(Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals)Tyler O’Neill became a fan favourite in St. Louis after hammering three straight homers in his second call-up.

(Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals)Tyler O’Neill became a fan favourite in St. Louis after hammering three straight homers in his second call-up.

Tyler O’Neill living the dream

The latest Maple Ridge professional athlete

There are a lot of people in Maple Ridge really excited for Tyler O’Neill’s call-up to the Major Leagues, and not just his dad.

True, Terry O’Neill is his son’s biggest fan, but another is a coach who called him a warrior when Tyler was just 10 years old, because of the scrappy way he played baseball even then.

Dave Nielsen coached O’Neill through pee wee and bantam, and Terry said he was the first guy who started to recognize real potential in the Tyler.

As he watched him progress, Nielsen wanted to be there when Tyler arrived at the Major Leagues, and told Terry to make sure to give him a call when it happened.

It happened quickly – Tyler told his dad it was a blur.

Terry and his wife Marilyn were en route when it happened. They watched their son’s debut on an airport television.

“There it was, and there he was,” said Terry.

Tyler’s first MLB game was April 19 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, against veteran lefty John Lester.

Terry saw his son interacting with Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras.

“It was cool, you could see him talking to the catcher and getting a pat on the back,” he said.

He learned later that the catcher was asking Tyler if it was his first at bat in the majors. The catcher then proceeded to call nothing but breaking balls, and Tyler would have to wait to get his first hit.

After that game, the Cardinals went home, and Terry was in St. Louis for three games.

“It was almost surreal being in the stadium for the first time – it’s like a cathedral, and you know all the greats have played there,” Terry said.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny came over and introduced himself.

Terry had left a message for Nielsen, but didn’t hear back. It turns out he was on vacation in Mexico – but cut it short to book a flight to St. Louis.

“They left their holidays – a fridge full of Coronas and sunshine – and were there the next day.”

They arrived in shorts and flip-flops, and had to buy warmer clothes in the team store.

Terry said he has since heard from many other local people who are delighted to see Tyler join names like Cam Neely, Larry Walker Jr., Greg Moore and Andrew Ladd as great Canadian athletes from Maple Ridge.

In that first call-up, Tyler got into six games, just seven at bats, and didn’t manage a hit before he was sent down.

But he was called back up on May 18, and got his first hit. Then he homered in three straight games on May 19, 20 and 21, and had Cardinals fans buzzing.

With private planes and great food, he enjoyed “getting treated like a rock star,” said Terry.

“He’s having the time of his life. When you can play professional sports at the highest level … how good is that.”

Tyler ‘s ‘Big League’ dreams took him to the Langley Blaze of the Premier Baseball League, to the national team program, and soon they started to become reality as he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the third round in 2013. He turned professional right after graduating from Garibaldi secondary.

With his hot hitting in the minor leagues, he soon became ranked the No. 2 prospect in Seattle’s organization.

Last year he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, and the power he has shown, at every level now, has turned heads.

Some Canadian sports writers have said he might be the next Walker, but Terry pumps the brakes, saying Walker was one of the greats, with many all-star campaigns.

“Let Ty get his feet wet for a few years, and then revisit that.”

Tyler has been back in Maple Ridge during the off-season, and is a frequent visitor to Club 16 for his workouts. Although writers use adjectives like “hulking,” Terry said his son doesn’t try to bulk up. He’s just natural.

Terry was a bodybuilder, and was slated to compete for Mr. Universe, but it was interrupted by the start of his firefighting career.

“He’s just got a phenomenal metabolism, and he responds to exercise,” Terry said.

He sees his son lose weight over the grind of a long baseball season, but after as little as two or three weeks of being back home and hitting the weights, he’s huge again.

“He trains specifically for his strength needs, but he ends up looking like a bodybuilder,” he said. “It’s almost freakish.”

He has 6.5 per cent body fat, loads of power, and the speed to play centre field when called upon. He has always been a natural athlete, said his dad.

“He’s always been able to pick up any sport, and play any sport well.”

After falling into an 0-for-11 slump, Tyler was sent back down the minors on Thursday. Terry believes the regular playing time will be great for Tyler’s development – he likes seeing him get four at-bats every day, as opposed to just a pinch-hit role and occasional starts.

Through 16 games with the Cardinals, Tyler hit .237 with three home runs and seven RBI.

Terry is confident Tyler will be back up, and recalls him slumping to start last season at triple A, before finishing with all-star statistics.

“He figures things out. It was just a matter of time.

“Sometimes you go on a tear, and sometimes you’re trying to figure things out.”

Maple Ridge News