Kansas City, Mo In his first two years on Kansas University's baseball team, Les Walrond had a good enough bat and was adroit enough in the outfield to support a professional baseball career.
However, it was destined to be a short, low-paying career on baseball's bottom rung.
"My junior year, a scout told me my numbers were like every other outfielder in the nation," Walrond said. "I wasn't a base-stealer. I wasn't a home-run hitter. He said I didn't project beyond A-ball, and I should pitch, and I took it to heart."
So Walrond reinvented himself, took the "outfielder" out of his pitcher-outfielder tag and, five years later, is a major-league pitcher with the Kansas City Royals.
"It has been a whirlwind," Walrond said, "but a good whirlwind."
The whirlwind started May 29, when the Royals claimed Walrond from the Cardinals, the team that drafted him in the 13th round of the 1998 draft. Baseball rules required he be optioned to the minors and ineligible for promotion for 10 days.
Ten days later, Walrond was recalled, and a week ago today he made his big-league debut in the Royals' 8-7 loss to the Colorado Rockies.
"Nothing in professional baseball surprises me," said Bobby Randall, Walrond's coach at KU. "Sometimes the best 18-year-olds aren't the best 19-year-olds, and the best 19-year-olds sometimes aren't the best 25-year-olds. They all mature, and Les deserves a lot of credit. He has a good mental and physical approach to the game, and he worked hard to develop the talent God gave him.
"He's also left-handed, and that never hurts."
Walrond, 26, came to KU as a hard-throwing pitcher-outfielder from Tulsa (Okla.) Union High.
"In high school as a pitcher," Walrond said with a laugh, "I was known for hitting people."
Walrond made a few mound appearances as a freshman and sophomore during the 1996 and '97 seasons, but was used primarily as a right fielder.
"He was just wild," Randall said. "And, like a lot of kids out of high school, his arm was just beat up. I think it helped him rest his arm and get away from it, but as a junior he got a glimpse of his future, and that helped a lot. I think always in our minds we thought he'd be a pitcher."
Blessed with a good fastball and a big, looping hook, Walrond made 58 appearances at KU, threw 96 1/3 innings and had a career earned-run average of 7.66. His 6-5 won-loss record was equally unimpressive.
As a hitter, he had a career .308 average with 13 home runs and six stolen bases.
"I'm still learning how to be a pitcher, and I'm getting better and better every day," Walrond said. "When I first started pitching, I'd go all-out and after two or three innings, I'd run out of gas. After I got drafted, they were like, 'This is what you do. You have to save yourself.' And I'm like, 'Oh, now I understand.'"
A starter for much of his minor-league career, Walrond developed a slider and change-up and rode those four pitches to a 31-35 record and 4.15 ERA in 125 games in the Cardinals and Royals organizations.
Triple-A left-handers hit just .209 against him, while righties hit .289.
With K.C.'s triple-A club in Omaha, Neb., Walrond, a 6-foot, 190-pounder, worked three scoreless innings in two appearances. He also picked up his first career minor-league save -- against his former Memphis (Tenn.) teammates.
"That completed the cycle for me," Walrond said. "I've started, done middle, long ... everything. That save completed the cycle for me."
His role with the Royals is undecided. Saturday, though he struck out San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, Walrond walked two and surrendered three earned runs in two innings and saw his major-league ERA soar from 3.38 to 7.71. The loss was his first major-league decision.
"I can go three innings or more, or I can come in and pitch to the lefty," said Walrond, the first ex-Jayhawk in the majors since Jeff Berblinger had five at-bats with the Cardinals in 1997. "I can pitch three days in a row. I've worked to be in shape so I can pitch three days in a row if they ask me to. Basically, I'm just glad to have this opportunity, and I'll do whatever they ask of me."