A Big Hit
Massive Riggins can also hit for average
Harold Riggins is more than meets the eye. The 6-foot-3 first baseman looks 230, weighs 270, hits for average in a power hitter's body, and spurned pro scouts in favor of three years at North Carolina State, 800 miles away from his home and family in Normal, Ill.
And in his first tour of the Northwoods League, Riggins was terrorizing pitchers for the Madison Mallards, leading the Northwoods League in RBIs (44) and slugging percentage (.563) with eight home runs, an average of .329, and the home run derby crown from the Northwoods League all-star game.
"There you go, that's my guy," N.C. State assistant coach Tom Holliday said. "That's what I hoped right there."
Holliday has been hoping almost since the day he met Riggins. At the Area Code Games in 2007, Holliday was looking for a power hitter among the premier high school players, and he thought he had one in Riggins.
Riggins could easily hit the ball out of any point in the park, his frame was already hulking, and his arm looked like it belonged to a shortstop. There was also a funny story circulating about the kid.
According to the story, when Riggins was told he would have to make it to the Area Code Games on the West Coast on his own, (a financial strain on him and his family) he said he'd get there, even if he had to hitchhike.
"As the world turns in college baseball and pro baseball, you hear funny stories," Holliday said. "And the story got back to me that he actually did hitchhike out there, which I'm thinking, you've got to be kidding me. If the kid hitchhiked out there nobody wants to play more than that."
As it turned out, Riggins didn't actually hitchhike, but he did sell Holliday on his commitment to the game, enough for the Wolfpack's associate head coach to offer Riggins a scholarship to come play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And even then, most of the other coaches told Holliday, don't bother. Riggins was viewed by most of the baseball world as an easy sign out of high school, a guy who would take less money to help out at home.
"Third time I mentioned it to him, 'Are you still going to come? Do you still have the same opinion of college?'" Holliday said.
"And he goes, 'Coach, the reason it took me so long to make up my mind is because when I make up my mind, my mind's made up. I told you I was coming to school, I'll be at school,' and I almost felt like I had to apologize. It was like here comes the statement, hear it, and don't ask me again."
Sure enough, Riggins was drafted in the 35th round by the White Sox, and the prevailing opinion was that Riggins would sign with Chicago and ditch N.C. State.
"I was pretty much set on school right off the bat," Riggins said. "It would have taken a lot of money for me to sign."
So it was a surprise to everybody but Riggins and Holliday when four days before the fall semester of 2008 started, Riggins walked off the elevator with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, ready to start school at N.C. State.
Shrinking The Big Hurt
Riggins quickly earned the nickname "The Big Hurt" for his size and the way he could crush a baseball, and his trademark grin endeared him to coaches and teammates alike, who compared him to another oversized player with the same nickname—former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas.
But from the initial weigh-in before the season, it was clear to the training staff that Riggins needed to get smaller.
Anyone as sturdy and big as Riggins could be expected to weigh around 230 pounds, but he seemed even bigger than that.
"When Harold showed up, the joke was 'What do you think Harold weighs?'" Holliday said. "And I thought it was 245, 250, and highest guesstimate that we had was 260, and I said no way, he's not 260."
But when the measurements came back, Riggins weighed in at an improbable 290 pounds. He had to take off nearly 30 pounds before the start of the season in February, and by accounts of his coaches, he changed his body, weighing in at a well-muscled 262 pounds for much of the season.
But even then, Riggins was in something of a jam. The Wolfpack had three-year starter Pat Ferguson at first base, and playing time was hard to come by for the freshman.
It was a struggle for Riggins, far away from his family, at a campus where he knew no one, and stuck in a platoon at first base. When he did get in the game, Riggins struggled with ACC pitching and the 90-plus mph velocity he faced almost every at-bat. It took most of the season to regain the confidence he had early in the season, when he went 4-for-5 with five RBIs against North Carolina A&T on March 11.
"A lot of stuff that we did in high school was different than being in a university," Riggins said. "Having to do everything on your own, just being more independent."
For the year, he started 21 games and finished with a .284 average and 16 RBIs. Of his 23 hits, six went for extra bases.
Often, players with Riggins' combination of size and power swing for the fences every time. But he has maintained a .329 average even while working with wood bats.
"He's really a unique player for a guy his size," Wolfpack head coach Elliot Avent said. "He's got a tremendous eye—he just doesn't go up there and take hacks."
Riggins seems to be realizing his ability at Madison, where he routinely cranks out multi-hit games in the Northwoods League. And for the future, the roster is cleared for him to start at first base for N.C. State next season.
"You just start to see the hitter come out of him," Holiday said. "It happens at different paces with different hitters all the time. I hope he's going to end up being one of those really strong stories."
• Riggins had an RBI double to help the South beat the North 4-2 in the Northwoods all-star game, in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
• In the Great Lakes League all-star game, Kobin Vitrek (Ball State) launched the game-winning solo home run to give the red team the win, 5-4. Harman Watkins from Berry (Ga.) College paced the blue team with two hits.
• For the second time in league history, the Coastal Plain League's all-star game went into extra innings. This year's affair ended in a 2-2 tie after 10 frames in Wilmington, N.C. Gerard Hall (Old Dominion) was the game's star, going 2-for-2 with a solo homer.
• Third baseman Jake Rosenbeck (Buffalo), who homered against Team USA during its tour of the New England Collegiate League, was MVP of the NECBL all-star game, going 2-for-3 with an RBI as the West beat the East 6-5.