Despite totaling just nine home runs in his first three independent league seasons, the light came on for Church this year and stayed on all season long. The 5-foot-11, 181 pound centerfielder hit 31 home runs, seven more than any other player in the League.
In fact, those 31 long balls led all independent players this year as did his .668 slugging percentage. Church finished second in the Frontier League with a .317 batting average. He drove in 78 runs in 379 at-bats. Church's on-base percentage was .380 and his 120 hits and 38 doubles also paced the league.
The Florida native was named the League's Most Valuable Player and was also MVP of their All-Star Game, plus won the pre-game Home Run Derby on top of it. Church was also a member of the All-Independent League team.
In limited action this winter playing in the Mexican Pacific League, Church is hitting .250 in 12 at-bats for Guasave.
"Ian is a great guy and a very smart player that has had tremendous success behind the plate this season," Kalamazoo manager Fran Riordan told the Kalamazoo Gazette. "He approaches each at-bat with the same aggressiveness and has developed into one of the best hitters in the league."
But, prior to 2006, Church had a hard time getting noticed. He had hit for the cycle with the Peninsula Pilots of the Coastal Plains League during the summer of 2002, but went undrafted after completing his four years at Stetson.
Church signed his first professional contract with the Lincoln SaltDogs of the independent Northern League in June of 2003 upon graduation. After hitting .284 that summer, Church was traded by Lincoln to the Sioux City Explorers, also in the Northern League, during the 2004 season. Combined, the right-handed hitter delivered a .240/.264/.363 line that year, hitting four home runs and driving 30 in 204 at-bats.
After having spent most of his first two seasons as a fourth outfielder, Church earned an everyday job in 2005 with Sioux City, where newly-signed Cardinals catcher Chris Grossman was his teammate. However, Church battled injuries for much of the season before putting up a .269/.320/.395 line.
Clearly there was no indication of what was coming in 2006.
In July of this year, Church tried to explain to the St. Petersburg Times what changed. "I think I've been seeing the ball well lately. I know I always try to prepare myself mentally when I get in the batter's box and tell myself the pitcher can't throw me anything I can't hit. I try to psyche myself up and psyche out the pitcher."
Church, who turns 26 in February, has very good speed and plays a solid centerfield, though he may end up in a corner position with the Cardinals. His bat speed makes him a good candidate to hit for average along with some power in the minors.
Riordan provided a scouting report on his star pupil. "He has an athletic body, but he's got tremendous bat speed. It's a line-drive swing, but he's very flat through the zone, and he gets a lot of backspin. He generates a lot of power with his lower half. If you're his size, you have to use your whole body."
This summer, the Tampa area resident clearly decribed his dream to the Times. "My goal is to get signed by a Major League organization, and we're all here for that same reason. I want to catch the eyes of an organization and then make it to the big leagues," Church explained.
So far, so good.
Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch said, "Both Church and Grossman have been initially signed to Palm Beach contracts (A-Advanced). After hitting 31 home runs in about 380 at-bats, Church will be an interesting guy to see this spring."
Each has a chance at Double-A ball out of the gate in 2007. "Heading into spring training, they'll likely be in the mix for Palm Beach or Springfield depending on how everything shakes out," Vuch explained.
Still, a long way from St. Louis, but that all-important first step has been taken.
Church's page from the Baseball Cube
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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