Staff Photo: John Bohn Georgia Gwinnett College baseball player Phillip Bates. a junior transfer who went to Central Gwinnett, poses for a portrait on GGC's newly constructed baseball field.
What: Georgia Gwinnett College vs. Toccoa Falls College
When: Today, 2 p.m. (DH)
Where: Georgia Gwinnett College Baseball Complex
When Phillip Bates walked onto Georgia Gwinnett College's first baseball team, he didn't walk on with much.
Battered physically after a recent labrum surgery, the former Central Gwinnett standout couldn't offer Grizzlies head coach Brad Stromdahl a whole lot during workouts last fall because of his healing shoulder.
He couldn't hit. He couldn't throw. He couldn't get on the field and show Stromdahl his talents, but it didn't keep him from approaching the former Georgia State assistant coach about a walk-on spot.
While Stromdahl had never seen Bates play, he liked the versatile player's attitude and the one piece of hard evidence in his favor --a resume of two successful years at Reinhardt, where he hit .324 and .309 his first two college seasons with a combined 31 RBIs.
"I knew a little about him, but I had never seen him play and I knew about his labrum surgery, so he couldn't really do anything in the fall," Stromdahl said. "But I knew from his mentality, from being around the guys when he came to our practices and hung out with us, that I liked him. I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect him to be so good, so quickly."
That walk-on turned out to be quite the find for the Grizzlies.
Bates, the team's starting left fielder for all but one game, has a team-high .470 batting average (the next closest teammate is at .413) with four doubles, three triples and 17 RBIs.
He also leads GGC with a .607 on-base percentage, 11 stolen bases and 20 walks, producing big numbers for a program that is off to a sizzling 20-8 start in its debut season. He has 18 hits in the Grizzlies' last 10 games.
"I'm just listening to what coach has to teach me," Bates said. "He has me being more patient at the plate, taking my walks and taking pitchers deep into counts, finding holes. ... I'm just trying to keep working hard every day, keep my spot and stay healthy. Just keep working on the things that make me a better ball player."
Bates estimates his physical health is still only at 75 percent, a number that won't creep any closer to 100 until he enjoys an offseason of rest away from the baseball field. He fights through soreness and rehabilitates regularly with the Grizzlies' training staff, but has no interest in leaving the lineup.
"Our training staff with James Williams is really trying to get (Bates) back healthy, but during the season, it's hard," Stromdahl said. "You're playing so much and really at the end of the day, he needs to rest. But there's no time to rest until the season's over. That just goes to show how strong and tough of a kid he is. That's part of why he's having success. He's a tough kid who plays hard and plays the game the right way."
Bates injured the shoulder last year during Reinhardt's conference tournament. Previously a shortstop and infielder, he was moved to center field, where he earned the Appalachian Athletic Conference Gold Glove Award as a sophomore, and tore his labrum diving for a ball in the outfield.
The severity of the injury wasn't determined right away, so Bates played through it and didn't have surgery until well into last summer. He had decided already to transfer from Reinhardt to GGC, with plans to walk on to the baseball team. He didn't have a roster spot guaranteed at his new school --and his health wasn't exactly a selling point --but he gave it a shot.
"I had to earn it," Bates said. "I had to earn everything. Coach hadn't even seen me play before. I just kind of proved myself to him, bought into everything he had to teach us and got better as a player. I really appreciate everything he's done for me here."
Here, just 10 minutes from Bates' boyhood home off Five Forks-Trickum Road, has been great for him.
The 5-foot-10, 160-pounder plays home games in front of friends and family, who get to watch him play in the Grizzlies' brand-new park, which Bates said is nicer than any one he saw in two seasons with Reinhardt. His team also is winning at a rapid pace, while he closes in on a finance degree.
"It's unbelievable to have my friends and family to just drive down the street and watch me play," Bates said. "Growing up here, I know baseball is big in Gwinnett and in metro Atlanta. There's a lot of hype about what's going on here with the baseball program and with the whole athletic department. It's fun to be a new program and set a foundation for many years to come.
"We're so excited about all the facilities and all the hype around the team. It's unbelievable. Everybody has a great attitude. Everybody's having fun. When we come out to play, everybody's ready. Everybody's in it. Everybody in the dugout is behind everybody. There's not one guy on this team that has a negative effect on this team."
In terms of positive effect, Stromdahl said Bates is at the top of the Grizzlies' list. He already has given a major boost to the fledgling program, much more than the coach could have expected from a wounded walk-on.
"Phillip is a tremendous kid," Stromdahl said. "He plays with an energy and passion that kind of draws other people to him. He's unselfish. He sacrifices himself for the team in terms of doing the little things offensively, which is why I think he's having such a good year. He's doing the little things, finding the holes and doing what he's supposed to do at the plate, taking some pitches and being patient.
"He's really growing as a person and a player. He's exactly the type of kid we want here at GGC. He's a great individual, a great academic student and a great baseball player."