SVM Player of the Year: Rock Falls senior shortstop Brett Chappell
No minor feat: Chappell shakes off humbling beginning, catches childhood hero
|Rock Falls graduate Brett Chappell will duke it out for a middle infield job at Northern Illinois University next season, but he spearheaded the Rockets' rotation as this season and helped them win a regional title for the first time in his prep career. (Alex T. Paschalemail@example.com)|
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Even a fastball to the bean couldn’t blur Brett Chappell’s vision.
As a pint-sized baseball fanatic, Brett wanted to be Robbie Minor. He spent hours watching the Rock Falls shortstop surround bad hops with ease and throw seed after seed across the diamond.
The summer before Robbie and the Rockets reached the Class A state tournament, Brett was rudely greeted by the game from which no one could pull him away.
A freshly turned 7-year-old playing up with the 8- to 10-year-olds in Little League, Brett got beaned by a pitcher four times times his size, according to Brett’s dad and longtime Rockets skipper Donnie Chappell.
Anyone who’s hung out with Donnie knows he might be embellishing. But, no matter the size differential, Brett recalls that it took some time to inch back up to the dish.
“Every time I came up to bat, I was pretty much backing away from the plate,” Brett says. “I think that’s pretty natural for anyone. I’m glad I grew out of it.”
“Getting hit was probably a positive in the long run,” Donnie agrees. “He realized he survived it.”
Ten years later, Brett endured just the second bean ball of his life on an 85 mph fastball from Granite City stud Riley Vanyo on April 1, 2011.
Blood flowed from Brett’s ear, which was opened up as his helmet cracked. He temporarily lost his hearing. The scar remains.
But in his next at-bat, the 2012 Sauk Valley Media baseball player of the year dug into the right-handed batter’s box, the same way he did in his previous appearance, and stroked a clean single back through the box.
Brett calls himself a student of the game. Evidently his ability to learn is anything but limited to books.
Summer school year-round
Brett is quick to concede that his 9-year-old brother, Chase, has the most natural athletic talent in the family. What remains to be seen is if the phenom will study the game like his big brother, for whom school is always in session.
Brett and Donnie spend countless hours watching baseball either on the couch or at the ballpark, debating what pitch a batter will see in a given situation.
“Is he going to throw him a fastball or a slider? We’ll go back and forth all the time on stuff like that,” Donnie says.
But when the game ends, the education continues.
“I couldn’t tell you how many books, movies, videos and ESPN highlights I watch in a week, let alone throughout the course of my life,” Brett says. “I’ve truly come to love doing it, studying what to do in what situations.”
Brett constantly seeks new techniques for both playing the game and getting in the right mindset to do so. He carries a lot of what baseball teaches him into everyday life.
“Baseball teaches you how to fail,” Brett said. “It helps in everything. It’s helped in school a lot. I hit .470 this season. That means I failed 67 percent of the time … wait ... 57 percent of the time.”
“He’s not going to be a math teacher,” Donnie says.
Even though Donnie and Brett liberally take jabs at each other, one needs spend little time chatting baseball with them to realize that neither has a vindictive bone in his body.
But what sticks in Brett’s craw is the way dad, a slick-fielding shortstop during his playing days, gets the nod over his boy.
“My grandmother will tell me anything I want to hear,” Brett says. “She’ll say, ‘Brett, you played awesome. You made a lot of great plays. … You’re still not as good as your dad.’”
That calls for a quick-witted, back-handed compliment.
“I used to get mad hearing it, but now I kind of like hearing it,” Brett says. “I like knowing he was better at me in something. He can’t beat me in anything else.”
All jokes aside, Donnie admires Brett’s craft.
“The hardest thing is learning how to play the ball and play the hop,” Donnie said. “A kid like Brett makes plays look easy. Another kid might say he got a bad hop. Brett would’ve gotten the same hop, but he got to it before the bad one.”
While Brett learned to ply the trade watching four-time All-Star Jose Reyes, Donnie studied such shortstop greats as Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton.
“That just shows how old I am,” Donnie says. “People out there are going to be Googling Gary Templeton.”
Playing shortstop is art for Brett. Ever since he gained enough bulk to move over from second base at the age of nine, he’s worked to perfect the numeral 6.
Like an idiot savant staring at a blank canvas, he envisions plays before they happen.
“I’m always thinking, ‘Hit the ball to me,’” Brett said. “If there’s a guy on first, I want him to steal so I can be there to tag him out.”
For him, nothing compares to when he gets a chance to charge a ball and throw on the run.
“It makes it look so smooth and so easy,” he says. “I want to make it look good and have people think, ‘Wow, what a play.’”
He ranged to his right more than ever before this season after the graduation of third baseman Brennan Coward, who had exceptional range at the hot corner.
When Coward would cut in front of him to make a play, Brett would joke, “Dang it, Brennan, what are you doing?”
“I hear all the time, ‘Brett, you’re way too competitve,’” says Brett, who will compete for a middle-infield job as a freshman at Northern Illinois University. “That doesn’t faze me at all. Knowing I’m going to succeed, even when things are slim, helps me a lot. At Northern, I have to have that mentality. I have to compete with three or four infielders for a spot. I can’t win it if I’m thinking I’m going to fail.”
A ringing endorsement
Robbie Minor graciously gives Brett the nod. Sometimes it’s audible, and sometimes it needs to be seen.
“I love to say we’re very similar,” Minor says. “When I watch him play, it reminds me a lot of myself. When you’ve got a player who stays after practice and puts in the extra time in the weight room like Brett does, that rubs off on other players.”
Sometimes the best compliments, however, aren’t spoken. Minor instructed his pitcher, Tanner Morse, to give Brett exactly zero fastballs during the twin-cities clash April 21 in Sterling.
“Robbie even told us, ‘We weren’t gonna pitch to him,’” Donnie said.
Few did, as Brett drew 40 walks during his senior season, giving him a .621 on-base percentage.
He grew impatient, waiting for pitchers to challenge him. Although the plethora of junk they’ve thrown him have helped refine his eye.
Brett won’t have to wait around for a pitcher to challenge him on the college level.
“And I’ll be ready,” Brett says.
Brett plays favorites
Baseball movie: “Fever Pitch”
– “I love that movie because it’s kind of weird,” Brett says. “The year they shot it was the year they won.”
Book: “The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance,” by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl
– “I’ve read it like three times,” Brett says, “and I always learn something.”
Walk-up tune: “Your Love” by The Outfield
– That earworm was Brett’s walkup tune during his senior season.
MLB team: Boston Red Sox
– The Red Sox beating the Yankees in 2004 was Brett’s favorite moment as a fan. He also managed to convert his dad, who grew up a Pirates fan.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes
Player: Dustin Pedroia
NFL team: Green Bay Packers
– Brett is named after ... you guessed it ... Brett Favre
NBA team: Los Angeles Lakers
– “Big Kobe fan,” Brett says. “I love that guy.”
Favorite NHL team: N/A
– “What team won this year?” Brett asks. “The Kings? I don’t mind the Blackhawks, I guess.”
– “You’ll never watch a hockey game at our house,” Donnie follows.
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