The visible portions of white in Jacob Stallings’ soft eyes expand when he remembers the shock of coming to Chapel Hill.
“It’s a lot of things,” he begins, searching for the right words. The old images from freshman year come to mind, and they prompt a few false starts. “I never was even…I never even dealt with it. Just the partying, and then, you don’t have to go to class. I mean…it’s on you to go to class!”
The memory retains its power. He still can’t believe it.
Stallings, now a junior and the baseball team’s starting catcher, speaks with me outside Boshamer Stadium at a green picnic table in the shade. The first time I met him, weeks earlier after a win against UNC-Charlotte, he took the time to go over the finer points of framing a pitch; how to fool an umpire into thinking a ball is a strike.
“You can’t frame width, but you can frame height,” he said. He explained how he uses his long arms to reach out as far as possible for the low pitches so they look higher, and catches the high ones as deep as possible so they have time to drop. He quoted an article he’d read the year before, when Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals said he tried to steal 10-12 strikes per game.
I was struck by the earnest way he spoke; he seemed genuinely concerned that I come away with good information. In contrast to the business-like approach many athletes take with the media, it felt refreshing, and his unfailing politeness was accentuated by certain verbal habits, like the way he said ‘golly’ without a hint of irony.
If you like baseball, he’s the kind of person you want to speak with again, mixing as he does the ingredients of generosity, intellect, and talent. I didn’t know at the time that his father, Kevin Stallings, is the head basketball coach at Vanderbilt, or that Jacob has never touched a drop of alcohol, or that he was reborn to the Baptist faith as a freshman and now attends mass at the Summit Church in Raleigh, or that on Sundays during the season he leads a team devotional.
But this information isn’t hard to uncover while we chat in the shadow of the stadium. Stallings is tall for a catcher at 6’5,” and so thin that you can safely call him ‘gaunt.’ He recently buzzed his hair in a charity promotion for cancer, and the short style highlights a receding hairline. He’s stronger now than he’s ever been, but if you saw him in loose clothes you’d still think he was a bag of bones.
And he’s unwaveringly sincere. Each question I lob his way is given a fair measure of consideration and answered in a way that strives for clarity. Which isn’t to say he’s robotic; he laughs, he hesitates, he reverses ground. But he’s not youthful—not in that casual, carefree sense. He’s the kind of 21-year-old who will say things like, “before I know it, I’ll be too old to play this game.”
He’s honest without being loose-lipped. You never get the sense that something is being held in reserve, but he does want to get it right.
Freshman year, that was part of the problem.
Before he came to Carolina, Stallings led an unusually stable life for the son of a college basketball coach. He was born in Lawrence, Kansas, moved to Illinois four years later, and settled for good in Brentwood, Tennessee before his tenth birthday. He’s the oldest of three children, and though he describes himself as a “home body,” he wasn’t spoiled.
“My dad always made me work hard at whatever I did,” he says. “And my mom too, for that matter.”
Lisa Stallings is a stay-at-home mom, and Jacob still receives her haranguing phone calls about the importance of grades. “She’s always on me about getting a tutor,” he says, a sheepish grin turning his lips. “Lord knows I need them in my science classes.”
He still loves to go to his dad’s practices at Vanderbilt when he gets the chance, and he spent the summer after his senior year in high school working out with the team to increase his strength for college.
But though Stallings sees himself as the product of his parents, he was a shy kid. Even today, when he speaks openly and intelligently on a variety of topics, the remnants of a reserved bearing occasionally emerge; a slight halt in the cadence, or a pause while the right word hovers just out of reach. And maybe that explains his sincerity; a conversational late-bloomer, he lacks the elliptical gift of gab and must approach the truth straight on.
It took baseball to bring him out of his shell when he arrived in Brentwood. His first little league coach took a risk for the newcomer, threatening to forfeit the rest of the team’s games if the rigid league didn’t let Stallings play due to his late arrival. The tactic worked, and Jacob is still appreciative more than a decade later. By his own admission, he wasn’t very good at baseball in those early days, and the coaches’ gesture made him feel like he belonged in the new town.
Stallings didn’t love baseball, though. Not the way he loved basketball. Stuck at third base, he excelled defensively and had a very strong arm, but was bored with only getting a few chances per game. And he wasn’t a great hitter, either; each successive summer dragged on while he struggled to improve. He refused to quit or coast, but the coming of basketball season was always a welcome relief.
That changed in eighth grade, when an injury to a teammate (at a tournament game in Omaha, no less) forced him to fill in at catcher. The first time behind the plate, he wasn’t even wearing a protective cup. He had no knowledge of the position, and had to rely exclusively on a strong arm and above average hand-eye coordination to survive. Once he immersed himself in the action at the busiest position in the game, though, Stallings knew he could never go back to the infield.
As junior high turned to high school, his basketball skills hit a plateau while his baseball ability soared. It became clear that his athletic future lay on the diamond, and the approach of college recruiters reflected the new reality. Many expected him to attend Vanderbilt, but thanks in part to Commodore head coach Tim Corbin, the decision was easy.
“Vandy had a lot of catchers on their roster that were older than me,” says Stallings. “Coach Corbin even told me that’s in my best interest to come to Carolina.”
While he considered his future, Carolina made the College World Series three straight times. The allure of playing at a school where he could become a champion cemented the decision; Stallings would go to Chapel Hill.
“Very, very hard on himself, when he first got here,” says UNC head coach Mike Fox of Stallings. “Perfectionist, really.”
In a game as precarious and unforgiving as baseball, a coach is obliged to play the occasional role of psychologist. That’s especially true in college, where young players cope with the reality of leaving home for the first time. But Fox, contrary to the expansive style employed by a stereotypical shrink, speaks in short sentences, often omitting the first clause.
“Really wanted to be good,” he says of his catcher. “And couldn’t handle not being very good, especially offensively.”
Fox, in his 28th season as a head coach, has led 10 different teams to a top five finish in the College World Series in Omaha. He’s amassed over 1,000 wins and compiled an eye-popping .742 career winning percentage. This is a man who understands success.
And he’s intimate with failure, too. Fox has never reached the summit of his profession, despite a sustained excellence that inevitably brings his teams to the very edge. He came closest in 2006, losing 3-2 in a deciding third game against Oregon State for the national title. Daniel Bard, the heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon and the Boston Red Sox closer’s role, was Fox’s losing pitcher.
Experience alone prepared him to deal with a pupil like Stallings, but there are parallel lines between the two lives. Like Stallings, who was an all-state basketball player for Brentwood Academy in high school, Fox excelled on the hard court; he played JV ball at North Carolina under Eddie Fogler. Like Stallings, Fox is a Christian. Like Fox, and his own father, Stallings hopes to become a coach when his playing days are done.
Fox calls his catcher “very, very good” defensively, consciously stopping short of ‘great.’ Stallings has thrown out 21 of 48 base stealers this season, good for the fourth-highest single-season percentage in school history. With a strong arm and a surprisingly quick transfer for a tall catcher, he’s adept at cutting down ambitious runners. His flexibility allows him to block difficult pitches—he’s allowed just two passed balls this season—and his .990 fielding percentage speaks to his deft glove play.
But hitting has always been the problem.
When he first took batting practice at East Chapel Hill High School, where the team trained when Boshamer Stadium was being built, Stallings could barely hit a ball out of the cage.
He only started 19 games as a freshman, hitting .246 with a meager .263 slugging percentage. He did show a talent for earning walks, a self-preserving trait that Fox says allowed him to stay in the lineup while the rest of his offensive game was developing. Last year, as a sophomore, his hard work bore fruit; he started 41 games and hit .307 with 13 doubles and two home runs, posting a .417 on-base percentage.
“From where he started to where he is now is just leaps and bounds,” says Fox.
This season, Stallings’ average has dipped to .283, and his power numbers are slightly down from a season ago. He takes pains to keep his mind off his production numbers, but admits that it’s difficult.
“I’ve got a little too much going on up there,” he says, pointing to his head. And though he dismisses stats, he will cite something called ‘Quality At-Bats,’ a measure of productivity meant to show that his current numbers are a bit unlucky.
But his patience has served him better than ever before; with 32 walks on the season, his on-base percentage is still strong at .408. Fox allows that his catcher might be disappointed with the stats, but is quick to delineate the two seasons. Unlike a year ago, when he hit ninth, Stallings has batted clean-up for much of 2011.
“He didn’t have as much offensive responsibility last year,” says Fox. “All the sudden we’re asking him to do a lot more, and hit in the middle of the order.”
Coach and player maintain that the numbers are of less concern than the process. They even use the same word to describe their approach: faith.
In the middle of our conversation outside Boshamer, speaking about his relationship with Fox, Stallings brings up Christianity for the first time.
His mother Lisa is Catholic, he tells me, and he grew up going to Catholic Church because he felt obliged. But in Chapel Hill, faced with a stiff culture shock and struggling to find his place on the baseball team, he needed more. That’s when he found Mike McKee, a senior catcher who’s now in seminary school, speaking with a group of players.
As Stallings begins to talk about McKee, my ears perk. I understand this will essentially be his origin story, the tale of his conversion.
“He was talking to a bunch of guys in the locker room,” Stallings says, “just about, you know, you don’t want to prove that Christianity is the right way, but as far as Christianity and evolution goes—the guy who created evolution—is it Charles Darwin? On his death bed, which I had no idea, he refuted evolution and became a believer.”
Before continuing, Stallings looks for my reaction. I mumble something about having maybe heard this before, which is a pale version of the truth.
“That just blew me away,” he exclaims. “I was just like, wow. If the guy who invented it says it’s not true, then how can it be? Then how can you argue now that there’s no higher being in the world? And to me, that person is Jesus Christ, and that’s all I needed to take that next step forward.”
The explanation is, at that exact moment, disappointing. The content itself strikes me as a false bit of apocrypha, a too-convenient narrative designed for quick conversions. Later research confirms the instinct. It also strikes me that Stallings is too smart for that kind of thing.
And as someone who believes in a God compatible with evolution, my own expectations are let down. We always want the people we like and admire to be just like us.
But when I get past my own prejudices, I realize the how of Stallings’ conversion isn’t important. It doesn’t matter what he believes about Darwin. What matters is the why. Why did he choose to believe? Why did he need to believe?
“I think Jacob, his freshman year, was probably like most of us at 18,” says Coach Fox. “I think he thought, ‘well, I should be happy here. What’s missing?’ We had some guys on the team at that point who were really strong Christians, and I think Jacob saw them and they had a big influence on him. I think his faith has given him a little different sense of purpose, and I think it’s given him a sense of calm.”
In other words, Stallings had to adapt. “I needed to make a few changes in my life,” he admits to me. Far from home and in what may as well have been a foreign culture, he felt lost. It wasn’t a sustainable way to live.
And by making those changes, he’s improved his game and improved himself. Coach Fox tells me he used to pout, used to get discouraged, used to get angry when he failed. Extreme competitiveness, that quality which propelled him to one of the best baseball programs in the country, began to work against him.
“Not that he’s still not working hard,” says Fox, “but I don’t think he sweats over it and lets it eat him up like he used to. And I think that’s a good thing.”
His faith has brought him home. That’s what faith is meant to do, and it’s why he was better off without the truth about Darwin.
The Carolina baseball team is 32-10. They made the College World Series in Stallings’ freshman year, but missed out last season. Omaha is the goal in 2011, if not the focus.
On a personal level, Stallings wants to find his baseball ceiling. He’ll be eligible for the draft at the end of this year, and he’s not yet sure whether he’ll come back for his senior season. When his career ends, he hopes to parlay his sports administration major, and maybe his dad’s connections, into a coaching career. He has a high school sweetheart named Amy Beth who goes to school in Tennessee and who he describes as ‘the strongest Christian I know.’ He expects to marry her and start a family soon.
As to his baseball future, he admits that it’s all a mystery. Fox, while allowing that Jacob’s best baseball could be ahead of him, shows concern.
“The question is, can Jacob hit at the next level with a wood bat? Can he make that adjustment?”
The unspoken worry is that his hitting at the college level, while competent, has fallen short of excellence. That’s never a terrific omen in the competitive world of professional baseball. But in typical fashion, neither man wants to look past the journey.
For what it’s worth, Jesus Montero is a catcher too. He was born in Venezuela, and he signed with the New York Yankees when he was 16 years old while Stallings played for Brentwood Academy. By age 17, when Stallings was wondering where he’d go to college, Montero was starring in the Gulf Coast league. As Stallings suffered his acute growing pains during freshman year, Montero hit .327 for the Yankees Single-A team in Charleston. While Stallings moved up the UNC lineup, Montero moved up a professional farm system. This season, he’s at AAA, just a blink from the big leagues.
Both are 21. For Stallings, men like Montero are the competition. This is the parallel universe he’ll enter in the next two years.
And for all his sincerity, for all his faith, and for every moment of real likability, Stallings may be close to learning a truth he’s found comfort in denying: we proceed at the mercy of a precarious path, our futures dictated by the survival of the fittest.