COLUMBIA — The day before turning 24, Blake Tekotte received the best birthday present of his life: his first call-up to Major League Baseball.
Two days later, the Columbia native made his big league debut, a pinch-hit appearance for the San Diego Padres against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he grew up rooting for.
Tekotte, who turns 26 in May, is quick to recall his first at-bat. Facing ace Chris Carpenter, the wide-eyed newcomer lined out to center fielder Jon Jay, his good friend and former teammate at the University of Miami.
“It’s something I remind him of,” Jay said by phone Wednesday. “Every three months I’ll send it (video of the catch) to him just to make fun of him and get on him a little bit.”
Tekotte, a Hickman graduate, has a fond recollection of what happened three days later, too.
In his first career start, Tekotte recorded his first career hit, a second-inning double off Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. Playing in front of his family on his nephew’s first birthday, Tekotte went 2-for-3 and drove in the lone RBI of his career. It was Tekotte’s all-time favorite baseball moment.
Last season, Tekotte was again called up to the big league squad just before a set against the Cardinals. This time, though, the games were being played at Busch Stadium. In front of many friends and family members, Tekotte pinch-hit in the second game of the series.
“I grew up going to Cardinal games, so it was very cool to do that,” Tekotte said last week by phone.
After recording six hits in 34 at-bats in 2011, Tekotte had two hits in 15 plate attempts last season. Last November he was traded from the Padres to the Chicago White Sox.
“He has a chance to be a solid big leaguer,” Jay said. “He got to the big leagues pretty quick in San Diego, but they didn’t really have room for him, and now he’s got a chance with Chicago.
"He prepares himself the right way, hopefully he gets his chance and can shine.”
Tekotte has had a glimpse of life in the big leagues. He's experienced the luxurious travel, the increased pay, the large crowds and bright television lights that the minor leagues don't offer.
While those first major league memories seem like yesterday to him, they've only intensified his desire to stick on a major league roster and be a regular contributor.
Tekotte's affection for the game seems hereditary. His grandfather played baseball as a child and raised Tekotte's father, to play the sport. In turn, Tekotte’s father raised Blake Tekotte to play, too. He coached him as a child and still throws him batting practice in the offseason.
“I was born with it in my blood, I’d rather be doing this than anything else in the world,” Tekotte said. “Not too many people get the opportunity to do this, so I’m definitely not taking it for granted.”
Tekotte, one of seven outfielders on the White Sox 40-man roster, is enjoying his first spring training with the team.
“I really like the organization, and the coaches are really cool and laid back,” Tekotte said. “The way they go about their business is fun, but it’s also professional. It’s always enjoyable to get up early, go to the yard and it be a fun time because of the players’ attitudes and all the coaches’ attitudes.
“Everyone’s excited to be there, you can see it. And they’re all about winning. It kind of rubs off on everybody else and everyone has a winning attitude. It’s definitely a good organization to be in.”
Through Thursday, Tekotte has a pair of hits in 15 spring at-bats but has walked three times and recorded an outfield assist.
Tekotte hopes to make Chicago's opening day roster, but will be challenged. The team’s top four outfielders from last season all return. The other two in camp are more highly touted prospects.
But fighting through adversity is nothing new to Tekotte.
In the first game of his senior football season at Hickman, he tore his ACL and missed the entire season. He remained a member of the team, though. Tekotte regularly attended practices and games, finding ways to help out.
This committed, team-first mentality is how Tekotte has approached his first spring training with his new organization.
“Whatever level you break with after spring training is where you’re at, and you can’t do anything about it,” Tekotte said. “If you don’t like it, play better. That’s the mindset you need to go in with. It’s kind of out of my hands, I’m just going to go out there and do what I can do and what I can control.”
His mother’s side of the family is from Chicago and grew up White Sox fans. They were ecstatic when he was traded to their hometown team.
Tekotte hopes they’ll be able to see him roam U.S. Cellular Field’s outfield in the near future.
“I think I’m very close,” Tekotte said. “I know that I can definitely make a difference on this team and bring that spark that they need and be whatever role they want me to be, whether that be a fourth outfielder at first or a starting outfielder. Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do it and work my way and try to be an every day starter.”