Catching on: MJC’s Cooper-Steadman signs with Chicago White Sox

Modesto's Jacob Cooper-Steadman at bat in the Big 8 Conference game with Delta College at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, March, 24, 2015. Delta won the game 1-0.
Modesto's Jacob Cooper-Steadman at bat in the Big 8 Conference game with Delta College at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, March, 24, 2015. Delta won the game 1-0.

Life has moved at warp speed for Jacob Cooper-Steadman, a freshman catcher at Modesto Junior College.

In the last year, the 19-year-old has experienced high school graduation, his freshman year in college, a position change and now, a two-foot, no-turning-back jump into his dream gig.

Ready or not, here comes Cooper-Steadman.

The former Enochs High School star was taken by the Chicago White Sox in the 20th round of the Major League Baseball draft June 10. He immediately signed a contract for an undisclosed amount and one day later was on a plane bound for the White Sox’s spring training headquarters in Glendale, Ariz.

“I was ready to get started,” Cooper-Steadman said Monday after collecting a hit – a double into the right-center gap – in his first unofficial at-bat as a pro. He caught four innings in an intrasquad scrimmage at Camelback Ranch.

“I wanted to take that next step,” he said. “We all knew it was going to happen. We knew I was going to take (the offer). I know my potential and what I can do.”

What he can do, according to area scouts, is throw BBs to each base better than most catchers his age. Cooper-Steadman had a best pop time – the time it takes for a catcher to throw to second base after a pitch pops his mitt – of 1.75 seconds in front of a major-league scout. He was one of four catchers the White Sox chose in the three-day, 40-round draft and the first from a community college.

“One thing they were attracted to was my arm. They said I have one of the best arms in the country,” said Cooper-Steadman, who picked off five runners this spring. “That gets a scout’s attention really quick.”

Just as captivating is his journey to draft day.

Cooper-Steadman was adopted by his uncle and aunt, Tim and Brandi Steadman, at an early age.

The Steadmans filed for permanent guardianship of Cooper-Steadman and his older brother, Trey, when Jacob was 6 because their birth parents “weren’t capable of being parents to two boys with high energy. They chose a different lifestyle,” said Tim who, along with Brandi, supported their nephews for two years before finalizing the adoption.

The Steadman family was growing. Jacob and Trey, 20, who finished the fall as the Pirates’ starting quarterback, joined Alexis Steadman, now 25. Soon, Zack Steadman, 12, was on the way.

“There was no other option. We had grown attached to them because we had been around both since they were born,” Tim said. “We felt like we should step up, and we were capable of doing it.”

Tim became their de facto father, serving as a baseball and football coach, adviser, mentor and first line of defense. He wouldn’t let his adopted son quit on baseball – or himself – when the ball didn’t bounce his way.

“He’s the reason why I’m here today,” Jacob said. “He’s the one who has always believed in me and given me that extra boost when things were bad. And you know baseball – it’s a game of failures.”

Count Jacob among its many successes. He hit .286 for the Pirates with six doubles and four triples and was named to the All-Big 8 Conference second team after a seamless transition from high school shortstop to can’t-miss catcher.

That’s no easy feat, but Jacob said he was comfortable handling one of the conference’s deepest rotations. The Pirates were buoyed by three pitchers: All-Big 8 first-team selection Brent Montgomery, Eddie Machado and Tyler Arnsberg. Today, he’s catching coveted big-league prospects.

To those close to Jacob, this opportunity comes as no surprise. From an early age, his tools and attributes were special.

“I’ve been with him since he was 12, so I know him really well,” said MJC assistant coach and NorCal Valley general manager Danny Ayala. “We always saw some talent in him. It was probably a couple of years ago that the tools started to come together.

“His arm, it’s one of the best in the country. It’s something special. He was born with a gift. So athletically, from the catching position, he had all the tools. We knew that catching was going to give him that opportunity.”

Jacob wouldn’t disclose the terms of his contract, but he said the White Sox’s offer was consistent with what he and his family were seeking. It included a scholarship to cover the final three years of Jacob’s college education, Tim said.

Player Factory NorCal Valley Baseball, formerly Cen-Cal, had three of its players chosen in the Major League Baseball draft: catcher Jacob Cooper-Steadman of Modesto Junior College, pitcher Blake Cederlind of Merced College and shortstop Nick Madrigal of Elk Grove High School.

“It was exactly what we wanted,” Jacob said. “If they didn’t give me what I wanted, I wouldn’t be playing right now.”

He’ll play his first official game Saturday when the White Sox open Arizona League play against the Dodgers. There will be a few familiar faces in the crowd, too. The Steadmans – Tim, Brandi and Zack – are flying out Thursday.

“It will be a perfect moment,” Jacob said. “I’m not just living my dream. I’m living my parents’ dream, too.”

A week after seeing his name flash across a computer screen, Jacob still hasn’t caught his breath. He spent his entire childhood tracking balls in the six-hole like his idol, New York Yankees great Derek Jeter.

In six months, he was re-positioned behind the plate, taught to work with a staff and charged to control the basepaths with his howitzer.

“I haven’t even realized the opportunity I have,” he said. “It’s still sinking in.”

Said Ayala: “He made a life decision. He came to it all by himself and grew up overnight. He’s a great teammate, the kind everyone wants to play with in the summer, and a great kid. It’s all up from here.”