David Bartnicki says that the best advice his father ever gave him was to have your kids young.
Unfortunately for David and his wife, Christy, that was easier said than done. The two were around 28 years old and having difficulties getting pregnant. They had been trying--without success--for five years. After struggling for such a long time, the two thought about another option.
"We said, 'Hey, you know what? Adoption has always been something we were supportive of,'" David said. "'Let's give that a try.'"
In charge of one of Georgia's powerhouse programs, Shane Amos is no stranger to talent. At Walton High (Marietta, Ga.), he has coached plenty of players who have gone on to play professionally, and many more who have gone on to play for Division I programs. Since 1990, 17 players have been drafted out of Walton, the most recent to sign being Nationals shortstop Carter Kieboom, who was taken with the 28th overall pick of the 2016 draft. One year later the Braves drafted outfielder Jason Rooks in the 35th round.
With Walton's 2018 season scheduled to start on Tuesday, scouts will once again crowd around the Raiders' field looking to find a player from Amos' team--one who could make it three straight years of Walton players being drafted.
They won't have to wait long to see him, as Luke Bartnicki will take the mound to start the game against South Forsyth High, firing 90 mph fastballs out of a left hand that's been throwing harder than his teammates and opponents for some time now.
"Even at a young age he still had pretty good velo," Amos said, thinking back to the first time he saw Luke. "It wasn't where it is right now, but you could see where his progression was going to be.
"When you saw him you were kind of impressed because he came in about 6-foot. I think now he's 6-3, something like that... He was already put together pretty good from (being a swimmer) and everything like that, just genetically... He's definitely in the top 3-5 percent as far as pitchers that have come through here who've made it and went on to play at the next level."
David and Christy started looking into agencies that could match them with a child and found that Florida would be the best place for them to go looking, because the adoption laws in the state sever the rights for birth parents essentially when they leave the hospital. In other states, a birth parent can change their minds about the adoption months later. After going through several miscarriages, David and Christy didn't want to lose another.
"Toward the end of the summer of 1999 . . . we got placed with a birth mother," David said. "It's typically moms. And in a perfect world there wouldn't be adoptions, but there are. And she gets to choose us, so we have to put together a profile of why we should raise your child. So she chose us, which is pretty cool. Just like we chose Luke, she chose us.
"And everything was great and we were happy. We named him Luke--we already knew it was a boy. She was due sometime at the end of December or January and things were going well."
It wasn't long after that, though, that David and Christy became pregnant. Normally nothing but good news, this meant they had to alert the adoption agency and let them know. They had to remove themselves from the adoption process. About a month and a half after they found out they were pregnant and had to give Luke up, Christy had another miscarriage.
"We were just devastated," David said. "We lost the adoption, we were out of line, we lost another child to that process and I just remember coming home after the hospital, sitting down with my wife and saying, 'You know, call the agency. We're just going to get back in line.
"'God willing, something's going to happen. It's just going to take some time.'"
Luke wasn't always a pitcher. Even after he started getting on the mound, he was more of a thrower than anything else.
Like most kids, he started playing baseball when he was young, in a T-ball league where sometimes he hit the ball off the tee and occasionally ran around the bases. Other times he'd put his glove on backward, pick daisies in the outfield or run to third instead of first.
"It was very chaotic," David said. "Organized chaos. And Luke was no different than any other kid at that age. He was one of the bigger kids; he's always been one of the bigger kids when it came to just size . . . So believe me, at the early stages we were just happy that he was involved in a team sport."
It was obvious very quickly that Luke had a physical gift that didn't come from David or Christy. He was bigger, and because of that he threw much harder than all of the other kids.
"Even the older kids," David said. "And his ball had natural movement . . . In fact, there was one guy who was on first base--a coach--and Luke was in the outfield. He threw this ball, and it was right on the money, but the coach got nervous because at one point he moved to go get the ball, but then it curved right to where it needed to be. And one of the coaches at the time said, 'Hey, Luke, I want to be with you when you sign your first contract.'"
After realizing that Luke's talent was special, he started playing with competitive travel ball teams and seeing pitching coach Brian Moehler, who had a 14-year major league career, has a mound in his backyard and lives near the Bartnickis.
"It was obvious from day one he had a really loose arm," Moehler said. "A quick arm for his age, a taller kid for his age, a lanky body. And the ball came out real easy . . . But you basically just try and simplify things for him as a pitcher, because like most, or probably all 12-, 13-year-olds, he was a thrower. He didn't know how to pitch yet."
In backyard sessions with Moehler, Luke slowly learned how to improve his delivery, lifting his front arm to help with balance, how to throw strikes by starting with a wide zone and then shrinking it as he grew older. Moehler nudged Bartnicki toward a slider because it meshed with natural arm slot, and showed him how to throw circle-changeup. He helped hone his pickoff move, too.
Next came Matt Hightower, the head coach and pitching coach for the East Cobb Colt 45s. Hightower first started working with Luke during his sophomore year, when he was throwing around 88 mph with iffy control, and helped him get up to 95 mph and hit the corners. Hightower helped Luke incorporate his lower half more, helped him drive off the mound with his legs rather than just slinging the ball with his strong upper half and broad shoulders.
"He noticed that immediately, my first lesson I got my lower half into it and it already felt way easier," Luke said. "(Hightower) said it looked easier and it just came out of my hand better. More movement and just everything--it just all clicked."
The third coach most responsible for Luke's development is Amos. Competing against Walton's varsity program, Luke had to make progress with the little things that need to happen before and after he delivers the ball.
"He got me just the game part," Luke said. "Bunt coverages, first and thirds, picking off, holding runners, pitch selection, trying to get people to get themselves out and not have a high pitch count. He's the big reason why I'm a more efficient pitcher now and I don't struggle."
When David and Christy called the adoption agency back, they expected to get back in line, wait a bit and hopefully find another match with a child in need. For once in their lives though, everything went smoother than expected.
David called to tell the agency that they had a miscarriage and wanted to get back in the adoption process. "And they said, well hold on a second," David remembered.
"They came back and said, 'Well believe it or not, the birth mother had never found another family that she felt was as good as you guys,'" David remembers.
Weeks had passed, and Luke's mother hadn't found another family. David and Christy reconnected with her and immediately realized that Luke would still be coming home with them after all.
"And so he never left us," David said. "We always say he was meant to be with us."
Luke was born on Jan. 7, 2000. He went home with David and Christy and shortly afterward the Bartnickis realized that they were pregnant again. This time, there were no complications, and Adam Bartnicki was born around eight months later.
"God gave us two blessings," David said. "So we always joked that Luke helped bring Adam into the world . . . And moving forward for us, Luke was the only child on either side to ever be adopted, and the only child of a different race or background than my wife and I. We always said if we wanted a third child we would go through the adoption process again, which turned out to be a good experience for us all around. So we ended up adopting our youngest, Ethan, who is also biracial, and also African-American.
"Through that process we wanted Luke to be able to identify with someone else in our family... Someone to relate to and then also someone of a different background or ethnicity because we don't know what he's going through and we can't help. You know (we?) don't have the same experiences. So far, you know, brothers are brothers."
While Luke may look different from his parents and his younger brother Adam, that's where the differences stop.
"To me, honestly, it doesn't feel any different," Luke said. "We're just a normal family. It's not any different from other families."
"People often say, 'Oh you are so good for adopting this child, Oh ,you're such good people,'" David said. "And I'm like 'Wait a second, you don't realize that as much and maybe more than he gets out of it, we get out of it.' It's definitely a two-way street by far. And he's saved us and helped us just as much as we have. It truly has been, and we've always tried to just--it's a family, families come together a lot of different ways."
For a while, Luke's family thought he'd be a swimmer. He won a state championship during his freshman year, one year before he won a state championship with the Walton baseball team. David even wondered at one point if focusing on swimming early had hurt his development on the diamond. If anything, the opposite might be true.
"I was swimming a lot before baseball," Luke said. "I think that's why I'm at the three-quarters arm slot, to be honest. I've been doing the same exact motion probably my whole entire swimming career. And so that probably put my shoulder, probably just jelled my shoulder to be able to work its best in that arm slot and just in that arm area. And it definitely helps with repeating my mechanics, just because I'm so comfortable with that movement, I do it thousands of times a week."
Bartnicki just wrapped up his senior season as a swimmer, as he finished in the top eight in the state tournament in multiple sprint events. Luke says that his swimming career has also helped him stay healthy.
"If you have an imbalance in your muscles, you're definitely going to tear something," Luke said. "So swimming is one of the biggest reasons why I--knock on wood--haven't been injured yet. And it really helps with my endurance on the mound... I tend to be able to last longer than most kids, and I don't have a terrible velocity drop. So I give all that--endurance and healthiness and looseness--to swimming.
Luke has one more high school baseball season to enjoy with his family. After that, he'll either be headed a short 30-minute drive south to Atlanta and Georgia Tech--where he's committed to play college baseball--or to a Rookie-level club after being taken in this year's draft.
In preparation for his final season and what lies ahead, Luke designed an offseason workout program with the help of six-year MLB veteran Mitchell Boggs to continue adding strength and weight. After five days a week with weights all winter, Luke gained 10-15 pounds of muscle and is up to around 220 pounds.
On Tuesday, scouts will be in the stands waiting to see just how far he has come this offseason and to see how far he's come since years ago, when his parents got the best news of their lives.