SPORTS FEATURE: MLB Draft selection helps Dennard realize pro baseball dreams

The Courier Herald – June 12, 2015

     When he graduated from Armstrong State University last month, R.J. Dennard planned on going to get a pharmacy degree with the goal of eventually joining his family's business back home in Soperton. His college baseball career done, he knew he might get a chance to play professionally, but knew that chance was only a slight one. 
    Fully prepared not to have his name called in the MLB Draft set to begin later in the week, he went ahead and began pharmacy school on Monday at South University in Savannah. But plans change.
    Wednesday afternoon, he got a call from the St. Louis Cardinals informing him that he’d be their selection in the 39th round. 
    Dennard was a baseball and football standout at Treutlen High School, and more recently played at Armstrong, where he featured prominently as a catcher and first baseman in four seasons with the Pirates, recording a .364 career batting average, 164 RBIs and 19 home runs. 
    Now he'll get an opportunity to continue playing as a professional, even though that'll mean a bit of a delay in earning his doctorate and becoming a pharmacist. 
    "All that stuff can be put on hold," Dennard said. "I'm gonna go chase this for a little while."
    His dad Blake, who owns Dennard's Drugs in Soperton, will be glad to let the Cardinals borrow him. 
    "We're going to be happy to wait a little bit longer," he said. "I'd rather him chase this. The one thing I didn't want him to do was in five or six years ask me why I didn't let him chase his dream or wonder if he could've done it. We're gonna find out if he can do it." 
    Between the end of the college season and the draft, R.J. had seen and heard from several pro scouts, but didn’t get any serious interest until he was already deep in his first week of school. A scout texted him on Wednesday to let him know he’d made it onto the Cardinals draft board about 18 rounds in. 
    He kept a hopeful eye on the picks that afternoon, but got discouraged after about the 35th round when he started getting hungry, and decided to go eat dinner. Halfway to the restaurant, he got the call. 
    Blake had also been watching the draft tracker at work back in Soperton, and had all but conceded that the 39th and 40th rounds would end without his son getting taken. 
    "I had been following it most of the day and had about got disgusted with it," he said. "His mama's the only one who didn't give up."
    The moment his name came up on the screen was an emotional one for all of them. 
    "It was a dream come true," Blake said. "We were so excited for him that somebody at that level recognized that he deserved a chance to go play professional ball." 
    R.J., like any baseball player, has always dreamed of a chance to play in the pros. 
    "This was something I always wanted from probably five years old, when I first started playing and could understand what I was watching on TV," he said. "I knew that was something I really wanted to do."
    Now he gets to try his hand at hitting for power with a wood bat. He'll join other first-year players making that same transition when he reports to one of a few Cardinals rookie league teams he could get assigned to when he signs his contract in the next few days. The two teams he says he's most likely to land with are the New York-Penn League’s State College Spikes in Pennsylvania, or the Appalachian League’s Johnson City Cardinals, based in Tennessee.
    The season will start up in about a week's time, and continue with few breaks through September. But that’s a grind his hard work through the years has him well-prepared for. 
    Brent Korn, his coach at Treutlen, can remember many days when Dennard would stay late after practice to spend extra time hitting in the batting cages. He says that willingness to work hard is no small reason why R.J. is his first former player to get drafted. 
    "He wasn't always the fastest guy on the field or the strongest, but he works and has that determination," Korn said. "He was gonna find a way to win all the time, whatever he was doing. He's a competitor." 
    An avid outdoorsman, Dennard is no stranger to early mornings spent hunting and fishing. 
    That same drive has fueled his pursuit of greatness on the baseball field, and his dreams of playing it at the pro level. 
    “I never gave up,” Dennard said. “I had to push myself to look forward to that goal.” 
    The only person who might be more excited than he is at this opportunity is his father, whose pride was more than evident on Thursday. 
    "I don't know if every dad does this, but you start telling your kid when he's six or seven, 'You know if you work hard, you might get a chance to go to the big leagues or play professionally,'" Blake said. "I'm just busting with pride. I'm so happy that he's getting a chance. I don't know what he will make of the chance, but I could not be more thrilled for him. I can't really put it into words. I'm that excited for him." 
    The call from St. Louis might have been a bit of an unexpected one, but you can bet R.J. is more than happy to temporarily put aside his pursuit of what’s only a recent goal of going into pharmacy to pursue something he’s wanted to do nearly forever. Getting to realize that dream on Wednesday is a feeling he’ll never forget. 
    “It was a whirlwind of emotions,” he said. “One of my biggest dreams I ever had got to come true for me.”