Road to major leagues starts in Radford

The dreams of Radford University students come true in a wide range of fields: education, health care, business, science, the arts. 2012 was a banner year for four RU students pursuing the dream of playing baseball in the big leagues.

The highest draft pick in Radford University history is right-handed starting pitcher Eddie Butler, selected 46th overall by the Colorado Rockies in the first compensatory round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. Three of Butler’s 2012 RU Baseball teammates also were invited to join in the RU pro baseball class of 2012.

“It was the greatest feeling in the world to hear my named called. My mom ran toward me crying and hugged me,” Butler said. “Getting to this point has been my goal and something I’ve worked toward my whole life.”

Butler, who is now pitching for the Grand Junction Rockies in the Pioneer League, said this is the first step in a journey that he hopes will end in a major league stadium. “Radford has done a lot for me.” Coach Joe Raccuia “gave me the opportunity to come here and pitch, and my family and I have loved the emphasis that he’s put on developing the pitching staff.”

Raccuia ‘95, approaching his seventh season as Radford’s head baseball coach, said, “I’m really proud of everything that Eddie has accomplished and that he did it as a Highlander. He deserves everything that’s coming his way. He’s got a chance to make a career for himself.”

Joining Butler on the threshold of the baseball dream are senior outfielder Matt Hillsinger, selected by the Oakland Athletics in the 22nd round, and senior right-handed pitcher Mark Peterson, who signed a minor league free agent contract with the Kansas City Royals. Junior shortstop Jeff Kemp was selected in the 31st round by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim but chose to stay at RU, where he is on the roster for 2013. The foursome are RU’s largest group of aspiring big-leaguers since 1997, when Jason Anderson, Kelly Dampeer and Tim Manwiller left RU for the pros.

“These are four guys who have the opportunity,” Raccuia said. “It shows we are developing players and recruiting the right kind of kids.”

The newly minted Highlander pros are hoping to follow a path blazed by RU Hall of Famer Phil Leftwich, who in 1993 became the first Highlander to play in the major leagues. Ryan Speier ‘90 became the second in 2005 as a player for the Colorado Rockies. In October, RU welcomed to its Athletics Hall of Fame another former baseball pro and Oakland A’s farmhand, Duane Filchner ‘96. In 1994, Filchner was the first Highlander to be named Big South Conference Player of the Year and was the second position player in school history to be drafted.

Former Radford outfielder Reggie Keen is now in his third season as a pro with the Brevard County Manatees of the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He was an undrafted free agent signee for the Brewers following an All-Big South selection in 2010. Overall, 24 RU Baseball players have been drafted in the program’s history by 14 different professional organizations.

Raccuia is as confident about prospects for Butler as for any player he has coached.

“This kid always accomplishes what he sets out to do,” Raccuia said of the three-year veteran of the RU program. “One thing I can tell you is that every year he got better.”

Butler entered his first season of draft eligibility in 2012 ranked by Baseball America as the second-best prospect in the Big South Conference, and he didn’t disappoint. He became the first Radford player to earn conference pitcher of the year honors, which he shared with Coastal Carolina’s Aaron Burke, and he posted a 7-4 record and 2.20 ERA, the best in school history. Butler left Radford second in all-time wins with 22; third in career strikeouts, 232; and fourth in the program’s history with a 3.84 career ERA.

Three current RU baseball players looked to follow Butler’s lead by spending the summer playing baseball in the Valley Baseball League (VBL) against top-flight amateur competition. Blake Sipe, a Staunton Braves outfielder, was named a 2012 VBL All-Star. He was joined by teammates Josh Gardiner, a second baseman, and left-handed pitcher Jeff Maxwell, both of whom played for the Strasburg Express in the 12-team amateur summer developmental league in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.