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First Person: Ex-Nighthawks Jeffers Has Bright Future With Twins

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks player Ryan Jeffers gathers campers together to play a base running game at the Nighthawks Baseball Camp on June 26. 2017 in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nighthawks player Ryan Jeffers (27) at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on June 7, 2017. Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ryan Jeffers, a catcher from North Carolina-Wilmington, was the Twins' second-round pick in the 2018 amateur draft. (Minnesota Twins - Brace Hemmelgarn)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, January 07, 2019

White River Junction — Playing professional baseball is almost everything former Upper Valley Nighthawk catcher Ryan Jeffers thought it would be. He also is aware of how much work is still ahead of him.

Jeffers, who played for the Upper Valley’s New England Collegiate Baseball League club during the summer of 2017, was drafted in the second round, 59th overall, by the Minnesota Twins during last summer’s MLB Draft, wrapping up a three-year collegiate baseball career as a walk-on catcher at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington to go pro. Jeffers, a 2017 NECBL All-Star, batted .248 in 42 games during his season with Upper Valley and is the highest former Nighthawk picked in team’s three-year history.

He had a successful first season with the Minnesota organization, batting .422 in 28 games for the Elizabethton Twins of the rookie-level Appalachian League before being promoted to the single-A Cedar Rapids Kernals, where he batted .288 in 36 games. The 21-year-old will report back to the Twins in February before embarking on his second full year as a pro.

Jeffers and his fiance, Lexie, were in the Upper Valley on vacation this week, staying with the family of Hartford High athletic director Jeff Moreno, who hosted Jeffers during his time with the Nighthawks. He sat down with the Valley News on Thursday in Moreno’s Hartford home and discussed his whirlwind of a year since getting drafted and what’s in store for him this season.

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Valley News: First of all, welcome back to the Upper Valley. What has this past year been like for you?

Ryan Jeffers: It’s been a great journey so far, and we’re just getting started, too. My junior year at school (UNCW) was really good. … Then, after the draft, it kind of got rolling from there. I had a really good first season. I couldn’t have asked for anything more — already making it to low A, playing how I played. It’s really good.

VN: Did you ever expect this much success so quickly, or has this been the best-case scenario?

RJ: We knew I’d get drafted. I think we were hoping top end of the draft. Going into the draft, we knew top two rounds would be a possibility.

VN: MLB Network was pretty shocked when you got picked that high.

RJ: That still cracks us up to this day. It’s funny watching that video. … They had no idea.

VN: Were you surprised by how surprised outside people were by you?

RJ: Not really. I was a walk-on at school; I’ve always flown under the radar. I’m still flying under the radar. I was a second-round draft (pick). Not the Twins, they loved me, but there are always people and stuff out there that is negative. It kind of always fuels the fire.

VN: How much of a whirlwind was the lead-up to the draft, and then the draft itself?

RJ: It was crazy having our regional finish that same day. (UNCW lost to the University of South Carolina, 8-4, in the regional stage of the NCAA tournament on June 4, the day Jeffers was drafted.) We finished our regional that Monday morning. I kind of knew my college career was going to be done with, that I was going to get drafted, so that was a low of an emotion. We get back to my apartment that night, and I got a call from my agent saying, ‘Yep, that kind of happened.’ We pulled out the video. It was a very exciting moment.

VN: OK, so you get drafted — what happens next?

RJ: So after the draft, I flew to Minnesota. They treated me like luxury up there; I signed my contract up there, watched a game with the general manager (Thad Levine) and chief baseball officer (Derek Falvey). Then they flew me down to Fort Myers (Fla.), which is their spring training facility. All the draftees did a little mini-camp. Then we bused up to rookie ball; I was there for 28 games or so, then I went to Cedar Rapids (Iowa).

VN: This year, going from college to pro, must have been pretty crazy.

RJ: It’s pretty life-changing. Being drafted where I was, we were able to settle in a bit more with our lives and have a bit more structure to it. I know if I keep working and keep doing what I’m doing, the future is pretty well laid out for me.

VN: Do you feel like, with a pro season now under your belt, you can kind of settle in knowing some of the more difficult hurdles are behind you?

RJ: Not really. I feel like I’ve set the expectations and I need to continue to match that throughout my career. I need to keep exceeding what those expectations are. That’s the way I’m going to move up the fastest to the big leagues.

VN: So more like this is step one of a bigger journey.

RJ: Right. Like, having a good rookie year is the best thing that could happen. It put me on people’s radar a little bit. It kind of proved people wrong that counted me out and what not. Now it’s time to keep working harder. You caught us literally right before we were going to go to the gym. That’s kind of how I’ve always worked.

VN: That must be a different feeling, being a known commodity now for someone who has played most of their career under the radar.

RJ: It’s nice. … Nothing changed for me, baseball-wise. I’m the same person, same player. Now just more people want my autograph. There are people waiting for me after games.

VN: How about your time with the Nighthawks? You were an important part of the team during that season (Upper Valley finished the regular season with the best record in the NECBL). How did that help you get to where you are now?

RJ: It’s always good. Collegiate summer ball is always good just to continue playing, to play with a wooden bat, playing with a new group of guys. Playing up here, meeting the Morenos and having this good feeling for Vermont, I love it up here. It kind of set a good brick in the foundation for baseball. That’s the part of baseball we love — meeting those people and making those connections.

VN: It also seems like your time with Upper Valley came at a time in your career when getting drafted was becoming a real possibility.

RJ: The two summers I played, I never had a great summer. I never had great stats. Summer ball is a very different feeling than a collegiate season or my first pro season. It’s laid-back. Yeah, you want to do good, you want to work on stuff, but you kind of throw stats out the window, in my eyes. I didn’t really worry about what I was hitting. When it came to college or pro season, you lock in on everything. Everything matters; every pitch matters. Summer ball is different. You can work on some things.

VN: And obviously you liked it up here enough that you came back.

RJ: (We) just developed a great relationship with (the Morenos). We were thinking about places to vacation and we said, ‘Let’s head back up to Vermont.’ We love them, and it’s such a beautiful place. It worked out really well.

VN: So, you’ve been up here for a week. What have you been doing on vacation? Done any skiing?

RJ: I can’t do that. There’s a couple of things they lay out in the contract that I can’t do. Skiing is one of them.

VN: Oh, wow. So skydiving and stuff like that?

RJ: Yeah, that’s another one. The two I remember are skiing and skydiving.

VN: I can see why they wouldn’t want you to do that.

RJ: My agent’s been calling (this week) to check up on me like, “Hey, you sure you’re all right? No skiing right?”

VN: All right, so no skiing. What have you been doing?

RJ: We went snowmobiling this morning. That was a blast; first time I’ve ever been on a snowmobile. We went tubing and have kind of just been hanging out, chilling out, playing in the snow. It was a great to get some snow today.

VN: Lastly, how about what you expect from the year ahead? You’ve set the expectations pretty high.

RJ: They see a future with me, the Twins do. We assume I’ll be a fast mover. Hopefully I’ll start. … the goal for me is to keep working. Maybe I’ll start in Iowa for a little bit, then I’ll move up. I just have to play to the point where they have to move me up. That’s the point of minor league baseball. Make them move you up.

VN: It helps, I’m sure, that the organization seems to be in need of a catcher.

RJ: That’s why they drafted me. I think they see a future with me. They’re going to put their resources into me, into developing me and making me their future what they see. … They saw some stuff that other people didn’t see in me; they saw my defensive ability matched with the offense that I’ve always been able to produce. They know they have a really good developmental system in place, their catching instruction and all of that. They knew I was kind of an open canvas for them to really put their mark on. … They knew that I was going to become what they wanted me to become. I’m just going to keep working and doing what I can.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.