ST. LOUIS — The first time Tommy Edman had to prove that he could play with the big boys came when he was a 5-foot-8, 140-pound freshman in high school.
Even though his father John was the baseball coach at Country Day School in La Jolla, Calif., Edman knew he wouldn’t be added to the varsity roster unless he earned that spot.
“I had to play extra well because if I was on the border than it would have been viewed as favoritism in the eyes of the other players,” Edman said. “Fortunately, I had a very good season and kind of proved I belonged there.”
One of the people who was convinced was John Edman, who had the dual role of being both father and coach.
“I had a conversation with my assistant coaches at one point saying I wanted him (Tommy) to prove himself,” John Edman said. “They had already seen him play a bunch and they were like, ‘Come on, you’ve got to be kidding. He’s already our best defensive shortstop right now.”
Neither father or son knew it at the time, but what happened that season would set the tone for what has become Edman’s story – having to go out and show people that despite not being a more physically imposing player, he can play with the big boys – which is exactly what he has done as a rookie this year with the Cardinals.
“What’s funny is that everyone seems surprised by Tommy,” said Cal Quantrill, a pitcher with the Padres and one of Edman’s roommates for two years at Stanford. “They say, ‘I’m surprised he’s doing so well.’ To me he’s doing exactly what I think he can do and I think he can do even better than he is doing. He’s got everything it takes to dominate at this level and he’s smarter than the rest of us.
“Everybody wants the giants, but there’s still a lot more to this game than being a big old monster. Tommy is definitely big enough and strong enough and fast enough to do everything. He might not win at any of those categories but put them all together and he’s the best player.”
Edman, who has grown a couple of inches and now weighs a little more than he did back in high school, has shown since his promotion to the major leagues in June that a player’s performance cannot be measured by his size alone.
“There has always kind of been that doubt of whether I have the strength or whatever to continue at the next level,” Edman said. “I personally feel like I kind of have a little sneaky strength. It doesn’t necessarily show but I feel I am generally a little bit stronger than what most people think. I’m sure there have been skeptics based on my size but I don’t really care about that.”
Those skeptics haven’t been heard from lately as Edman has supplanted former All-Star Matt Carpenter as the Cardinals’ starting third baseman down the stretch in a pennant race. Going into Tuesday night’s game he was tied with Marcell Ozuna for the most September homers on the team (four) while posting a .296 average so far this month, along with playing outstanding defense.
“I didn’t feel like I really had to prove myself and show them I was more than what they’ve seen already,” Edman said. “I just wanted to come up and play the way I had been playing. The general advice I got was not to make more out of it than it actually is. I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of treating it like a normal baseball game and not treating it as anything different, and make sure I’m not trying to do anything I haven’t done in the past.”
That is probably the biggest reason behind Edman’s success this season, the latest chapter in his story.
Edman says he knew “probably in the fourth or fifth grade” that he wanted to go to Stanford and set that as his goal. His first college offer came after his sophomore year in high school, from nearby San Diego State, which followed his leadoff home run on the Aztecs’ field in the CIF Championship game.
More scholarship offers followed, and while Edman stayed in touch with the Stanford coaches, he didn’t know if his dream was going to be realized.
“They were recruiting a lot of big guys, and that just wasn’t him,” John Edman said. “He was definitely one of the later recruits. He kept calling them every time he got an offer from somebody else to ask if he was still on their radar. They said yes, they were just a little slower in that process than some other places and to just wait. It definitely paid off in the long run.”
Brock Ungricht was an assistant coach at Stanford then and he took an immediate liking to Edman, who as a college freshman won the starting shortstop position and stayed there, making 140 consecutive starts during his college career.
“He jumped into a power five conference, the highest level in college baseball, in the Pac 12 and as a freshman it was like he had played in the college arena for three years,” said Ungricht, who spent two years as a scout for the Cardinals after leaving Stanford and is now an assistant coach at the University of San Diego. “There were just a lot of little intangibles of knowing where to be, communicating with the second baseman and the outfielders and pitchers. It was stuff you didn’t really have to teach because he already had it. He was able to slow the game down.”
That ability likely was ingrained in Edman from the time he was just a toddler. His father played college baseball, and his mother, Maureen, started bringing Edman and his brother to games when he was just two years old. His dad was working as a volunteer assistant coach while in graduate school at the University of Michigan.
Once the family moved to southern California, baseball was always part of Edman’s life.
“He was around the game all the time,” John Edman said. “We played whiffle ball with him and his older brother pretty much every night. We called it ‘alley ball.’ He was predominately a righthanded hitter at the time but they would impersonate major-league lineups and he would step up and hit lefthanded.
“I guess somebody who isn’t a coach’s kid might not have as much access or even just by osmosis of being around the game, if nothing else other than just being there, seeing how guys work. It’s just a theory but I think your brain does process what you see and you can learn a lot by watching how people do things.
“Also there were just conversations that might ensue after a ballgame; why did so and so do such and such; what made that happen; how come he didn’t steal in that situation, things like that.”
Edman put that knowledge and insight to use from an early age, knowing it perhaps might give him an edge – one he might need if he didn’t immediately pass the eye test of what scouts were looking for as they evaluated players.
“Any event he went to, whether he was invited or just went, he was always super under-the-radar,” John Edman said. “He wasn’t the guy who showed up throwing 95 across the diamond. He wasn’t hitting the ball 450 feet or running a 6.2 60 or whatever. He wasn’t that guy. He had to prove himself anywhere he went. There wasn’t anything ridiculous that he did that preceded him when he showed up to one of these things. You’ve got to see him a few times to understand what he does.”
Two people who came to understand that were Ungricht and Zach Mortimer, at the time the Cardinals’ area scout in northern California.
“He is so relentless in everything he does,” Ungricht said. “When you are down in a game, there’s something to be said for guys that play hard that also have the talent. You look at him and say, ‘OK, he’s a good player’ but when you play against him and are in the other dugout and you watch him he can wear you down in a three-game series before you know it because of his speed, his defense and his understanding of the game.
“His baseball IQ is off the charts. If you measure all of those things together, you put yourself in position to have a really good baseball player.”
Ungricht, in part because of his San Diego ties, was one of the coaches involved in recruiting Edman, who technically was a walk-on because he got a financial aid package from Stanford instead of a baseball scholarship.
“We knew about him, but on the scouting scale, you go and watch him play and you are looking for tools,” Ungricht said. “You are looking for a guy who is 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, broad shoulders, a plus runner, a plus arm – you are looking for guys like that. You see Tommy and it’s like, ‘OK he can run, he puts the bat on the ball and is a good defender. This is a guy who is perfect for college baseball.’
“Then all of a sudden the intangibles of his mindset and everything else comes into play and you’re like, ‘Wow, we’ve got a great looking player here who can help us win.’”
One moment from Edman’s freshman year at Stanford stands out to all who were there – a walk-off home run to beat Indiana in the NCAA regionals to put his team into the super regionals.
“We always used to pick on him and tell him, ‘You can’t hit a home run left-handed’ and then he hits a walk-off homer in the regionals,” Quantrill said. “Then we had to say, ‘Ok, there’s apparently nothing this guy can’t do.’”
Mortimer, now a Cardinals’ crosschecker, watched Edman all three years he played at Stanford.
“He was a guy that every time you saw him play you liked him more,” Mortimer said. “He’s probably one of the few guys I saw that I changed my gut reaction about. I liked him, but I really liked him when I watched him a bunch. Every time you saw him he did something that you said, ‘OK, he’s a better player than I thought the last time I saw him.’ That happened all year.”
Mortimer knew there were other teams scouting Edman, and he thought Tampa Bay and the Mets might be the Cardinals’ biggest competition in the 2016 draft. He wanted the team to take him in the fifth round, and when the sixth round began and Edman was still on the board, Mortimer was worried another team would pick Edman before the Cardinals could get him.
“I was nervous,” Mortimer said. “I thought he would go earlier in that sixth round but it came together. The analytics people liked him, scouting liked him and player development got the most out of him. It was a really good team pick.”
Heading toward St. Louis
Edman’s professional career began in State College, Pa., and over the next three years he steadily kept getting a chance to show he could play at the next level. For the first two months of this season, hit .305 with seven homers in 49 games at Triple A Memphis.
An injury to Jedd Gyorko left the Cardinals in need of an infielder and Edman got the call in early June for what at the time all expected to be a short stay, just until Gyorko returned from the injured list.
Since Edman was not on the 40-man roster, the move came as a surprise, especially to Edman’s parents, who had just left home for what was supposed to be a 13-day vacation. The first stop was supposed to be Reno, Nevada, where Edman and the Redbirds were beginning a three-game series.
“We were an hour away from Reno when we got the news,” John Edman said. “We turned right around and stayed with some friends in the San Jose area and flew out the next morning to Chicago (where the Cardinals were playing).
“Our flight was delayed, which made us have to sprint through the streets of Chicago (to get to the game). My wife was running ahead of me and one of Tommy’s buddies but we got there. We had to rearrange the rest of our travel plans to make it work and saw games in Chicago, New York and St. Louis.”
Mortimer made certain he was at Edman’s major-league debut too; the first player he signed as a scout to make it to the major leagues.
What Mortimer has seen since Edman’s promotion to St. Louis is what he saw those three years he watched him at Stanford, the same thing the Cardinals saw as he got more and more chances and kept performing. Gyorko never returned from the injured list and was traded to the Dodgers. Edman never went back to Memphis.
“I just think he’s the guy he always has been,” Mortimer said. “He’s never disappointed me at any level. I think he rises to the occasion. Maybe he’s come along a little faster than I thought he would, but it doesn’t surprise me. He handles every challenge he’s ever been given.
“He’s someone who has to prove it at every level. People are always going to have questions and he has to answer them. Now he’s got the opportunity to do that. He’s always risen to the challenge. It fits his personality; that’s the only guy I’ve ever known him to be.”
Taking off his parent’s hat and viewing his son strictly from a coach’s perspective, John Edman is not surprised his son has done so well with the Cardinals.
“He’s always been really good defensively,” John Edman said. “He made some plays that other guys couldn’t make. He definitely made our pitchers super happy. Offensively he would always have good at-bats. He found a way to get on base a lot, and when he got on he usually scored.
“He’s selective enough to get the right pitch to realize there is some power there. I think he’s figured out a couple of things over the last year with his swing.”
As he watches Edman now, Mortimer believes Edman actually has a stronger arm and is a faster runner now than he was in college.
“My arm was better in high school than it was in college, and I’ve definitely gotten faster,” Edman said. “I’ve worked with a really good strength guy in the off-season who has helped my speed and explosiveness and resulted in me getting a little faster.”
Taking off his coach’s hat and viewing his son strictly from a parent’s point of view, John Edman also can take pride in his son’s success.
“He’s always been really grounded and very calm,” John Edman said. “He’s a hard worker, but he’s able to still find time for people. He would get all his stuff done and make sure he had time for people, and I thought that was pretty impressive. He did have a lot on his plate all the time.
“He values his friendships, he values family and despite all of the business of life he’s able to calm it all down. I think that helps him on the baseball field too. He’s a very calm and relaxed kid that doesn’t ever make anything too big.”
Coming a long way
It wasn’t that many years ago when Edman, Quantrill and four other Stanford baseball players shared a six-bedroom apartment that Quantrill described as “smaller than the size of the dugout. It was a tiny place and maybe you could get a queen-size mattress in each room. But it was fun.”
Quantrill and Edman became more than just roommates.
“Living together feels like an understatement as much time as I spent with Tommy,” Quantrill said. “I felt like I spent 24 hours a day with him for three years in a row.
“To me it was pretty obvious in the first few weeks playing with Tommy that he was different than the rest of the guys. Yeah fine, he’s not 6-foot-3 and he’s not going to hit 55 homers or anything; but he plays baseball the right way and he is gifted at everything he does. … Whatever physical tools he lacks he makes up for with a way better approach to the game.”
Edman remembers the first time he faced Quantrill as freshmen in an intra-squad game.
“Did he get a hit off me?” Quantrill asked. When told Edman said he struck out, Quantrill added, “Good, I have to have something to hold over his head.”
Quantrill pitched twice in relief this season against the Cardinals and each time missed facing Edman by one batter. They did face each other five times in the minors, with Edman going 2-of-5.
“I do remember him hitting a changeup off me for a double, that little peckerhead,” Quantrill said. “I got him once or twice. I think we’re about even, so I will call that a win against him.
“His competitive side doesn’t come out like breaking bats or freaking out. I’ve always been bad about that kind of stuff. His competitive side is he’s unwilling to lose. I think he wants to be the best at everything he does. It’s why he excelled at school, it’s why he excels at baseball, it’s why he does so good at everything he does in life. I get the sense he hates losing so much he will find a way to get it done.
“He was also smarter than the rest of us so anytime you needed help when something got a little difficult you could always beg him to sit down and explain something from a class I probably shouldn’t have been in. ‘Can you explain this to me Tommy?’”
Edman went back to Stanford after his first pro season and completed his degree in math and computational science.
One of the first calculations Edman made after joining the Cardinals was to realize he might still be playing baseball on Oct. 5 of this year, which he and his fiancé Kristen had picked as the day for their wedding. They have moved it back until mid-November.
“I hope he is still busy in October,” said Quantrill, who will be one of the groomsmen in the wedding. “Tommy has always been a real good friend to me and I couldn’t be happier to see him succeeding at this level. He might be proving other people wrong, but he’s just proving me right.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains