JoJo Booker couldn't believe what came out of his own right hand. Before last spring—his senior year at Miller High in Brewton, Ala.—the righthander never envisioned receiving the sort of draft attention he'd end up receiving. But then he stepped on a pitcher's mound, and out popped a 94 mph fastball.
"I was like, 'Holy crap,'" Booker said, laughing. He had never thrown that hard. The year before, he was sitting 86-88 and scraping 91 mph on a good day. All of a sudden he was sitting 90-plus.
Scouts took notice. They started showing up to Booker's bullpen sessions. When he started his first game of the 2017 high school season, the stands were full of radar guns.
"Wow," Booker thought, "this is actually going to be a decision I'm going to have to make."
The decision: Should he sign with a pro team or honor his commitment to South Alabama?
The Jaguars had been following Booker since he was a wiry, projectable sophomore, then sitting 78-82 mph with his fastball but throwing strikes at South Alabama's summer tournaments. The following year, with Booker looking stronger, more polished and sitting in the mid-80s, Jaguars coach Mark Calvi and his coaching staff extended him an offer. But Booker was hardly on anyone else's radar, playing for a class 3A high school and spending his falls on the football field.
Then came his senior year and his sudden velocity spike, and then the scouts followed suit. And on the second day of the draft, the Angels plucked Booker in the fifth round.
"That was—that was crazy, first of all," said Booker, searching for the right words. "I'm thankful for it, and I'm completely humbled by it. I had no idea going into my senior spring that any of this would ever happen.
". . . All along I pretty much knew what I wanted to do, but when they started throwing money around, and they started throwing plane tickets around, it was very tempting."
Ultimately, the Angels' offers didn't quite reach the number Booker had in mind. Behind Jack Conlon, a fourth-round draftee of the Orioles who ended up at Texas A&M, Booker was the second-highest prep draftee in the country not to sign.
"We're talking about a pretty substantial chunk of money here, and (Booker) held his ground and stuck by his word, and said, 'Coach, you have nothing to worry about. I'm coming to school. I know it's the best thing for me. I give you my word,'" Calvi said. "And I tell you what, you can't get off to a better start than that—an 18-year-old kid giving you his word."
Booker's decision to go to school is meaningful beyond just his future contributions on the baseball field. South Alabama, a mid-major school competing in the heart of Southeastern Conference territory, doesn't typically hold onto a recruit of Booker's caliber. But maybe South Alabama is no longer just a typical mid-major school.
When Calvi joined the South Alabama staff as its head coach in waiting in the summer of 2010, he knew he had myriad holes to fill and very little time to fill them.
He compiled a huge 31-man class, and 23 of those players were juco transfers. Calvi loaded up on experience out of sheer necessity. But, at the same time, he kept an eye toward under-the-radar high school players. Future fourth-rounder and current Rockies big leaguer Jordan Patterson was one of those players.
Though the Jaguars went just 23-34 in Calvi's first year at the helm, they followed up with a 43-20 season in 2013 and played in the Starkville Regional. Calvi's initial recruiting strategy had worked, but he knew it wasn't sustainable.
"The problem is, of the 27 kids we took to Starkville Regional, we lost 21 of them," Calvi said. "At this level, you can't do 23 juco players and sustain."
So Calvi and his staff shifted focus even further onto high school talent, paying particularly close attention to standouts at lesser-known high schools, to kids who perhaps couldn't afford to play for summer travel ball teams. They tried to identify talent before anyone else and project. It's become clear they have a knack for doing just that.
South Alabama's 2016 freshman class was unheralded in terms of prospect status, yet it has helped carry the Jaguars to back-to-back regional appearances in the last two seasons.
Those freshmen, now juniors, seem poised to make another postseason run this season. Chiefly among them is outfielder Travis Swaggerty—the No. 2 prospect for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team this summer—who likely will hear his name called in the first round in June. Most colleges viewed him as a pitcher out of high school, but South Alabama saw a quick-twitch athlete with a high ceiling and an even higher motor.
"What he is, is he's a self-made player," Calvi said. "And those are the best ones."
That sort of character is commonplace on the Jaguars roster, a team of mostly local athletes who were simply looking for a chance to play out of high school.
Booker has quickly bought into South Alabama's underdog mentality. The Jaguars were the first team to ever have interest in him, before he could even sniff 90 mph; and to Booker, that means something.
"It's almost like a hometown feeling," Booker said. "We're playing for South Alabama—and that's it. We're not playing for ourselves. We're playing for our school and to get our name out there.
"This was the only team that looked at me and the only team that offered me."
And, for the time being, it's the only team he wants to play for.