Grant Varnell anything but average

Unless you make your living as an event planner, preparations usually aren't the thrilling side of throwing a party—or if you make your living throwing 90-mph strikes. You hear all the time about athletes living for their moment under the lights, for their moment of glory in front of a big crowd, feeding off their enthusiasm. What you don't hear is athletes living for the early sweat sessions running down the empty, dusty, country roads before dawn.

What you don't hear is athletes living for the often monotonous drills and practices mid-afternoon. What you don't hear is athletes living for the butt-numbing film sessions after dusk. What you don't hear is athletes living for all the extra work that goes unnoticed by the average fan.

But Grant Varnell says why not? The 23-year-old Dallas native, who pitched with the AZL Padres and Eugene Emeralds last season before getting called up to Fort Wayne for the playoffs, has always taken pride in his hard work in all areas of his life. A four-year Academic All-American in college at North Central Texas College (junior college) and the University of Texas-Arlington, Varnell knows that extra effort does pay off in the long run.

"I figured if I were going to be in school and playing sports I might as well do well in the classroom," reasoned Varnell, who has just 15 credit hours left to graduate. "School has always just been something that's at the top on my priority list. I don't want to say it comes easy for me, but I put the work in and the effort. Going to class is half of the thing, but I show up to class and put effort into it.

"[The University of Texas] is where I wanted to go to college initially, but it didn't work out. I'm still a Longhorns fan though. rooting for them in the national championship game !" (A game which Texas won, by the way).

Varnell, who plans to graduate next fall with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, someday hopes to open up a baseball facility in north Texas. But when the 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander wasn't studying for classes, he was preparing to face some of the toughest baseball universities in the country – Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Baylor, etc. Though the coursework will soon stop after graduation, preparing to take the mound never will. But Varnell, who has always idolized fellow pitcher and Texas native Roger Clemens, has adopted The Rocket's same workhorse work ethic.

"There's five days in between games, and you get into a routine that you do physically," he said. "Just resting is a big thing and then preparing, getting scouting reports on the teams and batters you're going to face. Different teams you play have different hitting philosophies, and if you know the philosophies, then you can approach those hitters a certain way.

"Knowing the organization and the team that you play and their hitting philosophy will pay off dividends. There's always going to be some guys that don't have to do all that stuff, but for me, I'll take anything I can get. If I can find a hole in a batter's swing or find a pitch that he doesn't like, that's just another advantage for me over them. You get to this level, and you need every little bit you can get. And then I run, lift weights, all that good stuff in between games."

Good stuff? Most people hate that stuff. For some, training and practicing isn't "real" competition. There's no opportunity to win or lose, to succeed or even fail. And Varnell, also a manager at Wilson's Leather in a nearby mall, knows firsthand how easy it can be to hate the things in which you fail.

"To tell you the truth, I started out playing [baseball] when I was five and hated it!" Varnell admitted. "I always liked to play games that I succeeded at, which was soccer, football, or basketball. I was really good at those, but baseball was a game of failure. It took me a little while to get used to failing, but as I got older and kept playing, I realized that as you prepare and get ready for the games, the failure is going to start decreasing.

"I realized that part of the fun is the actual practicing, and then the games are the fun part. I learned that not everyone can play baseball. It's not a sport for everybody because not only do you have to be physical, but it's a lot of mental stuff. That's where I gradually started to realize that I loved the game because it was the mental side that I really started to get a hold of and enjoy. It was rough, but now I love it. To tell you I've loved it since the first day I played would be a lie. It took a while to get used to the failure, and once I realized how to deal with that mentally, I couldn't get away from it."

After the Padres drafted him in the 25th round of the 2005 draft, Varnell didn't really even have very much failure to deal with in his first year. Known for his control, the diehard Dallas Cowboys fan posted incredible numbers on the mound. He relied mainly on his slider to get outs, but he's been working on his changeup recently to make it more of an out-pitch as well. Either way, strikeouts haven't been hard to come by. With 54 innings pitched over two leagues last year, Varnell's strikeout to walks ratio was 50—to-4.

"I've always taken pride in being able to pound the strike zone," he said, "and if you're constantly pounding the strike zone, you're going to strikeout batters. And I take pride in not walking guys. I've always been a pretty good control pitcher throughout high school, throughout college, and now into the first year of the pros. I guess it's just having control of all three of my pitches and being able to throw them for strikes, ahead or behind in the count."

It also helps to have a catcher who's on the same page as him. With the Emeralds, Varnell appreciated having catcher Nick Hundley behind the plate, a person with whom he communicated well.

"[Hundley and I would] talk about how we were going to bust [teams] in or what type pitches we'll use and just certain philosophies before the game on how to succeed or get better. He's pretty good with getting with me on the same page and calling the pitches that I like in certain situations. He's a good catcher and does a good job blocking and throwing out runners. It's good when you got a catcher that's in sync with what you're thinking, and we're pretty in sync as far as a catcher-pitcher relationship goes."

Being in sync is such a part him that his routines during games have become second nature, such as pulling at his sleeve, pulling at his pants between pitches, and jumping over the foul line chalk when he's running off the field.

"People that come and see me who haven't seen me pitch in a while are like, ‘Man, you're pretty weird out there. Do you ever stop moving?'" Varnell joked. "I think they think I have a problem like OCD or ADD or something like that, but it's just the way I've always done it. It's more so routines that I don't even know I'm doing."

Varnell, who doesn't like the time off between starts, said his routines help calm him down, especially when he's asked to do some relief pitching, a less comfortable task.

"Mentally, physically, I've always been a starter in high school, on through college, and even in the pros. I think I've just got the mindset and the endurance to be a starter. I can relieve and I've done it in the past, but I'm definitely more comfortable starting."

Despite all the work, studying, and baseball playing that Varnell does in a single day, he still manages to find time to enjoy the little things in life—spending time with his girlfriend (who is very understanding about baseball), playing ping pong, watching Top Gun and many other movies, or listening to Texas country music.

"Of course I like the country music," he said, "I am from Texas. But I'm just your typical average guy I guess."

Typical? Average? Sorry Grant, buddy, pal. Typical guys don't have the kind of work ethic you do. Average guys don't strikeout half the people you do—in their own backyard. Hey Grant, you're beyond average.

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