After his family moved from Louisiana to Lawton when he was in junior high, Rico Noel spent many summer nights driving up I-44 to watch the RedHawks play at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
After he scored the winning run for the El Paso Chihuahuas in the series opener on Wednesday night at The Brick, Noel chatted with his rooting section of around 30 people who drove to Oklahoma City to watch the speedster who twice led the NCAA in stolen bases.
“It was surreal when I walked into the park,” Noel said. “It’s the first time I’ve been in this park in several years. It brought back some great memories. It was so great, especially with everyone in Lawton hitting me up (for tickets) on Facebook and Twitter.”
A two-sport star at Lawton High, Noel was a cornerback and receiver who received a few football scholarship offers that dried up when he informed coaches he planned to pursue baseball.
Noel, 25, ended up halfway across the country, playing three years at Coastal Carolina. He liked it so much he’s lived most of his pro career in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“I’m so grateful for this the opportunity to play pro baseball,” Noel said. “It’s been great being in the Padres organization. It’s a blessing just to get an opportunity.”
In his fourth full season in professional baseball, Noel owns a lifetime .257 batting average with close to 500 strikeouts, but he’s also posted a career .350 on-base percentage with 256 career steals.
Noel, who recorded 90 stolen bases two years ago in Class A, received a $163,000 signing bonus after being San Diego’s fifth-round pick four years ago. He has accumulated 256 career minor league steals.
“Sometimes it gets overlooked when a singles hitter who steals, it’s sort of like a double,” Noel said. “It’s really effective if you can get to second, in scoring position, early in the count. My job is to get on base whether that’s a single, a bunt or a walk.”
A gifted center fielder who utilizes his speed to chase down balls in the gap, Noel actually was a middle infielder, primarily a second baseman, until his sophomore year at Coastal Carolina. After the Chanticleers’ starting center fielder was drafted, coaches moved Noel to center because of his speed. He’s played there ever since.
His final two years in college, Coastal Carolina participated in Super Regionals, one step shy of the College World Series.
“I have such great memories from my days in college baseball, great coaches, great teams,” Noel said. “I learned a lot while I was there at one of the best programs in the country.”
Another adjustment was Noel took up switch-hitting his second year in pro baseball, adding left-handed hitting, which accounts for the majority of at-bats.
“At first it was tough,” Noel said. “I worked really hard at it during that off-season. I’m still working on it but I’m a lot more comfortable now. I feel I’m now a real switch-hitter. At first, I was a little shocked we were going to try it, but it’s been great for me.”
Noel is not on the Padres’ 40-man roster, which decreases his chances of making his major league debut on a September call-up after the Triple-A season ends, but he’s close to the majors.
“I’m not really big on looking ahead,” Noel said. “I just try to concentrate on getting better. I’ve been swinging the bat well since the All-Star break. I’m focused on trying to finish the season strong. Whatever happens happens.”
Noel’s thoughts of playing pro baseball date back to his elementary-school days in Ville Platte, a Lafayette, La., suburb, but his dream really took off when Noel was in high school in Lawton.
“I haven’t lived in Lawton for a few years but I spent my formative years there,” Noel said. “I would love to someday make the majors so I can give back. Lawton sort of helped me so it would be great if was able to do some great things for that community. I love Lawton.”