s working hard every day to improve in that aspect, and added the Dodgers have been “sticking by my side” during the process. Calhoun has experience at third from his college days, and some scouts think a move to left field isn’t out of the question. But the organization hasn’t spoken with him about a position change. He said all it has done is stand by him and aid his development at the keystone. As for the external evaluations, after years of hearing doubters, Calhoun said he doesn’t need to read scouting reports.
“I don’t really care about them, honestly,” he said. “I know what I need to work on and I know what everybody thinks about me. I don’t care what they have to say because I know I’m busting my ass to get to where I want to be and if they have something negative to say, I just tune it out because their opinion doesn’t mean anything to me.”
As a top five prospect in the farm system, Calhoun is anointed the franchise’s second baseman of the future. That label was thrown into disarray after a winter of trade rumors centered around his position. But Calhoun’s name was rarely reported in negotiations. The Dodgers never told him if he was at risk of being moved, instead just encouraging him. He said he appreciates the Dodgers’ belief in him.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Obviously the Dodgers really believe in me and that’s something you want as a player. You want your organization to believe in you. I’m very thankful the front office is hands-down the most supportive … The front office is really supportive in everything I do and I can’t thank them enough for that. They’re literally the most supportive people I’ve been around and they’ll support me no matter what I want to do … It shows where they want me to be in the future.”
Scott Lonergan of Ballengee Group has served as Calhoun’s agent for the last year. He praised the Dodgers for how they’ve handled his “supremely talented” client.
“The Dodgers brass accelerated and challenged him,” Lonergan said. “They don’t care how big or tall you are … They see his talent.”
Calhoun’s character is a match with his on-field ability, according to Lonergan.
“He’s been a tremendous family man,” Lonergan said. “It says a lot about his priorities. He’s very tight with his friends and family. He’s willing to do anything he needs to to succeed … He’s exceeding expectations every day. It’s been a pleasure to work with him.”
Those expectations may have hit a bump in the road. The Dodgers’ extended second baseman hunt ended with Logan Forsythe, who has two seasons left on his current deal. Calhoun said he doesn’t see Forsythe’s presence as a roadblock, but rather an opportunity.
“I’m going to learn from him a lot in spring training, being around him” Calhoun said. “Obviously I’m going to go in there and try my hardest to do what I have to do to get closer to the big leagues. I want to be in Dodger Stadium this year. So I’m going to learn from him and hopefully grow as a player.”
— Alanna Rizzo (@alannarizzo) January 27, 2017
Calhoun isn’t the only prospect L.A. will need to make room for in the near future. In fact, several pieces of the Dodgers’ future are already well-acquainted. Calhoun is best friends with two other highly regarded prospects: Cody Bellinger (No. 1 in system, No. 13 overall) and Alex Verdugo (No. 4, No. 61 overall). Calhoun said he and Bellinger jokingly role play as MLB players, referring to one another as Robinson Cano and Eric Hosmer, respectively. Calhoun said Cano is his favorite second baseman.
Bellinger and Calhoun grew close toward the end of their year in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, and they’ve progressed through the minors together. They’re currently living together along with Verdugo. Bellinger said they drive to Camelback Ranch every day to work out.
“We’ve gone up the ranks together,” Bellinger said. “Through the successes and the failures, you just have to be there … It’s a good relationship.”
— CodyBellinger (@Cody_Bellinger) August 12, 2016
Bellinger said it’s “cool to think about” turning double plays with Calhoun at Chavez Ravine.
“We talk about it here,” Bellinger said. “It’s nothing crazy, but it’s definitely something we think about. It’s a goal and a dream to get there.”
— June Calhoun (@11WillieCalhoun) January 30, 2017
Dodger Stadium won’t be Calhoun’s original California ballpark, however; he grew up going to San Francisco Giants games, but laughingly pointed out he rooted for them without disdain for Los Angeles. He said he “can’t wait” to play in the Dodgers-Giants rivalry games soon.
Traveling from the Bay Area to Southern California isn’t the tallest task on paper, but it’s been a long ride for Calhoun. Once feeling hopeless and considering stepping away, he’s now on the doorsteps of playing for one of baseball’s most storied franchises.
“It’s definitely humbling,” Calhoun said. “I’m grateful. I was going to be done with baseball after I was kicked out of Arizona. My dad really pushed me to go and keep on playing. So I mean, everything really happened that year … it was crazy. I went from the lowest point of my life, I didn’t want to do anything, just stay at home in Benicia, California, and not do anything, and then being able to overcome the adversity that I had to go through … Now as I look back on it, it’s really crazy man.”
Calhoun said if you peruse his Twitter, you’ll find motivational postings plentiful because of his journey. The years of persistence will result in his first taste of a big league clubhouse this spring.
“I think I’m just getting started,” he said.
And by the looks of it, the Dodgers feel the same way.