Posted: Friday, June 15, 2018 6:43 pm | Updated: 6:55 pm, Fri Jun 15, 2018.
On one crisp night 12 years ago, Jake McCarter pulled into the driveway of Freddie Russ' ranch. Jake currently serves as an assistant coach for the New Mexico Junior College baseball team. But on this particular night, he was just another college pitcher seeking advice from Freddie, one of the chief baseball gurus in the Hill Country. Whenever Jake needed any baseball tips, or just a breath of fresh air, he always pointed his car in the direction of Freddie's household.
It didn't take long until Jake noticed the 7-year-old running around the ranch — gripping a baseball in one hand and wearing a glove in the other. Throughout the night, the young baseball player listened in rapt attention to the baseball stories that Jake and Freddie shared, eager to absorb as much information about the game as possible. The child's maturity, intelligence, and the manner in which he comported himself around adults quickly impressed Jake.
"This kid is unique," Jake thought to himself. "He is kind of an old soul."
Rody Barker has grown considerably since that night. But deep down, he's still the same person as that ebullient kid darting around the ranch. Twelve years later, he's still the same old soul. Rody began playing baseball with his older brother, Reid Barker, when he was 3 years old. He's continued to excel at the sport ever since. In 2011, his select travel team, the Kerrville Indians, won the 11-under World Series-America Division, with Rody anointed as the tournament MVP. He caught bullpens for Jake when the latter was in the Dodgers organization. In high school, he overcame several injuries to blossom into a standout catcher at Tivy. When he graduated last year, he joined his old friend, Jake, at New Mexico Junior College, and experienced a successful first year as the Thunderbirds' starting catcher — slashing .330/.524/.498 with 25 extra base hits.
"Rody Barker is what I like to call a low maintenance player," Jake said. "He is blue-collar worker who plays the game the right way. … He knows who he is, and he takes it and runs with it."
On the diamond, Rody is a scrappy catcher who generates ways to reach base. Away from baseball, he's earned the reputation for possessing a dogged work ethic and serving as a loyal friend. He's compartmentalized his life into three main categories: Faith, family and friends and baseball. His relationship with God has helped him navigate several trials, such as when he suffered a gruesome back injury during his junior year at Tivy. His family and friends uplift him whenever he fails to meet the astronomical standards he's set for himself.
And baseball remains his passion — the sport where he continually searches for ways to improve. He fantasizes of someday playing in the Majors, and those closest to him believe he has the mettle to achieve that dream. They certainly aren't surprised at the current success he is enjoying.
"I always knew Rody would be successful," Tivy Baseball Coach Chris Russ said. "He is probably the hardest worker I have ever been around.
"He just always finds a way."
Jake remembers his phone buzzing one night several years ago. The call was from Rody, who wanted Jake to check out the new batting cage he and his dad, Tiger Barker, had constructed from old trees they had chopped down.
When Jake arrived at Rody's home in Comfort, he noticed a collection of baseballs wrapped in athletic tape resting in the backyard.
"Rody, where did you get all these baseballs?" Jake asked.
He explained that Freddie, the Kerrville Indians coach, was going to throw away the torn-up baseballs. Rody convinced Freddie to hand them over to him instead. He then used tape to mend the ripped-off seams, and used the repaired baseballs for batting practice in his backyard.
"He can turn something out of nothing into something awesome," Jake said. "He doesn't take anything for granted. He is really grateful for everything that he gets."
That resourcefulness has come to define Rody's baseball career. When Reid began receiving lessons from Freddie at age 10, a 3-year-old Rody always tagged along, intently listening to every word from Freddie. Whenever one of Reid's teammates committed a mistake during an Indians practice, Freddie always looked in Rody's direction.
"OK, Rody get out here," he barked. "Show them how it's done."
Unsurprisingly, Rody developed a preternatural understanding of baseball. During one game in machine pitch, he manned first with no outs and runners on first and second. He dashed to snag a fly ball, tagged first and then sprinted to tag second. As a 6-year-old, he had just recorded an unassisted triple play.
"He already knew the sport back then," his mother Angie Barker said.
His love for baseball, though, received a cruel test during his junior season. During a game at Boerne Champion on April 8, Rody collided with the Chargers' first-baseman on the base paths, shattering three of his vertebrae. The injury nearly ended his baseball career.
Even Rody, who maintains a positive attitude in every endeavor, couldn't help but feel crushed. But the injury didn't permanently derail his spirit. He slowly worked his way back into playing shape to help the Antlers experience one of their best seasons in program history. In his senior year, he hit .378/.489/.517 in district play to lift Tivy to a 29-6 record and an appearance in the Class 5A regional semifinals.
"Most people don't keep playing after an injury like that," Chris said. "For Rody to come back from the injury he had as a junior says everything. … He not only had success at Tivy after the injury, but is now having success in college."
Even before Rody was playing at New Mexico Junior College, Jake consistently followed his baseball career. He believed Rody possessed the talent to play at the Division-I level, but he also craved the opportunity to coach Rody himself.
"If things don't work out with where you ultimately want to go, you can come be with me at New Mexico Junior College," he told his protege. "I will take you in a heartbeat."
Rody accepted Jake's offer and furthered his career in Hobbs, New Mexico. Now, when most people look at Hobbs, they see city with a population of 38,143 that contains limited opportunities for young people. Rody viewed the town differently. What he saw was a baseball utopia — a place with few distractions to hinder him from pursuing his dream.
"I kind of liked being in the boondocks, you know?" Rody said. "I didn't have much to worry about, so I got really close with my teammates; and then, we had a lot fun playing baseball together. …There is baseball, you go to class and you eat. That's kind of the cycle. You get into a pretty good routine with everything."
He soon endeared himself to teammates and coaches with his work ethic and toughness. Jake once asked Rody if he could catch a double header with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees. The same kid who recovered from a back injury within a year didn't even flinch at the suggestion. Of course he didn't mind being behind the plate in intense heat for 16 innings.
"He is always the first one at the ield, and he is pretty much the last person to leave," said Mark Barillas, a right-handed pitcher for the Thunderbirds and one of Rody's best friends. "He is
going to have a bright future for sure."
Rody loves baseball, but he tries not to obsess over the sport. He admits he is a bit of a perfectionist, but has accepted that failure is a necessary part of the human condition and has learned to grow from it. He
really wants to play professionally, but if things don't work out,
he knows there will always be a plan B.
"(Not being perfect) eats at me every now and then, but luckily I am surrounded by some great people," Rody said. "From the coaches at Tivy to people in my family life … They help me leave the baseball world and experience my life."
He's always shown loyalty toward his friends and family, even when he was young. In pre-kindergarten in Comfort, he noticed a group of older kids making fun of Jackson Enloe, his friend with down syndrome. Rody didn't waste any time standing up for his companion.
"Why are you all being mean to him?" Rody asked them.
Rody and Jackson both transferred from Comfort to Tivy, and the two remained close friends until Jackson passed away last October.
Rody has also stayed in touch with his former Tivy teammates. When his season with the Thunderbirds ended, he watched his former teammates throttle Victoria East, 9-4, at Nelson Wolff Stadium to clinch a berth in the regional semifinals. After the game, he caught up with Lance Ford, Hunter Grimes and some of his other high school friends.
"I could look up to Rody," Hunter said. "I played with him for the Indians, then at Tivy, and it was just great knowing him. He works hard. He deserves everything."
Rody has forged new relationships in college. His friend Mark came to Hobbs from Brooklyn, New York, and experienced quite the culture shock. Rody was the teammate who helped him acclimate to his new small-town environment. The two quickly became best friends as they mulled over the cultural differences between their hometowns.
"When I first met Rody, he was really polite," Mark said. "Usually up here (in New York) it's not common for people to say hello to just anybody random. But he was a really good kid and was really welcoming. … He definitely helped me get used to (my new lifestyle).
"He's always positive around people. There is nothing negative that comes from him. He's a really good kid and always keeping the team alive. … He's one of the best teammates I have ever had."
Rody will most likely have an opportunity to cultivate relationships with new teammates, as several Division I schools have already expressed interest in him. His 4.0 GPA will also bolster his Division I prospects.
"I have no doubt that he can play Division I baseball," Chris said. "He is a guy that I believe will find his way into pro ball, and then you never know what can happen."
But as Rody rests in a high-top chair at Starbucks on a Friday, he isn't too worried what the future holds. He smiles, tugs the silver cross dangling from his neck and leans back.
"Whatever happens," he muses, "I know that the big man upstairs is going to take care of me."