MILWAUKEE — Scooter Gennett was just walking through the clubhouse minding his own business when a teammate launched a joke suggesting the Milwaukee Brewers just got their second baseman back from the Little League World Series.
Instead of getting offended or angry, Gennett fired off a witty response. This is the kid who was once told he was too small to play Little League. He’s heard every possible joke about his size.
Usually he just brushes it off, but if you hit the right nerve you may end up serving as Gennett’s motivation.
“I think anybody here or anybody who has had success, they get their fuel from some source,” Gennett said. “For me it’s always been people telling me I’m too small or I can’t do this or I can’t do that pretty much my whole life, since I was wee little. I’ve been dealing with it for awhile now, but I like that stuff.
Standing at 5-foot-10, Gennett has been told he can’t at every step of his baseball career. Milwaukee’s 16th-round pick in 2009 out of Sarasota High School in Florida, Gennett passed up a scholarship to Florida State to sign with the Brewers.
While fans and certain scouts were busy cracking jokes, Gennett was making minor league All-Star teams. He was an All-Star at every level of the minor leagues before Triple-A, consistently hitting at a high level.
“I like the jokes and everything,” Gennett said. “I don’t really have the little man’s syndrome. Which I think is a big key. You take those people who say you can’t do things and you try to incorporate it into your work ethic.”
Gennett, 23, remembers reading about a time when Tiger Woods wasn’t allowed to play at a certain golf course because he was an African-American.
Instead of letting it discourage him, Woods used it to his advantage.
“He hung up that article and that was his fuel,” Gennett said. “Obviously that’s a totally different thing (than me), but he still used that to his advantage. He didn’t roll over and say ‘Oh well, I guess I’m never going to play there.’ He used that as fuel to make his work ethic even better. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
“When it comes from a fan or a scout saying ‘You’re too small’, I hear them and say ‘OK, thank you’ and remember it when I’m in the cage to get better.”
Even though Gennett has climbed his way all the way to the big leagues, doubters still question his ability to be an every day player. As an injury to Rickie Weeks has opened the door for Gennett to play every day and he now has a little over a month to state his case to be the starter next season.
Thus far, Gennett has thrived in an every day role. He’s hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games, with the only hitless game coming when he came in as a pinch hitter. By hitting .413 over the last 14 games, Gennett has raised his batting average to .312 for the season.
“It’s definitely an opportunity for me to show them what I can do playing on an every day basis,” Gennett said. “It’s unfortunate it had to happen because of an injury. Rickie is a great dude, great player. He’s a big piece of this team, so it is unfortunate I’m getting the opportunity because of that.
“I have to do my job. I have to go out there every day, play the best I can, give the best effort and try to be a part of helping the team win. That’s really all I can do and all I’m trying to do.”
Success didn’t come immediately for Gennett. Like most of Milwaukee’s rookies have learned this season, the first time up with the big league club is an incredible challenge. Originally called up to provide Roenicke with another option at second base with Weeks struggling, Gennett didn’t adapt well to a part-time role.
As he was fighting to get on track, Weeks was on fire. Eventually, Gennett was sent back to Triple-A after hitting .214 with one home run and five RBI in 17 games.
“The first time I came up I wanted to do my best, show them what I got, show them what I can do,” Gennett said. “I’m still trying to do that but I think it is a little easier now knowing that I’m probably going to be in the lineup close to every day. Just that alone is a big difference for me because you take a guy who is used to playing every day and they have to adjust to a different role and adjust to a totally different competition.”
Ask anybody in baseball and they will tell you being a pinch hitter and bench player is one of the toughest roles to have in the game. Mix the lack of consistent at-bats with the already present challenge of adjusting to the big leagues, and it’s easy to see why a lot of young players struggle the first time around.
“It’s tough to do, but I’m not making any excuses for why I did bad the first time,” Gennett said. “I think that had a lot to do with just trying to do too much and trying to do something maybe I couldn’t do rather than just staying within myself. I think the biggest difference is playing every day and knowing that I’m going to be in there tomorrow.”
Getting sporadic at-bats while trying to prove himself as a big league player wasn’t the hardest thing Gennett has had to do in baseball, however. His toughest time in the game also helped him develop the chip he carries on his shoulder.
Playing for a travel team in Ohio early in his baseball career, Gennett traveled around playing roughly 100 games over a two-month time period. One would think he would have gained valuable playing time with all of those games, but he found himself in a difficult role.
“The coaches’ son was the starting shortstop, so I wouldn’t play every day even though I knew I was deserving,” Gennett said. “I had to deal with that, and he led off every game. So if he got on base, they would make me take a strike to see if he could steal and then if I got a strike and he got on second base, I would try to bunt it and if I didn’t get the bunt down I was down 0-2. So I was down 0-2 a lot of at-bats.”
He now looks back at the experience as the first wave of adversity overcome.
“At the time I didn’t like it, but maybe that’s why I get down 0-2 now and it is whatever,” Gennett said. “I don’t worry about striking out. There’s a lot of things that have happened that aren’t fair or aren’t how they should be that have helped me and I’m fortunate for that. I’m fortunate that I got to get the call up in June and fortunate that I got the time to go figure a few things out and come back ready to go.”
Being optioned back to Nashville really got to Gennett. He didn’t know when his next opportunity was going to come, but he was going to be ready whenever the call came. Up for a bit because of a doubleheader and unique roster situations, Gennett wasn’t in Nashville long before Weeks suffered a season-ending hamstring injury.
“At the time, getting sent down felt like someone just ripped my heart out,” Gennett said. “I was having fun up here and I just loved everything about it. Just mentally being able to work through those types of things is priceless. It’s something I’ve been able to be fortunate enough to do. Something at the time I wish I didn’t do, but looking back, I’m happy I got to go through it.”
The Brewers face an interesting dilemma at second base at least for next season. Weeks struggled and hit just .209 with 10 home runs and 24 RBI in 104 games before getting hurt, but is owed $11 million next season and should be healthy by Opening Day.
Weeks also has a vesting option for 2015 at $11.5 million that would kick in if he reaches 600 plate appearances next season. The Brewers would likely only let him reach that mark and guarantee another year on his contract if he was hitting well at the time.
If Gennett hits as well the rest of the way, general manager Doug Melvin and Roenicke will have to make a difficult decision.
“Where all that plays out, I don’t know,” Roenicke said. “That’s something we’ll decide in the offseason. Anytime a young guy can come up and try to prove what he can do, it’s important to him.
“Things are determined in our minds from what we see, not just what we hear from our minor league guys. We need to see it. It’ll change your mind and maybe you go in a different direction in the offseason.”
Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez has been impressed with how Gennett and fellow rookie Khris Davis have come up and played well filling the voids of Weeks and Ryan Braun. Both players had a rough first stint with the Brewers but then went down and came back up better prepared.
“They look like they have 10 years in the league,” Gomez said. “They have confidence. They are cocky. They have that, and I like it. I love it.”
For Gennett, cockiness is used in a good way. He’s always had to be confident in his own abilities because others have doubted him. Many great athletes have the ability to find ways to motivate themselves, and Gennett has that gene.
An attitude like his is contagious.
“It boils down to, are you a battler?” Gennett said. “Are you going to use what people tell you to put that fire under your butt out there on the field or are you going to listen to them, start believing them and roll over? I doubt anybody in this room rolls over.
“It’s a whole team thing. People say ‘Well, you guys really suck.’ Like, no we don’t. Our record isn’t the best, but we are going to go out there every day and prove people wrong and try to get that respect.”