Ex-Wildcat Riddle comes home as a Grasshopper

broberts@herald-leader.comJuly 2, 2014 

A little more than a year removed from his final game as a University of Kentucky baseball player, J.T. Riddle is back in familiar territory this week.

Riddle — in his first season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers — played his first game in Lexington as a professional Tuesday night against the Legends.

It wasn't too long ago that Riddle was a kid in the stands at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Before Wednesday's game, he reflected on watching the Legends when they first came to Lexington and seeing Hunter Pence before he became a star in the major leagues.

This week, Riddle is the center of attention at the ballpark.

He estimated there were more than 200 people he knew in the stands for the series opener Tuesday. Friends, relatives, former teachers and coaches — they all came to see him play.

Before the game, he walked across the outfield to the visiting dugout and saw "a bunch" of fans wearing Grasshoppers T-shirts.

"That's when it kind of hit me," Riddle said. "I had butterflies in my stomach. I was definitely nervous to start the game. ... Every time I looked up I saw a new face. It was crazy."

Riddle was the state's Mr. Baseball at Western Hills in 2010 and went on to play three seasons at UK. He started in 168 games, mostly at second base.

He was selected by the Miami Marlins in the 13th round of last year's Major League Baseball draft and immediately shipped to the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn League.

Riddle's first pro season got off to a slow start as he adjusted to the grind of playing every day. He hit .144 over his first two months in Batavia, then finished the season with a .342 batting average in August.

He earned a promotion to Greensboro, and he's been playing some of his best baseball as a pro over the past couple of weeks.

Riddle went into Wednesday night riding a 10-game hitting streak. He's batting .419 with 11 RBI over that span, which has pushed his average to .267 for the season. Tuesday's Lexington debut included Riddle's first triple as a pro.

Not that he's paying too much attention to the individual numbers.

"You definitely don't look at stats," he said. "If you look at stats every day, then you become the guy that thinks about that too much, and you don't focus on the little things. It's not always about the numbers.

"We'll see where this goes. It could change today, it could change tomorrow. You never know. That's the funny thing about this game. You just have to stay positive and stay with it."

Riddle has already encountered some surprises in his young career. Shortly after being drafted, he was told he'd be moving to third base.

He said Wednesday that he had never played third until his pro debut last June. "I was like, 'All right, we'll see how this goes.'"

Riddle has gotten used to it, but he said the Miami organization still likes him as a middle infielder, too (and he was at shortstop Wednesday). Whatever keeps him moving up is what he'll do moving forward.

Riddle said that when he was growing up dreaming of a life in baseball, he never fully considered what it meant. He said he would come to Legends games and look out on the field and see guys who might one day play in the majors.

"But you never really think of the process of how long it takes for guys to move through the levels," he said. "You never think about the travel and stuff like that. Where you're going to eat that night."

As it turns out, lots of pizza and lots of late-night trips to Waffle House are on the menu.

This week has been different.

Riddle had lunch with his father when he got to town Tuesday. After the game, he went home to Frankfort with his mother and stepfather.

He woke up Wednesday to a home-cooked breakfast.

"You usually don't get that on the road," he said with a smile.

Riddle is 29 hours short of his degree at UK, and he said he intends to complete it sometime in the near future. He followed the Wildcats' season and NCAA Tournament run this spring and stays in touch with his former coaches and teammates.

The day before he returned to Lexington, Riddle got a call from UK assistant coach Brad Bohannon.

"They're always supportive of me," he said. "And I can go back there to UK any day, whether it's now or five years down the road. And they're going to treat me like I'm at home."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216.Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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