In the middle of an April 5 game at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Arkansas, Kramer Robertson's mind drifted more than 1,000 miles away to Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, where Baylor was battling Oregon in the Women's Final Four.
Double-A Springfield rallied enough against host Northwest Arkansas in the seventh to move the Cardinals prospect into the on-deck slot with two outs, cutting him off from information about Baylor's national semifinal contest. When Stefan Trosclair struck out to end the frame, it only exacerbated Robertson's conundrum -- so long were the live updates from Springfield trainer Chris Whitman, who was tracking the action on his phone.
"I can't go back into the dugout, so I go back onto the field having no idea what was going," he said. "Finally, [Whitman] gave me a thumbs-up and I started fist-pumping at shortstop. Everybody in the stands was probably wondering why the shortstop was randomly fist-pumping."
The thumbs-up was a signal that Baylor pulled it out, 72-67, to play for a championship. And there's good reason behind the shortstop's excitement. Kim Mulkey -- Robertson's mother -- has been the Bears' head coach since 2000. It's a family affair, as Robertson's sister, Makenzie, is an assistant on their mother's staff.
Two days later, Baylor played for the national title in an emotional game against Notre Dame. The Bears squandered a sizable lead after star player Lauren Cox left with a serious knee injury in the second half. Springfield wrapped up their series against the Naturals just as the game tipped, and Robertson watched most of the game as his team bussed from Northwest Arkansas to Tulsa, Oklahoma, that Sunday evening.
As Mulkey's squad held off the defending champions, the crowd surrounding first baseman Chris Chinea -- a teammate of Robertson's dating back to their LSU days -- grew until basically the entire bus was watching during the final, stressful seconds. The Bears won, 82-81, giving Mulkey her third national championship. Robertson had been present for the first two, so he relied on technology to get as close as he could this time.
"Everyone [on the bus] was going crazy. I FaceTimed my mom -- actually, my brother-in-law and he handed her the phone -- right after the game," he said. "I don't know why I did that. It was my first instinct. I wanted to be there so bad. ... I looked to my left at Chris' phone, and I could see myself on FaceTime on his phone on the ESPN app."
His mother was glad to get the call.
"It was like he was there with us," Mulkey said. "I saw all his teammates in the background. All I could do was scream, 'We did it! We did it!' And he goes, 'We know! We're watching it, we're on the bus.' He goes, 'Mom, I've got all these teammates who don't even know basketball watching and pulling for you.'"
Mulkey, daughter Makenzie Fuller and grandson Kannon Reid Fuller celebrate. (John Raoux/AP)
Indeed, this stretch of US-412 contained a new Baylor fan club. With the son of the Bears coach on the roster, Springfield manager Joe Kruzel felt like his whole team was part of the victory.
"It was neat to follow, knowing that you knew somebody who was close to it," the skipper said. "What a neat experience, to be able to watch somebody live that emotional roller coaster, so to speak, that they were able to share that as a family. It was neat that they included us."
Powering -- and leveling -- up
The Cardinals picked Robertson -- a two-year starter at LSU with a national championship appearance on his resume -- in the fourth round of the 2017 Draft.
Between Class A Peoria (2017) and Class A Advanced Palm Beach (2018), Robertson entered this season a career .261 hitter with five homers in 675 at-bats. Through 30 games (99 at-bats) for Springfield to start 2019, the 24-year-old clubbed six jacks and plated 17 runs. Last Thursday, St. Louis promoted him to Triple-A Memphis, where he was 0-for-6 with three walks in nine at-bats over his first three Pacific Coast League games.
"Kramer never calls and he's never up before noon, so when I got the call, I said, 'I better take this call,'" Mulkey said. "He said, 'I'm moving up to Memphis. Someone got hurt. I don't know if it'll be a week, two weeks, don't know.' I said, 'Who cares? How fast can you get there?'"
Robertson left Springfield with a .962 fielding percentage. (Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals)
The power increase was the result of a calculated workout adjustment. A .677 OPS in Florida State League play caused Robertson to reassess his offseason training regiment. First, he returned to Waco, Texas -- where he moved at the age of five when Baylor hired Mulkey -- instead of training in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, like he'd done the past two offseasons. The right-handed hitter didn't touch a bat until after New Year's. Strength conditioning became the primary tenet of his workouts. He hit the weight room five days a week.
"I was self-motivated after last season when I didn't perform as well as I wanted to," he said. "I wanted to come in this year and get off to a good start, and I feel like I've done that."
He also shifted his approach at the plate. During Spring Training, the Cardinals called him up as an extra body for some Grapefruit League games. He never actually played, but being in the big league clubhouse allowed him to overhear how hitters such as St. Louis leadoff man Matt Carpenter attacks an opposing pitcher. The philosophy revolves around a simple theme: patience.
"Until I get to two strikes, I'm looking for a certain pitch in a certain location, and if I don't get it, I just take it," Robertson explained. "So, that sometimes gets me into a bad count. Sometimes that gets me into a good count. But my walks are up significantly from what they've ever been and my power number are, as well, because I'm hitting pitches I can do damage with and I'm not just swinging to make contact like I have in years past."
Robertson left Springfield with a career-best .872 OPS, which ranked ninth in the Texas League. His .408 on-base percentage (fifth in the TL) is largely thanks to his 24 walks, which was second on the circuit.
"He was just getting into a really good position to hit and he made some good passes to hit," Kruzel said. "I don't think he's a true home run hitter. He's got occasional power. The thing was, he was staying within himself and keeping with his approach, and he had better results because of that."
One of his long balls came off three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who was pitching for Double-A Tulsa on a rehab assignment.
"I got him," Robertson said. "That's the only thing I thought: 'I got him.' He made a mistake with a fastball. That's what I was looking for, and I got him."
The emphasis on reaching base and slugging has come at a cost, in terms of batting average. Robertson hit .242 with the Cardinals prior to promotion, 10 points lower than what he hit for Palm Beach in 2018. Batting average isn't one of the stats he particularly concerns himself with.
He does, however, strive for consistency.
"Guys in Double-A and Triple-A have the talent," he said. "The guys in the big leagues have figured out how to do it on a consistent basis -- you know what they're going to give you on a nightly basis. That's what I'm working on. To be the same guy every day. I need to fine-tune all my tools."
Where better to rise to such a challenge than one step from the Majors?
"I think this is a good opportunity for him, see what Triple-A's like for him, give him an opportunity to play some," Kruzel said. "Hopefully, he can maintain what he was doing here up there."
'Nothing great was ever done without enthusiasm'
Having a big-time college basketball coach for a mother meant that popular coaching euphemisms sometimes made their way into parental advice. One such line from Mulkey that's always stuck with her son is: "Nothing great was ever done without enthusiasm."
"I've taken that into my own career, because baseball can get monotonous, especially in the Minor Leagues," Robertson said. "If you get enthusiastic about what you do and you love what you do, it'll never seem like a job. That's kind of the approach I take."
The passion is always apparent. But don't give Robertson the so-called eye test, Mulkey said. The seven-time Big 12 Coach of the Year has recruited plenty of players who may not appear to fit her program, but who end up being an ideal match after extended evaluation. So when she says not to draw conclusions based on the size of her son -- a 5-foot-10 middle infielder who admires smaller players such as Jose Altuve and Dustin Pedroia -- she knows what she's talking about.
"There's a lot of pop and a lot of bat speed in that little body," Mulkey said. "He's hitting homers left and right. ... Those that continue the grind will make it. He's got a great mind-set and understands how to lead in both his actions on the field."
2019 MiLB include
Perhaps it was a two-time AP Coach of the Year's influence on Robertson that developed him into a strong leader. Kruzel lamented the loss of Robertson not only because of his bat and defense, but the presence he provides in the clubhouse.
"He's a neat young man to hang around and talk to. He's very accountable," the manager said. "He plays the game hard. He enjoys playing it. He sticks his nose into the game every night he's out there. It's a great characteristic that he owns. I think he has a way of having other players feed off of that."
Two weekends ago, Springfield had an away series against Double-A Frisco, just two hours north of Waco. Mulkey was in the crowd and threw out the first pitch prior to one of the contests. The RoughRiders asked Robertson to catch the offering -- a perfect strike.
"That was very nice of the RoughRiders, to throw it to my son," Mulkey said. "Usually, you throw it to your team that's asked you to do it. It was really sweet and nice of them to do."
Memphis heads to San Antonio -- less than three hours south of Waco -- for a five-game set beginning Thursday in PCL action. If Mulkey gets her way, Robertson will be taking the field in front of her once more.
It's better than FaceTime.