NC State's Deatherage: This is my comfort zone
A white goose, oblivious to the menagerie of animals around him, greets visitors at the end of the gravel driveway of the Gerringer family farm.
Ruby, the family dog, is there, too, with a turkey, a dozen chickens running free and cows, lots of cows, as you might expect on a dairy farm.
You’re only 70 miles, as the crow flies, west of N.C. State’s campus, but Gibsonville feels like a faraway land in a faraway time. It’s easy to understand why N.C. State right fielder Brock Deatherage calls this his comfort zone.
The cows don’t care if you can hit a curve. The goose – in the family for as long as anyone can remember but has yet to be christened with a name – doesn’t care about your batting average.
On the farm, you get up and you put in a day’s work. You take care of the animals, and they take care of you. There is a simplicity and honesty to the farm. If only baseball were that easy.
N.C. State hosts No. 22 Florida State in a three-game series this weekend at Doak Field. The first game is at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. Deatherage is hoping to continue his recent hitting surge and help the Wolfpack get its season in gear.
The Wolfpack, which opened the season ranked in the top 10 in one national poll, dropped two of three games to Notre Dame last weekend and finds itself two games under .500 in the ACC (5-7) and only two games over .500 for the season (16-14).
Deatherage, one of the top draft prospects on the team, has started to come out of his season-long slump. His way out? A brief trip home.
“The farm is the best medicine,” Deatherage said.
David Deatherage was getting ready for bed on the night of March 26 when he heard a noise at his house, down the road in Gibsonville from the family farm. It was his oldest son.
“I had to come home and sleep in my bed,” Deatherage told his dad.
And for one other thing: his lucky rabbit’s foot. Deatherage stored a homemade rabbit’s foot in the bat bag he used in high school at Western Alamance.
It was somewhere in the house, and Deatherage needed to find it. He needed some sort of good-luck charm to get back on track.
There was some magic in the rabbit’s foot, or at least enough to clear Deatherage’s mind. Since finding it, he has gone 6-of-14 at the plate in five games. He was 2-of-3 with a walk and stolen base in N.C. State’s 9-2 win at Notre Dame on Sunday and 2-of-4 with two RBIs in the Wolfpack’s 13-1 win over UNC-Asheville on Tuesday.
Deatherage’s dad was reluctant to tell the rabbit’s foot story.
“Don’t jinx him,” he said.
But Deatherage, who wears the number 13, isn’t that superstitious. He understands what went wrong to start the season.
“It’s more mental than anything,” Deatherage said. “I let some early failures kind of get the best of me.”
The 6-1, 186-pound junior doesn’t like to use the word “slump,” but he knows he can do better. He hit .317 last season with six home runs and five triples, which was enough to get the attention of major-league scouts. He began the season projected to go anywhere between the second to fifth rounds of the June draft.
It’s not unusual for college baseball players, who have to stay in school for three years, to get a case of draft-itis in their third year.
That hasn’t been the case with Deatherage, he said. There has just been too much over-thinking this season. The harder you try, in baseball, the harder it is.
“I wasn’t letting the game come to me,” Deatherage said. “I was fighting the game.”
A painful slump
Baseball, and football in high school at Western Alamance, always came easy to Deatherage. His rare speed gave him an advantage and he combined that natural gift with hard work and intelligence.
But this season has been different.
“This has been killing him,” his father said. “He has never been in a slump ever. I mean ever.”
It’s times like this when Deatherage misses football. He thought his future would be in that sport as a safety. He had eight interceptions as a sophomore and teams stopped throwing his way. He combined for 265 tackles and scored 16 touchdowns in his final two football seasons.
With a 4.3 grade point average in high school, Harvard and Dartmouth recruited him for football, so did East Carolina, Wake Forest, Tennessee and Ole Miss.
A fourth-generation Gibsonville farmer in the Ivy League?
Baseball ended up being the answer. Deatherage initially committed to play at North Carolina, believing he could balance both sports in college.
He ended up changing his mind while still in high school, in large part because of academics. He switched to N.C. State, where he majors in agricultural business management.
“It has been the perfect fit,” Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said.
Feeding the cows
Back on the family farm during Christmas break, Deatherage looks and sounds like a commercial for N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life sciences in his Carhartt pants, camouflage jacket and a red N.C. State hat. He has steel blue eyes and the twangiest of country twangs.
He does more than look the part. He helps his grandfather, Larry Gerringer – better known as Paw Paw – feed the cows. Paw Paw, at 75, has a few inches and couple of pounds on his grandson, but he looks like he could still hogtie him, if he had to.
His black, sun-beaten wide-brimmed hat looks like it has a few years on both Brock and his younger brother, Blake, a sophomore third baseman at UNC-Wilmington.
There’s country tough and then there’s Paw Paw, who lost a finger on his left hand to a mechanical corn picker but not the fight.
There is a slow burn to Deatherage, despite the presence of the words “death” and “rage” in his last name, that he clearly inherited from Paw Paw.
The family’s baseball roots also come from Paw Paw, who was a catcher at McLeansville High School and ran the McLeansville Fire Department softball team. His daughter, June (Brock’s mom), was one of his best players.
“She thinks she gets credit for Brock’s talent,” Paw Paw said.
Maybe, but the love of the farm comes from Paw Paw. His father, AB Gerringer, started the family business in 1949 after he got out of the Navy.
“We started with five cows,” Paw Paw said. “We milked them by hand. I milked one cow, he milked two and my momma milked two. That was it.”
The farm has grown over the years. The family has 1,500 acres and more than 600 Jersey and Holstein cows. Paw Paw still gets up at 3:30 a.m. for the first feeding. Brock and Blake are here to help with the 10:30 a.m. feeding.
The farm hands do the milking now with sophisticated machinery. The farm contributes to a milk cooperative, but the Calico Farmstead Cheese side of the business is what keeps the farm going.
The chickens produce eggs, too. And, every winter, there’s a hog slaughtering to be done to make some sausage. Deatherage, who learned to drive a tractor at 6, and his brother didn’t get to skip any lessons in the life cycle. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’ve been doing this since we could walk and hold our own,” Blake said. “It was more like a game, let’s go outside and help Paw Paw.”
A faster 60
There was also some time for fun. Deatherage always loved to run. When he was 3, he’d always insist on getting out at the end of the road and race the car up to the farmhouse.
“Everything was a race,” his father, David, said. “And he was always pretty fast.”
Baseball scouts use the 60-yard dash (instead of the 40 common in football), to measure the speed of prospects. A time of 6.6 seconds is considered “plus” in scouting vernacular. Deatherage’s best time is 6.26 seconds.
It also puts him in a rare category at N.C. State with former star Trea Turner, a shortstop in his second season with the Washington Nationals. Turner might be the fastest player in the major leagues. There are some at N.C. State, who have seen both run, who swear Deatherage is faster.
“Now we’re talking milliseconds here but I’m pretty sure Brock ran a faster 60,” said Andrew Knizner, a catcher for the Wolfpack from 2014 to ’16 who played with both Turner and Deatherage. “We’ve been trying to get them to race for some time now. I’d love to see it.”
Who would win?
“If I had to put my money on someone, I’m putting it on Brock,” Knizner said.
That speed is what has drawn scouts to Deatherage, despite his struggles at the plate. John Manuel, the editor-in-chief of Baseball America, said most players with Deatherage’s athletic ability either get drafted out of high school or play a different sport.
“It’s rare to find a guy who can run and play,” Manuel said. “If you can run and play, you’re going to get paid.”
Seeking a breakthrough
The money can wait, not that Deatherage doesn’t think about it. If he makes it in pro baseball, he could help financially with the farm.
But that’s down the road. There’s still work to be done at N.C. State. The past two seasons, the Wolfpack has lost in the regional round of the NCAA tournament. Last year, it was to Coastal Carolina, who went on to win the national title.
“That was our goal this year,” Deatherage said. “To have that breakthrough after the way it ended the last two years.”
At 16-14, N.C. State will need to get hot just to get back in the postseason. That’s what the Wolfpack did in 2015, Deatherage’s freshman season, knocking off Virginia in a late-season series and then again in the ACC tournament. The Cavaliers won the national title that year.
With key series still to come with Florida State, UNC and Clemson, there’s still a chance for this N.C. State to make a move.
“We just have to regroup,” Deatherage said. “Take a step back, figure ourselves out and put it all back together.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio