GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While scrolling through Instagram earlier this season, JJ Schwarz saw a mention of a book that particularly resonated with him and his state of mind at the time.
So he picked up a copy of “The Alchemist” in the airport on the way to Florida’s baseball series at Vanderbilt last month and started reading, finding a personal connection to the message contained in those pages.
It was a message he needed to hear while enduring a prolonged slump through the first half of his all-important junior season with the Gators.
“In the book it talks about how you go through these periods of lots of struggle and you’re close to giving up, close to having enough, but once you’re at your peak of struggles the universe pulls something together and gives you that little bit of hope,” Schwarz said after practice last Wednesday. “And I think that’s what it was. I was struggling really hard, and I think the universe just pulled it together and gave me that little bit of hope.”
Schwarz’s batting average had dipped to .228 during that Vanderbilt series as the pressure mounted.
The pressure of needing to be the impact middle-of-the-order force the Gators expected, the pressure of knowing the scouts would be scrutinizing his performance in determining his value for the MLB draft this summer, and simply, of being so close to everything he had worked for his whole life.
As much as he tried to tune out the noise — long ago deactivating his Twitter account and eventually muting the video as he rewatched his at-bats so as to not hear the announcers dwell on his sluggish stats — he knew what was being said.
But just as in the theme of that classic book, Schwarz was about to find more than a little bit of hope.
He picked up 2 hits and 4 RBIs in the finale of that Vanderbilt series and the following weekend everything changed, seemingly with one swing of the bat.
After collecting 2 hits in the second game of a home series with South Carolina, Schwarz came to bat in the eighth inning of the finale with the bases loaded and Florida trailing by 2 runs.
The junior slugger who had mashed 25 home runs over the previous two seasons, who had proven as capable as any hitter in the talent-rich SEC, suddenly felt like himself again. Unburdened. For whatever reason, he just had a feeling something good was about to happen.
Sure enough, Schwarz cranked a go-ahead grand slam into the left field bleachers and raised his arms to the sky as he hit home plate.
“The pressure was off my shoulders a little bit, but I think it was just proving the people wrong, all the people that said whatever they’ve said about me — the announcers, whatever it might have been — about my year, my numbers. I just felt like it was all worth it in that moment,” Schwarz said. “All the struggles, all the critics, it was all worth it because that was one of the best feelings I’ve had.”
It might have been the biggest at-bat of Florida’s season, but even more impressive is what Schwarz has done since.
Born into baseball
Jeff Schwarz pitched in 54 major league games over the 1993-94 seasons with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before later working in the Miami Marlins organization for more than a decade and a half as a minor league pitching coach and assistant pitching coordinator.
All the while grooming a hitting prospect in his spare time.
He introduced his son to the game at an early age, and as far back as JJ can remember he’s known what he wanted to do in life.
“He was the whole reason I became a baseball player,” JJ said. “I started when I was super young, and he’d always drag me to the field whether I wanted to or not. Just because he knew, he knew what it took to get to the next level. He had to imprint that into my brain that I had to work harder than everybody else and he did a great job of that and I can’t thank him enough.”
JJ’s uncles and grandmother would often recount stories from his father’s playing days. Occasionally, Jeff would break out the highlight tape, showing off the time he buckled feared slugger Albert Belle’s knees with a curveball for a strikeout.
And over the years father and son would head to the baseball field most every day with Jeff throwing batting practice to JJ.
“All the time. Not some of the time — all the time,” the elder Schwarz says.
He was immersed in the game. When his father took a coaching assignment with the Albuquerque Isotopes one season, JJ spent that year being home schooled and tagging along with his dad to the ballpark.
When they settled back in Florida, Jeff would often work with Marlins pitchers coming through the organization’s Jupiter complex on rehab assignments. One day he let JJ, then 14 years old, skip school to catch for then-Marlins ace Josh Johnson.
“Once I got back there, he called like a sinker or something. He (gave a hand motion) and I had no idea what a sinker was. I was like, ‘This is about to be bad,'” JJ recalls. “He was calling pitches I had no idea what the ball was about to do, but it was a really cool experience.”
Schwarz, by his own admission, has always been a quiet person. He didn’t badger the big leaguers with questions when they’d pass through, but he took plenty away from those encounters nonetheless.
“I just sat back and I could tell,” he said. “I could see the guys that excelled were the guys that (arrived) at 7 (a.m.) when my dad got there. I could tell the guys that were out there when my dad was leaving were the same guys that were out there at 7 so I think that was big seeing that first-hand. …
“Just growing up around it, I could tell that’s what I wanted (my future) to turn into. As long as I can remember.”
After putting up prolific stats at Palm Beach Gardens High School, Schwarz had a chance to jumpstart his professional career then if he wanted, but his father encouraged him to go to college and continue developing while further boosting his stock. Even though he told the scouts he planned to head to Florida, where his sister Taylor played for the Gators softball team, he was still selected in the 17th round of the 2014 MLB Draft.
Schwarz didn’t waver on his college plans, though. If the scouts liked his potential coming out of high school, they were going to love what came next.
In the second game of his collegiate career, Schwarz crushed a 3-run home run against Rhode Island, signaling what was to come.
He’d finish his freshman season with a team-high 18 homers, 16 doubles, 73 RBIs and a .629 slugging percentage while batting .332. He ranked third in the country in RBIs and fourth in homers and was named the Louisville Slugger Co-Freshman Player of the Year and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Freshman Hitter of the Year along with a slew of All-American honors.
Fair or not, the bar had been set.
“I didn’t even have any expectations of myself going into the season. I didn’t know what a good year would have been or what an average year would have been for a freshman in the SEC,” Schwarz said. “But now that I’ve played a lot I know that was a really good year because playing in the SEC is so hard.”
Schwarz’s stats dipped last season as teams started pitching him more carefully. He still hit .290 with 7 homers and 60 RBIs as a sophomore — stats that would count as a career year for most players.
But for the rest of his collegiate career he would always be compared to his extraordinary freshman season.
When he scuffled out of the gate this spring, that comparison only became more pronounced.
He had already deleted his Twitter account. Speaking last week, he couldn’t recall if there was one tweet that prompted his disconnect from the social media platform, but he knew he didn’t need to hear what everybody else thought about his performance.
“I just remember thinking, ‘That’s not who I am. They don’t know who I am.’ I just didn’t want other people’s opinions to (influence) my own opinions of myself. I know who I am and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks,” he said.
As his struggles mounted, it became harder and harder to tune out the noise, though.
“Every time I go back and watch film of myself I can hear the announcers talk about my freshman year and how I don’t have the same numbers as my freshman year. I started watching film on mute because I was so tired of hearing people compare me now to who I was freshman year,” he said. “All they do is look at the numbers; they don’t look at anything else. And I know I’ve grown as a person, as a hitter. I’m a better hitter now than I was freshman year regardless of the stats.”
Schwarz admits he couldn’t help but think about the draft a little bit, knowing everything he worked for his whole life was going to be determined after this season. He started pressing after his slow start, only compounding the struggles.
Schwarz tried to swing his way out of the funk, working tirelessly in the batting cage. He’d have his dad pitch to him on his visits to Gainesville, just as they’ve always done. He was doing everything he could think to do while waiting for that sign of hope.
In the meanwhile, though, the slump was affecting his personality in general. His dad could see it. The coaches could see it. And he knew it as well.
“As fun as the game is, it’s hard to have fun when you’re not playing well,” he admits. “You want to root for everybody, you want to win, but at the same time it’s really tough to enjoy it when you struggle like that.”
Eventually, Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan called Schwarz into his office the Saturday morning before that series finale against South Carolina for what proved to be a timely chat.
“Sully just wanted me to go back to the old me, get my mind off the struggles and focus on the positives. That’s what I tried to do,” Schwarz said.
Little did anyone know, his whole season was about to change later that afternoon.
They say now that they aren’t the least bit surprised to see what Schwarz is doing.
Be it O’Sullivan, his teammates or his father. Well, especially his father.
“I know as hard as JJ’s worked it was just a matter of time,” Jeff Schwarz said. “It does feel good how he’s turned it around, but I’ve known JJ since he was born and he’s always found a way as a baseball player. … I just knew it was a matter of time, and that was the time.”
Starting with that grand slam, Schwarz has hit .415 (22-for-53) with 5 home runs, 20 RBIs and 15 runs scored over the last 16 games. Not coincidentally, Florida is 14-2 over that span heading into the start of SEC Tournament play Wednesday night while morphing into one of the hottest teams in the country.
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) April 22, 2017
“Everybody knew he was going to heat up, you just didn’t know when,” Gators relief pitcher Frank Rubio said. “And before you know it you look up at the scoreboard in between the game and he’s hitting .280. That’s huge.”
It’s not overstating things to say that Schwarz’s surge has transformed the Gators’ lineup. The catcher/first baseman is hitting as well as he has in his collegiate career, looking a whole lot like that 2015 freshman All-American.
As Gators ace Alex Faedo put it simply, “I don’t think anyone wants to face him.”
Schwarz has his batting average up to .286 for the season, ranking third on the team, while his 9 homers lead the Gators and his 46 RBIs are 18 more than anyone else on the roster.
“He’s worked awfully hard to get back to where he’s gotten. It doesn’t happen overnight,” O’Sullivan said. “… He’s put a lot of time in, and JJ’s always hit. It was just a matter of time when he was going to figure it out.”
As Schwarz looks back on it now, the themes and message of that book he started reading a month ago seem all the more prescient — and those stresses about the future all the more distant.
Surprisingly, he says he finds himself thinking less about the draft now than he did earlier in the season, even though it’s less than a month away.
“I feel a lot of comfort going into the draft. Wherever I get picked, that’s where I was meant to get picked,” he said.
Indeed, everything is again going according to plan.
Just as he began his collegiate career, Schwarz is closing it as the driving force on a Gators team with College World Series aspirations, terrorizing opposing pitchers, tantalizing the professional scouts and once again enjoying the ride.
“He’s smiling more. That’s all I see,” Florida shortstop Dalton Guthrie said. “It’s not easy. You’ve got a lot of expectations on him and I think he’s handled it really well.”