By: Eric Leary
The Testimonial Tuesday series has been an opportunity for the Dirtbags to regularly spotlight players in the organization and tell their stories. Each piece has intended to reveal moments of their journey and show how the organization has fit into their experiences. The next several installments into this series will provide the accounts of several Dirtbag alumni who traveled these same paths to develop, gain exposure and access opportunities to play at higher levels.
As he prepared to enter high school, Bradley Keller – a 2015 graduate – wanted to enhance his opportunities to get seen by college baseball coaches and pro scouts. While he could have chosen a route to play Legion Ball in his hometown of Shelby, NC, he took a tip from a buddy to check out the Dirtbags. That suggestion prompted him to attend a tryout and soon join the organization. He would later find that the decision provided so much more than just a team to play with in the summer and fall. It would bring life changing experiences and relationships.
Playing on teams the next four years coached by Dirtbag mentors such as Trey Daly, Axel Smith, and ultimately Andy Partin on the famed All Blacks, Keller got what he was looking for in terms of development and exposure. But the expectations placed on him also brought out traits not measurable by a stopwatch or a batting average.
He leveraged his drive and determination to get better into making him a definite prospect by the time he was a senior. Keller cites the role being a Dirtbag played in providing the fuel for his quest. Combined with his competitive nature, the access to tools and skills to enhance his game. More specifically, he saw the weight room as a key element.
When asked about how this dynamic played out for him and his teammates, Keller responded, “Lifting to get stronger, we tried to be the strongest person. It really showed. We hit harder. Threw harder. Ran faster.”
As the architect of this process, Andy Partin (founder and CEO of the Dirtbags) remembers the strides he saw Keller make on the field as a result of his efforts off the field. Partin said, “Bradley was always a good athlete but really made himself into a tremendous baseball player in his years with us. He’s truly the definition of hard work.”
The benefits of the training and the skill development was recognized by Bradley who saw it shaping the team’s approach to the game and beyond.
“Every time we stepped on the field everyone of them wanted to win. That mentality I learned from the Dirtbags. They teach you to be a great person and a great man,” recalled Keller.
As a baseball player, Keller had built the tools to perform. As a competitor, he showed he could access those tools from a variety of positions and in a number of ways. Partin saw the multiplicity as a plus and knew his attitude towards success was infectious.
“Bradley was a throwback. He could play any position on the field. He could run, he could throw, he could hit. He was just a lot of fun to coach. Everytime he showed up at the field, you could just see the life in his body. He loved his teammates and coaches and he loved to play the game,” remarked Partin.
The ability to perform from multiple positions on a baseball field wasn’t just a generalized adage. Keller was more than proficient no matter where he was tabbed to play on a given day. Evidence exists too! He even played all nine positions in a game for his Crest High School Chargers as a senior. Beginning the contest at catcher, he rotated to each spot in the outfield, and manned each infield position before finishing on the mound. Nonetheless, he spent much of his time for the Bags at third baseman and in the outfield.
Interestingly, it was his ability to catch that opened a door for him. Keller says he got a call from Partin in the off-season prior to senior season, some scouts were coming to Burlington to see some pitchers and a few catchers were needed for the bullpen sessions. Afterwards, a few of the Dirtbags including Keller began hitting in the cage. He says it was then the scouts seemed to take notice and that senior spring he was on their radar.
“Only way I got seen by pro scouts was because Andy,” Keller said.
It was after that senior campaign he was drafted in the 15th round by the Atlanta Braves. Bradley would go on to spend 3 seasons as a pro, playing for teams in Rome (Ga.) and Danville (Va.) in the Braves’ organization.
Had pro ball not made itself available after high school, Keller was set to play at Western Carolina for the Catamounts. Again, he credits the Dirtbags for that opportunity coming together. According to Bradley, the reputation the brand brings makes those seeking top level talent take notice.
“The name (Dirtbags) itself draws attention. Anytime a college coach hears it they will go watch,” stated Keller.
This was the case with WCU coaching staff, who got a glimpse of Bradley as a 10th grader. Admittedly, Keller says he was raw early on, but after constant messaging and encouraging from Andy the opportunity blossomed. By the time he was a senior, Keller had found his groove at the plate and it all opened up.
Remembering his call from WCU head coach Bobby Moranda to come visit, Keller says he immediately called Andy to tell him the good news. He says Andy let him know he was already aware and which was no real surprise the Dirtbag honcho was involved the whole time.
It was after patrolling those outfields in the Appalachian and Sally Leagues as a minor leaguer, the time came for Bradley to make another decision. Baseball was coming to close and the next career would surely be one that allowed the same personal qualities he relied on as a player to continue. He now looked to a path to patrol the highways of North Carolina as a State Trooper.
Just like when he was accessing skills on the ballfield, he found out becoming a trooper meant hard work. Bradley would find out the same dedication and desire to succeed he used on the diamond was necessary for his transition to the asphalt.
The program to become a N.C. State Trooper, candidates face 27 weeks of grueling training. While Keller now calls it a “great career” and really appreciates being a respected member of the community he noted the process was exceedingly difficult.
In fact, Keller found the same source of mentoring and lessons that had brought him success in baseball would again serve him in this next chapter. Keller remembers a particular message he left for his skipper during the process.
“I said, Andy, this is ridiculous. Hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I wouldn’t be able to persevere without the teachings privately on the side from you.”
But, one could say Andy had already seen that coming.
“He left his mark on me with his competitive spirit when we would train as a team in our weight room in Burlington. He never backed down from a challenge, and rarely – if ever – lost in any type of contest we had. His spirit was contagious.”
All this speaks to the level of experience Bradley Keller had as a player and as a person with the Dirtbags. According to him it was way more than what he had anticipated. While the Bags already had quite a reputation in baseball by the time he joined, it proved to be all that and more.
In the end, it is the words Keller uses to describe what being a Dirtbag means. For him it’s “family” and “grit”. True evidence the entire experience was about the relationships and lessons as much as it ever was about throwing and hitting.