HAMPTON TWP. — Minor league baseball has become a labor of love for Mike Schwartz.
An Daily Record All-Area first-team honoree as a Montville senior in 2005, Schwartz was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round out of the University of Tampa. But he had only limited plate appearances during two summers in rookie ball and is now in his third independent league in the past four seasons.
A two-time Frontier League all-star starter with Normal (Illinois), Schwartz came to Ottawa via Cornbelters manager Brooks Carey. Carey and current Champions manager Hal Lanier had worked together with the Sussex Skyhawks and maintain a close friendship. When Schwartz aged out of the Frontier League, Lanier traded a pair of young pitchers to Normal on Feb. 5 to acquire the 28-year-old left-handed outfielder and right-handed pitcher Ethan Elias, whose rights were sold to Arizona a month later.
Schwartz is third on the Champions with a .284 average, but his .377 on-base percentage and 42 RBI are both second on the team to center fielder Sebastien Boucher. Known as a home-run hitter, Schwartz has been stymied by RCGT Park’s dimensions — 404 feet to straightaway center and 325 down the lines. Skylands Stadium isn’t much more forgiving, at 392 and 330 feet respectively. Schwartz has 16 doubles, a triple and three homers for the Champions.
“I try to stay with my approach and hit the ball hard,” Schwartz said. “If it’s going to go, it’s going to go. If I hit a line drive, it’s not a home run, but it’s a double.”
Added Ottawa manager Hal Lanier: “Every scout I talked to said he’s a very fine hitter. He’s very consistent at the plate. … He’s done a good job for us. He gets on base, drives in runs. Mike plays hard. He comes out every day and works out it. That’s what you have to do.”
Since attending the University of Tampa, Schwartz has been a full-time Florida resident when he’s not traveling with a baseball team. He spends the offseason in the Tampa area, giving lessons while getting his own workouts in.
But Schwartz has made a few trips back home to New Jersey, as Ottawa visited the Jackals and Sussex County in late May and early June. Family has also come out to Rockland, just across the state line. Schwartz expected some hometown fan support on a visit to Rockland next week, though not in the Miners series.
“He’s doing what he loves to do. He’s following his dream, still,” said Ottawa right-handed reliever Nick Purdy, Schwartz’s road roommate, who plays guitar while Schwartz sings, usually a lot of ’90s rock.
“On the field, he’s very intense. He knows what he has to do. … He’s one of the hardest workers. He gets out there a half-hour early and gets his stretching in. He changes to game mode. But he’s really good at leaving it on the field.”
Ottawa is tied for the fourth and final Can-Am playoff spot with Trois-Rivieres, 14½ games behind Rockland. Schwartz is enjoying his first taste of a playoff race in several years. The Champions and Aigles wrap up the season against each other in early September.
“We have to keep doing the things we’re doing, keep having fun and playing loose,” said Schwartz, who predicted a career in Major League Baseball in his fifth-grade yearbook at Cedar Hill Elementary School.
“For sure, I love it. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”