ANDERSON — When Nolan Earley heard his name called by the Chicago White Sox during the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball draft on Saturday, the first thing he did was hug his parents — Kevin and Tammy — and thank them for all the sacrifices they made to help him reach this point.
Family is a big theme with Earley, a former Anderson High School star who helped lead South Alabama to the NCAA regionals this spring. So it’s fitting he’s joining the same organization that drafted his brother, Michael, three years ago.
“It was kind of a big stress relief,” Earley said of his draft day reaction. “I really have no words to describe it. I’m just happy.”
Fortunately, others in his inner circle have plenty of words to share about Earley.
He hit .323 with three homers and 59 RBIs this season at South Alabama, the same school Highland’s Adam Lind attended before being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2004.
Like Lind, and nearly every other significant prospect in central Indiana for more than a decade, Earley also spent countless hours working out with White Sox scout Mike Shirley in his barn at Pendleton.
Those sessions helped produce a swing that could one day be Earley’s ticket to follow Lind to the majors.
“Obviously, we feel like he has the skills to be a corner outfielder at the major league level,” Shirley said. “With corner outfielders, the bat tool has to be something that drives the profile. And he has that.”
It also doesn’t hurt that he has a brother who is currently tearing it up for the organization at the Double-A level.
Michael Earley entered play Monday batting .293 with four homers and 20 RBIs for the Southern League’s Birmingham Barons.
His star really began to rise after a strong season at Class A Winston Salem in 2012, and he’s carried the momentum into this summer.
Shirley said Michael’s production is “pretty special,” and that his success gives the White Sox a comfort level with Nolan’s potential.
The brothers’ collective production was predicted by many who came into contact with them during their high school days at Anderson.
“It doesn’t surprise me, just being around the kids,” Indians baseball coach Terry Turner said. “Just seeing their work ethic. They obviously had the skills to play baseball, but they did everything they could to enhance those skills. They made better players of the kids around them just because (their teammates) saw (the Earleys’) work ethic. Both of them are a big part of the foundation for what we’ve had around here the past eight or nine years.”
Nolan Earley was a good enough athlete to be a four-year starter for the Tribe’s football team at quarterback, but he never rested on his natural ability.
Instead he rose out of bed every day in time to make a 5 a.m. strength and conditioning workout with former Highland football assistant coach Stephon Blackwell.
Earley’s day began with Blackwell, included a full schedule of classes and ended with either baseball or football practice.
“I’m so proud of Nolan that he stuck to it,” said Blackwell, who also worked with former Highland basketball star Gary McGhee — now playing professionally overseas. “He’s just another good kid. Nolan, Michael and Gary McGhee, they’re not just good athletes but also good people.”
Add loyalty to the list of Earley’s attributes. Turner and Blackwell were among the first people he called with the news he’d been drafted.
But there wasn’t much time to celebrate.
On Monday morning, Earley met with Shirley to officially sign his contract. And by Monday night he was on a plane to Arizona to begin work at a White Sox mini-camp today.
By the end of the week, Earley will be assigned to play in the rookie leagues at either Great Falls, Mont., or Bristol, Va.
It will mark the official start of his professional baseball career, and it will start him on a path that could one day reunite him in the same clubhouse as his brother.
Despite the fact that he had a game that night, Michael made a point to call and congratulate Nolan after he was drafted.
“It’s definitely exciting to know somewhere down the road I might be playing with him again,” Nolan said.
“He’s worked hard to get where he’s at, and he’s going to continue working hard. I’m just going to listen to my coaches and work hard, too.”