With four hours of driving left to reach his destination, Ryan Sawyers was dutifully following the purple line on the GPS of his rental car when his conscience abruptly adjusted the route.
The Purdue baseball assistant had just spent six straight 12-hour days on the road scouting high school prospects on the East Coast, and now he was feeling guilty for not spending a seventh. It was Monday morning on June 22, 2009, and he had left his hotel in Cherry Hill, N.J., for the five-hour-plus drive to Albany, N.Y., where he was scheduled to catch a flight back to Indiana early the following morning.
About an hour into the drive, he yanked the wheel into a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot in Flemington, N.J., went in and grabbed an iced tea, and decided to turn the car around. He punched the address of the University of Pennsylvania's Meiklejohn Stadium in Philadelphia into his GPS and headed back in the direction he had just come from. He would assuage his guilt over not maximizing his recruiting time by watching a 10 a.m. game in the Carpenter Cup, a 16-team tournament featuring regional all-star squads of unsigned seniors and talented underclassmen from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
"I just thought, 'I'm being lazy,'" said Sawyers, who is now the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at his alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College. "I had a guilty conscience. Purdue sent me there to work and paid for me to be out there, so I thought that if I can see a game, I should see a game."
The night before Sawyers pulled his U-turn, Freehold Township (N.J.) High senior outfielder Stephen Talbott was on the phone with one of his Jersey Shore Carpenter Cup teammates, mulling over whether to play in the game the next morning. The game had been postponed twice because of rain, and now the makeup date conflicted with Talbott's final exams on the day before he was scheduled to graduate. Talbott called his high school coach, Todd Smith, wondering what he should do.
"Smitty said, 'You have to go to this game,'" Talbott said. "That's ultimately one of the things that changed my life forever."
Nearly three years after that day in Philadelphia, Talbott was mugging for the cameras with his Purdue teammates on May 12 after helping the Boilermakers end a Chicago Cubs-like streak of 103 years of futility. Purdue beat Michigan to 14-3 to capture its first regular-season Big Ten title since 1909.
On May 27, the Boilermakers beat Indiana to win their first Big Ten Tournament championship. This weekend, they are one of 16 programs nationally that will serve as the site of an opening-weekend regional in the beginning of the road to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., on June 15.
The starting leftfielder, Talbott is a primary contributor on the best Purdue team ever when he easily could be with another program or just a regular college student on an intramural softball team right now. A junior who was a third-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore, Talbott also met with scouts from the Indians, Yankees, Cardinals, Tigers and Orioles during the fall. Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber called him a fringe prospect for this year's draft but said he has a good shot at being selected in 2013.
Sawyers had never seen or heard of Stephen Talbott until that day in 2009. Just a week earlier, Talbott only had interest from Division III schools, and his plan was to attend James Madison University as a regular student in hopes of walking on the team.
As Talbott warmed up for the Carpenter Cup game on that June morning, the wheels were literally in motion on a five-hour period that was like something out of "Back to the Future," where the slightest change in events could have altered an entire life.
"It blows my mind how differently my life would have gone if any little thing goes another way that day," Talbott said. "When you think of all the other things that had to happen, it's just surreal."
"It's amazing," Smith said. "The whole progression is incredible and just keeps going. You think it will eventually come back to reality, but it hasn't. All because of one day."
As a junior at Freehold Township, Talbott had a subpar high school season and a mediocre summer, failing to generate much college interest beyond in-state Division III programs. As a senior, he batted .423 with 27 stolen bases and 26 RBIs in 26 games, but did not have any Division I interest at the end of the season. But his performance was good enough for local coaches to select him for the Jersey Shore Carpenter Cup team, and he was determined not to waste the opportunity.
"I think he just developed later than other kids did," said Red Bank Catholic (N.J.) High School coach Buddy Hausmann, who was one of the Jersey Shore Carpenter Cup coaches in 2009. "You remember the last game you'll play for the rest of your life, and that's how that kid was playing in that tournament. I think he had that mentality to play as hard as he could until someone took the game away from him."
Helping Talbott's cause was a Carpenter Cup rule instituted a year earlier that any player who signed with a Division I program by March was not eligible for the tournament, with the notion being that the tournament would be a chance for unsigned players to get a look. It meant Talbott wouldn't be blocked for playing time by a Division I player starting in front of him. The rule has since been changed back to allow Division I signees to participate.
After Jersey Shore won its initial game in the tournament, its quarterfinal game was postponed twice to the morning of June 22nd. On that day, Sawyers initially had planned on seeing another prospect, current San Jacinto College pitcher Steven Sarcone, up in Utica, N.Y. However, Sarcone's travel team coach had changed his schedule, allowing Sawyers to see Sarcone earlier in his trip. Monday was now a blank slate.
Once his schedule changed, Sawyers was going to try to fly back to Purdue from Philadelphia instead of Albany now that he no longer had a prospect to see in upstate New York. But when Hertz informed him that it would be a $1,000 charge if he dropped his rental car at Philadelphia International Airport instead of its intended destination in Albany, he scrapped the idea and hopped in the car for the trip to New York.
After his change of heart in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot in Flemington, Sawyers arrived in the second inning of the Jersey Shore Carpenter Cup game in Philadelphia. He came just in time to see Talbott, who had a 50-50 chance of getting his name immediately crossed off Sawyers' list when he walked up to the plate.
"We were only recruiting right-handed outfielders that year because we had all lefties," Sawyer said. "If Steve bats left-handed, I don't even look at him."
Talbott, who was able to push his final exams to the morning of the next day to play, proceeded to smash a solo home run and belt two doubles in the game. Sawyers was intrigued enough to call Purdue's compliance officer during the game and was told that by NCAA rule, no face-to-face contact with a recruit is allowed in an ongoing tournament. If Talbott's team won to advance to the semifinals, Sawyers could not speak directly to him. Burlington County took care of that with a 10-5 win over Jersey Shore, making Talbott fair game.
By then, Sawyers figured something else had to be up. A 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder with good speed, a solid bat and a 3.7 grade-point average is not supposed to be unsigned a day before his graduation. However, before he could grill Talbott after the game, he had to find him.
Talbott had hopped into a car with a teammate to head back to New Jersey while Sawyers was talking to the Jersey Shore coaches. Hausmann took off running toward the parking lot, face-planting in mud and grass while running over a hill as he tried to stop Talbott from leaving. Hausmann finally was able to track him down to come back and talk to a skeptical Sawyers.
"I said, 'I'm going to be blunt,'" Sawyers said. "Why aren't you signed? Have you been caught dealing drugs, using drugs or cheating on tests?"
Once Talbott assured him there were no issues, Sawyers offered him a guaranteed place on the Purdue roster as a walk-on because he did not have any scholarship money to give. Wagner College and Seton Hall had just offered Talbott two days before the game, but he took Sawyers' offer as a sign. Talbott's maternal grandfather, the late Stephen Vanderhoof, played football at Purdue in the 1930s.
Talbott took an official visit a week later and loved it. Despite only seeing Talbott once, Sawyers didn't have to give the hard sell to get Schreiber to take a chance on him.
"Sometimes you're almost looking on it like it's fate, and you have to follow through with it," Schreiber said.
By Talbott's sophomore year he was on scholarship and considered to be one of the top 10 outfielders in the Big Ten. Heading into the regional tournament this weekend, he is fourth on a loaded team with a .347 average and second with 15 stolen bases in 16 attempts.
If Sawyers doesn't turn the car around that day, if Talbott takes his exams on their scheduled day, if the game had not been postponed earlier by rain, if Talbott batted left-handed, if the other recruit doesn't change his schedule, if ...
"You can make yourself crazy thinking about all the different things that had to happen," Talbott said. "If you would've asked me three years ago if I would be playing Big Ten baseball, I would've never thought it was possible. It's almost too good to be true."
"As a recruiter, it's like how chipping in off the green keeps you coming back to the golf course despite all your other bad shots in the round," Sawyers said. "Now trying to find the next Steve Talbott is addicting to me."
Following that first encounter with Talbott, Sawyers nestled into his rental car with a clear conscience this time, fully committed to following that purple line on his GPS all the way to Albany. As he blew by that Dunkin' Donuts in Flemington, he picked up the phone and called his father.
"I told him, 'I think I just somehow found a guy in June who's going to be an All-Big Ten player," Sawyers said.
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