I’m publishing this article jointly with my own blog, Blue Jays from Away as a multimedia extravaganza. Click the link above and you’ll be taken to my podcast that contains the audio of my interview with the Pompey clan.
Support from one’s family is one of the most important factors in one’s successes in life and baseball is no different. Covering the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league system in 2013, I met several proud family members who were at various ballparks cheering on their loved ones.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Midland, Michigan, I met Ken and Valerie Pompey in the stands during batting practice as they were watching their son, Dalton, the all-star center fielder for the Lansing Lugnuts, prepare for that evening’s game. Five months later, in a suburb of Toronto, we met to discuss the roles that they’ve played in getting their son to the level he’s at, excelling as a professional baseball player.
Baseball was always Dalton’s favorite sport, despite playing some basketball and some soccer as a boy. “The other sports that I played when I was younger, I feel like they were all geared towards helping me towards baseball,” he said. “I enjoyed playing them but baseball was my love from the beginning.” That love of the game and hard work has translated into some major accolades for Pompey, especially in 2013. He was a Midwest League All-Star, winning the MVP award for that game and earned himself the Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove Award for center field.
Dalton Pompey‘s development into what he’s become — a speedy, switch-hitting, slick defensive center fielder — is, in large part, due to the assistance of his parents who wanted him to excel at whatever he was doing. His time as a switch hitter began when he was just four years old and learning how to hit. When he began to play baseball, Valerie did some research since Ken had never played the game and read an article extolling the virtues of teaching young players to switch hit right from the start. They began by having him hit from his non-dominant, left side and integrated the switch hitting philosophy into his playing right away. He didn’t just face pitchers the opposite way at first: he would take a alternate at bats from each side, regardless of the handedness of the pitcher.
At the age of seven, when Dalton’s lack of speed was proving to be a weakness, father Ken enrolled him in track lessons at York University in Toronto. Ken noted that it was this coaching that really helped Dalton on the diamond, saying, “when he learned how to run, he showed more confidence.” Cleaning up his running mechanics, the coach soon turned Pompey into a speedster, a skill that would pay off down the line.
Ken Pompey understood his own limitations and always went to look for coaching from the experts rather than take on the projects himself. “I hired a coach who knew what he was doing to teach him how to run properly. . . I hired a pitching coach to teach Dalton how to pitch properly. I hired a fielding coach to teach him how to field the ball properly so that not only Dalton could learn how to do all this but so I could learn too.”
More coaching and more hours of practice with Dad followed and, while he didn’t hit his growth spurt until later, Dalton earned spots on summer travel-league teams and began to travel to places like Michigan and Cooperstown with his teams coming from the western suburbs of Toronto, cities like Oakville and Mississauga. Valerie was usually tasked with getting Dalton to his games and practices, logging thousands of miles on the road since, by that time, Ken was coaching Dalton’s younger brother, Tristan, who was playing competitive baseball too.
Of the time spent on the road to get to various baseball destinations, Valerie fondly recalls Dalton’s first over-the-fence home run at a tournament in Michigan as well as his participation in a “hit, run and throw” competition at a tournament in Cooperstown. There, the smaller boy showed off his speed in the “run” event, holding his own against players who were older and bigger.
For Dalton, his trip with the Ontario Blue Jays to Cocoa Beach as a 12 year old was an eye opener. “I didn’t play that much, I think I played one inning defensively . . . but it was good to see the work that they put in. . . . That was my first exposure to seeing scouts. We actually took a trip down to Tampa and watched a spring training game that the Yankees had. It’s exciting for me to look back on because if I’m in Dunedin next year, I’m going to play in that stadium.”Dalton Pompey and manager John Tamargo, Jr. of the Lansing Lugnuts in Midland Michigan on August 10, 2013. Mandatory Credit: Jay Blue
Dalton started to get more exposure at an MLB tryout camp thanks to his coach in Mississauga. That, combined with his time playing for the Canadian Junior National team, led to his eventual discussions with scouts, in particular, those from the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland A’s.
Dalton opened eyes with his performance at the scouting camp, particularly by beating the fastest player at the camp, a friend of his from the Canadian Junior National Team. Ken Pompey shared a story that illustrated how Dalton’s attitude towards competition with his friends had changed since he was younger.
“When he was seven,” Ken began, “he kept letting this other boy win [in track lessons] at York [University]. I knew Dalton was faster, I didn’t understand why he kept letting this guy win. I got upset, I spoke to him. I said, ‘listen, you can run faster than him. Run your fastest.’ And he did and he beat him. . . . I just wanted to point out to him, you do that naturally. He just didn’t want to beat this guy because they were friends.” When he kept beating his teammate from the National team as the coaches had them race several times, Ken realized that his son had developed the “killer instincts because [Dalton] realizes that’s what it takes to win.”
Dalton doesn’t call it a “killer instinct,” but characterizes it as a “focus on what I need to do to be successful and use that to my advantage” in finding his own niche on the team and in the organization.
Getting drafted wasn’t the goal, particularly of his parents. The Pompeys worked as a team: Ken provided the coaching and facilitated Dalton’s athletic development and Valerie helped with homework and made sure that Dalton maintained an 80% academic average in order to secure a college scholarship. The efforts of both paid off when, in his senior year in high school, he had committed to a full scholarship at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “The Canadian National Team, to me, that was gravy, and then the major leagues, that was icing on the cake,” Ken said.
On draft day, Valerie and Ken were listening to the draft on the main floor of their house while Dalton was in the basement with his brother, Tristan. While there were approximately 13-15 teams that had shown interest, the Pompey family believed that the Milwaukee Brewers, who had seemed to be the most interested, would be the team that drafted Dalton. It was a surprise when Toronto, his hometown team, drafted Dalton in the 16th round. “We were happy,” Ken said. “It was a happy time for us.”
Dalton reiterated that while the college route was the original goal, his experiences playing with the national team helped show him that there wasn’t all that much separating him from the professionals and the players that he played against in Florida and in the Dominican Republic. “I didn’t have as much experience but I didn’t feel out of place,” he said. “I felt like that was definitely a possibility for me to play professional baseball. I knew that I would most likely get drafted, it was just when.” After speaking to Jamie Lehman, the Toronto scout who signed him, Dalton had decided that if the Blue Jays could make things worth while financially, he would go pro. The Blue Jays also set aside some money for college in case of injury which certainly helped put Valerie’s mind more at ease. “They would pay for his education so we figured even if he went five years in the minor leagues he’s still young enough to go back to college, give him the opportunity,” she said.Jun 18, 2013; Dayton, OH, USA; East center fielder Dalton Pompey watches his game winning RBI single in the ninth inning during the Midwest League-All Star Game at Fifth Third Field. East beat West 6-5. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
In his first year playing professionally, as a 17 year old, Dalton explained “that it was the one year that I needed them the most. It was a new environment for me. I hadn’t been away from home for that long a time.”
Ken acknowledged that it would be difficult to prepare Dalton for the world of professional baseball but his parents are committing to being there for him and supporting him no matter what he goes through. As his mother, Valerie was concerned about 17-year-old Dalton getting into trouble on his off time, especially since he was among the youngest players heading to Dunedin for Gulf Coast League action.
Valerie continues to reach out to Dalton to make sure things are okay but the elder Pompeys are letting him be his own man. “We’re here now more for support and hoping that he makes all the right decisions but they’ve got to be his decisions now,” said Ken.
Dalton was shocked at the number of players down in spring training which left him thinking “that there were so many guys that you feel like you don’t get noticed, you get lost in the shuffle.” This realization that “you are your franchise” pushed Dalton into taking more of his practice and training upon himself, driving him to get further on his own.
2012 was a difficult year for Pompey. He spent much of the season on the disabled list, breaking his hand twice and needing the moral support from his parents which helped push back the negative thoughts. “I’d call them and they’d tell me nothing but positive things, stuff that I’d want to hear,” Dalton said.
As difficult as 2012 was, 2013 was a much more enjoyable experience for the whole family. Playing in Lansing, Michigan, less than a five-hour drive from Toronto, Dalton’s parents could go and visit frequently. “We could just finish a day of work and then drive down,” Ken said, particularly enjoying the ability “spend time with him after the game and occasionally spend a day together if he wasn’t playing that day.”
Valerie was happy to be able to see him frequently after three years in which he had been much further away. Even Dalton’s brother, Tristan, got to experience life as a minor leaguer, heading to Lansing for a week during the season and witnessing his older brother’s first professional grand slam. “It was pretty cool that at least a family member was there,” said Valerie.
While he had a successful 2013 season, Dalton played through a couple of injuries. “I hated sitting on the bench. I’d call my parents and tell them, I just want to play so bad because I couldn’t stand sitting on the bench every single game, coaching first base,” he said. Ken believes that because athletes are doing something they love, they can withstand a higher level of pain when they play. “Their wall isn’t where our wall would be,” he said.
Dalton believes that, while the physical part of the game for him has come from his hard work on and off the field, having his parents’ support has been key to maintaining the mental and emotional equilibrium necessary for life as a professional athlete. “They don’t play the game, they don’t put on the gloves and cleats and go out there like I do, but they are in my mind. I listen to what they say and what they say always helps me in the end even if I might not agree with it right away. I’m really appreciative of that.”
While Dalton is moving forward with his professional career at the age of 21, his family is always right behind him, regardless of how far away, geographically, from Toronto he might be. For Dalton, fulfilling his dream of becoming a major league ballplayer is not just a challenge to get to the pinnacle of his sport, it’s a quest to come home.