Dillon Stewart stood outside the door of the Holly Springs Salamanders’ clubhouse with bloodied and bruised hands, the wounds a result of his participation in the Coastal Plain League’s Home Run Derby just a few days earlier.
The beating his hands took in the derby – where he hit 29 homers to get to the final round of competition – kept him from playing in the all-star game, where he was the lone Holly Springs selection.
But Stewart’s battered hands were symbolic of something more.
His road to get here – one of the best offensive seasons in the CPL, a league for college baseball players during the summer – has had its share of thorns along the way.
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Out of place
Stewart, a native of Coats, 28 miles south of Raleigh in Harnett County, starred at nearby Triton High School.
Following his senior season at Triton, Stewart continued his baseball career at UNC-Greensboro.
But for the first time in his life, he was out of place on the baseball diamond.
Stewart struggled throughout the fall and saw just 19 at-bats during the spring season of his freshman year, leaving Stewart questioning whether he belonged.
What followed was a difficult conversation with head coach Link Jarrett and a big decision.
“Coming from playing every day and never sitting the bench to going to that was definitely a change for me,” Stewart said. “Coach Jarrett didn’t see a fit and I understood. But it was frustrating.”
And with that, Stewart enrolled at Brunswick Community College in Leland, just outside of Wilmington. Stewart thrived at Brunswick, playing in 44 games and batting .370 for the Dolphins. But despite his success at the junior college level, Stewart couldn’t help but question where he stood with the game of baseball.
“I’d lay down at night and be like, ‘Man, is baseball really what I want to do? Am I really good enough?’ But I didn’t know anything else,” Stewart said.
A second chance
That summer, Jarrett called Stewart three times about the possibility of taking a second chance in Greensboro. And three times, a still-upset Stewart declined.
It wasn’t until a close friend and teammate from Brunswick decided to transfer to UNC-Greensboro that Stewart took another hard look in the mirror.
“I had kind of gotten over my little immature stage of being mad at the world. Maybe I did deserve to play, maybe I didn’t. Who knows? Looking back on how I see myself then, I probably didn’t deserve as much as I thought I deserved, that’s for sure,” Stewart said.
The self-reflection prompted Stewart to pick up the phone, swallow his pride and reach out to Jarrett, who welcomed back the 20-year-old for another shot at his dream of playing Division I baseball.
“For any coach to take a guy back who pretty much turned his back on him and stepped away from a program that he didn’t want to be a part of, that says a lot about his character. I praise him for it and I couldn’t be more thankful,” Stewart said.
Jarrett and the Spartans couldn’t have been more thankful either.
Stewart started all 59 games for UNC-Greensboro this spring and batted .335 with a team-high 14 home runs, good for fifth-best in single season school history, along with 62 RBI, good for sixth-best all time.
Stewart was named second-team all-conference. That success has carried over to the summer where Stewart leads the Salamanders in batting average (.358), home runs (six) and RBI (25) and was the team’s lone all-star representative.
Stewart’s success has not only put him on the radar for next year’s MLB Draft, it’s also given him a new perspective of failure.
“When you’re growing up and (baseball) is the only thing you know and you’re told that you’re not good enough, it’s hard for you to take in,” Stewart said. “But I’m glad it happened then rather than later on in life because now I’ve dealt with failure. If you can’t deal with failure in baseball, you’re not going to be very successful. If I have another year like I had this year I think I’ll have a decent shot at (getting drafted). But if not, that’s what the Good Lord planned for me.”