BILLINGS, Mont. - From what Tyler Stephenson can remember baseball has surrounded him his entire life.
"My mom always says that I was running around the house with a bat in my hands when I was like nine months old," Stephenson said with a smile. "It has been baseball since Day 1."
The son of David and Rhonda Stephenson, Tyler was raised in the north Georgia town of Kennesaw, where he attended Kennesaw Mountain High School before graduating this spring.
Perhaps it is fitting that baseball has always been there for Stephenson, considering that his prep alma mater shares the name of baseball's first commissioner, judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, whose moniker still adorns Major League Baseball's two annual most valuable player trophies more than 70 years after his tenure.
When Stephenson's name was called in the MLB Amateur Draft by first-year commissioner Rob Manfred on June 8, whether he was ready for it or not he was about to begin his journey into professional baseball.
Being selected as the 11th overall pick in Round 1 was beyond Stephenson's wildest dreams, but when that became a reality he had little time to prepare for the next journey in his life.
"It sort of hit us like a train," Stephenson said regarding moving away from home. "Two days after the draft I was on my way to Arizona, and it was just a completely different atmosphere."
The 18-year-old was unsure of what to expect, carrying only his experience playing baseball with his lifelong friends through high school into the diverse and international setting of professional baseball.
As freshly-drafted prospects arrived in Arizona to be assigned to teams, in the blink of an eye Stephenson boarded a flight to Billings, Mont., as he continued the furthest venture from home he had ever embarked upon.
FITTING THE BILL
Stepping to the plate with the score tied at 6-6 in the eighth inning, Stephenson quickly helped spark a rally for the Mustangs against visiting Missoula on June 22 at Dehler Park.
After sending a towering fly ball foul and out of play on the first pitch, Stephenson turned around on the second and blasted a double into the gap in left-center field. Pinch runner Zach Shields scored the first of two runs in the inning, which propelled Billings to a big 8-7 victory.
Stephenson entered the at-bat without altering his steady approach, one of the aspects of his game that has molded him into a top prospect. "I know what pitches I can drive, and if I get the pitch I am looking for I just jump on it," Stephenson said regarding his mindset at the plate. "The key is not trying to do anything special, and just staying consistent each at bat."
On top of Stephenson's strategic approach, the catcher carries a 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame that supplies a unique ability to drive the ball from gap to gap. The Mustangs' pitching staff is in good hands in Stephenson's, which upon first glance appear more suited to handle a basketball than a baseball.
"When people used to ask what I wanted to be when I was older, I would say that I wanted to play in the MLB, retire, then go play in the NBA," Stephenson recalled. "This is every kid's dream, and not many people can say that they got an opportunity to do this. It is something I really take pride in."
The physical tools have always been there for Stephenson, an early bloomer who has consistently been a step ahead of his peers physically. He remembers a photo of his fifth grade class in which he is a head taller than the entire group - teacher included.
Ask a major league scout and he or she will tell you physical traits like those Stephenson possesses are a must to be considered for first-round selection. But perhaps the most important trait Stephenson displays is his maturity and even-keel mindset.
Wise beyond his years, Stephenson explained how he does not let outside factors affect his approach at the plate or how he calls a game behind it. "Someone told me that I carry myself like I'm 28, but I think it's just that I can control myself," Stephenson said. "I do think I'm mature for my age, and I just try to go out there and have fun playing baseball. I try not to worry about trying to go 4-for-4 or making sure I reach a certain batting average, because the game isn't fun when you play it that way. Just going out and enjoying it is the best way that I can describe it."
Growing up about an hour from downtown Atlanta, Stephenson and his family were frequent visitors to Turner Field to watch the Atlanta Braves. Despite being exposed to a big league atmosphere since being a young child, the idea that he would one day become a major league prospect did not begin to surface until Stephenson's junior year.
"The summer after my junior year I started getting a couple of questionnaires from teams, but I didn't really think it was anything serious," said Stephenson. "I got two or three scouts calling who wanted to come do house visits and introduce themselves to my family."
After a successful showcase tournament in Jupiter, Florida last summer, Stephenson began to realize the magnitude of major league recruiting. What began as periodic inquiries from scouts turned into seemingly continual phone calls and three or four meetings per week.
By the time his senior season started, upwards of 20 scouts peppered the stands at each game, filling out charts and reports on Stephenson's potential. Talk of Stephenson's draft stock made its way around the Georgia town of just under 30,000, but it wasn't until he began receiving direct contact from general managers that he fully understood he was about to become a professional baseball player.
"When the GMs started coming in, I could tell it was getting serious," Stephenson said. "I had heard different things like I could be selected in the top-15 picks, but you never really know for sure, nothing is predictable."
As the 2015 MLB draft got underway with the Arizona Diamondbacks selecting Vanderbilt's Dansby Swanson with the No. 1 overall pick, a gathering of family and friends in Stephenson's living room awaited with anxious anticipation.
Among those in attendance were Stephenson's parents and several members of his high school baseball team, all of whom he had played with since his little league days. Even his sister Morgan, who is a swimmer at Florida State University, got in on the action by joining the group via FaceTime.
The waiting didn't last long, as Stephenson's phone began vibrating seconds after Philadelphia selected Crornelius Randolph with the 10th overall pick. "Not five seconds later my agent called me and said, 'congratulations, the Reds are taking you with the 11th pick,'" Stephenson said. "I was just speechless. I walked back into the room trying not to break a smile, but I just couldn't help it. Then watching it, hearing my name called, it was everything I could have ever imagined. I can't describe it."
Though he is uncertain how long he will suit up in the red and black for the Billings faithful, he is already enjoying his first home in professional baseball.
"Right now it's great," said Stephenson. "I've built relationships with my teammates and I am having a good time here meeting people from all over the world."
As far as the pressure to perform associated with being a first-round pick, Stephenson is solely concerned with playing the game how he's always known how and not letting expectations weigh him down.
"I know I'm going to have games where I go 0-for-4, and games where I go 4-for-4," said Stephenson. "That's how baseball is, and you're going to have your days. I just want to continue to enjoy it, and the most important thing is to have fun while I'm doing it."