Taking advantage of opportunity

He took a flight down to Florida a couple weeks ago.

He took a flight down to Florida a couple weeks ago.

But had Ryan Voelkel thought about it, he probably could’ve skipped the flight and flown south all by himself using nothing but his two arms.

That’s just how much of a high the former three-sport Kentlake High star was on.

And who could blame him?

The big guy, in a round-about sort of way, had realized a lifelong dream less than a two days earlier and was busy packing his belongings — and dreams — in a suitcase and bracing for the next step in his baseball career.

That next step for Voelkel, a 6-foot-6 230-pound first baseman is playing for the Atlanta Braves rookie league affiliate in the Gulf Coast League.

“I get to play in the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex (in Florida),” Voelkel said excitedly while packing his bags. “When you’re a kid, you always dream about playing in the majors. This is exciting.”

Voelkel’s unbridled enthusiasm is understandable.

Just a few days earlier, the 2006 Kentlake High graduate and Green River Community College slugger anxiously anticipated being selected sometime during the 50 rounds of Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft.

The draft came and went.

And like so many other high school and college prospects, Voelkel’s name — along with his dreams — was left on the cutting-room table.

But it wasn’t forgotten.

Less than 24 hours after the draft concluded, Voelkel got the call that, at that point, he figured wasn’t on its way.

“The draft happened and I didn’t get drafted,” Voelkel said. “I really thought I was going to. My name didn’t get called and I was a little bummed.

“Then, out of the blue, the scout called me. It turned out it was my lucky day.”

Good luck certainly played a role.

Matter of fact, Voelkel didn’t get the call until another player Atlanta had drafted chose not to sign.

“I don’t know why 29 other teams didn’t draft him,” said scout Blaine Clemmens, who signed Voelkel. “For the Atlanta organization, one particular player reneged on his signing. That left a spot in the organization and Ryan filled those needs.”

Voelkel weighed his options. He had a full-ride scholarship to Division II Georgia State College and University in Milledgeville awaiting.

But ultimately, he didn’t need much convincing to sign a contract and turn pro.

“Right off the bat, I thought maybe they were trying to get me for cheaper since I wasn’t drafted,” he said. “Then, I thought, ‘You know what, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You never know what’s around the next corner.’

“Atlanta is definitely invested in me to the point where I know it’s not a one-and-done deal.”

Shedding pounds

It wasn’t too long ago, however, that Voelkel’s body frame lacked what scouts desperately seek.

Sure, he had the size – too much of it, in fact. Upon graduating from Kentlake, the 6-6 Voelkel tipped the scale at roughly 270 pounds. And it wasn’t muscle mass, either.

“He came in here (and) was probably at 290,” Green River coach Matt Acker recalled.

Voelkel agrees, summing up the weight gain his final year at Kentlake as “senior blues.”

“I ballooned up,” he said. “That’s one thing that’s always been said to me. ‘You can hit, you have some tools. But you have an inner-tube around you.’ That’s something I’ve always been working on it.”

Those pounds slowly started coming off in Voelkel’s first season with the Gators. A season in which he showed plenty of potential, hitting .328 with 3 home runs, 27 RBIs and a .467 slugging percentage.

The trick?

A traditional Green River baseball run that took players from the school to Kent Kangley Road and back, roughly seven miles round trip.

“Acker got me into shape,” admitted Voelkel,. “You got to take care of your body and I think that’s a lot of the reason I struggled. I wasn’t physically ready yet. Those runs take a good chunk out of your day. It’s a tradition.”

That tradition proved golden for Voelkel, who returned to Green River this past spring and promptly delivered the finest season of his life, launching a wood bat school-record 10 home runs to go along with a .319 batting average and 36 runs batted in.

Turning the corner

But going from a good high school player to an elite college standout and, ultimately, a solid pro prospect wasn’t all about losing pounds for Voelkel.

In fact, Voelkel’s ascension is as much a credit to his losing the weight as was his decision to narrow down his athletic endeavors. A three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) standout in high school, Voelkel didn’t focus solely on baseball until enrolling at Green River.

Yet, he was initially viewed as nothing more than a basketball player.

“No one was talking to me about baseball,” Voelkel acknowledged with a slight laugh. “So I went to the all-star basketball camp at Green River, and the basketball coach really liked me. I told him I really liked basketball, but I loved baseball.

“Coach Acker called me a while later and said, ‘I hear you don’t have a school yet.’ That was the first school I talked to, so that’s where I went.”

From that point on, Voelkel devoted himself to the game, his body and, for the first time, reaching his full potential.

“He has just matured physically and mentally over the last couple years,” Acker said. “Ryan was a phenomenal talent at Kentlake. He didn’t have the body style. Thinned out a little bit (and) has become a lot tougher.”

But even after Voelkel’s transformation, being in the right place at the right time proved to be the biggest turning point of all. Or, at least, being on the same field as teammate Christian Scholl, a right-handed pitcher who was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the eighth round.

“I went to see Scholl … and I noticed the big first baseman and I really liked his size and swing,” Atlanta scout Clemmens said. “The way he worked around the base. The way he talked the game. He was a bigger kid and has done hard work to change his body. He’s a hard worker, hungry. I turned in a report and suggested we draft him. And, obviously, it didn’t happen.”

But in the end, it all worked out.

And Ryan Voelkel couldn’t be happier about it.

So much so that it just might take a while for him to come back down to earth in time for his first professional at-bat.

KL grad Ryan Voelkel on his way to the pros after Braves snap him up as free agent