SURPRISE, Ariz. — Joseph Tyriq Watson was greeted by 102-degree temperatures when he walked outside his hotel room on Friday, but there still aren’t many people with whom he’d trade places.
“Yes sir, it’s hot,” Watson said in a telephone interview. “It’s very hot and it’s hot every day, but that’s OK.”
A right-handed pitcher who has propelled a baseball 98 mph, Watson turns 22 on Sept. 2, but in some ways his life just started. Or at least his new life.
“A lot of it really did seem like I was just dreaming it,” Watson said. “Getting drafted. Signing. Flying out here. But that first day I woke up in Arizona is when it all became reality. I told myself it was time to go to work — and I went to work.”
The last week has been a whirlwind for Watson, a yes-sir, no-sir, 6-foot-3, 225-pound man-child from Advance, in northern Davie County. In that short span, the Catawba student-athlete has watched his name called out relatively early during the MLB draft, signed with the Texas Rangers as their 12th-round pick, and said goodbyes to his family.
He climbed aboard an airplane for the first time shortly after signing and arrived safely in Arizona.
Sometime next weekend he’ll fire his first pro pitch in the Arizona Rookie League to hitters who are being paid to hammer baseballs.
“Just a little turbulence when we got in some clouds on the plane flight,” Watson said. “But it was just about all smooth.”
His flight has been smoother than his career to this point.
Unlimited potential curses as much as it blesses, and Watson has owned the body and look of a star for a long time. At every baseball tryout he’s ever attended, Watson has been the guy whose phone number all the scouts wanted. He had speed for his size, plenty of power and crazy arm strength.
Brian Pitts, the sportswriter for the Davie paper recalled the first time he saw Watson take the bump for North Davie Middle School. Pitts’ jaw dropped to his knees, but like most of the world, Pitts was thinking about what a guy built like Watson was going to do to Davie High’s football program.
As it turned out, Watson excelled in both football and baseball at Davie.
In a Cliff Peeler Easter Tournament baseball game his senior year, Watson was “Three-in-a-row Joe.” He belted a trio of homers at the North Rowan ballfield.
His football career for Davie’s War Eagles was spectacular as a wide receiver. He accumulated 145 catches in three varsity seasons for 2,608 yards and 30 TDs. His numbers his senior year were 69-1,085-12, and he was instrumental in Davie’s astounding run to play in the 4A state championship game after a 5-6 regular season.
Watson was “Three-in-a-row Joe” on the gridiron as well. He caught three consecutive TD passes against Reagan his junior year.
Watson was welcomed at Catawba as a two-sport athlete by baseball coach Jim Gantt and then-football coach Chip Hester, Everyone assumed he would shine in football and dabble in baseball, but people didn’t know what was in Watson’s heart. He played football because he was good at it, but he played baseball because he loved it.
“No disrespect to any football program, but baseball is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Watson said. “I’ve known my future would be baseball for a long time. I put down the bat when I came to Catawba and concentrated on pitching, and I think that’s why I’m where I am now.”
Watson attended Catawba but sat out the 2011-12 sports school year as he dealt with an eligibility issue.
After that. his collegiate career was quiet in both sports.
His two seasons on the football field netted 13 catches, 134 yards and two TDs.
His two seasons with the baseball team yielded one pitching win — yes, one.
Watson’s initial baseball season with Catawba included seven brief appearances on the mound. He allowed just one hit, but he walked 12. He fanned five.
Gantt had more confidence in Watson this season, but Catawba’s 1-2-3 punch included senior John Tuttle, one of the winningest pitchers in program history, and Craig Brooks and Shaefer Shepard, who were two of the finest starting pitchers in Division II.
Watson made three starts and relieved 10 times. He went 1-2 with a 6.41 ERA. His 27 innings were not without excitement — 31 strikeouts and 21 walks.
He had some highlights. In the Southeast Regional, with Catawba facing elimination, Watson started against Columbus State. Despite seven walks, he battled into the sixth inning and gave the Indians a chance to win that game.
There was a game against Winston-Salem State in which Watson faced 10 batters and whiffed seven.
There was a game at USC-Aiken in which Watson whipped a pitch that struck the backstop. But the radar guns registered “98,” and that didn’t hurt him any.
There also was a game late in the regular season, an ugly one against Belmont Abbey in which balls were flying all over Newman Park. There was a small army of scouts in attendance behind the plate, and as soon as Watson took the mound in relief, the radar guns jumped out of the bags.
Watson struck out four and walked three in his two innings. More important for his future, he threw a steady stream of fastballs clocked at 95 and 96.
His curveball may have surprised some scouts. It’s good.
“I learned the curve from (former Davie pitcher) Lonnie Barnes,” Watson explained. “He showed me how to grip the ball, and I started getting a lot of swings and misses with that pitch.”
His teammates were excited for Watson after the Belmont Abbey game. They knew he was going to be drafted.
While Watson was a sophomore on the field, it was his third year at Catawba, so he was draft eligible.
Gantt was certain Watson was going to be drafted. Watson was too.
There was a coach in the area a few years back named Allen Wilson. He had played minor-league ball in the Atlana Braves organization, he coached East Rowan and the South Rowan American Legion team and he scouted for the New York Mets.
He told me weeks before the 2005 MLB draft that Charleston Southern junior Bobby Parnell was going to be drafted. Parnell had pitched only a handful of innings at East Rowan and had won exactly two games in three years of American Legion ball. He also had a three-year record of 6-15 with high ERAs and scary walk totals at Charleston Southern.
I looked at Wilson like he was crazy, and he told me something I haven’t forgotten. “The Mets don’t draft stats,” he said. “They draft guys they believe can play in the major leagues. The Mets are going to draft Bobby, and if they don’t get him pretty early, someone else will. He’s on every draft board.”
The rest is history on that one. Parnell was long and tall and had great arm strength. The Mets called his named on Round 9, and he made it to the major leagues.
Watson has no stats to speak of, but he has an athletic, powerful body and a howitzer for a right arm. He’s a solid citizen with a good work ethic, and he’s got a chance.
“Joe’s story is a lot like Parnell’s,” Gantt said. “He’s actually ahead of where Bobby was at the same point because Joe’s breaking ball is better.”
Watson was the 366th pick in the draft and is the highest pick out of Catawba since the Braves took Brian Boltz with the 57th pick in 1989. Only three players in Catawba history have been picked higher than Watson was, and the draft has been around since 1965.
Watson is the 22nd Indian to be drafted. He was picked higher than recent Catawba stars such as Jerry Sands, David Thomas, Wade Moore, Craige Lyerly, Nick Lomascolo, Chris Dula (drafted by the Rangers last year) and teammate Paul Kronenfeld.
“I thought it would probably be the Rangers that drafted me,” Watson said. “They’ve stayed in contact with me and have been following me all year.”
Watson said he anticipated being drafted between rounds 11-15 on the third and final day of the draft.
“I just sat on the couch, turned on my laptop and started watching,” Watson said. “About an hour later, I was drafted. I was pretty relaxed, really, and it just happened for me.”
Watson didn’t reveal the amount of his signing bonus, but the Rangers agreed to pay for his remaining two years at Catawba. That guarantee alone is worth $70,000 or so.
The rookies in Arizona will play a 52-game schedule, what’s referred to as a “short season.”
Watson isn’t sure when he’ll make his debut, but he’ll be ready to throw some heat when the call to bullpen is made.
After all, baseball is what he’s always wanted to do.
, watching the MLB draft as his name was called, signing with the Texas Rangers as their 12th-round pick, saying goodbye to his family