PHOENIX – The first time Kellen Sundin saw Corbin Carroll, he wasn’t hitting home runs over the fence or stealing bases. He was a scrawny freshman in shoulder pads and a helmet, playing quarterback on Seattle’s Lakeside School junior varsity football team.
Sundin observed Carroll’s athleticism and speed, which he found impressive for a 5-foot-6, 125-pound 15-year-old. And although he had heard noise around Seattle about Carroll, he didn’t see him play baseball for the first time until tryouts.
“You don’t see a freshman and be like, ‘OK, that guy’s going to be rookie of the year or anything like that,’” the Lakeside High baseball coach said. “But, you knew he was pretty good.”
Although Carroll was a small player, he definitely didn’t play like one, Sundin said.
“He was really powerful,” he said. “I remember him getting up in the batter’s box and having a big swing, and kind of like a home run swing and hit for a lot of power. Even though he was a smaller frame guy, maybe his offensive game was not what you’d expect from stereotypes.”
In his four years on the varsity baseball team, Carroll definitely made a name for himself. He had an overalland hit 22 home runs and 101 RBIs. His senior season alone stood out as he batted .540 with a 1.859 OPS.
Sundin knew from day one that Carroll would be special. He placed Carroll at the leadoff spot and in the outfield right away, knowing he would be able to help the team, which was unusual for a freshman.
“I think he played 100 games for Lakeside,” Sundin said. “And I batted him lead-off 99 times, and I don’t think we scored the one time he didn’t, so that was the end of that.”
Sundin wasn’t the only one who knew how special Carroll would be.
Jack Roger, a Lakeside assistant, had similar suspicions.
“I think what he’s done is almost unprecedented,” Roger said. “I think, knowing him, it’s definitely not as surprising. We saw him for so many years have so much success that the success he’s had, it’s awesome and great to see.”
No moment really ever seems too big for Carroll, Roger said. He recalled Corbin’s freshman year when Lakeside played in the state tournament. Carroll had never been in that position before, and the coaches weren’t sure what to expect.
“We thought that he would play well and play hard,” Roger said. “But we weren’t sure if the moment would be too big, and it definitely was not. So I think seeing him have success in big games like that proved to us that he is so focused on the process that the success is just going to come for him, just because he puts all the work in.”
And his talents definitely matched his efforts.
One of his most vivid memories of Carroll was when Roger was heading home after practice one day and he saw Carroll put the cage back out on the field and wheel out the batting machine for an additional batting practice.
Roger thought, “Wow, he’s really at a different level of focus on baseball.”
Carroll’s mindset from the beginning put him on a different level than other players.
“My expectations were high for him,” Sundin said. “But he has the highest expectations for himself. And just kind of a really narrow-focused guy that knows where he’s going. And is really good about not caring about other people’s expectations for him or getting distracted, like really unflappable in that regard. He’s a pretty forward-looking guy … he’s hard to deter.”
Carroll didn’t only impress his coaches, fans or scouts – but his teammates and friends, too.
William DeForest, one of Carroll’s best friends and teammates at Lakeside, understood at the age of 12 that Carroll was different and better than the other kids.
“I’d heard of him before, and it was like, ‘Oh, you can’t be that good,’” DeForest said. “But then I think in the game we played he hit a triple, one that should probably be a single or double for somebody else. But he just ended up on third somehow in like two seconds, and I was like, ‘Woah, OK, this guy’s legit.’”
DeForest first met Carroll at 9 when they played for the same travel ball team. At 12, they played on different teams but would still compete against one another in travel ball. Their freshman year was where their friendship began to flourish, and DeForest got to know Carroll on a personal level.
DeForest describes Carroll as a genuine and caring person and believes that the time and effort he puts in to prepare and do the little things right puts him above the rest.
“He definitely had other concerns that were just different from what other kids our age had a lot of the time,” DeForest said. “It could’ve been easy to just let that consume him and not pay as much attention to his teammates.
“But that is the complete opposite of what he did. He was always the biggest team-first guy, he was never the loudest on the field but he had a real intensity and purpose. Every time he stepped on the field, he stepped in the weight room, you just knew he meant business. And it was infectious.”
The humble confidence that Carroll displays in the major leagues has been consistent since high school and selfishness has never been an issue, those who know him say.
“He was so far from cocky with how confident he was,” Roger said. “It was astounding. It made him one of the easiest players we’ve ever coached. He was always doing the right thing for the team and was really focused on the team’s success, even with all that talent.
“I feel like a lot of really good players maybe have this aura of like they feel like they’re better than other people, and he is just not like that at all.”
Carroll’s drive to be better has been a constant, both in high school and in the pros. It always felt like Carroll never wasted a minute, DeForest said.
There would be times during lunch that Carroll would be on the field doing sled pulls or working on his sprints.
“All this extra work that he was putting in because he knew, ‘This is what I need to reach this goal,’” DeForest said. “And I think it was that very purposeful and driven nature and (he’s) very much a self-starter, he has a very high initiative to drive that (goal).”
Like Sundin and Roger, DeForest didn’t expect Carroll to be the National League Rookie of the Year, but he wasn’t surprised. DeForest is elated and proud that Carroll is in the World Series, and even with Caroll’s busy schedule, he still makes time to text or FaceTime one of his best friends from his childhood.
Carroll’s selection for the All-Star Game in Seattle provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the stadium he grew up near.
Sundin keeps in touch with Carroll regularly but wouldn’t mention the All-Star Game in the first half of the year, knowing how unconventional that opportunity would be for a rookie and how much it meant to Carroll.
“As it got closer and closer, I could just tell he was excited about it,” Sundin said. “It was a really big deal for him and a big moment … the reach was pretty big in terms of who it affected and impacted.”
When Carroll returns to Seattle in the offseason, he’ll often train at Lakeside and tell Sundin what he wants to improve on, always having a plan and striving for more.
“He changed our program forever,” Sundin said. “And you can’t really ask for much more of a player.”
Carroll may not be the loudest in the clubhouse or on the field, but his focus-oriented personality, work ethic, determination, leadership and athleticism have shaped him into the young star he is today.
In his rookie season so far, he is. His 25 home runs and 54 stolen bases make him the to accomplish this achievement.
In his first Game 7 of his MLB career, Carroll came through when the Diamondbacks needed him most. He went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and two stolen bases, helping the Diamondbacks win the NL pennant and advance to the World Series for the first time in 22 years.
“He understands the moment,” Sundin said. “And he understands what he’s getting into. And he’s competitive as all hell to try to win. He won a lot of games for us and a lot of it has to do with him, and him pushing his teammates and that competitive drive to help the team.
“And I have no doubt, even though I’m not in that clubhouse, I have no doubt that that is a big part of their (Diamondbacks) success. He thinks about winning baseball games and getting better all the time.
“All the time.”