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Chad Ryan |The Journal Gazette
Norwell graduate Josh VanMeter will play second base for the TinCaps this season.

Baseball road leads to home

Ossian’s VanMeter to play for team he grew up watching

– The road to this day begins 20 miles or so south of here, in the middle of flat Indiana farmland, down where the twilight dawdles in the summers for an unbecoming length of time.

It begins three, four, five years ago, when Josh VanMeter was a high school kid more known for basketball than baseball, even if baseball was what he was beginning to suspect was his truer path. He’d come up to Fort Wayne in that lingering summer twilight, on those days when he wasn’t playing baseball himself. He’d wander into Parkview Field with the rest of the crowd. He’d take a seat, and then …

Well. Dream’s probably too big a word.

“I never thought that I would be (here),” says VanMeter, the former two-sport Norwell star. “I kind of always wished that it would happen.

“I never really thought I would get drafted out of high school. And so when I got drafted by the Padres, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, man. This is going to happen. At some point I’m going to be playing here.’ ”

He looks around now: At this first locker to the left of the showers in the home clubhouse, at the four pair of New Balance shoes lined up on the floor in front of that locker, at the clean pair of white Nikes sitting on the shelf above and the TinCaps gear arranged neatly on hangars above that.

Looks like At Some Point has arrived.

Hometown hero

They come to him this day with absolutely nothing out of left field, because … well, the obvious is the obvious.

The local kid is going to be playing for the Class A baseball team he spent untold nights watching in high school. What else to ask Josh VanMeter except, you know, how weird this is going to be?

“Obviously I think I’ll be a little bit nervous that first night,” he says, right on cue, as the video cameras crowded around. “I think I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t. I am kind of in my hometown this summer, so it’s exciting.”

Fair enough. But you know what? VanMeter playing in his de facto hometown this summer isn’t the full story here. And he knows it.

After the videocams drift away he says, sure, this is great, but there’s a bigger picture at work. He may be only 19, and he might never have played a full 140-game professional season, but VanMeter gets the deal: This is only Act 2 of many.

“This isn’t where you want to end,” he says. “This is one step in the process. Like everybody says, ‘We want to see you, but we don’t want to see you for a long time.’ ”

For VanMeter, the first step was last summer, when he was taken in the fifth round of the June draft and went on to bat .278 with seven doubles, two triples, 16 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 44 games for the Arizona League Padres. That got him picked to play in an instructional league in the Dominican Republic, and after that he embarked on a rigorous offseason training program that packed 20 pounds of muscle on his frame.

“(The Padres) obviously told me I had to get a little bigger and stronger, and I just kind of took that and ran with it,” VanMeter says. “I was going five to six days a week. I was really pushing it. I wanted to be the hardest-working person in the country; if I wasn’t doing something, I felt like I was getting behind.”

Now he comes back to his old haunt as the second baseman in an infield that’s both young – four of the six infielders are 20 or younger – and talented, which is why the Padres are high on them as a group. And they like VanMeter individually, too.

“A very talented young player,” says TinCaps manager Michael Collins, who worked with VanMeter in Arizona and the Dominican last year. “He understands what he’s trying to do within the game as well as looking big picture.

“For such a young player; … he can play defense, he can run, he can hit, he can handle the bat, he can bunt if he needs to. He can do a lot of things. He’s just a solid player across the board.”

VanMeter hopes so. It is, after all, why he did all that offseason work. And it’s why, after one summer as a pro, he understands why it was necessary.

“Coming out of Indiana high school baseball, it was a big shock when I got out there,” he says. “I think the fastest (pitcher) I saw all year in high school was like 85 to 88 (mph), and I get out to Arizona and it’s 90-plus every day. So the speed of the game was the biggest thing for me.

“Offensively, defensively, it was an adjustment I had to make, and that I was able to make. That’s what this game’s about, making adjustments.”

Now comes one more.

Coming home

They’ll be in there in droves tonight, he knows. Norwell North. The Ossian Army. The army that used to be a one-man army, back when VanMeter was spending so much time here.

“When I wasn’t playing during the summer, I was pretty much here,” he says. “This is kind of the big thing to do here in Fort Wayne during the summer, so I came to a lot of games especially when I was in high school, because that’s when I kind of figured out that baseball was what I wanted to do.”

And now that it is what he does? One more big-picture observation from a 19-year-old who sees the big picture better than most.

“This is a step, and you want to get past this step,” VanMeter says. “But while I’m here, I’m definitely going to enjoy it.”