Nicky Delmonico takes a break from batting practice at BB&T Ballpark and heads for the dugout. There’s not a cloud in the sky as the sun beats down on the freshly-groomed dirt, the freshly-cut grass and especially this freshly-promoted first baseman for the Charlotte Knights.
Delmonico, 23, enters the shady dugout and takes a seat. He’s 6-foot-2, chiseled and wearing dark sunglasses. A sweat-stained black ballcap covers much of his face.
He’s smiling. And for good reason.
Making name for himself
Long before Delmonico became a member of the Knights, long before he was a top baseball prospect or a star high school player, he was another boy with a dream.
“Ever since I was a little kid,” he says, “I wanted to be a baseball player.”
The difference was Delmonico’s blood line. His father, Rod, was the baseball coach at Tennessee from 1990 to 2007. It only made sense that Nicky grew up in a ballpark.
He took ground balls with the Volunteers. In the tunnel after games, Rod threw to Nicky and his brothers until late in the evening.
“I was a bat boy all the way up until his last year (as Tennessee’s coach),” Delmonico says, “so my teachers would have my homework ready on Fridays because they knew I was travelling with my dad’s team.”
In high school in Knoxville, Tenn., Nicky began making a name for himself. He played alongside future NL MVP Bryce Harper for USA Baseball and would score a scholarship to Georgia.
There, he could play with his older brother Joey one last time.
But they’d never get the chance.
The Baltimore Orioles selected him in the sixth round of the 2011 MLB Draft straight out of Farragut High School. He had a decision to make: sign or delay his dream and play with Joey at Georgia.
“My brother took me out on the boat and said, ‘I know this is your dream, so you can’t turn it down.’ ”
Nicky signed. He was going to be a professional baseball player.
A suspension and a second chance
As a top prospect with the Orioles — he was the No. 4-rated player with their High Class A affiliate in 2012 — Delmonico’s path to the big leagues was clear: hit and hit well.
But there were roadblocks.
In 2013, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. There he struggled with personal issues and the drug Adderall, which he’d taken since high school for attention deficit disorder (ADD).
“I wasn’t able to sleep very well and I just kind of wanted to get off of it,” he says. “I didn’t know once you come off it, you go through mood swings.”
Delmonico stopped using the drug but not for good. He ended up taking Adderall again, this time without the permission of Major League Baseball. A random drug test came the next day. He knew he would fail.
He did, and was suspended 50 games.
The Brewers were unhappy, but wanted to keep Delmonico on their High Class A team. The feeling was not mutual.
“I don’t know if it was just the medicine that made me feel down,” he says, “but I kinda didn’t want to come back and play at that time. And so I kept asking for my release.
“I was like, ‘I’m not gonna play anymore.’ I changed my phone number. I called my mom and was like, ‘I guess this is it.’ And I get the call they finally released me.”
Delmonico flew home to Knoxville, and remembers telling everyone he thought his career was over. It nearly was.
Five months passed and Delmonico was still unsigned. Then, in February 2015, he got the call from his agent he so desperately hoped for.
The Chicago White Sox were willing to sign him. He would get a second shot at professional baseball.
Just keep swinging
Back in the Charlotte dugout, Delmonico is still smiling.
Before he was promoted to Charlotte from Birmingham on May 24, Delmonico led the Class AA Southern League in almost every offensive category, including batting average (.338) and home runs (10).
“It was something to see,” Birmingham teammate Marcus Lemon says. “It seemed like every game he was hitting a bomb.”
Then, in his first home game for the Knights, he had a walk-off RBI single.
The difference during his second stint in the pros?
“Being around the guys that I truly loved being around on and off the field, I feel like that is a huge part of it,” he says of being in the White Sox organization. “Just being able to come out and play, but not worry about the game itself.
“You know? Trying to win, but just enjoying playing with the guys and having a good time.”
Despite his success with Birmingham, Delmonico’s proficiency at the plate hasn’t completely translated to Class AAA through his first 20 games with Charlotte. He’s hitting .250 and has two home runs.
“He’s going in the right path,” Charlotte manager Julio Vinas says. “His stroke is short right now.”
The trick will be turning his swing into more contributions for the Knights.
“Just keep having the at-bats that he’s having now,” Vinas says. “and continue to grow from that. In the long run, I think it’s gonna pay off for him.”
So Delmonico will keep swinging. He’ll keep chasing his boyhood dream.
And if he can recapture the Class AA magic that landed him in Charlotte, maybe one day he’ll get there.
Brendan Marks: 704-358-5337, @brendanrmarks