Recently named the Midwest League Player of the Week for the season's final full week of action, Clinton LumberKings first baseman/second baseman Dan Paolini may soon be picking up some bigger hardware -- about four times bigger -- after putting together a monster month of August for the Mariners' surging Low-A affiliate that included 11 home runs and 37 RBI.
Dan took some time before the club started their playoff series to talk with SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall about his baseball history, getting hurt in gym class, his motivations and his goals.
SeattleClubhouse: Good to finally get the chance to speak with you, Dan. Thanks for taking the time today.
Dan Paolini: You bet, Rick. Thanks for reaching out.
SC: You are a huge cog in the offensive attack of the LumberKings this season and left Siena as the school's All-Time leader in home runs, but back in your high school days you were originally being recruited heavily as a pitcher before an accident in gym class led you to labrum surgery, correct?
DP: Yes, that's true. I was mainly a pitcher growing up. I took a lot of pitching lessons and was getting recruited from some of the bigger schools in the area in my sophomore year. But in 2nd period gym class I was playing wide receiver in some flag football, ran a post, slipped on some mud, landed wrong and tore my labrum. After that, I couldn't throw as hard any more so I had to convert to hitting. Before that no one really thought that I could hit, but coach Tony Ross gave me a chance to hit and that's where it all started.
SC: With the way things have turned out, possible blessing in disguise there?
DP: Exactly. It was meant to be, I guess.
SC: Well even dating back to your pitching days, you were heavily involved with Perfect Game and other showcase circuits during your time in high school and I've heard you talk to the benefits of those routes for players that aspire to reach the next level, but what are the drawbacks of being so heavily involved in them when you are still so young in your opinion?
DP: Yeah, I think there can be a big downside to those events and those showcases, even like for pre-draft workouts and things like that which my agent urged me to get to. People that came to see me, I'm not sure they see what they want. I'm not a big "showcase" guy; I'm not going to hit a bunch of balls into the upper deck, run a 6.2 60-yard dash or things like that, I'm just going to be an average guy that takes good, solid batting rounds and doesn't really wow you. But some of those showcase standouts my hit the ball out of the yard all the time, but they have trouble making contact or making the sound baseball decision in game modes. Same thing with pitching; kids might throw 95, but maybe they can't throw strikes. It's all based on potential. But all that being said, those events do still get you noticed and help in that way as people know who you are.
SC: So let's talk about you and the LumberKings. You didn't exactly have a poor first half, personally, but the team really struggled. When the 2nd half came around not only did the whole team catch fire, but your game really moved to the next level, culminating in an awesome month of August – what changed?
DP: For the team, I think that we were all trying to do too much early and basically for the whole month of April it was really cold. Also you're seeing all sorts of different pitching; everyone is new to you so hitting is real tough. Even though that was the case, we didn't play terribly, we were just losing a lot of one-run ballgames and that wears on you. I think as the first half went along people started maybe looking out for themselves a bit since they knew we couldn't make up that ground so we were all kind of looking for that second half to come along. But towards the end of the first half, Chaca (2nd year LumberKings manager Eddie Menchaca) sat us all down and said, "look, I know you can be better than this" and let us know what he wanted us to do with it. So when the second half started, we all came out not thinking individually but just working hard, practicing hard and working together as a team. Pretty soon, one win after another and things just started rolling for us. Then, individually, once one guy starts going, everybody just comes together and keeps it going. And for me in the second half, I started to be a little bit more aggressive, and if I saw a good fastball early in the count I was going to be swinging. Just being more aggressive and not letting pitches that I could drive go by. That was the biggest difference for me.
SC: You were obviously a big slugger in college and this second half is encouraging in that light, but what part of your game do you feel you need to work at the hardest day-in, day-out?
DP: I'd say it's my defense. I've always had a pretty good bat, in high school, college and now pro ball, but I think that I've been struggling to get everything where I want it to be on defense and get a set position. I can play second base, but my range isn't quite where it needs to be so I need to get a little bit quicker to help out that aspect of my game. I've been playing first base some, too -- and this is my first year playing any first base -- and I'm starting to get a lot better at it, with my footwork, moving around the bag and reading hops and the like. But they're also talking about me getting some time in left field, and I've been practicing out there some. I'd really just like to get a set position that I can work at and really focus on getting my defense -- wherever I may be -- to be up to the same level as my hitting so I can be a really good, all-around ballplayer.
SC: Where are you most comfortable right now, where do you feel you're at your best as things stand today?
DP: I thought when I was in college that I was really good at second and I was really confident there, but this is a different level of ball and I feel like I need to be a little bit better there. And when I start moving around to first -- I'd never even played that position so I didn't have a lot of confidence when I started, had some trouble reading balls hit hard at me from left-handers -- so it was tough at the start. I'm getting a lot better at that. But I played a lot of outfield when I was younger and I think I'd be a good corner outfielder. But whatever the club wants me to do I will absolutely do and try my best at it.
SC: I've heard that you are a big Derek Jeter fan. What is it about Jeter that draws you to him and do you try and incorporate any of that into your game?
DP: Yes, I'm a big Derek Jeter fan. In college I emulated him with my hands up over my head and everything. Just the way he goes about the game -- on and off the field -- he's a team player, moves players over, does whatever the team needs him to do. That's what I like.
SC: Who do you count as the biggest influences on your baseball career to this point?
DP: My dad. He wasn't the best baseball player in his day, but he absolutely loves the game and knows a lot about the game. If you talked to him and mentioned any player from any organization, he probably knows where they're playing, knows their stats and all of that stuff. And he really helps me whenever I need it. He's really laid back and he's easy to talk to so he always helps me.
SC: And what is your primary motivation to continue through this minor league grind and hopefully one day reach the big leagues?
DP: That dream so many of us have had since we were little kids is my biggest motivation. Ever since I was in elementary school and they asked us to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up, I always write professional baseball player. And even know that I am in the minor leagues and I am a professional baseball player -- even though sometimes you don't feel like one in the minors -- just that dream of reaching the big leagues and be playing on TV someday. I still have that drive and that determination to make that dream come true. And also proving all of the doubters wrong since I went to a small school and all.
SC: Do you set goals that you use to motivate or check off certain accomplishments or anything along those lines?
DP: Not really. The season is long and if you get too tied into results in small periods of time -- I don't think that's good. I was hitting about .260 in the first half and I only hit four home runs, but I was still hitting the ball hard -- it wasn't like I had lost my power -- just a lot of those home runs were turning into doubles. It came around in the second half and that helped me believe that I could be the same type of player that I was in college again when those balls started flying out of the yard.
SC: They certainly did that.
SC: Thanks once again for taking some time to chat with me today, and congratulations on the Player of the Week, the soon to come Player of the Month, I'm sure, and the playoffs for you and the whole team, Dan. Keep working hard and make that dream come true.
DP: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
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