South African Kieran Lovegrove Proves An Intriguing Late-Bloomer
To anyone posted behind home plate, Mission Viejo (Calif.) High's Kieran Lovegrove looks like a typical high school righthander destined to pitch on a bigger stage.
His background shows that he is anything but typical. Lovegrove is a late bloomer who hasn't been prominent on the showcase circuit. Not to mention there aren't many high school prospects who are natives of South Africa and co-founders of a charitable foundation.
Kieran Lovegrove (Photo by Larry Goren)
Lovegrove's father is from South Africa and met his wife in the United States in the 1980s. The couple moved back to South Africa and had two kids, Kieran and Kayla. Kieran, about three years younger than his sister, was born in Johannesburg, and the family moved to Cape Town when he was about a year old.
Crime in the country was on the rise in the late 1990s so Keith Lovegrove put his wife, Kelly, and kids on a plane and they moved to Los Angeles in 1999. The family stayed with Kelly's parents before getting settled in Southern California.
"I know my dad wanted a better life for me and my sister," Kieran Lovegrove said. "It's tough not knowing where you came from because I was so young. I remember the views from the apartment and the beaches. Little things like that. It's a good reminder how beautiful it is."
Lovegrove hasn't been back since the move, but he is proud of his heritage and hopes to represent his country on the field by playing in the World Baseball Classic and being the first South African-born major leaguer. That didn't seem like a possibility a couple of years ago, but thanks to physical maturation and hard work, Lovegrove is now a legitimate pro prospect.
Mission Viejo head coach Chris Ashbach has known Lovegrove since he entered high school. He says Lovegrove was an above-average freshman, a good hitter with a nice arm. He spent his first two years of high school on the junior varsity squad. As a sophomore, he was sitting in the low 80s with his fastball. That summer, everything took a step forward.
"His progression took place after his sophomore year," Ashbach said. "He went from 82-83 (mph) to 88-90 in a matter of a few months."
Lovegrove attributed the jump in velocity to his body growing. He now stands at a chiseled 6-feet-4, 185 pounds, and delivers a lively fastball that can sit in the low 90s while complementing it with a sharp slider that is a swing-and-miss pitch when at its best. But for all of his physical development, it was a wake-up call before the start of his senior year that changed everything.
Lovegrove had drawn attention on his travel team thanks to his frame and arm strength, but he was disappointed after making just four starts in 10 appearances as a junior and going 1-4, 5.49. That summer he participated in the Area Code Games and "got knocked around a little bit," he said.
"That's when I told myself I'm not working hard enough," he said. "I didn't like the way it turned out and I'm not going to let that happen again.
"I'm lucky enough to be blessed with a strong arm and a fastball with movement. It took me a while to figure out I can't throw 110 (mph) and get a strikeout on the first pitch."
So Lovegrove got serious with his workout routine. He started working with a personal trainer and gets into the gym a few times a week, lifting properly and focusing on exercises specific to baseball. He now long-tosses on a regular basis, and he's able to easily sit in the low 90s. He touched 94 at the Southern California Invitational in February and may have more in the tank.
Lovegrove's first goal for the season was to help the younger players for Mission Viejo get acclimated to the routines and demands of the varsity program. But after seeing how quickly the group came together, he wants to lead them back to the playoffs as the Diablos seek a second consecutive Southern Section championship.
He also wants everyone to see the progress he has made.
"I want to show the difference from last year and the work I've put in," Lovegrove said. "I want to put up the numbers I'm capable of and put myself into that upper echelon of players."
Putting Others First
As an Arizona State signee and a draft prospect, Lovegrove seems to have a bright future, but he shines off the field as well.
"He's extremely competitive, but a wonderful, emotional, caring young man," Ashbach said. "He wants to please people. He's one of the most caring kids I've had. He's so conscious of other people."
With the help of two friends and teammates—Adam Salcido and Kyle Candalla—Lovegrove started the Going To Bat Foundation. The young men saw a video of players in South Africa who had very little in the way of equipment and were practicing in poor conditions, yet still were winning games. So they set forth with this mission: To improve the lives of youth by providing any child who wishes to play baseball or softball with the means and the opportunity, providing a viable alternative to other destructive options.
"In a place like Orange County, kids get new stuff every year," Lovegrove said. "We did a shipment to South Africa. We did some work in Alaska and locally, too. It's really started to grow over the past year."
Their Website, goingtobat.org, makes it easy for anyone to help. There is a page dedicated to collecting monetary donations while another lists urgent needs, wish lists for specific schools and communities, as well as suggestions of what equipment to purchase. The group collects the donations and then provides the equipment to those in need.
With Lovegrove attending various baseball events around the country, the foundation has received a lot of attention. Lovegrove is fully aware of his good fortune and wants to do everything he can to afford others the chance to chase their own dreams.
"I look at kids with single parents with two jobs and they're struggling," he said. "It affects me inside. That kid wants to be a star player and they just don't have the opportunity. Anything you can do would really change their lives."
Lovegrove attributes his character to his parents being supportive of all his endeavors and raising him with strong morals. He has been told that he'll get the chance to represent South Africa in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament this fall, and he has at least one more goal in mind.
"I'm no longer just playing for myself," he said. "In my mind I'm playing for a country that's never been represented in the major leagues. I know I'm not alone. There are others.
"I would love to be able to play for South Africa. If we can put South Africa on the map for baseball, that would be more of an accomplishment than winning the World Baseball Classic."