Well Traveled, Woody Woodruff Ready For Competition In The United States
Woody Woodruff packed his baseball bag yet again and with his mom Cheryl by his side, embarked on a journey halfway across the globe, only this time it meant so much more. He was off to Mesa, Arizona for the 2016 Under Armour All-America Pre-Season Tournament.
Woodruff, a 2017 catching prospect, originally born in Tampa, Florida, now resides in Japan with his family at the Yokota Air Force Base in the city of Fussa, roughly 30 miles from Toyko (the world’s largest city with a combined population of 38 million people).
Growing up in a military family, Woody and his three younger siblings share the distinction of having lived on three different continents. With that distinction comes some hardships; packing up and abruptly moving during the school year and leaving behind friends made from every day life.
Sitting in the lobby of the hotel, only a short walk to Sloan Park (the Chicago Cubs Spring Training facility where Baseball Factory’s premier event is held) on a warm Arizona evening in January, it’s clear that the experiences made Woody a strong individual, despite not being able to firmly supplant himself anywhere for too long of a period.
It’s also fortified his relationship in all aspects of his life with his father, Richard. A 22-year military veteran and Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force has always taken on the role of teacher, friend and Dad, despite a busy schedule. Rich, who also has a sports background having played football in high school and later at Air Force, dedicates the time to work with his children, and with Woody in a sport he had never played, instilling toughness and an appreciation for working hard.
“My Dad has always been a constant in my life,” says Woody. “He always gives it 100%. He told me how hard he worked there (at Air Force) and how he transferred it to his job, so I really respect that. I look up to him a lot with how well he treats us and what he does for us.”
The family is no stranger to the sacrifices made. Richard, who, in the past, has been deployed to Iraq for an eight month-stretch and has spent more time away from the family than he would like, knows that sacrifices sometimes come with a price, but often rewarded in return. Woody’s mom, Cheryl also knows full well what the traveling and sacrifices that come with serving in the armed forces can do, but they have persevered.
“When we were in Okinawa, Richard was gone pretty much 200 days out of the year, not consecutively but home, leave, home, leave. Overall, the military has been good to us, always providing us with everything we need,” Cheryl explains.
“My husband and I want to do everything we can to help him, because being a military kid, there are sacrifices that are made because you don’t get those opportunities as other kids do. The majority of his life has been overseas. But he always goes that extra mile…going to the gym before and after school and he’s willing to work harder so when he gets opportunities like this he can perform.”
“He’s put in the hours of hitting in the cage (after everyone has gone home), going to the gym, throwing outside in the cold, and it’s paying off. I really see him as a diamond in the rough,” Rich says.
After leaving Florida at a very young age, Woody and family moved to Dover, Delaware for two years, then Clemson, South Carolina two years after that, before moving to Okinawa, Japan for three years. He picked up lacrosse after his next move while living in Maryland, and from grades two-through-five, was a sport he enjoyed playing. Moving from the United States to Germany, he found the game wasn’t played as well so he chose another sport to focus on. Baseball filled the void and Woody immediately fell in love with the game. One time on the little league team he played for, the coaches needed a replacement behind the plate for the regular catcher who didn’t show up. The rest they say is history.
And as Woody grew to learn the game and love it, so too did his Dad.
“When I started getting serious about baseball, he didn’t know as much about the sport, but now, I can take a swing and he can fix things. He’s tried very hard to learn baseball and he researches everything to make sure I have the best equipment. That I am doing the little things correctly. He’s learned the mechanics of hitting and throwing down as a catcher which has really helped extend my game.”
Extending his game led him to Mesa one of nearly 400 players brimming with talent, selected to participate in the premier event in the country to audition for the next level. With the event set to begin, Woody had the feeling that while he’s attended baseball events before, this one could be a little different.
“I’ve come back and forth for different Baseball Factory events, but this one is different because this is a whole different opportunity. Its cool because its pressure, but a good type of pressure to perform.”
Due to the 15-hour time difference, Richard, who stayed back in Japan, received news throughout the day while Woody played in Arizona. “During the Pre-Season tournament, I kept my phone by my side for play-by-play action from Cheryl…not just from the games but from every part of the event. There were times when I had to get up at all hours to get live coverage from her. I loved seeing the picture of his name on the Cubs board. That really said it all.”
Pressure doesn’t seem to affect the level-headed Woodruff, who plays as hard as he can whether he feels it or not. Woodruff has played in big events before, first attending an Under Armour showcase at the July 2015 Baseball Factory National East event, the Arizona Senior Fall Classic last October and then selection to this year’s All-America Pre-Season Tournament. Moving through the events, despite the distance, has helped enhance his experience with the Baseball Factory and sharpened his skill set.
“Baseball Factory is much more organized than anything else I’ve done,” says Woody. “I haven’t had the chance to be on travel teams being overseas, but when I’ve been involved, I’ve met great people from it and the coaches that are working with us at least played beyond high school and some even in the pros, all the coaches have been super awesome.”
Cheryl adds, “Coming overseas to these teams, Woody doesn’t know anyone. It can be intimidating, but at soon as he gets here, the Factory welcomes him and it feels like he’s been with them all his life. Of all the things he’s done, this has been the most amazing and the most beneficial.”
His Dad has also noticed the structure that Factory events provide for players and where the focus is delivered.
“It’s definitely about the kids. The organization’s communication with parents is top notch and they deliver on everything that is promised. Yes, there is as a cost but it is worth every penny. We’ve been with other organizations that haven’t always given us what was promised and they were only about the money not the player. We’ve never felt this way with Baseball Factory. Through the skills and confidence the Factory has given Woody, it definitely has played a part in his baseball development.”
One takeaway Woody mentioned many times was the way Factory coaches were able to quickly diagnose something and have a solution to fix it.
“They are very encouraging, and they know what you need to fix just by looking at you, little things to work on and you come back and be an even better ballplayer. The Factory has given me opportunities that have been awesome.”
Woody’s time with the Factory has helped clear a path, and along the way, with help from Rob Onolfi, (Baseball Factory Player Development Coordinator) for Woody, and others who took notice of him, the doors of development continued to open.
“Rob has been great… if we have a question, the answer is right there,” Cheryl said. “We know Woody is taken care of and they care about him and they have the best interest for him and all their baseball players.”
Another vital member in Woody’s corner, Lionel Chattelle, a well-known international scout who once worked for the New York Mets, now with the Toronto Blue Jays, volunteered his time, helping to coach a baseball clinic put on by Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for players in the area to participate in.
“My Dad introduced me to Lionel while we lived in Germany and this past year when he put on the clinic, he saw me play and he talked to me and helped me fix some things like having a strong front side,” Woody explains. “He invited me to an MLB showcase in Germany.. I performed well enough for him to take interest me. So I’ve stayed in touch with him and I definitely look up to him.”
Lionel’s experience has been beneficial and a welcomed addition in the Woodruff camp.
“Without Lionel, we wouldn’t be here,” Cheryl said. “It’s amazing the time he has devoted to the kids. When he saw Woody, something sparked his interest and that opened the door to you guys, and from there the Factory has opened even more doors. It’s been a great path.”
Playing for the Ramstein Royals, Woody continued to improve under the tutelage of Coach Tom Yost, who has worked with Woodruff since 7th grade, as the team won their third consecutive Division I DODDS-Europe baseball championship in 2015. After moving last summer from Germany to Japan, Woody was excited about playing for Yokota High School, his new team (Nishi Tama) and for Coach Steven Ferch in his senior season. He’s developed an understanding of how baseball is played there, all the while creating new friendships and enjoying Japanese culture.
“My Japanese baseball team has two players who speak fluent English, so it’s been an easier transition for me,” Woody explains. “Japanese baseball culture is different.. a lot more discipline involved. Batting practice is very quiet. You’re there focused on hitting and that’s it.”
Woodruff and his teammates still like to have fun and let loose at times.
“We talk about how to hit a home run and “walk it out” … they love to watch me joke around and do the bat flip thing. When we take infield practice, they rarely make mistakes. They yell out things while we’re doing it, so I join in and yell back.”
Outside of baseball, things are equally as interesting and exciting for the senior. He enjoys the cuisine (sushi and curry are his favorites). “You can get some really fresh stuff over there…we walked through the markets and they had shrimp out packed up and the shrimp were still moving in the pack.”
He also raves about the types of cars he sees daily in Japan. “I’m a car guy… you’ll see cars over there every day that you rarely see here. You drive on the left hand side of the road on the right side of the vehicle, it’s pretty wild.”
After all is said and done in Japan, the next step is back to the United States to play for IMG Academy in Florida, a renowned sports academy that helps to push and grow athletes of all ages and ability levels. The school has produced 21 student-athletes who have been drafted in the majors.
Woody credits Coach Simonds, the director of baseball at IMG as well as coaches Matt Madrid and Jason Elias with playing a vital role in his baseball development while there at the 2014 summer wood bat league.
“IMG has helped me so much already,” Woody explains, “I admittedly got better in between my sophomore and junior seasons because I played at IMG during the summer in a wood bat league for nine weeks straight of baseball. I wasn’t sure how I would respond to that much baseball, but I loved it and came back my junior year of high school and began starting.”
Just recently, I reconnected with Woody, Cheryl and the entire Woodruff family to hear about Woody’s progress – post All-America Pre-Season – and how he’s getting ready for his next journey.
“I’m looking forward to getting there (to IMG) and playing for the coaches who have helped me with my game. I wanted to work on being able to have full confidence all the time. Not that I’m not confident in my abilities, but to not let that little voice in my head say “I can’t do it” and not to let that get me down.”
Woody’s mental makeup on the field is one akin to a closer in the major leagues; If a mistake is made, he lets it go and focuses on the next pitch, the next at-bat. It’s a character trait that Cheryl – a former competitive tennis player – cherishes.
“He’s such a relaxed player, his mental makeup is just different; a bad passed ball or a throw down, he just blows it off and moves on. I love that about him. He just wants to play and loves the game.”
Reflecting on his time in Arizona, Woody mentioned how happy he was with his performance and came back to Japan 100% motivated on the season ahead, striving to work even harder. As his play improved in Mesa, so too did his confidence, something he credits his coaches and staff for.
“As the weekend went, I was able to improve my hitting and defense. I felt like I stepped it up behind the plate, holding runners and throwing them out. It was just an amazing experience overall and really cool the way Baseball Factory treated me there. I really felt like a special individual player not just another number.”
Woody leads by example off the field too. His three younger sisters (14-year old twins, Ashley and Alison and 12-year old Lizzie-B) look up to their big brother who provides support, encouragement and the occasional ride around the military base.
“Woody’s sisters idolize him. And it’s never a thing where Woody will say, “oh, I don’t want my sisters around,” Cheryl explains. “If he drives around base, and his sisters ask if they can go with him, he’ll take them. He’s very protective of them and always there for them. They have him to come to as well now and he gives them really good advice and supports them.”
“He’s had to sacrifice a lot (long flights, multiple moves, everything that goes along with being a military kid), not only is he a good athlete but also a good person,” says Rich. “He cares for his sisters and watches over them. There’s never a time he doesn’t want them around and is always willing to help them with their homework or problems they face in life. You know when his sisters don’t want to hear anything about him leaving they truly love him. When I see him after every game, he hugs his mom before anything else. It makes me think we raised a good kid.”
At 17 years old, Woody has done a lot of things most people haven’t in their lifetime. With his next journey on the horizon, his experiences will take him a long way. Time to grab his bag and travel again.