KERNERSVILLE — Xavier Isaac is back in Kernersville, but he hopes it’s just a rest stop on his journey to baseball’s major leagues.
“I miss it a lot,” the former East Forsyth standout says. “I miss seeing my friends, coaches. Just being back in Kernersville … I like it.”
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound first baseman was the Tampa Bay Ray’s first pick (29th overall) in this year’s draft and signed July 29. On Aug. 16, the left-handed slugger was added to the roster of the Rays’ Port Charlotte team in the Florida Complex League, the first step on the ladder to the big leagues.
As a senior at East Forsyth, Isaac batted .578 with 12 home runs, six doubles, two triples and 26 RBIs in 27 games. Despite those gaudy stats, the jump to professional baseball was “hard,” he says.
“You have to get used to it. Going from 84- to 85-(mph pitches) to 94-95 every day, you have to adjust at some point,” Isaac says. “I’m getting better at it, getting better handling different pitches, change-ups, splitters. They all have them. … You have to be more of a defender (of the strike zone) than an offensive guy.”
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Isaac defended the plate pretty well for an 18-year-old, going 4-for-19 (.211) with three doubles and five RBIs in five games for a Port Charlotte team that reached the championship series of the Florida Complex League.
“It’s all about having fun,” he says of his first taste of professional baseball. “You can’t go up there stressing, because you’re going to get plenty more at-bats. Have an 0-for-4 day, you’re still going to be batting third. You go out there and have fun and the game will reward you.”
The game already has rewarded Isaac financially. While players in a rookie league are only paid a weekly salary of $400, he signed for a bonus of $2,548,900. That was the full amount Major League Baseball designated for the No. 29 slot in this year’s draft, and it took every bit of that money for Isaac to pass up a chance to play at the University of Florida, where he attended classes during the first session of summer school before the draft.
“It wasn’t a no-brainer,” Isaac says. “It was a hard decision. If I got my money I would go to the league, and if it was a dollar short I’d play in the SEC and be one of the best SEC players.”
Instead, he’s adjusting to life away from home in a small Florida town about 85 miles from Tropicana Field, the Rays’ home ballpark in St. Petersburg.
“It was different … just not as busy, kind of in the middle of nowhere and just playing baseball,” Isaac says. “I went into the locker room and felt welcomed and started to get to know the guys. Now it’s just fun.”
Isaac hasn’t let the criticism the Rays took for drafting a player some analysts projected as a second- or third-rounder get in the way of that fun.
“Everybody has to prove themselves,” he says. “When you’re a first-rounder, you have to prove you’re worthy of being a first-rounder. People have asked me some questions, but it didn’t bother me. I just keep working and getting better every day. ”
That’s easier to do in a Rays organization known for player development, although Tampa Bay hasn’t produced many power hitters.
“They’re not cookie-cutters,” Isaac says. “They just guide you to be better, but they’re not going to change your swing around or anything. They picked me in the first round for a reason. They believe in me, and they’re just letting me hit and get used to the pitching.”
One thing he’s been getting used to again since coming home to Kernersville is having mom’s home cooking. He missed that in Port Charlotte, where he shares an apartment with three other players and is learning to cook more for himself.
“Now you have to make your own meals or Uber Eats,” he says, noting that he didn’t bring a car when he went to Florida.
He has found a “friend group” and hangs out and plays Uno with three Rays’ second-round draft picks: outfielder Ryan Cermak (Illinois State), outfielder Brock Jones (Stanford) and infielder Chandler Simpson (Georgia Tech).
It’s no surprise that Isaac found his place with a group of older college players as he exudes a confidence and maturity beyond his years. He’s learning to be a professional at a level where crowds are small — even with free admission — and games are usually played during the day.
“Playing at 10, 12 every day in the Florida sun is not fun, but once I get to night games it’s going to be a breeze,” he says. “Just competing and having fun with your guys, it doesn’t matter if there’s one fan there or a million fans in the stadium.”
Isaac is enjoying a little bit of time off before he heads back to Florida on Tuesday to play for the Rays’ team in the Florida Instructional League, which runs through early October. Then he’ll head to Miami to train with other players represented by super-agent Scott Boras in the offseason until minicamp and spring training. He expects to start the 2023 season with the Charleston River Dogs of the Class A Carolina League, but he’s not putting any pressure on himself.
“Whenever the Rays want me to go up, I’ll go up,” Isaac says, “but until then I’ll keep taking it step by step and day by day and be the person I am.”