Randall graduate Heston Kjerstad was the No. 2 overall pick in the MLB Draft on Wednesday night by the Baltimore Orioles. The No. 2 selection is the highest in Amarillo-area history. [Provided photo]
When Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said a few words followed by the name Heston Kjerstad a little after 6 p.m. Wednesday, those words never before reached the ears of Amarillo.And it wasn’t because Manfred pronounced the normally mangled Kjerstad (KER-stad) name correctly.Never before has a high school player in the long baseball history of the Amarillo-area heard his name selected No. 2 overall in the MLB draft.The 21-year-old Kjerstad, with the boyish looks and swing that makes you say “boy, can he crush,” was sitting on a couch in the Amarillo house he grew up in when he heard Manfred say his name as the second selection in the 2020 MLB draft.Heston, a star player first at Randall High then the University of Arkansas, was sitting in between his mom (Jody) and dad (Dave), the two people he quickly credits most for his success.Standing behind the couch were family and friends. And, his dog Oreo, was there briefly stealing the show going bonkers with excitement when the room exploded after hearing “… the Baltimore Orioles select Heston Kjerstad …”“Joy,” Kjerstad said of hearing his name announced by Manfred. “It was joy seeing the smiles on my family and friends faces. Man, that awesome. That’s stuff you dream about as a kid. Especially your name being called second overall. That was amazing to see the way everybody react.”Thanks to Kjerstad’s excellence and power at the plate in his two-plus year career at Arkansas where he played 145 games, socked 35 homers and batted .345, then last summer leading the elite Team USA in every slash line, the lefty was projected by baseball experts to go in the first round of the MLB draft, but down the line a bit like between slot 10-20.However, Kjerstad said he had an inkling he was in the Orioles picture after a couple of Zoom visits prior to the draft with Baltimore general manager Mike Elias.“In those conversations “I was just being myself and if they like you they like you,” Kjerstad said. “I think 100 percent the Zoom meeting played a big part. You know the Orioles care about your character, your makeup, how you are going to be amongst the clubhouse of players. All those intangibles that add up to make a difference. Because you know everybody getting drafted is talent. But there are so many other tangibles that can help push you ahead of other guys. Mike Elias was able to figure out through the Zooms what kind of guy I was. Maybe that was the tipping point. I’m pumped to be an Oriole.”Elias said after the draft the O’s were considering four or five players for the number two pick but Kjerstad was their guy.“We absolutely love his bat,” Elias said in a tweet. “He is the best left handed hitter in the country this year. He plays a good right field. He’s a big guy with gigantic power and it’s power to all fields and just not pull power. He’s had a tremendous career at Arkansas and was having a ridiculous season before the shutdown happened and was flying up boards ever since. We think he’s a middle of the order bat … he’s a great kid, a blue collar kid, a hard-working kid from a great family. He’s a tremendous addition to our farm system.”
After being picked Kjerstad was immediately hammered with interview requests from national to local media, showing the class act he is known for by answering question after question, not shunning the local media for the national media.Kjerstad isn’t your rah-rah type player wearing his emotions for the world to see. He speech is respectful and no ego exists during a conversation. He has a calm, almost ‘aww shucks’ way about him that bodes well for a game where succeeding 30 percent of the time at the plate is considered excellent at the major league level.But don’t be fooled by his exterior.The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder loves competition, has put in hours and hours improving his baseball skills, and proven he can handle the big stage shinning at the College World Series twice and with Team USA last summer.“From playing baseball at a young age it was always my favorite sport to play,” said Kjerstad, who first jumped on the national scene in 2017 being selected in the 2017 MLB Draft in 36th round (number 1,083 overall) by Seattle. “I think it’s the way the game is. The pace of the game and the competition of the game. You know as a hitter you are never going to have a crazy amount of success, like you do in other sports. You are going to succeed 30 percent of the time. I think that’s what keeps me going because there is so much failure you just want to keep going.”Kjerstad’s failures weren’t evident much during high school or college.After sophomore season at Randall High he earned all-state playing under long-time Randall coach Cory Hamilton. He added two more all-state selections and committed to Arkansas by his junior season.Hamilton, who was at the Kjerstad’s home Wednesday night enjoying Heston’s selection watch party, said Heston was no doubt blessed with with god-given talent but has other intangibles he’s never seen in a player.“What makes Heston the player he is is a combination of things that all came into one,” Hamilton said. “No. 1 he is blessed with god-given ability. Couple that with two great parents and then his brothers and sister they are all so supportive of each other and so competitive. Then this is matched with an unbelievable humility. The thing you see with Heston you don’t see a lot of times is if you are really blessed with talent you don’t have to work. I’ve never seen that with Heston or his brothers.
Randall head baseball coach Cory Hamilton and Heston Kjerstad celebrate at Randall High School in 2017 after Kjerstad signed with the University of Arkansas. [Provided photo]“Heston is the same man-child today as when he left Randall,” Hamilton said. “He’s so down to Earth and such a kind heart. I have never seen a player intertwined with his humility and confidence.”Heston’s parents own and have worked their fannies off making Water Still a popular water/tea company in Amarillo. He compares his ability to handle the ups and downs of hitting to running a respected company. Although the day of work at the company might not have raised the most money, if you pleased and respected your customers with excellent service that satisfaction and investment in return business is better than the almighty dollar.“I never try to focus in on my results at the end of the day,” Heston said of how he approaches baseball. “I try to go in there and every at bat I have my approach and my game plan. I want to sell out to it. Hunt a certain pitch, or a part of the plate, or whatever. If I get that pitch and hit it hard that’s a great at bat. You aren’t going to have that every time. But if I can have that great at bat twice a game that’s a good day. The results will come.”Of course, the college results came to Kjerstad. He became a household name in the college baseball world playing at Arkansas the past 2-plus years under coaching legend Dave Van Horn.Kjerstad twice was a key cog in the Hogs’ College World Series runs, then, absolutely raked this spring in the 16 games before COVID-19 cancelled the season hitting six home runs and batting .448.Kjerstad said Hamilton and then Randall assistant Jeff Schenck “were great high school coaches who kept it fun but made us work hard. Playing for Randall was some of my most enjoyable times growing up. Especially, those guys in my class. Seven or eight of us had played together since seventh grade and it was so much fun.”His days at Arkansas changed his life for good becoming the catalyst for Wednesday’s dream-come-true selection.“Arkansas was huge for my development,” Kjerstad said. “To be at a program that’s so great like Arkansas and to be coached by Coach Van Horn and Nate Thompson. You go in there every day and they want to help you improve some how, any part of your game. No matter how good you are they are going to push you to be the best version of yourself.”Arkansas also prepared Kjerstad for an experience all athletes dream playing in front of lots of fans.“Getting to dogpile for the two trips to Omaha and playing in front of those crowds in Omaha was awesome,” Kjerstad said. “And not many colleges to get to experience what we did at Baum Stadium. That place was unreal, especially rocking during the weekends with SEC play. It really shows you how to handle a chaotic environment.”Chaotic is the perfect word to explain Kjerstad’s life the few days since he became a Baltimore Oriole. The power hitter – by the way his first over-the-fence homer was hit at age 4 or 5 playing against his brothers Reid and Dex in the backyard – is looking forward to getting back to playing baseball since COVID-19 shut down all pro baseball back in March.“I’m looking forward to getting this new journey started,” said Kjerstad, who has been staying sharp by taking BP from his dad and Reid, and getting some fishing in with his brother. “It’s the start of my pro career. Now it’s time for me to get after it again.”The Texas Panhandle is unlike large cities across the nation in that in those metroplexes of vast athletic talent see a MLB draft pick as just another year, just another day.Not in the 806.Kjerstad’s historic selection when his name was called out Wednesday night was the talk of the Amarillo-area for a couple of days and his rooting section is pretty much the entire 806 zip code.The impact will be huge for baseball in these parts says his high school coach. Kjerstad himself feels it.“I can remember I was at Levelland when Chance Douglass was drafted out of Randall, I think in 2002,” Hamilton said. “That impacted us down there in Levelland. I was like ‘this kid is from Randall.’ When I first got to Randall, Chance would come back and pitch to my teams and that had a huge impact on those guys. I see Heston being this for kids around here and more. I mean I still can’t wrap my head around that. He’s a first rounder. A second pick overall. At his watch party I told my wife this is a once in a lifetime experience.”Kjerstad has felt the love of the 806 since being drafted and appreciates all the kind wishes as he begins his walk down the road to the major leagues.“It’s great to come from a community that gets behind you and is rooting for you to accomplish your goals on a national level,” Kjerstad said.