It’s not just baseball fans who count down the days to spring training and opening day.
Paul DeJong ’15 gets the itch too. The former Illinois State baseball star is finishing up his first spring training as a professional player, after being drafted last spring by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sure, he enjoyed his offseason in Florida, getting in workouts and spending time with family. But once New Year’s Day hit, he was ready to get back on the field.
“I just can’t wait to be playing baseball again,” he said. “We all need some baseball in our lives right now.”
DeJong will soon begin his second season as a minor leaguer, hoping to rise through the ranks of the Cardinals organization. A month after graduating from Illinois State with a degree in biochemistry last May, DeJong was playing for the Cardinals’ rookie league team in Johnson City, Tennessee.
After only 10 games he was promoted to the Peoria Chiefs, a Class A team just 45 minutes from Normal, where he earned national recognition for his work both on the field and in the classroom. DeJong led the Redbirds and the Missouri Valley Conference with 14 home runs during his 2015 season. He was named an All-MVC First-Team selection for the second year in a row, among other honors.
At the same time, he was finishing up his degree in biochemistry—a demanding discipline for anyone, especially a student-athlete who’s often traveling for games. Inspired in part by his chemist-grandmother, DeJong chose that major with intentions of someday going to medical school.
Few baseball players make it to the big show. DeJong didn’t know if he’d be one of them.
“I just wanted to make sure I had a good degree when I got out of college,” he said.
In 2015 DeJong was an MVC Scholar-Athlete First-Team selection for the second-straight year and earned the MVC Commissioner’s Academic Excellence Award.
One of DeJong’s closest mentors at Illinois State was Marjorie Jones, professor of biochemistry. She was impressed by his work ethic and maturity; yes, he occasionally showed up to class looking more tired than the other students due to his baseball schedule, but he’d work hard to never fall behind.
“He did it the right way,” Jones said. “He’s the kind of student you want a whole room full of.”
DeJong was also drafted in 2014 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the 38th round. But he chose to stay at Illinois State to finish his degree, in hopes his 2015 season would earn him a higher draft pick.
He was right; the Cardinals picked him in 2015 in the fourth round. Yet he was still concerned about putting his biochemistry training—and his dreams of a post-baseball career in science—on hold.
Jones’ advice put him at ease.
“I told him, ‘Paul, you can pretty much do anything you want. You’ve got the foundation. You’ve got the motivation,’” Jones said. “Oh sure, it’ll be hard. But he’s used to doing hard work.”
Her words made a big difference. “Dr. Jones was there for me every second I needed her.”
Back to baseball
DeJong grew up in Orlando, Florida, but later moved to Illinois and attended high school in Antioch. He was under-recruited coming out of high school and was offered a preferred walk-on spot at ISU.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said DeJong.
“It’s really a good time to be a Redbird and I’m looking forward to seeing where ISU goes next.” —Paul DeJong
Big picture, his goals are to move up to the next highest level of pro ball each season, like he did moving from Johnson City to Peoria. In 56 games with the Chiefs, DeJong had 63 hits, 26 RBI, and 5 home runs. His next promotion—if he continues to play well—would be to the High-A Palm Beach Cardinals.
DeJong is more interested in short-term goals—a good at-bat, or a good defensive inning.
“I’ll keep the same attitude, no matter where I end up,” he said.
He’s thankful to Redbird Athletics and his coaches, and he praised faculty mentors like Jones.
“I’m very grateful for all the things Illinois State did for me, both academically and athletically,” DeJong said. “I’m happy to be an alum and happy to follow all the progress (back at Illinois State). It’s really a good time to be a Redbird and I’m looking forward to seeing where ISU goes next.”
Redbirds in the pros
DeJong is one of many Redbirds to play professional baseball. Here’s a full list from Redbird Athletics:
Illinois State baseball alumni in MLB
- Neal Cotts, 2003-2015 *
- Jeremy Accardo, 2005-12
- Matt Herges, 1999-2009
- Dan Kolb, 1999-2007
- Jason Karnuth, 2001-05
- Jason Pearson, 2002-03
- Eric Eckenstahler, 2002-03
- Paul Wagner, 1992-99
- Dave Bergman, 1975-92 #
- Tom Wieghaus, 1981-84
- Buzz Capra, 1971-77
- Sheldon Mallory, 1977
- Ed Kinsella, 1905-10 #
* Still active
Illinois State baseball alumni currently in affiliated professional baseball:
- Eric Aguilera, Class AA Arkansas Travelers (Los Angeles Angels)
- Neal Cotts, MLB Minnesota Twins
- Dylan Craig, Class A Short Season Boise Hawks (Colorado Rockies)
- Paul DeJong, Class A Peoria Chiefs (St. Louis Cardinals)
- Will Headean, Class A Short Season Tri-City Dust Devils (San Diego Padres)
- Chad Hinshaw, Class AA Arkansas Travelers (Los Angeles Angels)
- Ryan Koziol, Rookie League AZL Giants (San Francisco Giants)
- Jeremy Rhoades, Class A Advanced Inland Empire 66ers (Los Angeles Angels)
- Dan Savas, Rookie League Missoula Osprey (Arizona Diamondbacks)
- Brock Stewart, High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.