It's quiet and still. Everything seems to be in slow motion. The pitcher keeps peeking over, making sure there is no chance the base runner is stealing second. Except this runner is a thief. An everyday master mind. He knows when the pitcher is going to look over, pick to first, and deliver home. The pitcher believes he is in control and this thief lets him believe that.
The silence continues, the runner is in the moment, and nothing can disrupt his groove. The pitcher throws over, he dives back, his hand on the bag in-time. The ump screams 'Safe!' A grin appears on the runner's face, he knows he has entered the pitchers mind and there is nothing that can be done now. Sweat drips down from his helmet as the lead off first grows a bit larger now. The runner counts the seconds that go by. The pitcher finally delivers home and the runner takes off. Head down, sprinting towards second. He dives into second base as the shortstop covers the bag and puts the tag on his back.
The crowd erupts with noise, the runner knows he is safe. He looks up to the umpire with one arm in the air, "time sir." Granted time, he stands up dusting the dirt off his jersey, one bag down, time to take third.
Chihuahuas outfielder, Rico Noel has been stealing bases since his high school days at Lawton High School in Oklahoma.
"Base stealing isn't just about running. There are a lot of fast guys but they can't steal bases. They just don't have the instincts on the bases. I've been doing it since I was younger," Noel said.
The 5'8" switch-hitter states adjustments and getting into a rhythm are a key to be affective on the base paths.
"Adjustments are a key factor in stealing. Seeing a pitcher and knowing a pitcher is needed when stealing. Knowing what he does, knowing how he picks, and knowing how he goes to the plate. Getting out there and getting comfortable that's the key, it keeps you aggressive. That's when I can attack on the base paths," Noel said.
Noel attended Lawton High School (OK), and was a three-sport athlete playing football and basketball along with baseball. During his senior campaign, Noel batted .391 and stole 31 bases earning him Lawton's Most Outstanding Athlete that year.
His junior year was no different. Noel hit .375 with six HRs, nine doubles and stole 37 bases being named an All-Southern Conference performer.
In football, Noel was an All-State Honorable Mention selection by the Daily Oklahoman his junior year proving how multi-sport athletes not only produce big numbers in all sports, but can dominate too.
"Playing football in high school definitely helped me. Especially in the weight room where I gained a competitive edge. I say you work a lot harder in football then you do in baseball when it comes to training and working out. I also played basketball so playing sports year round kept me athletic and in-shape which helped a lot."
Not only did playing multiple sports help the future Chihuahuas outfielder but a little family bonding contributed to Noel's interest in the game of baseball as well.
"My older brother played baseball. A lot of my cousins and family played baseball. Being younger and watching them and seeing how much they loved the game made me want to play too."
Drafted out of Coastal Carolina University, Noel put up big numbers for the Chanticleers playing from 2008-2010.
In 2008 as a sophomore, he hit .240 with five doubles, two triples, two home runs and 26 RBIs. Hit his first career home run in a win over Winthrop on May 23rd. In the Big South Championship Game, he went 3-for-4 with a double and a triple in the 9-2 win over Liberty. Was second on the team in stolen bases with 16 that year.
During his junior campaign in 2009, he played and started in all 63 games while hitting .315 with 17 doubles, a triple, eight HRs and 45 RBIs. His legs proved to be a vital asset for the team as he swiped 48 bags in 51 attempts. He led the Big South and was tied nationally in stolen bases. In addition to an impressive year, the outfielder was named to the All-Big South First Team and named to the All-Big South Tournament team, while recording a .500 slugging percentage and a .427 on-base percentage.
As a senior in 2010, he was named the Big South's Preseason Player of the Year, picking up four first-place votes and 11 points in the voting, which was an addition to his Third Team Preseason All-American accolade by Ping! Baseball.
"Coastal had a great coaching staff that helped us out and developed a lot of guys. It was really competitive. I had a great time for three years."
The Lawton, Oklahoma native not only put his name on the map for national exposure, but he helped Coastal Carolina become one of the most dominate programs in the country.
"It was great, but it wasn't just me. I had a great group of guys around me and we had a lot of talent. Everyone was on the same page, we vibed together on and off the field and we were a family. When you have that team atmosphere with talent, it's pretty unstoppable."
The Chanticleers have etched their name in NCAA Division I baseball glory becoming an elite team in the nation. Winning 14 Big South Conference Titles (1986, 1989, 1991, 1992, 2001-2004, 2007-2012), and appearing in 12 NCAA tournaments (1991, 2001-2005, 2007, 2008, 2010-2013), Coastal Carolina has the respect of the nation producing countless Major League draft picks.
"I loved it. Coastal was the perfect fit for me. An underdog program: that we transferred into a big name program. When Coastal recruited me, I had no idea who they were, but it's cool because now when I tell people I went to Coastal, they know who we are."
Noel was drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft by the San Diego Padres and exploded onto the scene right out of the gate.
In his four seasons, Noel played for four teams. As a rookie, he started out his career with the Eugene Emeralds (Low A). Playing in 32 games, hitting .277 with 15 RBIs, one HR, 22 runs, while slugging .357 and boasting a .783 OPS. He was promoted to the Fort Wayne TinCaps (A) playing in 12 games hitting .136, scoring three runs and recording seven RBIs.
"The adjustments I made in college I had to do in pro ball as well. The coaching staffs have been great helping me make the adjustments I made in the cage and transfer them into the game. Working at it every day will make you successful."
In 2011, he started his season with Fort Wayne and dominated in 94 games. Noel recorded 95 hits, scored 70 runs, and blasted out 20 doubles. The sophomore added to his impressive numbers with three home runs and 50 swiped bags. His on-base percentage of .345 impressed the team in Lake Elsinore (Adv A) to promote him half way through the year. With the Storm, he played 32 games scored 19 runs, recorded 21 hits, drove in six RBIs and stole 12 bases. He had a .210 batting average with an on-base percentage of .313.
To start the 2012 campaign, he began in Lake Elsinore playing 134 games, scoring 79 runs, showcasing 139 hits, 14 doubles, and two triples while driving in 30 RBIs as well. His 90 stolen bases, .357 on-base percentage, .305 slugging percentage and .663 OPS really impressed the organization to move him up to San Antonio (AA).
Gathering top accolades in the Padres organization, Noel established himself as a top prospect in the system. Noel was rated as the best defensive outfielder in the Padres organization according to Baseball America entering the 2012 campaign and was named the Padres' 2011 Minor League Defensive Player of the Year.
Noel has become a fan favorite in El Paso, digging in the batter's box to the chant of 'Rico Suave', his flash has captured the hearts of the Chihuahuas faithful.
"I'm loving it. The fans are crazy. The ballpark is second to none, and the fans are unbelievable. Every game seems to be sold out and they are loud, and entertaining. It's a big league atmosphere and I'm really enjoying it."
Taking his lead, he knows the spotlight is on him. Waiting for moment to strike, waiting for his opportune moment to swipe third. He crouches down in an athletic stance, his arms dangling, his fingers wiggling anxious to attack. He digs his cleats in the soft, brown, dirt patiently biding his time. The crowd is roaring wanting him to steal third, then all of a sudden as if the crowd was put on mute, everything seems still again. Separated from all other distractions, he is ready to unleash his speed. One look from the pitcher, two looks, and then after the third glance, the pitcher goes to the plate. An explosion of force erupts from his legs, and Noel takes off for third knowing another stolen base is in his reach.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.