O’Neill a homegrown power hitter

Tyler O’Neill is known as much for his muscles as hitting home runs.

When the St. Louis Cardinals rookie outfielder hit his first major league walk-off homer in September, a no-doubter to left field off San Francisco Giants reliever Mark Melancon, his teammates mobbed him at home plate, doused him with buckets of ice water, then ripped his shirts off.

Tyler turned to the stands afterwards and waved a torn T-shirt, a smile across his face as broad as his chest.

He was so sure the ball was gone, the right-handed hitter had pointed his bat straight at the Cardinals dugout as he started walking down the first-base line, before his trot.

It was a nice present for his mother on her birthday.

Tyler arrived with the Cardinals the season before in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2013, along with a well-earned reputation for crushing baseballs and the nickname ‘Popeye.’

Despite a 5’11’’, 180-pound frame, Tyler, 23, has been recorded squatting as much as 585 pounds.

But his greatest strength as a ballplayer is not his muscles.

It’s his mind.

“My mental approach is my greatest strength,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s your mind that pushes your body – giving you the control to excel and push forward through barriers and adversities.”

The latter, his determination and work ethic, are traits he learned from his parents, Terry and Marilyn.

“They taught me to have a strong head on my shoulders and to work hard. This led me to trust my ability and have confidence in myself on the field,” said Tyler, the 2018 Hometown Hero.

He will be honoured at the Home Town Heroes Banquet on Jan. 23 at Maple Ridge secondary, becoming the 43rd inductee, joining the likes of Larry Walker Jr., Cam Neely, Greg Moore, Karina Leblanc and Cindy Devine in the ring of honour.

Posters of the Home Town Heroes are hung in local schools, as role models for aspiring students.

Tyler grew up in Maple Ridge. He went to Blue Mountain elementary, then Garibaldi secondary. He played minor hockey here until age 15. He was a centre and loved the game. He also played soccer when he was younger.

He started playing in the mosquito division with the Ridge Meadows Minor Baseball Association at age 10, to take up time in spring and summer.

Baseball was the perfect fit, he thought, and something he was strong at right away, especially with the bat.

He played all over the infield in his early years, and won a provincial championship in mosquito.

He played peewee through bantam in Ridge, then junior ball with the Langley Blaze, for which he was a catcher.

He never played in the outfield until after he was drafted.

His power really started to develop in Grade 10, when he joined the Blaze, of the Premier Baseball League, an organization that produced another major leaguer, Brett Lawrie, and puts many into U.S. colleges each year.

It was also around then that Tyler started seriously lifting weights.

He began around age 15. He learned how to lift from his dad, a former ‘Mr. Canada,’ the nation’s best bodybuilder in 1975.

“Definitely the best teacher I could have had,” said Tyler.

Lifting weights helped built strength to hit the ball hard, he said.

“It taught me how to care for my body.”

During grades 11 and 12, Tyler played in several U.S. showcase tournaments, in front of junior college and Division 1 schools, as well as professional scouts.

“Ultimately, I joined the Langley Blaze because of the exposure they could provide. It ended up being a great decision for me,” he said.

Tyler also played for Team B.C. and junior Team Canada. He traveled to Vaughn and London, Ont. for nationals. The first year in Vaughn, B.C. came fourth.

“We lost in our bronze-medal game, which was a heartbreak for the team,” Tyler said.

Then in 2001, B.C. earned silver at the nationals.

With the junior national team, Tyler played in Florida, the Dominican and Taiwan.

“My favourite memory from the junior national team was probably being selected for the tournament all-star team while in Taiwan.”

It was around then, having been exposed to collegiate and professional scouts, that he started believing a career in pro ball was possible.

His pro career was halted briefly, though, as he played just 51 games the season after being drafted, having broken his hand punching a dugout wall.

But the next year, he suited up for Canada at the Pan American Games, earning a bronze medal.

Then after two successful seasons in the minors, during which he hit 32 then 24 home runs, Tyler, now an outfielder, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a mature pitching prospect.

Getting traded proved no hurdle for Tyler, who just kept hitting home runs for his new organization. With 19 at the AAA level when traded, he hit 12 more with his new team, the Memphis Redbirds, with whom he won the Pacific Coast League championship.

Tyler then hit 26 at AAA this past season, as well as nine more during several stints with the MLB team.

But it wasn’t easy.

“The minor leagues are truly a grind,” Tyler said. “From the bus travel up until AAA, to mainly the lack of fans, to carrying out the exact same routine day after day for seven months, nothing is handed to you.”

In ball, he added, players have to constantly make adjustments, such as how they swing the bat.

“For me, my swing is fast, and short, which has helped me be successful, though there are other players with long swings who are strong offensively, as well. It’s about using your swing to your advantage and being mindful that the smallest adjustments – how open your stance is, foot placement, leg kick – make the biggest difference.”

He’s constantly trying to find a way to put the bat on the ball, “and stay positive.”

It was his AAA a manager and fellow Canadian Stubby Clapp who told Tyler that he had been called up to the majors, after they got back to the hotel after a game in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I told my parents and girlfriend the good news first.”

Tyler’s first MLB game was April 19 in Chicago.

“I stepped into the batter’s box in weather like home, with a sold-out crowd at Wrigley. We were facing the Cubs, one of the biggest Cardinals rivals. My first at-bat was facing Jon Lester, one of the games top pitchers. I struck out.”

Tyler was sent back down to the minors after six games, then recalled.

He hit his first major league homer on May 19.

It was a “mind-numbing” experience.

He then hit two more homers in St. Louis’ next two games.

Before his walk-off in September, Tyler hammered a ball 457 feet – third longest by a Cardinals player this season.

But Tyler has always hit for power. And his outfield defense rates at a plus-level, according to advanced metrics, as does his base-running.

The only obstacle keeping him from a full-time job in the majors would seem to be strikeouts, if not opportunity.

While O’Neill cut his Ks to around 25 per cent at AAA, they rose to 40 per cent with the Cards.

So he has to keep making adjustments.

And keep working hard.

He wants to play in the major leagues for as long as possible.

To do that, he’s going to stick to his training and preventative maintenance programs throughout the year.

“I lift almost every day, and have been incorporating stretching and yoga to stay limber.”

Having his mind in the right headspace prior to a workout is also essential for him, as is eating clean – home-cooked meals based around proteins.

“My expectation is to have a healthy and successful year,” he said of 2019.

“The challenge is worth the reward. You just have to be willing to work for it.”

• Contact Gehrig Merritt at gehrig@telus.net or Mary Robson at director@friendsneedfood.com to purchase tickets for the Home Town Heroes Banquet in January, 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 and will also be available at the Leisure Centre. Proceeds benefit youth in the community.

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