Spencer Kieboom rubbed his white batting gloves together and, as a smile tugged on the sides of his mouth, nodded to where his brother, Carter, ripped line drives through an indoor practice facility in mid-January.
Spencer’s nod — a calm, quiet, look-over-there nod — relayed what he’s told coaches for years, since Carter first slid on a glove, since they retrieved baseballs in the woods behind their childhood home, since Spencer grew into a professional catcher and Carter, six years younger, followed until he found his own pace.
It was never meant as a joke. Or a slight to himself. Only the truth, then and now, spoken whenever someone links them by blood and a shared dream.
Just wait until you see my little brother play.
Carter is now 21, the Washington Nationals’ top prospect, a prodigal shortstop learning to play second base so he can possibly take over for Brian Dozier come 2020. Spencer is a 27-year-old catcher for the Nationals who will likely start the season in the minor leagues. Trevor, 26, is the agent for both and feels every bump of each of his brothers’ careers.
Baseball is the family business, and sometimes business is complicated. Trevor became an agent after six surgeries ended a journey that took him from Clemson to an Alabama community college to playing third base for the University of Georgia. Spencer is strong defensively and, after backing up Matt Wieters for much of last season, could have been the Nationals’ second catcher for 2019 until they committed $11 million to Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Then there is Carter, ranked as the league’s 16th-best prospect by Baseball Prospectus, the next one up, a 2016 first-round pick who could be a franchise cornerstone if he stays on his current path.
“Trevor could easily be mad because he kept getting hurt, Spencer could be disappointed about some stuff, but they’re not. It doesn’t change how they look at me,” Carter said. “I am so lucky that I got to watch them go through it all before I did. It only made me better.”
Carter kept hitting and hitting and, as soon as Jay Hood offered another pitch, hit some more that afternoon. It is all he’s wanted to do for more than a decade now. Hit off other 11-year-olds who couldn’t think the game like he did. Hit alone on the high school field at night, his hands sore against a wooden bat handle, baseballs skipping into the grass and disappearing like taillights down a dark highway. Hit here, all winter with Hood, a former professional shortstop who trains a number of pros in this warehouse-turned-performance lab in metro Atlanta.
Balls kept rocketing off Carter’s cherry red bat, with a flared knob that doesn’t dig into his palms, a balanced weight that leans toward the end, “CK5” etched on the barrel ever since he designed the exact model with Max Bats. Carter is particular about what he swings. Spencer trusts him.
“Whatever he’s using, I’m using,” Spencer said as he looked at the same logo on his two-tone brown bat. “Is it weird that I’m swinging something with my younger brother’s initials on it? Maybe to some people. He’s a much better hitter than me so at least I feel like I have a chance. That’s not to discredit myself, but …”
Another hit flew off Carter’s bat and banged against the back wall. Spencer grinned. Trevor sat on a bucket and videotaped with his iPhone. Then they all stayed quiet until another pitch came and Carter swung again.
This all started where you wouldn’t expect, in a small city near the Netherlands’ southern tip, with an 8-year-old boy who could not stop looking at a baseball field.
Most kids in Oosterhout took up speed skating or field hockey or, above all else, soccer. Soccer after school. Soccer in the street. Soccer on Sunday afternoons when the local club hosted teams and Alswinn Kieboom trailed his father into the stands.
But they had to walk by a worn baseball field before getting to the soccer stadium, and that grabbed Alswinn’s attention. He was soon a catcher on a youth team, then joined a serious organization, then played for a Netherlands national team before he was recruited to a boarding school outside of Chicago. He took the leap, leaving his home country at 17, soon earning a scholarship to play baseball at Eastern Illinois University.
That is where he met Lynnette Frigo, who grew up with all sisters and hadn’t watched much baseball. They fell in love. First came Spencer in 1991, and he tried everything from football to hockey to tennis before he was drawn to baseball like his dad. He found Alswinn’s old catcher’s mitts in a closet one day and, shortly after, raised his hand when a travel coach needed someone to squat behind the plate. Lynnette and Spencer spent nights practicing under a streetlight in front of their house, with Lynnette tossing him light pitches and Spencer ripping off his mask before he threw the ball back to her. He’s been catching ever since.
Trevor did not want to catch like his older brother but he did want to play. Catching was too dirty. He started as a batboy for Spencer’s Little League team, coached by Alswinn, until he could swing on his own. Then came Carter Alswinn Kieboom, in September 1997, right as the summer season turned to fall ball in suburban Georgia. Spencer and Trevor were hooked on baseball by then. Lynnette pushed a two-week-old Carter out to games in a stroller and rocked him to sleep in a car that faced the field.
He never had a chance.
“Carter was around it as soon as he was born,” Alswinn said. “He was going to be a baseball player.”
Once the elementary school bus rolled to a stop in the leafy neighborhood, Carter skipped up the steep stone driveway, through the glass-paneled front door and onto the living room couch.
He had about an hour until “Malcolm in the Middle,” on channel 343, before the Walton High School bell rang and baseball practice began each day. Then he’d grab his glove and run through a line of trees that led to the varsity field just a short toss beyond the Kiebooms’ backyard. Sometimes Carter chased down fly balls. Other times he helped the coaches. But mostly he just watched, his older brothers working through drills, his brain turning, until Lynnette yelled for him to come inside and do his homework.
“The best thing that ever happened was us moving right next to a baseball field,” Carter said. “I just couldn’t get enough.”
Spencer was the first brother to play travel ball for the East Cobb Yankees, a team starting at 16 years old, and Carter rarely missed a practice. James Beavers, the Yankees coach, remembers showing up one day, squinting into the outfield and not quite believing what he saw. Who is that little kid throwing with both hands? It was Carter, who found at a young age that he could throw with the same power and precision as a lefty and a righty.
When he played for the junior varsity team as a freshman at Walton, he had a six-finger Mizuno glove that allowed him to be a right- and left-handed pitcher. When he joined the Yankees a couple years later, Beavers would ask him to move from shortstop or third base, switch his glove onto his other hand and pitch as a lefty to a lefty in a late-inning situation.
Spencer was a Clemson recruit and fifth-round MLB draft pick by the Nationals in 2012. Trevor, after growing from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-4 in high school, had the size and skill to be a major talent when he wasn’t injured. But Carter was Carter. Tossing with both hands. Powering hits into the gap as an undersized teenager. Just different.
“I’d get asked, as we got older and Carter started playing more, if he was like Spencer or like me,” Trevor said. “And I’d say, ‘He’s nothing like us. He’s so much better.’ ”
The Kiebooms had a small gathering for the 2016 draft, with Lynnette and Alswinn, Trevor, Lynnette’s parents and sister, Carter, two friends and his girlfriend at the time. That was it. Carter didn’t want a party in case he was picked late and had to sit around with everyone feeling bad for him. He still didn’t know if he was a first-round pick, even after he started crushing the ball as a high school junior, even after scouts flocked to his games and visited the house, one after another, to dissect his mental makeup.
But he worked out for the Nationals a week before the draft, taking grounders and batting practice inside Nationals Park, and they liked what they saw. At the 18th pick, 10 slots away from one of the Nationals’ two first-round selections, Alswinn got a call that Washington was taking his youngest son 28th if he was still available. Carter was in the basement, too nervous to watch around everyone else, and didn’t fully understand what was happening until he heard his name called live on MLB Network.
Spencer was in Harrisburg, Pa., playing for the Nationals’ Class AA affiliate against the Hartford Yard Goats, sneaking peeks at his phone to see if Carter had been picked. Then someone told him that the Nationals took his little brother at the end of the first round. He was not the least bit surprised.
“Good,” Spencer remembers saying. “That was a really smart move.”
A few hours before hitting with Hood in mid-January, and a few weeks before heading down to West Palm Beach, Fla., for spring training, the brothers stood inside Rapid Sports Performance and talked about nothing in particular.
“The Chinese are not growing cotton on the moon,” Trevor said, eyes wide.
“I’m telling you, Trevor,” Spencer shot back, his eyes even wider. “I read about it yesterday.”
“That’s ridiculous, dude,” Trevor responded. “There’s no way.”
Spencer shrugged him off and went to seek evidence on his phone. Carter, stretching in place for their 9 a.m. workout, shook his head and smiled without interjecting. This is how it’s always been with the three of them. Spencer the most outgoing. Trevor ready for discussion. Carter sometimes going full dinners without saying a word, because he’d often rather observe than jump in. They are still those same brothers, even if baseball wants to sift them into their own categories, even if Carter has a chance at stardom and Spencer needs to work himself off the fringes.
“It only bothers me to the extent that it would bother anyone, and I rarely think about it,” Spencer said. “He’s my brother. I want him to reach his ceiling and I want to reach mine. And it’s okay that they are different heights.”
And this is all why, once in a while, Carter reminds Spencer and Trevor how much younger he is. Like when he is sick of playing darts against himself and calls Spencer to hang out. Or when he bought a white Ford F-250 pickup truck because Spencer had one. Or when their conversation shifted to wins above replacement, an advanced statistic used to measure a player’s value, and Carter smirked while asking a question to which he knew the answer.
“I don’t even understand WAR,” Carter said. “Like what is it?”
“It stands for wins above replacement,” Trevor answered.
“I know, but how is it used?” Carter asked, his smirk growing as he looked at Spencer with a sideways glance.
Trevor jumped into a long explanation of how teams weigh WAR when considering contracts and roster construction. Spencer, realizing Carter just wanted a rise out of his older brother, laughed and cut Trevor off before he went too far.
“Just focus on hitting the ball, kid,” Spencer said to Carter. “And I think you’ll be all right.”