PHOENIX – Spencer Torkelson sat on a Zoom call, his hat perched backward, AirPods in place, fielding questions from a virtual scrum of reporters from his family’s California home.
A candidate to be the No. 1 pick in June’s Major League Baseball Draft, the Arizona State slugger spoke about the heartbreaking suspension of his junior year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, falling three home runs shy of ASU’s all-time record and the new normal that is life as a potential top draft choice.
“I still don’t think I’ve come to grips with the situation,” he said.
Torkelson was three away from becoming the all-time home run leader in Sun Devils baseball history. With 54 career homers, he still had more than 40 games to surpass Bob Horner’s career total of 56.
In the end, a pandemic did what collegiate pitchers could not. It stopped his assault on the record books.
But even worse for Torkelson, it ended a season in which the Sun Devils were finding their groove. As the weather warmed, their bats did too, going hand-in-hand with solid pitching and defensive play on a nightly basis.
The Sun Devils were winners in 11 of their final 12 games before the season was abruptly halted.
Torkelson admits that he will be haunted by the unexpected end to the season for he and his teammates, and by getting so close to the school’s career home run crown only to feel as if he was robbed of the opportunity.
“I’m going to think about that forever,” he said.
Now, he clings to the mantra he has lived by since arriving on the ASU campus in 2017: “controlling what you can control,” and not dwelling on what could have been or becoming too wrapped up in a lost season.
He admits the sting resonates even more knowing he and his teammates had the potential to reach the College World Series and make a run at a championship in Omaha. The Sun Devils were ranked 10th in the final Baseball America college poll before play was stopped.
“I was satisfied with what I’ve done, but I wanted to do more,” he said. “I wanted other guys to do more, other guys that have worked two years to get to the point of where they’re at.
“This was the year they’ve been working for, and that got cut short. That’s what hurts me most. It’s not even about me, it’s about my best friends who got hurt the most.”
His attention now must pivot to his professional career, even as he humbly deflects the reality that many across baseball have pinned him as the first overall pick for the June 10-12 draft.
“You can’t control how other teams think of you,” he said. “I try my best to do that.”
Though many agree the first pick will likely come down to Torkelson or Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, Torkelson said the dialogue between him and major league clubs is quiet right now, as the league swirls in uncertainty.
Major League Baseball has yet to nail down an exact draft date, postponing its original June 10 plan. The draft could be limited to as few as five rounds. But Torkelson said he isn’t worried about baseball canceling the draft outright.
“To my understanding, they’re going to have it. It’s just a matter of when it is, not if they’re going to have it,” he said,
For now, as he sticks to that mantra, the 20-year-old is controlling what he can, which is how hard he works every day. He can thank his mom for the makeshift batting cage that is making that possible.
“She bought a batting cage that needed to be built, and I built it,” he said, laughing. “It’s not big, but it gets the job done.”
There’s no gym to go to, no weights to lift. However, he’s “crushing push-ups,” running daily and taking batting practice from his uncle in the backyard cage.
It’s as good as it can get for now.
Before the season was canceled, when Torkelson’s quest for the home run record was well within reach, he got a call from Horner – who told him he was thrilled his late-1970s record was finally going to fall.
“He was flying out to the next series to be at the game that, hopefully, I would break his record,” Torkelson said. “He was super sad (that the season was called). He was like, ‘It’s been however many years. That record needs to be broken.'”
Torkelson chuckled and said, “I think he might have been madder about it than me.”
When the draft takes place, Torkelson is expected to give the Sun Devils Top 10 picks in consecutive drafts. Outfielder Hunter Bishop was taken 10th overall last summer by the San Francisco Giants.
Should he be drafted first overall, Torkelson would be the first Sun Devils player to have that honor since – who else? – Horner in 1978.
“It gives you goosebumps just talking about being drafted,” Torkelson said. “Just being drafted in the first place is an accomplishment, but to be in the conversation at the very top is very humbling and nice to have.”