For Ian Stewart, 2004 was a very eventful year.
The 19-year-old former first-round Draft pick, playing his first full season of professional baseball as a member of the Class A Asheville Tourists, hit .319 with 30 home runs and 101 RBIs. And to top it all off, he met future wife Susan Mikulik -- who just happened to be the manager's daughter.
The manager (now father-in-law) in question is Joe Mikulik, who's entering his 11th season as Asheville's field general. Mikulik and Stewart are members of the same family, but when 2004 began, the veteran manager had not yet met the young phenom, whom the Rockies selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.
"I had heard a little bit about Ian when he was drafted and also knew about the kind of season he'd had with [Rookie-level] Casper [in 2003]," recalled Mikulik. "He was coming in with a big bat and expectations were high."
These expectations were met in Asheville, not just with the bat but with the glove.
"The kind of plays you see him making now, the 'Web Gems,' he made those in Asheville," Mikulik said. "I played with Ken Caminiti in both Double- and Triple-A, and watching Ian during that season I thought to myself that he's another Caminiti defensively. He would make strong, accurate throws to first from the seat of his pants."
That defensive prowess, coupled with nearly unheard of power numbers for a player his age, solidified Stewart as one of the top prospects in the Rockies organization.
"Asheville has a very short right-field porch, but [hitting coach] Dave Hajek did a great job with Ian," said Mikulik. "We wanted him to hit to all fields and not get too pull-happy. That results in a higher average, too. He hit .319 that year and made it look easy at a time when a lot of kids that age are really scuffling."
And then there were the life-changing off-the-field developments.
"The first time Ian met Susan, he asked my permission to take her to get ice cream after the ballgame," Mikulik recalled. "I said, 'Sure, have her back by 11.' It was about 10:30 at the time."
The half-hour date at the ice cream parlor eventually led to a serious relationship, one not without precedent.
"I played [in Asheville] in 1985 and met my wife here. I manage here now and this is where we raised our family," Mikulik said. "We got married in 1986 and 20 years later, Ian marries Susan. Now I have a granddaughter. Sometimes things are just meant to be."
The 2004 season had a storybook quality to it, so perhaps it was inevitable that Stewart experienced quite a bit more difficulty the following year as a member of the Class A Advanced Modesto Nuts. A hamstring injury in Spring Training forced him to miss the first month of the season and he struggled at the plate and in the field upon his return.
"When [Stewart] joined the team, it was kind of like he had to have Spring Training all over again," said Stu Cole, who managed Stewart with Modesto in 2005 and Double-A Tulsa in 2006. "He had never struggled before in his life, so he really had to step back a little bit and readjust. My job was to just keep him positive and make sure he stayed focused."
After the slow start, Stewart rebounded to hit .345 in July and finished the season with a .274 average, 17 homers and 86 RBIs in 112 games. He put up similar numbers during an up-and-down season with Tulsa in 2006, but by the time the year was over, Cole was convinced the 22-year-old was ready to succeed at a higher level.
"His maturity level really went up as a result of playing with older guys," said Cole, who now manages Triple-A Colorado Springs. "The game really speeds up [in Double-A], but he did a nice job making adjustments."
At that point, Stewart was on the cusp of the Majors. He opened the 2007 campaign with Triple-A Colorado Springs and received a callup to the Rockies in mid-August. After splitting 2008 between the two clubs, he enjoyed his first full year as Colorado's starting third baseman last season.
And as he continues to evolve as a Major League player, Stewart can always count on his father-in-law for support.
"I'm not going to put any more pressure on Ian than what he already puts on himself," Mikulik said. "I played 11 years in the Minors and know that sometimes criticism is the last thing you need. I'm really proud of what he's done, so the best thing for me to do is to keep providing encouragement."
Minor League career breakdown
2003: After being selected by the Rockies with the 10th overall pick of the Draft, Stewart begins his professional career with the Casper Rockies of the Rookie-level Pioneer League. He hits .317 with a .401 on-base percentage, 10 homers and 43 RBIs in 52 games.|
2004: Enjoys a monster season with Class A Asheville, setting career highs in average (.319), homers (30), RBIs (101) and stolen bases (19). He loses out to Brandon Moss for the MVP award. |
2005: Despite missing the first month of the season with a hamstring injury, Stewart hits .274 with 17 homers and 86 RBIs as a member of the Class A Advanced Modesto Nuts. Those numbers earn him a spot on the California League All-Star team before a stint in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League ends early due to a wrist injury.|
2006: Spends Spring Training with the big league club and the regular season with Double-A Tulsa. There, Stewart hits .268 with a career-high 41 doubles, 10 homers and 71 RBIs in 120 games.|
2007-08: Most of the 2007 season is spent at Triple-A Colorado Springs, where Stewart bats .304 with 15 homers and 65 RBIs in 112 games. He makes his Major League debut on Aug. 11 and appears in 35 games with the Rockies. Opens 2008 back in Colorado Springs, batting .280 and slugging .607 in 69 games. Is a regular part of the Rockies' lineup for the second half of the season, setting the stage for his first full Major League campaign in 2009.|