It takes a hefty amount of perseverance, dedication and talent to be a stand-out in the sport of baseball, and yet Bees pitcher Keynan Middleton makes it look easy. A starter turned late-inning reliever whose fastball clocks dangerously in the upper 90's, Middleton is on the radar as one of the Angels top prospects, but was once on the radar for as an entirely different type of prospect.
"Basketball was my passion," Middleton said. "I grew up loving the game from the jump, I was playing every day. I loved it, and I stayed with it. In high school I'd be in there shooting in the gym every morning. Even most of the times after football practice I'd be in there shooting too."
Despite his hectic schedule as a three-sport athlete at Milwaukie High School, the Portland native made time to put in the extra work where it counted. It paid off, earning him dual scholarships for both baseball and basketball at Lane Community College, close to home in Eugene, Oregon. Middleton excelled with collegiate basketball, leading the team in three-pointers, shooting 39 percent from the field and averaging 12 points a game. His stats with Titan baseball were equally impressive, with a 3.43 ERA and 1.14 WHP that gained remarkable scouting presence at his games. The Angels liked him enough to draft him in the third round in 2013 and Middleton put aside his basketball career and PAC-12 offers to focus full-time on baseball. But even with his Major League aspirations taking off, Middleton made sure to keep in contact with the staff of his alma mater and his basketball roots.
"I stayed in touch with my high school coaches when I went off to college, even when I got drafted. I spend my off-seasons back at home, and since it's my old high school I go there to work out every once in a while. I'm really close with them."
That connection proved to be a huge component in Middleton's newly discovered passion; coaching.
"Two years ago I was back home in the off-season, working out back at Milwaukie. The coaches were there and asked me if I wanted to come on the staff and help, just volunteer." Middleton said. "It sounded cool, and I said I'd do it. Even though I was just helping them out for my first year and a half, I really liked it. After that they asked me if I wanted to be the head JV coach and I said 'Hey, that'd be great.'"
This offseason was Middleton's second year as the head coach of the Milwaukee High School junior varsity team. Even with his steady growth under the Angels organization filling his calendar more and more, Middleton still makes his coaching commitment a priority.
"I had to stop halfway through the year for spring training," Middleton said. "But I made sure to come back for this past season."
With his electric fastball Middleton moved from Single-A to Triple-A last season. On the cusp of a Major League debut, it would be easy for Middleton to relax in the offseason and plan on being a big leaguer soon, but that's not his style. Coaching allowed him to set a positive example for younger players in his hometown and bring him closer to family.
"Coaching was more fun this year because my little brother was on the team, he's a sophomore," Middleton said. "It definitely was a big reason why I came back to coach. It was great being around him all the time."
On his teaching style, Middleton has used his passion and expertise as a former player as his main coaching emphasis. Having family ties helped him gain a sense of comfort with coaching as well.
"My little brother knows how much I know about the game and how I grew up playing basketball," Middleton said. "My brother was perfect for somebody to be there to listen. Everything I said he would get, and give back with his playing. It carried with the rest of the guys on the team, they worked hard. They knew where I came from, they knew the work it takes to be good."
Whenever his career on the mound ends, Middleton knows where he might go next. He'll trade the ball and glove in for a clipboard. Instead of scaring batters with a triple-digit fastball, he'll start prowling the sidelines or dugout back home in Oregon and impart his wisdom and love for sports onto the next generation of athletes.
"Yeah, 100%," Middleton said if he has considered coaching for a second career. "Especially basketball. I love baseball but I know more about basketball."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.