LANSING, Mich. via TORONTO, Ont. - Lansing Lugnuts outfielder D.J. Neal is thrilled that he has a good group of guys with which he can spend his first full season of minor-league baseball.
For him, the transition is being made so much easier by the courtesy and companionship of his Lugnuts teammates. That, and the fact that he's been able to stay relatively healthy thus far.
Neal, 22, who hails from Lithonia, Georgia, played both football and baseball at South Carolina, where he tore his labrum making a spectacular catch as a wide receiver playing in a game against Tennessee. "It took me a year to get healthy again", Neal recalled. "It was a pretty long process, just getting my arm back to where I wanted it to be."
A product of Stephenson High School in Stevenson, Georgia, Neal knows quite a few NFLers from his time as a football player, including Chicago Bears running back Mike Davis, Bears cornerback Duke Shelley and Washington first-round linebacker Montez Sweat, who grew up in Stone Mountain, ten miles away from Lithonia.
Well-connected in baseball as well, Neal knows loads of minor-leaguers who've been drafted by other MLB organizations, crediting his home state, one of the best at producing professional ballplayers, for the wealth of talent he grew up around.
Neal's father, a car painter in Georgia, painted automobiles for such names as Deion Sanders and Tupac, with the young D.J. even meeting both men shortly after he learned how to walk. "A lot of guys shipped their cars from different states to get it painted by him," Neal said. "He's really well-known in our area of Georgia. He's been doing that since he was a kid".
Alongside his bevvy of connections, Neal is no slouch, having put up a .297/.341/.426 slash line in 42 games with the Gulf Coast Blue Jays in 2017, and 15 stolen bases in 59 games with the Rookie-level Bluefield Blue Jays in 2018.
This year, he's been productive for Lansing, slashing .260/.317/.344, racking up 12 steals, two doubles, and three home runs in 146 plate appearances.
A product of an athletic family (his sister was a track star and his younger cousin plays competitive baseball at the high school level), Neal hopes to maintain a steady batting average and grow closer to his teammates this season.
"I want to be that guy," he remarked. "We've got a solid group of guys here and I want to do the right things and be all about positivity."
A speedy, sure- handed outfielder, Neal is one of the Lugnuts' most interesting names to watch going forward. With a passion for the game and great athleticism, 2019 is shaping up to be a fruitful year for D.J. Neal.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.