Former Illinois State baseball star Paul DeJong ’15 has already racked up a large number of accolades since being called up from the minor leagues to the St. Louis Cardinals in May.
DeJong hit a home run with his first big league swing against the Colorado Rockies. He has followed that up with another 19 blasts to lead the team. The only major leaguer who has hit more home runs from June 15 to now is Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. On DeJong’s 24th birthday, he was named National League Rookie of the Month for July. His rookie season has been mentioned in the same breath as former Cardinals great Albert Pujols’ 2001 rookie campaign.
But if you ask DeJong about his favorite moment in the big leagues so far, he glosses over his individual accomplishments in favor of a big win against a division rival.
“Winning at Wrigley against the (Chicago) Cubs when we put up nine in the eighth inning was a fun time.” DeJong said.
Speaking to people who know him, DeJong’s team-first response doesn’t surprise them. Former Redbird Joe Kelch ’16, who is now coaching baseball at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, was one of DeJong’s closest friends at Illinois State.
“Paul was a great teammate,” Kelch said. “He was one of those guys who when you needed to be picked up, he picked you up. And if you needed to be told to do something right, he could be stern and tell you when to do that as well. He’s really smart in everything that he does and there is a reason behind everything he is doing.”
Redbirds head baseball coach Bo Durkac said DeJong was someone who might not have had the most impressive physical tools when compared to other recruits, but was able to shape himself into a big league level baseball player through hard work. Teammates notice and are quick to follow his lead.
“He’s just so methodical in how he speaks. He is so measured and mature, that guys think, ‘This Paul DeJong guy has got it figured out. I am going to be like him.’ So his teammates gravitated towards him, and he could be a leader without being an in your face, screaming at guys type of leader,” Durkac said.
DeJong came to Illinois State as a recruited walk on in fall of 2011. Injuries prevented him from committing to the Redbirds until February of his senior year.
Even with the late start, DeJong said he felt good about Illinois State from his first visit.
“It’s a big school but has a small school feel,” he said. “There are plenty of people so it has that big state school feel, but on campus it doesn’t feel like that. You have a tighter knit community which gives you a chance to make really good friends.”
On the field, the Redbirds coaching staff knew they had something with DeJong, but it took a while to find the best role for him. They experimented with DeJong in several positions before an opportunity presented itself at second base halfway through the 2013 season. Much like his current run with the Cardinals, DeJong took an opportunity and ran with it.
Then the hits started rolling in. Ask about Paul’s biggest moments, and you get plenty of stories about DeJong’s power at the plate.
“He hit a ball against Southern Illinois at home where the wind was just howling in from right field. Just an absolute pitcher’s paradise. The ball wasn’t going anywhere. And he hit a ball out towards the scoreboard for a home run. I am thinking, ‘There aren’t too many guys in America that can hit a home run in that part of the field on a day like today,’ and he did,” Durkac said.
With that kind of power behind his swing, pro scouts started to take notice. DeJong quickly rose to become one of the best hitters in the Midwest. Paul DeJong suiting up for a big league team looked less like a dream and more like a reality with each swing of the bat.
“We knew he was going to be a high round draft pick. We just didn’t know how high,” Durkac said.
DeJong credits his time as a student-athlete with giving him necessary skills for success. DeJong worked hard to manage his time into bettering himself both on the field and in the classroom. DeJong was an Honors biochemistry major and initially planned to take the MCAT exam and go to medical school before his baseball career took off.
“In season we would always be leaving on Thursdays, so sometimes you missed Thursday and Friday class. So you ended up doing homework on the road, catching up. It was definitely a challenge toward the end of my career when I had those hard biochemistry classes. So really it was just a constant juggling act.”
DeJong points to the 2013 regular season Missouri Valley Championship team as being instrumental in his growth and teaching him how to be a winner. He is also quick to talk about wisdom passed down from his Redbird coaching staff that he carries into every play for the Cardinals.
“Baseball is a game of details and there are so many different plays and situations you can get in,” DeJong said. “Coach Durkac always said get a good pitch to hit. Number one rule of hitting. And that stuck with me and it’s still what I think about when I’m in the box or before I go up to the plate.”
St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny pointed to how well he has been coached in an interview with mlb.com in June.
“I think he’s been taught the game the right way,” Matheny said. “He sees the game the way he should, makes adjustments when he has to. He just has a higher level of game sense and self-awareness than most players with as little experience as he’s had.”
Durkac is reluctant to take credit for DeJong’s big league success. DeJong put a lot of time in the time in the weight room, in the batting cages, and in the field. The results of DeJong’s hard work and his knack for taking advantage of his opportunities have him in position as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.
DeJong’s message to current and future Redbirds is simple: Take advantage of the opportunities given to you with the drive he did.
“You can have a great college experience at Illinois State,” DeJong said. “All you have to do is invest in it and in yourself and put yourself out there. I think everything is what you make it, and Illinois State has those opportunities to make a great college experience.”
Tyler Emken can be reached at tkemken@IllinoisState.edu.