The 2013 draft class is loaded with catchers and Chris Okey from Eustis (Fla.) High is one of the best. Read or listen to the interview below to learn about his experiences with USA Baseball, the nastiest pitcher he ever caught and his father’s days as a pro wrestler . . .
You guys are already playing now. How’s the season going so far for you?
Oh, it’s been going fantastic. We’re out there having a good time. I’m enjoying my last year with my teammates, the kids I’ve grown up playing with. It’s just awesome and we’re all having a good time. We’re winning ballgames and we’ll lose a few, but you know, it’s something we always work hard and try to fix every time we play.
In about a month here, you’ll be coming up to North Carolina. Baseball America is based in Durham, North Carolina, and you’re coming up for the USA Baseball National High School Invitational. How excited are you for that?
Oh, beyond words. Every year we’ve been trying to get into a bigger tournament like this because we feel we have the talent and the chemistry to go up there against some bigger teams with some great talent, like the ones we’ll be facing. We’re excited to go up there and show ‘em what we have. Win, lose or draw, we’ll have fun and play hard. We’re looking forward to the experience.
I know what to expect out of you since I saw you play a lot this summer. But tell me a little bit about what I should expect to see from your team and your teammates?
You should expect to see a lot of kids who know each other with awesome chemistry. You’re going to see a lot of dirty jerseys out there because all we do is try to see, when we leave the field, who has the dirtiest uniform. We like making plays for the guys next to us. We’re going to make the plays and we’re never going to give up, even if we’re winning 12-nothing or losing 12-nothing. We’re going to stay out there at the same pace of the game and keep playing hard until the final out. If we’re up by then, then good job for us for the next game, and if we’re down, we’ll go out and get ‘em the next game.
Awesome. I’m looking forward to that. You have a lot of experience with USA Baseball, first with the 16U team in 2010 and then the past two years, of course, with the 18U team. What have those opportunities been like for you?
Oh, they’ve been unreal. One of the best, if not the best, opportunities I’ve had. As a baseball player, you can’t ask for a much better opportunity than to go out of the country and represent it. You’re on another country’s turf and you go out there, and I was fortunate enough to win every time I was out of the country and it was the best feeling ever. It makes you mature playing against a crowd going against you, and shutting up a crowd is awesome. Dogpiling on their home turf and coming back home with the gold medal is a surreal feeling. It’s something every baseball player wishes to have and I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to do it. They’ve given me some of the best memories of my life and they’ve helped me mature unbelievably fast the past three years.
Those are special opportunities that, like you said, not many people get to experience. Explain what it means and how it feels to be able to represent your country like that?
Oh, it’s so hard to tell you because so many feelings run through my mind every time I get asked that question. I’m outside the country—without a gun, without risking my life—just simply with a baseball bat and a glove for something I love doing. It’s a huge honor and when we leave there, we leave as teammates, but we come back home as brothers. The relationships you create when you leave the country is unbelievable. Winning it is 10 times better, but every time someone talks to me about USA Baseball or anything USA, you have a whole different view on the flag. Winning the games is awesome, but the things we did outside the field like going to the Army bases and the people that spoke to us, it’s unbelievable and it makes me have a whole different view on the things around you, and it makes you appreciate things a lot more outside of baseball.
My dad has a saying—he always likes to say “World Peace Through Baseball” and that there should be fewer wars and more international baseball tournaments.
You’ve had the opportunity to catch a lot of talented pitchers over the past couple years with Florida Travel Ball and with USA. If you could pick only one, which pitcher that you’ve caught would you say has the nastiest stuff?
It’s so tough. I caught Lucas Giolito and Max Fried in the same day and those two are neck and neck. Carson Fulmer is up there too, and Stephen Gonsalves of this class. But I’m going to go with Giolito, just because he was 6-foot-6 and like a big old tree throwing at you, and throwing 98. He was pretty intimidating. He was blessed with an arm.
Now, he went to a different high school than you, but you’re not the only catcher from Eustis, Fla., with USA Baseball experience. Jonathan Lucroy (from Umatilla High) is the catcher for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Have you ever had the chance to meet him?
No, sir. I’ve asked so many people around. I would love to talk to him about the way he does things. He’s one of the people that keeps me motivated without even saying a word to me. I wanted to be just like him growing up, making the major leagues coming from a small town. You know, just a good ol’ country boy trying to do it big. He’s awesome. I would love to talk to him because what he’s doing is fantastic. I mean, he’s changing a lot of people’s lives. I know over here, baseball-wise, he’s motivating a lot of people because he was the first one trying to break out of here as a small town guy and really opened the door, saying, ‘OK, we can do this. If he can do it, I can do it.’ He’s really opened eyes for a lot of young athletes around here.
You’ve played with one of the premier travel teams in the country the past few years. How would you say you’ve improved as a player during your time with Florida Travel Ball?
Oh my goodness, I came up there as a nervous, 150-pound kid and I left there—I’m still small, but I left a grown man. The coaches up there were fantastic. They taught me everything I needed to know. And the players had a huge impact on me. When I was on the team with Jesse Winker, Addison Russell. One tournament I was with them and David Dahl and (Alex) Bregman. Of course I played with them on Team USA, as well, but the coaches had a huge impact on me. They took me under their wing and they turned me into the baseball player I am today. They help you mature, they train you, they work you. They don’t necessarily tell you what you want to hear, but they tell you what you need to hear. It’s awesome. I couldn’t have done it without them and the help and support of the players.
You just mentioned the guys, but I was going to say the FTB team that stands out to me is the one from from two years ago with you, (Albert), Almora, Dahl, Jesse Winker and Alex Bregman . . . and Dan Vogelbach showed up to basically be a cheerleader for the team. Even though you guys got knocked out, I haven’t seen too many teams with that much swagger. That must have been a lot of fun.
It was great. There’d be games where I was sitting on a bench with Dahl next to me. That’s a first-rounder right there, that’s how good our team was. Yeah, we were out there having a good time. We came up short, yeah, but we love each other like brothers and the talent was unreal, obviously. It was just a good time. It’s always better to be around an environment with humble and great athletes like that.
How long have you played catcher?
Growing up, I think I started catching around age 7 or 8. I started catching in games around 7 or 8, but I threw on the gear and walked around the house at 4 or 5.
For our listeners and readers who haven’t had a chance to see you play yet, how would you describe yourself as a player? What would you say are your best attributes?
I’m going to step aside from skill. With my leadership role, I think I have a huge impact on teams. I keep the dugout loose and, at times, if it needs to get shaped up, I’ll shape it up. My ability to communicate with others, I think, is a gift I have and I always use it to my ability and my advantage. I have a good rep of keeping people up, keeping people motivated and keeping the game going and keeping it loose. Baseball’s a game. You’re supposed to have fun with it and, win, lose or draw, go out there with your jersey dirty and a smile on your face, knowing that you gave it your all. I think my leadership ability has really helped with my catching skills and my hitting skills. I’m always keeping myself humble, as well as the people around me. I feel like my leadership skills are what’s made me the player and the person I am today.
Where would you say you’re still working to improve?
In my mind, I have to improve on everything. I don’t feel like I’m good enough at anything right now. I’m working to get better every day. But from my standpoint, to give you the answer that you want to hear or people want to hear, probably hitting a little bit. Hitting outside pitches or just making my approach more simple. Squaring up more balls, maybe taking more pitches for balls instead of swinging outside the zone a little bit, but I feel like I’ve come a long way with that and have matured as a player and I’m looking to keep working forward and making myself a better player every day.
You played a little bit of center field at the East Coast Pro Showcase. How did that come about?
You know, they needed a guy. I think one of our guys had a hurt arm and if a guy asked me to pitch, I’d be the first one to raise my hand. I think it’s so fun playing different positions. It was great, it was awesome being out there. I mean, I love catching, but to have the mask off and without the gear on, having a little fun out there, catching a few fly balls, throwing a few balls to home. I was having a good time with it and they were stupid enough to let me go out there. It was fun, I’m so glad I got to do it.
Sure. I think one of the best things about you as a catcher is your athleticism, so it was nice to be able to see you handle that so easily. Another thing scouts really look for in a catcher is toughness and I would imagine having two older brothers really toughened you up in a hurry.
Oh my goodness, you have no idea. Yes sir, it did. I remember coming home one day after practice, I think I was about 8 or 9 and I came home and told them how good of a practice or game I had. And, from then on, I’ve never come home telling them about how good of a game I had. They straightened me up real quick. They were always there for me. They’re the ones who really kept me humble and taught me everything I know about baseball. I give them a whole bunch of credit for the player I am today, and my father. He hated baseball. He didn’t pay attention to it until Chase, my older brother, came out and wanted to play. We kind of worked with each other and, sure enough, he’s done a great job creating baseball players. I love every single one of them. They made a major impact on my life.
Yeah, I was going to say—your older brother, Chase, was a catcher at Tennessee-Martin. What kind of advantage was it, growing up, having an older brother who played the same position?
Oh, it was huge because he was undersized and he was a little more undersized than I was. And, if you ask me, to this day, I still think he’s the better catcher. Just because of the way he played the game. He was a small kid and, at the time, Chet Lemon’s Juice, they were the nation’s best team and they had some of the best prospects ever. I was watching them as a young kid who had big dreams and I just watched them play the game and how smooth it was, particularly the catchers and how they presented themselves and what I needed to work on. That gave me a step up at a young age. I used to go out there and practice with them a little bit, helped shag, hit a little bit and those guys taught me so much without even knowing it, just by me looking at them. I’d come home and hear my brother talk about what he needed to do to get better and I’d watch him hit in the cage and I’d just repeat what they do. I felt that was an advantage on my part.
Yeah, no doubt. You mentioned size and I one thing I think some scouts questioned this summer was your size a little bit. For a guy who projects to be a high pick at such a physically-demanding position, you know, they want to make sure that you’re going to be able to withstand the rigors of a 140-game season. But to me, I had to laugh those concerns off because I met your dad. And I had never met him before Jupiter, but he was standing next to me at one of the games and it was easy to figure out who he was because he was wearing a Clemson shirt and, facially, you guys look really similar. So I was like, ‘Oh, that must be Chris Okey’s dad.’ So I introduce myself and man, he’s a beast. Nobody’s running into Chuck Okey at home plate.
No, sir. He’s my trainer. He’s in the weight room and he keeps me somewhat tough. I’m still trying to be as tough as he is, but he keeps me up there. He wakes me up every morning yelling and screaming. He’s full of energy. He’ll go to bed jogging. He wakes up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m crawling out of bed and he’s doing jumping jacks in the living room, telling me to get ready and hurry up. That’s the way he is and I love every bit of it because he’s always full of energy and he keeps me on my feet.
Your dad, for people who might not know, was a football coach at Ole Miss in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Yes, sir. He was a strength and conditioning coach.
Is he still doing any of that now?
No, sir. I have a few buddies at high school and he’s been doing it for my older brothers and their friends, but we have a workout program that we do, that we used to get up in the morning before school and go to, and he’s been doing that ever since, helping me out and helping other kids in the area who are willing to put in the work and sacrifice a little bit of their time in the weight room and help them get physically better as a player. He’s been doing that and he does a great job. I still do it with him and it hasn’t let me down. He’s put a few muscles on my bones, so I enjoy it.
Tell me a little bit more about it.
He has his whole workout thing from what he did at Ole Miss. He prints them out and we have nine weeks and we take one week off. It’s kind of difficult to do during baseball season, so I kind of go after practice and when I can because, like you noticed today, the practices are kind of long. We go in there and we have specific workouts that we do on specific days. For instance, Monday might be a chest day, which we do not heavy at all. Then the next day we go hard legs, then we go back to upper body—the back. And then Friday, we finish off the legs. Then we have good recovery time—we take Wednesdays off. But we just kind of keep the body going. During baseball season we might—not necessarily do it lighter, but just less reps, just to keep the body toned up, just so you don’t drop a bunch of weight during the season.
I was doing some research for this Q&A and one thing I found—this was before you were born, but I found a newspaper article about your dad getting to take part in a pro wrestling event in 1991 with Jerry Lawler and Tony Anthony and Eddie and Doug Gilbert. Has he told you any stories about that?
Yes, sir—a long time ago! I haven’t talked to him about wrestling since I was about 8 and I loved to watch wrestling. He told us and there’s a picture around the house somewhere of him . . . and yeah, it’s funny that he was a wrestler because if you talk to him now, you’d think he’d be a big ol’ teddy bear and soft. I can’t imagine him stepping in the ring, but I bet he was an aggressive sucker. I wouldn’t want to be stepping in there when he’s mad.
That’s pretty awesome. Looking through your Facebook photos, it looks like you go way back with Florida Gulf Coast outfielder Sean Dwyer?
Oh yes sir. He’s like my third brother. He’s always over here. Him and (my brother) Mitch, he’s a shortstop at Flagler right now, they are so close. He’d come over here every day and the memories I have with that kid go back to when I was still in diapers. And along with their family, the Dwyer family, they’re awesome people. They’re always around the house and we’re always having dinner with each other. That whole family is fantastic and we have a good mix. He’s awesome, I hit with him, we do everything together and he’s just one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life.
It seems rare these days to see an upper-tier high school player in Florida committed to a college outside the state. What was it about Clemson that drew you into their program?
Well, my mom was a cheerleader there and my grandpa had a huge impact on the IPTAY program (Editor’s note: IPTAY is Clemson’s booster club) that they have over there. Just when I went up there, I had no intentions of getting offered a college scholarship. It was after my first time going through Georgia and I had a rough tournament, and I was just about to go to the 16U trials and my parents wanted me to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone and I still had to compete and show my best ability. So, they signed me up for Clemson camp at the last minute and I had no idea I was going there. Truthfully, I wasn’t excited about going because I was kind of excited about going home because I was kind of tired. But when I got there, my eyes opened. The campus was unbelievable, the coaches were fantastic and the field was nice and everything and I just fell in love. Deep down inside, I knew that was my dream college and if I got the opportunity, I’d want to commit there and when they offered me, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I felt comfortable and my family agreed with it, obviously, and it was a dream come true at a young age. It felt fantastic to get that under my belt and it was awesome just being there, and getting offered a scholarship was the cherry on top.
So you’ve been committed there since you were like 15?
Yes, sir. It was the summer before my sophomore year.
Obviously baseball takes up a lot of your time, but what do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?
Sleep and eat breakfast, pretty much. I can’t think of anything else that I do, it’s always baseball. If I’m not at the field playing, I’ve got this wall at my house here that me and my brothers and Sean would come over here and my other brothers’ friends and we’d play a wall game here and we used to practice. I’m looking at it right now and I’m looking at how torn up it is from all the times we’ve played. I have a Wiffle Ball field in my backyard and we used to play before practice or after a game or on a lazy Saturday or Sunday, we’d come over here and we’d play Wiffle Ball all the time. There’s so many memories, it’s just unbelievable. But when I leave the field, I come home, I eat dinner, I go to sleep, I wake up, I eat breakfast, I go to school and I’m doing baseball, baseball, baseball and then just fun little stuff like Wiffle Ball or hitting in the cage.
Awesome, that’s what I like to hear. I love it. Well Chris, thank you so much for taking the time, I really appreciate it. Good luck with the rest of the season and I’m really looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks at the NHSI.
Yes sir, thank you so much for having me.