Freshman Of The Year

Michael Lananna

For as far back as Mike Beer can remember, his son, Seth, has been a dreamer—the kind of kid who visualizes greatness, who makes himself the protagonist of his own fictions. When Mike and his wife, Robin, lived in Iowa about 15 years ago, a 4-year-old Seth would play floor hockey inside their five-car garage, and he’d make his parents stand there with him, and he’d say, “Act like the crowd, mom! Act like the crowd, dad!”

Dreams are more missions than fantasies, and once Seth Beer locks in on one, he pursues it with unrelenting focus

And Mike and Robin would stand there and make crowd noises as their son promised them he would one day play in front of real fans, with noises from an actual crowd filling the air.

His dreams have changed. Seth Beer has gone through many of them, and he takes each dream as seriously as the last. The dreams are more missions than fantasies, and once Beer locks in on one, he pursues it with unrelenting focus.

Beer used to swim. Mike and Robin homeschooled him as a child because Seth would wake up at 4 a.m.—before anyone else in the house—and swim for six hours a day. And then when he wasn’t swimming, he’d take 200 or so swings off a tee from the garage of the Beers’ current home in Georgia.

When Beer was 10, he told Mike and Robin he wanted to go to the Olympics.

At age 14, accomplished swimmer Seth moved onto another dream—baseball.

“We were not a rich family, but we said we would support him,” Mike Beer said. “And I put together a contract, and the two of us sat down and talked about that contract—what he would do and what we would do.

“I modeled it after (Derek) Jeter. Him and his mother had done a similar thing.”

Not long after, Seth set national records in the 50m and 100m backstroke in the 11- and 12-year-old age groups. He was on the cusp of earning an invitation to the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials as a teenager. His parents were discussing plans to travel to London—even looking ahead to Rio.

But at age 14, Seth moved onto another dream.

Shocking his parents, Seth made the emotional decision to put down his goggles and focus on baseball. More so than swimming, Seth was attracted to baseball’s team aspect, its sense of community. And he was told early and often by the coach of his Georgia Roadrunners travel team—former MLB righthander Paul Byrd—that his swing had obvious major league potential.

So Seth and his father ripped up their old contract and wrote up a new one. Seth had a new mission.

After transferring from a small private school to Lambert High in Suwanee, Ga., his sophomore year, Beer walked up to then-head baseball coach Jamie Corr and said, “Coach, my name is Seth Beer. I’m here, and we’re going to win a state championship.”

They did—Class 6A state champions in Georgia in 2014.

Then Beer set his sights on college. He lined up all of his classes so he could enroll in Clemson a semester early. Playing this spring as a Clemson freshman—when he should’ve been a senior in high school—Beer established himself as not only the country’s top newcomer but one of its best players. Period.

Beer hit .369/.535/.700 with 70 RBIs and a Clemson freshman-record 18 home runs. In 203 at-bats, he struck out just 27 times to 62 walks. After going hitless in his first college game, Beer went on a 26-game hitting streak and reached base via a hit or a walk in each of his last 60 games, helping lead Clemson to an ACC tournament title and the No. 7 national seed.

Beer hit .369/.535/.700 with 70 RBIs and a Clemson freshman-record 18 home runs

Beer became the first freshman to ever win the ACC’s player of the year award, and the national awards and recognition have only kept rolling in. It’s all validation for the path Beer took—for the dream Beer chose.

“My wife and I have talked about this several times, and it’s just mind-blowing,” Mike said. “Every time we hear about these kinds of awards, we literally just sit down and cry.”

Now, it’s time to add another award to the mantle—Seth Beer is Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year.

The Path to Clemson

The Beer family found Clemson at the intersection of two dreams.

Mike and Robin’s daughter, Savannah, 18, sets goals much like her older brother does. She’s currently pursuing a scholarship to play beach volleyball collegiately, pouring herself into the sport like Seth has done with swimming and baseball.

About two years ago, Savannah needed a ride to a volleyball tournament at Clemson, and with Robin sidelined by a torn Achilles from playing recreational tennis, Seth was the chosen chauffeur. The trip proved doubly valuable. While Seth was there, Robin suggested he reach out to the baseball team’s coaching staff.

“Clemson wasn’t really even on my radar. And my mom said, ‘Why don’t you call the coach?” Seth said. “I called the coaching staff, and I remember I got right on campus and thought, ‘This is where I want to go.’ I didn’t speak to anybody. I just saw the campus, and I thought, ‘This is where I want to play ball.’”

Beer became so enamored with Clemson, the baseball program and then-head coach Jack Leggett that he crafted a plan to graduate high school early. He stacked up all of his required courses, added some online classes and plowed through his work. He said it was a lonely time, with little room for socializing, but the visions in his head of playing with the Tigers kept him going.

“I dreamt about it,” Beer said. “When I was watching TV last year and they had playoffs going on, I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

That dream shattered on June 5, 2015, when Clemson fired Leggett after 22 years as the Tigers head coach. Suddenly, doubt crept into Beer’s mind. He wondered if he should revert course, shift the plan he had been following so resolutely.

The Beers heard that Seth was drawing late first-round to second-round interest in the draft. Signing bonuses that high in the draft aren’t anything to sneeze at, but would that money be life changing? Seth wrestled with the decision. Whenever he had a bad day at school, he’d come home thinking, “I don’t want to do school anymore.”

Beer became so enamored with Clemson, the baseball program and then-head coach Jack Leggett that he crafted a plan to graduate high school early

The entire family wrestled with it. They ran through all of the scenarios, prayed about it.

“About a year ago, I would tell you I had some jet-black hair, and it’s now gray,” Mike Beer said, laughing. “But that would be kind of lying. It was gray all along. It just got grayer.”

The turning point came one night in Florida in the midst of a baseball tournament. Beer was eating dinner with some teammates when his phone rang—a South Carolina number he didn’t recognize.

It belonged to Monte Lee, Clemson’s new head baseball coach.

“We talked for about 45 minutes to an hour, just about baseball, all kinds of things you can imagine,” Beer said. “And I remember after talking to him, I felt so comfortable, like I had known him, and I said, ‘Coach, I want to play for Clemson, I want to play for you, and I want to make this happen.’”

The Beers met Lee in person soon after and discussed the particulars of enrolling early, of Lee’s vision for the Clemson program and how Seth fit into it. They liked what they heard. They were at peace with the plan once again. At one point, Seth turned to Mike and said, “Dad, I really want to go to a school that I can be remembered at.”

Clemson was that school.

Seth went through with enrolling in January. Around the same time, Robin moved with Savannah to Tampa to help her pursue her beach volleyball scholarship.

In a few days, brother and sister will reunite in Los Angeles—Beer to attend the Golden Spikes Award reveal and Savannah to attend a volleyball camp. Dreams intertwined yet again.

Fitting In

Monte Lee was nervous.

The Beers met Monte Lee in person soon after he was hired and discussed the particulars of enrolling early

After seven years coaching at the College of Charleston, he had just finished his first fall at the helm of his new team. As January approached, the first-year Clemson coach was still getting to know the Tigers he inherited. Now, all of a sudden, Seth Beer was going to enter the mix.

Lee knew how talented Beer was and how much of an impact he could make, but he also worried about his mid-year transition from high school to college. Would it be uncomfortable for Beer? Would it be uncomfortable for his teammates?

“It’s hard for the guys on the team,’” Lee said. “‘Hey, here’s this phenom coming into the program in January, and here we all are working as hard as we can to make an impression on a new coach and trying to earn a job—and now this guy comes in.’

“I was concerned about that. How would he fit in at his age in January? How would our team approach him and welcome him into the program? How was that all going to work?”

Beer struggled the first couple of days in intrasquad practice. He said he was striking out three times a game, not used to the pace of the game, to curveballs being thrown in 3-1 counts. At one point, Lee pulled him aside and told him, “Just be you. You come in here, the game doesn’t change. It’s just faster. So don’t be something you’re not.”

Monte Lee pulled Beer aside and told him, “Just be you. You come in here, the game doesn’t change. It’s just faster. So don’t be something you’re not.”

Lee asked him where he was most comfortable playing. Beer said right field.

“Go to right field, then,” Lee said. “And just go play right field, be comfortable and play and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

Lee did his best to ease Beer’s transition and, to his relief, so did Beer’s teammates. The Tigers were a veteran team this spring,with six players drafted at season’s end. They recognized Beer’s talent, respected his work ethic and knew it was their responsibility as upperclassmen to help him along.

No one knew that more than Chris Okey, Clemson’s three-year starting catcher, a highly touted name out of high school and a second-round draft pick by the Reds this June. Both Beer and Lee said that Okey had a tremendous positive influence on Beer.

Both Beer and Lee said that Chris Okey had a tremendous positive influence on Beer

Lee said he loved how Okey would keep Beer loose and take pressure off of him. Okey would tease him. When everyone at practice was working on bunts and hit-and-runs, Okey would tell Beer, “No, you don’t have to do any of that. Just hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

“He was still a freshman, no matter what,” Okey said. “So we kind of had to give him some trouble for it, treat him like a normal freshman, make sure that his head didn’t get too big—which it didn’t.

“Not at one point during the year was he full of himself. He was always about the team, and that was the most impressive part about it.”

Feeling at ease with his new teammates despite joining them in January, Beer opened his Clemson career with a flourish. His first career hit on Feb. 20 was a two-run single; his first home run, a day later, was a grand slam. He hit a walk-off, 10th-inning shot against Boston College on March 20, a mammoth eight-inning game-tying home run at Georgia on April 5. Lee called Beer’s 26-game hitting streak the best 26 games of offense he’d seen in his life. Hitting in the middle of the order, Beer was a crucial piece of what became the No. 7 national seed in the NCAA tournament.

“He kind of solidified himself as one of the best players in college baseball,” Okey said. “I truly believe he is.”

But as much as those stats stand out, Lee said he was as much in awe by Beer’s whole package. Despite all of the national attention and recognition Beer garnered, he kept a level head. Lee said Beer remained humble, meshed with his teammates and was able to balance the rigors of college life, earning his way onto the spring honor roll despite his early enrollment.

Lee called Beer a kid with a “high level of integrity,” a kid who loves his family. When he comes out of the dugout before every game, he finds his father, Mike, and gives him a hug.

Even still, despite all of that, Beer has room to grow. The Tigers will be counting on him to take on a larger clubhouse role in the future.

“The big thing that I talked to Seth about at the end of the year is, ‘Look, you had an unbelievable freshman year, a season for the ages, one that we may never see again,’” Lee said. ‘’‘But understand now, we all know what the expectations are going to be on you individually moving forward.

“‘But boy, I’m more worried about the expectations we’re going to have on you in terms of leadership—because we lost Chris Okey. Now you have to take on that responsibility.’

“And I think Chris really paved the way for Seth to take on that responsibility.”

A New Dream

On the Friday before the 2016 College World Series began, as teams scrimmaged and coaches performed their media day duties, the present and future of Clemson baseball walked onto the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

Both dressed in suits, with their hair neatly combed and their ties perfectly fastened, Lee and Beer stood near the third-base line in front of TV cameras. Together, the first-year head coach and the freshman phenom accepted Beer’s Dick Howser Trophy, one of a few national awards bestowed to the country’s best player.

It was fitting that Beer was in Omaha—for the obvious baseball reasons—but also because the 2016 U.S Olympic trials for swimming take place at the same time just down the road from the ballpark. Had Beer stuck with his original dream, his swimming dream, perhaps he’d be there swimming instead.

“Seth and I were talking about this just the other day,” said Mike Beer. “I said, ‘Isn’t it interesting that your life would’ve gotten you to Omaha either way?’ Of all places to end up, at this time of year.

“It is ironic, but it really tells you that there’s a plan, and that plan is to be there in Omaha.”

Of course, this year’s Omaha trip was a brief one for Beer. His Tigers were unable to advance past the regional round of the NCAA tournament and had to watch the Series from home. While Beer said he enjoyed seeing TD Ameritrade Park, as he watched other teams practicing for the CWS—teams that weren’t wearing orange and purple—the feeling became bittersweet.

Suddenly, Beer had his mind set on yet another dream—another vision to lock onto.

“I’m going to be able to take (this experience) back to Clemson and tell the guys, ‘We need to get here,’” Beer said. “I think that’s something I need to take back and preach to the guys . . . just a goal for us to look forward to when we’re working out in the weight room and getting ready for the season.

“Dreaming big is the biggest part. Dream big. If you can thrive off those dreams and work towards those dreams, then you have a very good chance. If you keep thinking and competing with that dream, then you have a shot for it to become a reality—and that’s the way I always look at it.”

Hearing that plan of Beer’s, Lee wasn’t the slightest bit surprised.

“He’s a young man on a mission,” Lee said. “And that’s the best way to describe him. In one sentence: This is a man on a mission.

“He’s been on a mission ever since he committed to Clemson:‘I’m coming to school early, I’m going to make an impact on this program, I’m going to get an education along the way, I’m going to fulfill all my dreams, and my goals in college baseball, and then I’m going to go on and play in the big leagues.’”

That is, after all, the dream.