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.
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