Sean Godfrey may be a native of Indiana and a graduate of Ball State, but he says playing for the Carolina Mudcats for the first time this season was like coming home.
The 6-2, 180-pound center fielder, who was the 22nd-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in the 2014 draft, had played in the summer of 2013 in the collegiate wooden bat Coastal Plain League — at Wilson’s Fleming Stadium where the very first incarnation of the Mudcats played the first half of the 1991 season just a few months before he was born.
As amateurs, CPL players are assigned to live with “host families,” and Godfrey has chosen to live with the same folks he bunked with two seasons back.
“We’ve got a new ballclub and a fresh start and everything,” Godfrey said. “I’m just excited to be back in North Carolina. I’m even living with the same host family (Barb and Chris Matrejek in Wilson). Everybody in North Carolina has been really nice. You get the sweet tea and everything and it feels right at home.”
As a 22nd-round pick Godfrey isn’t one of the chosen, high-round draft picks who often get every break imaginable lest heads roll when multi-million dollar checks turn out to have been written foolishly.
But he has been in the position before. Godfrey, who decided to specialize in his favorite sport after playing on a winless basketball team in middle school, went to Ball State not on scholarship but as a preferred walk-on as his only chance to play Division I baseball. Not only was he able to lead the Cardinals to a 39-18 record and a MAC regular-season title while winning the conference’s player of the year award, but he also earned a degree in business administration.
“I was in and out of the lineup because of injuries my freshman year, but after that I was in the lineup,” Godfrey said. “We had a very team-oriented mindset at Ball State. When we won the regular-season conference championship during my senior year, it was the first thing we had won in a while. It was cool to go back for the ring ceremony before a football game in the fall. That’s what you play for: to win some championships and get some hardware.”
After signing with the Braves, he had a charmed first pro season despite playing only 62 games. Starting at Danville of the Appalachian League before moving up to Rome of the South Atlantic and then Lynchburg of the Carolina (the equivalent of this year’s Mudcats), he hit a combined .321 with three homers, 39 RBI, 17 doubles and 18 steals. In the Hillcats’ four-game series in Zebulon late last August he had eight hits in four games.
All of that earned him the attention of Baseball America, which judged him to have the best pro debut of the Braves’ entering class.
“I had him last year for 10 days,” Mudcats manager Luis Salazar said. “He’s a great kid and can compete. He’s got a lot of talent. He can run, hit for average, hit the ball behind the runners. He’s come a long way in playing the outfield, and his arm strength is coming along.
“I’m happy to have him at the top of the order. I liked what I saw last year and in spring training. He’s got some pop. He can hit the ball gap to gap, and he’s got great knowledge of the strike zone. He can bunt, he can steal bases and he can do a lot of things. Now we’ll see what he can do in a long season this year. This is a very tough league, but I think he can pick things up. The ability is there.”
Godfrey said his experience with the Tobs helped him get ready for last season.
“I got a little taste of the pro mindset in the CPL, because everybody you play against is the best player from his hometown,” he said. “Last season I didn’t put any pressure on myself. If I had been a high pick people would have had higher expectations. I wanted to be a higher pick, but I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose. I kind of used it as motivation to play as hard as I could, send a message and prove a point that I deserved to be here.”
Godfrey isn’t setting numbers goals as much as mindset goals this season.
“My main goal is just to be in control of myself and my attitude,” he said. “I don’t want to get into what my college coach (Rich Maloney, a shortstop who helped lead the Braves-affiliated Durham Bulls to the Carolina League’s South Division title in 1989) calls ‘stinkin’ thinkin’, just negative thinking and bad thoughts — a bad rut. I want to be the best teammate I can be with the best attitude, and other things should fall into place.
“At each level you have to be sharper and more consistent day-in and day-out. Everybody can run, hit and throw and all the pitchers throw hard. I just like trying to play free and let the rest take care of itself.”
Godfrey said he has a few role models in the big leagues.
“I really like to watch (San Francisco outfielder) Hunter Pence for his style of play – he’s a fun guy to watch,” Godfrey said. “I like the way (Philadelphia second baseman) Chase Utley approaches hitting with a short, smooth and compact swing.
“And I was fortunate enough to get to speak with (newly-acquired Braves outfielder) Jonny Gomes in spring training. I just like the way he plays. He’s all out. He’s a down-to-earth, awesome dude. He’s 100 percent dirtbag who leaves it all on the field. That’s the way I like to play.”
The Mudcats at Five County Stadium
April 23-26 vs. Salem Red Sox: April 23-24 at 7 p.m.; April 25 at 6 p.m.; April 26 at 2 p.m.