Brian Kolb didn't abandon his dream of playing major league baseball after he went undrafted in last month's amateur draft. He just found a different road to get there.
After excelling in a brief stint in the developmental Peach State League, the 22-year-old former Santa Fe Christian standout has landed a roster spot with the Gary (Ind.) RailCats in the independent Northern League and is by all accounts making the most of the opportunity.
"Obviously I was a little disappointed because that's been the goal all along," Kolb said of a draft snub that followed a four-year career at Division III Wheatley College in Illinois where he was a .451 career hitter, highlighted by a sophomore year in which he hit .527.
Kolb knew in advance of the draft from talking to scouts that his selection status was a long shot, noting he didn't have the tangible tools (power, speed and arm strength) that are easily measurable on stopwatches on skill-set charts.
But whatever he lacks in those areas Kolb more than makes up for with a tireless work ethic, gritty determination, and exceptional aptitude.
"I take pride in being able to get the job done," Kolb said. "I can make the diving plays and the great defensive plays, but I also take pride in working hard and making sure that when the ball's hit to me I'm ready to make the plays that are supposed to be made."
Kolb has made the plays at every level.
Before becoming one of the most prolific hitters in recent Div. III college history, Kolb was the Coastal League player of the year as a SFC senior, leading the Eagles to a 28-2 season highlighted by a Div. IV San Diego Section championship game berth.
After completing his senior year at Wheatley, multiple tryouts led him to Milledgeville (Ga.), in the Peach State League, where he hit .485 (16 for 35) in eight games.
The RailCats tryout came on the recommendation of a front-office staffer who was a former Wheatley teammate. When the RailCats everyday shortstop went on the disabled list, Ed McCaskey left a copy of Kolb's baseball resume on manager Greg Tagert's desk.
"He's the best player I've ever played with, and I played with a first-round draft pick in high school," McCaskey said.
Kolb immediately impressed.
He doubled in his first at-bat and has taken over everyday shortstop duties on a regular basis.
In five games he's hitting .235 (4 for 17) with a double and two RBI.
"In just eight or nine days, he's convinced me that he's a very talented player," Tagert said. "It's a short sampling period, but we've decided this is a guy we really like."
Kolb is believed to be among the league's youngest players, and among just two undrafted college seniors in the league, Tagert said. Most players in the league have significant experience playing high-level minor league ball, and several have some major league experience.
"It's a pretty big jump," Kolb said.
Kolb's teammates include Brad Halsey, a former New York Yankees pitcher who's trying to resurrect his career after suffering a shoulder injury.
Kolb said he's adjusting to a faster and more advanced game at Gary, noting ground balls are hit harder by batters who run the bases quicker. Pitchers have better command and nastier stuff.
"It's definitely a good challenge for me right now, but I don't feel overmatched," he said.
In his RailCats debut, he fielded the game's first ball hit in play, a grounder he handled cleanly. "My teammates were joking before the game that when you're out there for the first time 'the ball will find you.' It's funny how it always works out that way."
Kolb was sitting on a 1-0 fastball when he lined a double into the gap in left center in his first at-bat.
"I remember I was trying to relax, not trying to do too much," he said, noting that he made extra sure to touch every base, worried that "I'd do something stupid."
Time was immediately called as officials removed the ball from play and gave it to him after the game.
"I'd been introduced as 'the rookie,' so all the fans gave me a pretty good ovation. Plus, the first double wins something for the fans, so they were extra happy about that," he said.
"It was a pretty cool moment."
But Kolb still considers his playing days at SFC to be the coolest moments. He said he's still in touch with former coach Rick Aguilera.
He cites the support of his parents, Patty and Gary, as pivotal in his success on what's been a three-month baseball Odyssey since graduating from Wheatley with a business degree in May.
"They could have said 'This is crazy, come home,' " Kolb said.
Kolb hopes to parlay his RailCats experience into a shot at affiliated ball that will bring him closer to realizing his major league aspirations.
"I'd love that opportunity, but I think right now I've got to concentrate on playing baseball and enjoying the moment and let the rest take care of itself," he said. "It's a privilege to still be playing after college. Not that many people get that opportunity. I'm lucky."