The University of North Carolina at Charlotte has produced several MLB draft picks in recent years. One of them, Brett Netzer, is currently an infielder for the Eastern League's Portland Sea Dogs, Double-A Affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
Netzer, like many of the hundreds of Minor League Baseball players vying for the chance to don a Major League uniform, understands the figurative and literal grind of a baseball season. He's had conversations about it with teammates, including his college buddies.
Over the years, Baysox outfielder T.J. Nichting has been one of those friends. The switch-hitter has played the entire 2019 season at the Double-A level with Bowie. It was during one of these chats with Netzer that the topic of books came up.
"I enjoy reading, but never read much in college," said Nichting. "I feel like when it's forced on you, you don't want to do it. (Netzer) gave me a book and I was hesitant to read it because I was busy with baseball. It was an 80-page book called 'Chop Wood, Carry Water', by Joshua Medcalf. I read it and I thought it was awesome. It was telling a story while also giving life lessons. I got hooked."
Put a bookmark in this story. Medcalf is an author of several books, but is also the founder of Train2BClutch: an organization which focuses on leadership development, mental conditioning and life skills.
Hooked on 'Chop Wood, Carry Water', Nichting's attention turned to the rest of his collection. A light bulb would soon go off.
"(Brett) told me he had some other books, so I went onto Amazon and found one called 'Pound the Stone,'" said Nichting. "I bought it and a few others. A phrase kept popping up-the name of the book-and it's the background of my phone. It's essentially talking about how when someone is pounding a stone (and) needs to break it, they could strike that rock 100 times and maybe not see anything on the surface.
"Maybe it's the 101st blow (that) could have been the one to crack it, but you stopped at 100. It's about going after it every day, no matter if you see a result or not. If you stick with the process and trust what you're doing every day is going to pay off, then it most likely will (pay off). If it doesn't seem like it is, it will in some facet.
For a guy who isn't a big quote guy, Nichting was quickly inspired. The key themes may not be novel in concept, but the timing of reading these books left a mark on the two young ballplayers.
"Last year was both of our full first seasons," said Nichting. "We got a taste of baseball on a long-term scale really quick. It was a struggle. There were times where you get to the ballpark and you really don't want to, but you have to keep showing up and you need to do it.
"With a book, when you read and continually look at something, you really dive into it and can get lost into it. You really listen to the message when you listen to something. People can tell you things all your life, but the experience is what gets you to listen. He writes it in more of a storytelling mode, not just telling you straight-up to go through the process. You feel like you're that person and it makes the message really resonates with you."
Setting: Hamilton, Ohio - due north of Cincinnati in the Southwestern corner of the Buckeye State.
Time: Early 2000s
"Back home, my family is very blue-collar and a very hard-working family," said Nichting. "My dad worked hard as a computer programmer. He works a regular 8-to-5 and got me through grade school and private school. He did what he needed to do to get it done.
"My aunt is a big supporter, & grandma and grandpa are huge. My grandpa is a hero. He's a big believer in believing in yourself. It wasn't anything that was ever preached to me, but it was always shown to me."
When not behind a computer screen, T.J's dad-Tim-served as a Little League coach throughout his son's baseball journey, helping to consistently put in the work and effort to achieve dreams.
"Every day, we were in the backyard hitting," said Nichting. "It was tough for any kid growing up, working hard to get to where you want to be. I think I learned that pretty early. I think about all the times where I thought my dad was being harsh or making me do too many things. Honestly, that shaped me into who I am now. I realize how much he was right and how much that all paid off.
"It's interesting how all the people you have in your life give you different sides. My dad was tough. My aunt and grandma were a little softer. My grandpa was a little of both. It's a credit to my family for having all types of those people that have different perspectives of life. That obviously comes with age and going through life events, but they gave me a lot of perspective about life."
Setting: Charlotte, North Carolina - the living room of an apartment
Time: June 13, 2017
Having completed his senior season-and his collegiate career-with the Charlotte 49ers, Nichting was one of a small number of students still around campus. With a little time in between the end of the season and the draft, the outfielder had to be ready for the big day
"School was out, but I was still at the field hitting and staying up to par on my baseball abilities," said Nichting. "We didn't make the postseason, so I wanted to make sure that I was doing what I needed to do to be ready to go as soon as I was drafted. I wanted to make some noise from the get-go."
With such a quick turnaround in sight, just Nichting and a friend of his were watching the draft from their couch. On the second day of the draft, the ninth round came around.
"I was getting calls on day two from a few teams (including the Orioles). Baltimore asked if I'd be willing to go in the ninth round and I didn't hesitate. I wanted to be drafted and I wanted to play ball. It was what I wanted to do my whole life.
"It was very low-key, watching a draft video with two guys talking. I heard my name. They talked about me for a minute. My phone blew up. I was talking to everybody. It was a really cool moment."
There was one other really cool moment the following day.
"The funniest thing about all of this was that my buddy, Zach Jarrett, was drafted on day three," said Nichting. "We went to (Class-A Short Season) Aberdeen together and it was probably one of the more comforting things in life to have someone familiar in such an unfamiliar place.
"It was definitely a transition. I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was the game of baseball, but I didn't know what to expect when I walked into Ripken Stadium. It was good having Zach with me because it's one of those things where you look at each other and understand that we're in the same place and probably going through the same thing."
The idea of the baseball grind is a real and omnipresent factor in sports, especially in baseball. Going for six months straight during the season and several months during the offseason, baseball players are facing both physical and mental challenges daily.
"Every day is a grind and somedays are easier than others," said Nichting. "Baseball is hard. There's a good side and a bad side to everything. If you have a bad day in baseball, you can be positive and look at the fact that you can play the next day with a clean slate or you can be negative and look at the fact that you have another day without succeeding.
"Every baseball player goes through both, but you got to put the negative aside at some point and keep focusing on the good, trusting the work that you put in yesterday, the day before, 10 or 15 years ago."
From the ball fields of Ohio to the stadiums in the Northeastern United States, Nichting is taking both Joshua Medcalf's words and his life's experiences and putting them to action.
The 100th blow won't be the last one in this journey's stone.
"Baseball has a crazy way of teaching you those lessons throughout, but you're never done learning," said Nichting. "After I had a bad game in high school, (my dad and I would) go to the cage 30 minutes after the game ended. That's the last thing I wanted to do after I played a bad game. He would force me to work and those are lessons that I was lucky enough to learn pretty quickly.
"Hard work is going to pay off and I think the hard work allows you to be confident the next day. The big thing is being positive and trusting the work you've put in and what you've learned. The everyday struggle and everyday grind with baseball is pounding the stone every day and trusting everything you've done, while coming to the field with the same attitude that today is going to be a good day."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.