As Damion Carroll warmed up in the bullpen before the first game of the season, the King George pitcher heard a rustling behind him. The avid outdoorsman glanced toward the woods expecting to spot a deer.
He saw no animal, but he did observe hunters of a sort, and they carried guns. Radar guns, aimed at him, a 6-foot-4 all-arms-and-legs right-hander with a 92-mph fastball, 100-mph grin and a personality wider than any of the tributaries he likes to fish after games with his buddies by the light of the Northern Neck moon.
It was at that very moment that the kid who considers himself “just a little King Georgian pumping a fastball in there” became a bona fide professional prospect now projected to be taken as high as in the top five rounds of the Major League Baseball first-year player draft that begins Monday.
“I thought, ‘Man, it’s real,’ ” Carroll recalled of the estimated 20 scouts who tracked him at the season opener at Washington and Lee-Montross High, which is 20 scouts more than he expected to be on hand. “I never thought this would happen, ever. I knew I threw hard, but I didn’t know people would actually come out and see me pitch.
“Some kids dream it and some kids live it, and I’m just one of the kids that’s living it right now.”
A playful, jabbery, eccentric force of nature, Damion “D-Train” Carroll is a can’t-miss prospect in the sense that you can’t miss him. A fooled batter’s wobbly knees elicit an involuntary smile. At King George’s field, he trades bird calls with the ospreys that nest on the center field light pole. They seem to understand him. While most pitchers retreat to a quiet corner of the dugout between innings, Carroll goads and razzes his teammates. He belts out Otis Redding and Barry White tunes in the back of the bus and seems to know the word to every song that comes on the radio. He’s the life of the party even when there is no party.
“I can’t just sit in one spot,” said Carroll, who idolizes Satchel Paige and insists that the two looked just alike when Carroll had his afro. “These kids today, they like to stay in the house and play games. That’s not me. I like to go out and do stuff. I don’t like being bored. That’s the last thing on my mind, being bored.”
Growing up, “he couldn’t sit still,” Carroll’s father, Virgil Holmes, himself a 1977 King George graduate, said of his boy as he watched him during a recent game. “It was almost comical. You had to tie him down to hold him still. He’s always been like that.”
“Sometimes we have to be like, ‘Damion, settle down. Just get your swings done, Damion,’ ” senior teammate Dylan Dombrowskas said in a tone equal parts firm and pleading. “Sometimes we’ve got to jump his case a little bit so we can get through practice or get through a game.
“We just try to set guidelines.”
Much like the bass and catfish he hooks, Carroll is a throwback. A no-show on the summer baseball showcase circuit, he was content to play with his pals on the local American Legion Post 89 team, remaining nestled in the comforts of King George, about 20 miles east of Fredericksburg.
As insider bible Baseball America writes of Carroll, “He is a good example of the adage, “If you’re good, they’ll find you.’ ”
Carroll and company needed outsiders to validate that the beloved goofball hurler had pro potential.
“We always knew he was good,” Dombrowskas said. “We just didn’t know how good he was until people actually noticed how good he was.”
King George Coach Thad Reviello considers Carroll to have an “electric” arm, the type of lanky yet workable build that scouts like and overall athleticism borne out by his playing small forward and center on the Foxes’ basketball team. Carroll’s mechanics and secondary pitches, although emerging, need refining, but his rawness is more of a tease than a turnoff. He has committed to San Jacinto (Tex.) Community College, where Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte once pitched, and will head there if he does not like the draft position that would determine his signing figure.
“He’s still just throwing,” Post 89 Coach Al Landino said. “He hasn’t matured yet. When he does, he’s going to be really good. He’s a big fish in a small pond right now.”
More like an odd duck. Talk to any Carroll acquaintance and it does not take long to shake loose a “that’s just Damion” story.
One night, he hit balls that three times smacked Dana Dombrowskas’s van, even though she moved her car after each of the first two. Landino once had to pull over his car because Carroll, seated in the back, would not stop playing with Landino’s wife’s hair. In a game at Eastern View, Carroll came into the dugout from the mound and revealed that he had ripped the basketball shorts he was wearing underneath his uniform. His head is so small that the coaches order him the tightest cap available, then customize it to make it even smaller.
“The first game at W&L he hollered out something like, ‘Hit the leopard!’ with some weird accent and 20-some odd scouts asked the coach, ‘What the hell is ‘hit the leopard?’ ” King George boys’ basketball Coach Josh Luzier said. “And the coach was like, ‘I don’t know.’ He just comes up with his own stuff and says it at odd times.”
King George County, population 23,584, has a current athletic success story — New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, himself a former Foxes baseball player. It was also the home of former Orioles great Al Bumbry.
Scouts and some Carroll loyalists alike wonder aloud whether the “little King Georgian” grasps the serious demands of playing ball in the pros or even at a high-profile junior college far from home. Others fully expect to see him in a big league uniform.
One thing they know for sure is that he will make the ride interesting. For himself, and anyone in his orbit.
“That’s a happy-go-lucky kid right there,” his mother Melissa Carroll said with a twinkle as she gazed out at the field. “Can’t sit still.”