Curtis Mead has made it all the way to the AFL.
- Mead was a promising Australian rules junior in Adelaide before deciding to focus on baseball
- The 20-year-old is part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ system
- He has been impressing in the US minor leagues as he chases a MLB career
But it is not quite the AFL he dreamed of playing in when he was a teenager planning a career in Australian football.
Instead, Mead finds himself laying the foundations for a Major League Baseball (MLB) career by playing in the six-week-long Arizona Fall League (AFL).
“It’s pretty funny,” Mead said as he recovered from his latest game in the United States.
“I mean, no-one here has any idea about that AFL name thing.”
While the 20-year-old joked he had “finally made it” to the AFL, his decision to pursue baseball rather than Australian football came virtually by accident.
Mead trained throughout the summer of 2015/16 as part of SANFL club Woodville West Torrens’ under 16 squad. Club and player agreed he could devote one day of training each week to football and one day to baseball.
At the end of the summer though, the football club decided he would not play the first five weeks of the season because he did not complete a full preseason.
Coincidently, Mead was named in the Australian under 18 baseball team barely a week later.
“I thought, ‘Well, how about I not play football for a year and see how good I can really get at this baseball thing?’,” Mead said.
Mead’s father Tim — who played for Adelaide Giants in the first edition of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) in the 1980s and 1990s — was not necessarily convinced it was the correct decision.
“I was pushing for him (Curtis) to keep going at the AFL and he was a gifted player,” he said.
“My thinking was it would be easier to get signed by an AFL club than a US baseball team, but he chose his own path.”
Son followed father, with Curtis Mead — who performed well for Australia’s junior team — securing a place in the Giants’ ABL team.
Mead — still a school student at this stage — nevertheless worked hard for his chance as an infielder and all-round hitter.
He arranged to meet Giants coach Chris Adamson before classes on weekday mornings.
“He would meet me at the field and we would lift weights, work on his defensive (fielding) play and hit,” said Adamson, who is now a development coach in the Philadelphia Phillies’ system in the US.
Mead produced an impressive debut season with the Giants, and US scouts started calling his father.
“It was a stressful but exciting few months,” Tim Mead said of the negotiations.
He spoke to scouts offering college scholarships and those putting professional contracts on the table.
A family discussion followed.
“The whole goal was to go to America and see how good I could get at baseball,” said Mead, who was a teenager at the time.
“If I went to college, obviously it would’ve been to get a degree, it would’ve been nice.
“We kind of came up with a baseline number and I figured if I could get over that it would be worth missing out on college and the education to play baseball.”
US journey takes shape
Mead initially committed to a Texas college but eventually signed with the Phillies organisation for a six-figure sum.
Even better, the deal involved a separate amount, which has been put aside for college tuition if Mead ultimately does not make it in baseball.
There is no reason to believe he will fail, even if the initial move was a little fraught.
Mead went to spring training in 2019 but the Phillies decided to trade him at the end of the year.
“They called me and said, ‘This is really tough news for you’, and I started freaking out,” Mead said of the phone conversation in late 2019 when he was back in Adelaide.
“I thought I’d been released already and my baseball career was done.”
Instead, he was traded to Tampa Bay Rays.
He went to spring training in 2020 before COVID-19 hit.
“It’s funny to look back now, but they said they thought it (COVID-19) was going to blow over in two to four weeks if I could stay around,” Mead said.
Fortunately, he was able to stay in the US with his girlfriend, Delaney Wood, and her family, although it was for months rather than weeks as the pandemic wreaked havoc.
The 2021 season has been vastly different, as he made his professional debut for the Rays in their farm teams at single-A level.
Baseball in the US starts at single-A level, then moves through double-A and triple-A, and finally to the ultimate “show” — the MLB.
Mead started with the low-A Charleston RiverDogs in South Carolina, where his batting average was a very good .356, highlighted by seven home runs.
The Rays organisation liked what they saw and moved him mid-season to the high-A Bowling Green Hot Rods in Kentucky, where he hit at .282, with seven home runs as well.
He was rewarded with a week at triple-A team Durham Bulls in North Carolina.
The Bulls are the club made famous by the 1988 comedy film Bull Durham, featuring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon.
“He had never watched the movie, but he has now,” said Tim Mead, who is a big fan of the film.
Mead junior indulged his parents.
“I definitely bought my parents some shirts and stuff and I got the full experience that’s for sure,” he said.
Importantly, he demonstrated in Durham that the level was not beyond him.
Mead had a four-game stint with the Bulls, hitting a home run while compiling a batting average of .429.
“That was the nicest field I’ve ever played on and the biggest crowds I’ve ever been a part of, and the highest level of baseball,” he said.
“It’s definitely a step up. I mean, every place the guys are a little more polished, a little more consistent, but I think the hardest part honestly is finding that inner belief that you belong there.”
Mead making ‘amazing’ progress
Mead’s confidence and belief further blossomed when he was told he would play in the AFL.
The Fall League is a six-week competition set up by the MLB clubs for their most promising prospects — a finishing school of sorts.
“I thought he would go well but I didn’t think he would go this well,” Tim Mead said.
“I didn’t see that coming at all.”
Statistics show 70 per cent of players who go to the AFL ultimately play in the majors.
Adamson described Mead’s effort thus far in the Rays’ system as “exceeding expectations”.
“Obviously it’s different for each person, but it’s common for someone like him to repeat a level or two,” Adamson said.
“But to see him advance across two levels in one season is really amazing to be honest.
Unfortunately, Mead will not get a chance to return to Australia for Christmas, but he considered that just another sacrifice he had to make on the way to the ultimate pay-off of making the major league roster.
The Rays have told Mead to expect he would start next year with double-A affiliate Montgomery Biscuits in Alabama.
Players often get called up to the Major League club from double-A, although it is more likely Mead will spend at least a season or two at that level.
Nevertheless, there is significant proof already that there is more to baseball than the AFL.