CEDAR RAPIDS — Most of you don’t know about Adam Folkard, have never heard of the guy.
Aaron Whitefield has, and he’ll tell you about him in quick order.
“He’s still the fastest thing I’ve faced,” the Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder said. “Even to today.”
Folkard is a fast-pitch softball pitcher from Australia, probably the world’s best. He can fire the ball, including making it rise or drop, somewhere around 85 miles per hour.
That’s from 46 feet. You’ve got .369 seconds to adjust and try and make contact on a pitch like that.
For comparison, in baseball, you’ve got .413 seconds to recognize and hit a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. Think about that.
“A softball pitcher is close and so quick,” Whitefield said. “You’ve got a little more time in baseball just adapting to the pitches.”
Whitefield is attempting to adapt to baseball, and at the professional level. The 20-year-old from Brisbane, Australia, grew up playing fast-pitch softball, thanks to his mother and father, both long-time players.
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John Whitefield and Nikkie Molander are representing their countries (Whitefield is from New Zealand) at the World Masters Games tournament later this month. John Whitefield came to the United States at one point in the 1980s to pitch for a high-level club in Arizona and has friends who played in Cedar Rapids’ Major Open back in its heyday.
Guys like Mike Nichols, Loren Algar, Don Tricker and Don Colllins. Small world.
“I did a lot of other sports growing up, but I started playing softball when I was, probably, 12,” Aaron Whitefield said. “I always went to the ballpark. Mom played as well, played all through her juniors and seniors, is still playing now.”
Aaron was really good at it, too, claiming he is 1-for-2 lifetime against the behemoth Folkard. He represented Australia at a world tournament in Argentina nearly four years ago, and that’s where he caught the eye of a scout from the Cincinnati Reds.
The scout told him he ought to give baseball a try.
“I talked it over with my dad, and he told me ‘You ain’t got nothing to lose,’” Whitefield said. “Went and played and won a golden glove at a national event. Was actually a shortstop.”
The Seattle Mariners invited him to participate in their extended spring training in 2014, but he tore the labrum in his right, throwing shoulder, causing him to undergo surgery and miss a year of playing anything. Easing back into it, he played a tournament in Australia in 2015 that just happened to be attended by noted Minnesota Twins scout Howie Norsetter.
Norsetter has signed several Aussies for the Twins over the years, including 2016 Kernels pitchers Sam Gibbons and Lachlan Wells.
“I was in a place where no one would ever know to go,” Whitefield said. “My agent was like ‘Well, we’ll let you go play in this tournament and let you get back into the groove.’ Wouldn’t you know that Howie was there. We talked a bit, and I ended up signing with the Twins.”
Whitefield began his pro career in 2015, though visa issues limited him to just seven games for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Twins. He returned to the complex league last summer, and posted a .298 batting average and 31 stolen bases in 51 games.
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The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder is making the jump to the Midwest League this summer. He had two hits, a stolen base and his first home run Friday night in an extra-inning loss to Wisconsin.
“I see a talented, athletic person,” said Kernels Manager Tommy Watkins. “He’s tall, he can run. His defense, he’s amazing out there in center field, watching him go get the ball. For a guy who has been playing baseball for as little time as he has, he’s pretty good. For him, it’s finding pitches he can handle and slowing down a little bit. He gets a little quick at times, and that’s why he chases some pitches out of the zone.”
“I’m loving it. Loving the challenge,” Whitefield said. “We have a great team. I’m with (fellow outfielder) Jaylin Davis, and he’s my best mate. He’s someone I met my first year, and I’m lucky enough to catch up with him again here. The team we’ve got here is unreal. It’s easier to play when you’ve got a good team. The facility here is unreal, everyone is nice, the host family we’ve got is awesome. That just makes everything out there a lot easier to do.”
Not that this adjustment has been easy. It has been far from it.
Everything is different from what he was accustomed.
“Baseball’s a lot longer. The games,” he said, with a laugh. “My throwing technique had to change because it’s a longer distance, of course. The swing is completely different. In softball, it feels like you just tap the ball, and it flies. Just the timing is the biggest thing. I’ve been working hard with (hitting coach Brian Dinkelman). The last couple of years, I’ve worked with some good coaches. We’ve tried to change a few things this year, so I’ve been working out with that.”
He considers former big league outfielder and fellow Aussie Trent Oeltjen a mentor, someone he talks to a couple times a week for advice and things. He’s aware it would really be something if he ever does make it to the major leagues.
Not Tim Tebow something (snicker, snicker), of course, but still really something.
“Yeah,” Whitefield said, with a smile. “I’ve got a bit different story than everyone else.”
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