When Justin Livengood graduated from Ledford High (High Point, N.C.) in the spring of 2008, baseball was the last thing on his mind. Now, exactly five years later, Livengood is on the verge of turning the one-time burden into a career, after being selected by the Padres in the 10th round of the draft. But it's how he got there—not the fact that he did—that makes his story special.
Like any 18-year-old high school student, Livengood had dreams of booking it to the coast after graduation. It was fishing and boating—not conditioning and studying—that kept his attention. And so without hesitation, he gave up the game. Temporarily.
As a student at Cape Fear CC in downtown Wilmington, N.C., Livengood had the best of both worlds. He was on the coast with access to a boat and a good dog by his side. And he could keep his parents at bay with classes in the mornings before all the fun began. It was the perfect life for Livengood, who had spent the better part of his youth consuming himself with competition on the baseball field and the stresses that came with it.
"Coming into college I didn't want to not be able to go fishing or hang out with my buddies," he said. "I didn't want to have a schedule. I thought those things were more important at that time."
It was almost two years before he regained the urge to play. But even then, after pushing baseball to the back of his mind, he knew it wasn't too late.
"My buddy Patrick (Koontz) had just transferred to UNC Asheville and asked me to come see him play (North) Carolina," Livengood said. "Just watching him take (pregame infield and outfield) and be around all the guys on the team . . . I just saw him having so much fun."
The light switch moment came for Livengood when Koontz hit two home runs in the game.
"I told my girlfriend, 'If Patrick is still hitting home runs four years after high school, I know I can still make a baseball team.'"
For Livengood, a taste was all he needed. After being accepted as a transfer student to UNC Wilmington in the fall of 2011, Livengood knew he'd have to drop the "freshman 15" if he wanted to have any chance at a comeback. He took up a distance running regimen and made a promise to himself that if he could work the weight off, he would give baseball another chance. Sure enough, the pounds fell off and Livengood quickly found himself in what he calls the best shape of his life. He owed himself one more shot.
After strengthening his arm over the summer, Livengood showed up to the walk-on tryouts at UNC Wilmington in 2011 with nothing to lose. A few low 90s fastballs were more than enough to warrant a full fall tryout, and by the time Opening Day rolled around in February, Livengood was once again a part of a team.
"I thought there was no way I'd ever be a part of a team as close as my high school," he said. "But when I walked on, everybody took me in. I was just as close with that team as the guys that I grew up with."
Livengood spent the better part of the 2012 season serving minimal roles out of the bullpen as a junior, and knew that summer ball would be his chance to gain a better comfort level. While with the Wilmington Sharks of the Coastal Plain League in the summer of 2012, Livengood served as one of the team's primary bullpen options and consistently displayed a low-90s fastball and a devastating breaking ball. It was clear that his feel was slowly making its was back.
In 2013 Livengood set a goal of becoming a vital piece in the Seahawks' bullpen, in what could be the second final season of his baseball career. He did just that, becoming the Seahawks go-to righthander, blowing hitters away with his power fastball and sharp 12-6 curveball. Scouts and coaches marveled at the arm that had come out of nowhere, but for Livengood, it was just fun to be back on the field.
Livengood logged 34 innings in 29 appearances and struck out 48 batters. He'll need to sharpen his command as he walked 26, but he has two pitches—his fastball and curveball—that rate as 60s on the 20-to-80 scouting scale to go with a 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame.
After walking away from a game that he grew up loving, Livengood's perseverance and determination afforded him a second chance. Surely, both will be key in pushing him toward a major league debut. And despite all of the attention that he has received this spring, Livengood still insists that it was the people around him that made the whole story possible.
"If it wasn't for the coaches, I wouldn't be here," he said. "If I don't make it in baseball, I hope I make it in something else so that I can do something for that program. I love that baseball team."