London Community News
By John Matisz/London Community News
For the time being, London's best kept secret is tucked away at the back of Centrefield Sports indoor complex. Come March 2012, however, Riley "Brock" Kjeldgaard will be down south, flirting with the feat of being the first Forest City resident since Adam Stern in 2005 to make a Major League Baseball (MLB) roster.
"Baseball is a game where you might not get an opportunity," said Kjeldgaard, 25, the centre's lead hitting instructor. "But, when you do you have to be ready. It's all about timing and good fortune."
In mid-November, the Edmonton-born, London-raised first baseman was named to the Milwaukee Brewers' 40-man roster, protecting him from the MLB Rule 5 Draft next month. Though the announcement does not guarantee Kjeldgaard will land a full-time gig in the big leagues, it cranks open his window of opportunity considerably.
In terms of cracking a lineup in North America's big four sports leagues, MLB is arguably the toughest.
"It's a huge accomplishment and a great opportunity," said Mike Lumley, also an employee of Centrefield Sports and Kjeldgaard's coach for three years when the Oakridge Secondary School product was a member of the London Badgers program during his mid-teens. "The experience will be great, especially since they're a contending team."
Lumley, now 44, spent six years toiling in the Detroit Tigers' minor league system in the late 1990s and early 2000s, living and learning in hopes of one day competing in the most elite baseball league on the planet. About a decade later, Kjeldgaard's acknowledges the foundation Lumley and the rest of the Badgers organization laid for him.
"If the Badgers weren't around," Kjeldgaard admitted, "I don't know what I would have done."
The countless hours he's spent honing his craft before, during and after his time with the Badgers has been intersected by some old fashioned luck.
Milwaukee chose Kjeldgaard — a 6-foot-5, 215-pound Canadian then-pitcher out of Indian Hills Community College in Iowa — in the 34th round of MLB's 2005 amateur draft. In years since, he has played for four different minor league affiliates located in as many states, gained 30 pounds, and switched positions.
"Brock, starting as pitcher within the organization, was converted to a hitter because of his athleticism," said Brewers director of player development Reid Nichols. "His fastball velocity wasn’t quite there but he showed enough aptitude and athleticism for us to try him on the positional side. I think he has a chance (to make the team)."
The swap from hurler to first base has been a blessing, a way to standout. It's also allowed the Brewers to harness Kjeldgaard's strengths, namely his power, Nichols said.
"I was given the opportunity to play everyday in 2008 by our manager Rene Gonzales in Helena," Kjeldgaard said. "I had some real tough days but he just kept putting me back in. It gave me confidence."
His important role in bringing home the 2011 Pan American Games gold for Canada in late October has certainly added to Kjeldgaard's overall allure. The "unbelievable, unforgettable," feeling of winning an international gold medal, he said, is still fresh in his mind.
Especially when he hits the batting cages at Centrefield Sports. As his gym, winter job site and social spot, the venue allows Kjeldgaard to work alongside Team Canada teammates Jamie Romak and Chris Robinson – among a handful of other professional ballplayers who squat in London during the off-season.
Lumley coached all three when they suited up for the Badgers. The 2011 Baseball Ontario Coach of the Year said Kjeldgaard, in particular, had difficulties adjusting to a growth spurt while under Lumley's wing.
"When he was with us, he had a lot of upside," Lumley said, recalling a time when the power hitter had to adjust to his sudden surge in height. "He had all the tools back then but he's just starting to shine now."
While splitting time between single-A Brevard County and double-A Huntsville this past summer, the right-handed hitter racked up 24 home runs and 215 total bases while collecting 76 runs batted and hitting .270 in 126 games.