They say that you never forget your first, and that will certainly be the case when it comes to Yakima Bears outfielder Joe Loftus and his first professional home run.
The 2012 season is Loftus' first in the professional ranks, and to say that it didn't begin in the manner that he would have liked would be an understatement. Through his first 21 games, Loftus, the Diamondbacks' 46th-round selection in the 2011 draft, was hitting an abysmal .169. Even worse, his slugging percentage stood at .239.
"The whole entire year I was kind of pressing," said Loftus, speaking prior to the Aug. 20 ballgame in Yakima. "It was not the way I wanted to start my career."
But things took a dramatic turn for the better July 14, when Loftus blasted his first home run of the season during an away game against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. He'll always cherish the moment.
"I got a curveball out in front on a 3-2 count -- I was just trying to see the ball and hit it hard and it went out. I thought it was gone for sure," he recalled. "That was a big thing. My dad had collected all of my home runs in high school. He was really proud."
But Loftus' father, Ray, wasn't able to collect this particular home run. Ray was back home in Minnesota, following his son's exploits via the Bears' Internet radio broadcast. Loftus says that, when he hit the home run, his father was "probably sitting at home right next to the computer, rocking back and forth."
As elated as Loftus was to have hit his first long ball -- to have gotten that monkey off his back, so to speak -- there was a tinge of disappointment in that he didn't have the ball as a keepsake. It was scooped up by an unknown fan in the Volcanoes' outfield picnic area, never to be seen again.
Or so Loftus thought. But when he arrived at the ballpark three weeks later on Aug. 7, his 23rd birthday, he was pulled out of the locker room and told that there was a package waiting for him. Furthermore, a reporter and photographer from the local Yakima Herald Republic were there to do a story on his reaction to the contents of this package. Loftus, caught totally off guard, was then handed a birthday present that he'll never forget: his first home run ball.
It turns out that Loftus' home run was retrieved by a fan named Randy Knox, who was in attendance with his wife Tammy. According to the Herald Republic, the Knoxes live in Deerfield, Ill., but were in the Salem area visiting their daughter. After they returned home, the Knoxes did some research on the home run ball he had snagged and discovered that it was Loftus' first home run. They then contacted Bears announcer John Hadden, who arranged to have the ball sent to Yakima County Stadium.
"The family that gave it to me, they left me a really good note saying just to enjoy baseball and have fun with it," said Loftus. "Ever since then, I've been a totally different player. I'm very honored and very humbled that there are fans out there that will do that. Sometimes you can get caught up in the game so much, you forget about what you're playing for. That brought me down to earth a little bit."
Indeed, Loftus has put up far better numbers in recent weeks. He's batting .298 and slugging .468 in the month of August, and in the game that followed my interview with him Monday, he delivered a clutch three-run double in the seventh inning that sparked an eventual 8-7, come-from-behind win over Boise. Things are looking up, but no matter how the rest of the season plays out, Loftus will always have a treasured keepsake from his inaugural professional campaign.
"You play a lot of games but this is something that is very, very meaningful," said Loftus. "I'll have that ball for the rest of my life, and probably show it to my kids some day."
Loftus has the note that the Knox family sent him hanging in his locker. It reads:
Congratulations on hitting your first home run as a professional player. Randy enjoyed getting his first home run ball at a game. We hope you hit a lot more home runs. We will be following your career. May God bless your time as a professional player. Remember to have fun! It's only a game.
Tammy and Randy