Ever since he was eight years old, Christian Lichtenthaler has been going to Volcanoes Stadium with his family to watch all of the action on the field. Now, 14 years later, people are going to the stadium to watch him.
The 22-year old infielder from West Albany High School and Concordia University began his Volcanoes career on June 28 after being signed by the San Francisco Giants as a non-drafted free agent on June 9.
"It's been surreal," Lichtenthaler said of his professional baseball experience thus far. "I've grown up here, driven past the ballpark hundreds of times and come to games with my parents. Now to be playing here, I don't think it has really sunk in yet, but it's pretty cool."
With the Volcanoes, not only is Lichtenthaler playing his home games less than 30 miles away from his childhood home in Albany, Ore., he is also able to carry out his dream of playing professional baseball.
"That was always a dream of mine. When I was little, my parents, sister and I used to all go down to Spring Training in Arizona. That's when I fell in love with the game and was like 'I want to pursue this'," Lichtenthaler said. "One thing led to another and things worked out so it's pretty cool."
As a high school sophomore in 2007, Lichtenthaler made his first connection with the San Francisco Giants when he began hitting with Steve Decker each offseason at his 'On-Deck' baseball academy.
At the time, Decker was entering his third season as the Volcanoes' manager. He is currently in his 20th season with the Giants organization, now serving as the Coordinator of Minor League Instruction and Hitting.
"He's worked his way up really far in this organization and he's been a great resource. Definitely without him I wouldn't be where I am today," Lichtenthaler said of Decker.
Familiar with the type of player he is, Decker was quick to complement Lichtenthaler's baseball I.Q.
"He's a smart kid, he'll know what to do. He's coachable and you tell him to do something and he'll learn from it. Intelligence is a good tool for him."
After graduating from West Albany High School in 2010, Lichtenthaler began his collegiate career at Lower Columbia Community College. He transferred to Concordia University in 2013 after his sophomore season.
At Concordia, he played for a coaching staff that included Mark Hills, a member of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes from 1998 through 2001.
"He was the kind of player and kind of kid we were looking to bring [to Concordia] with what we were trying to change, how we were trying to change the atmosphere at Concordia, and really, trying to turn it into a winning program again," Hills said.
Despite the fact that no player had been drafted out of Concordia since 2006, Lichtenthaler remained focused on achieving his goal. "It's been my goal from day one," Lichtenthaler said.
"I've been talking to the Giants all year. I know I was getting some attention [from other teams], but the Giants were really the only team that made an effort to contact me," Lichtenthaler said.
After hitting just .237 as a junior, Lichtenthaler burst onto the scene his senior year. He led Concordia with a .330 batting average, going 62-for-188 at the plate. In 47 games, he notched nine doubles and drove in 28 runs.
Lichtenthaler attributed his success to the re-introduction of switch-hitting to his arsenal, something the natural right-hander abandoned the previous year.
"Last summer I decided to bring switch-hitting back. Honestly that kind of saved my career," Lichtenthaler said. "I put up good numbers last summer and was able to carry that into the spring this year."
While that success wasn't enough for Lichtenthaler to hear his name called in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, it was enough to attract a phone call.
"This offseason, Decker gave me some numbers that I needed to put up and I was able to accomplish that," Lichtenthaler said. "After not getting drafted, he told me to give him a call so I did. He was able to sign me as a free agent."
Lichtenthaler's signing with the Giants came much to the surprise of his mother.
"My mom actually didn't believe me at first. I called her up and she thought I was joking with her," Lichtenthaler said with a smile on his face. "My dad and sister were really excited. It was pretty surreal."
Lichtenthaler had little time to celebrate, as he was on the plane to Arizona the very next day. "We had some family come over and it was a pretty exciting night. I really didn't have time to let it sink because I was headed for Arizona the next day," Lichtenthaler said. "These last three weeks have been a crazy journey."
Lichtenthaler didn't stay in Arizona for long. He played in just six games before being told of his move back home. Lichtenthaler was officially transferred to the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes on June 28.
"I really didn't believe it. It is just amazing how things come full circle," Lichtenthaler said. "To come here and play in front of family and friends has been a great experience. It's been literally a dream come true."
Lichtenthaler made his first start on July 5, a home game against the Hillsboro Hops. He notched his first career hit that night, lining a ball just over the third baseman's head in the bottom of the eighth inning.
"It felt good and I knew it was going to get down, but I broke my bat so I was a little ticked about that," Lichtenthaler said smiling. "I got the ball, so the first thing I did after the game was give it to my mom and she just put a big smile on her face."
What kind of role Lichtenthaler will play for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes remains unseen. But for now, one thing is for sure: It's good to be home.
"I used to sit up on the grass in left field and watch Volcanoes games, and now they're sitting up there watching me," Lichtenthaler said. "Just things like that, it makes it pretty special to be back home."