It was an ordinary August night at First Tennessee Park in Nashville for El Paso Chihuahuas outfielder Travis Jankowski. The 24-year-old was set to lead off the game for the Chihuahuas, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, who were in town to face the Oakland Athletics-affiliated Nashville Sounds.
All of a sudden, his manager stopped him.
“I was on the on-deck circle to lead the game off and the manager walks in front of me and says ‘I can’t let you play today,’” Jankowski recalls. “So I said ‘what do you mean you can’t let me play today?’ And he says ‘Well, you’re off to San Diego.’”
Jankowski was under the impression that he was being pranked.
“I looked at him and said ‘Alright don’t joke about that. I’m trying to go lead the game off.’”
But this was no prank. Jankowski had really been called up to the major leagues, three years after the Padres drafted him out of Stony Brook University.
“It’s been my dream since I was four years old to play Major League Baseball,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski’s path to this moment was a long and winding one that seemed nearly impossible just a few years earlier. During his senior year at Lancaster Catholic High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Jankowski lettered in baseball and football. He had five scholarship offers for football, but just one offer to play baseball.
“We were the only Division I school to offer Jankowski a scholarship,” Stony Brook Baseball head coach Matt Senk said. “He had significant interest in football, too.”
Jankowski ultimately chose the diamond over the gridiron. According to Senk, Jankowski improved exponentially while at Stony Brook.
“After a successful freshman year, he had a summer where he really started playing well,” Senk said. “Then he really improved between his sophomore and junior years when he won MVP of the Cape Cod League. By then, we knew he was destined for the majors.”
Jankowski was catapulted onto the national scene during his junior year, as he batted .414 and helped lift Stony Brook to its first College World Series appearance in 2012. He was named the ABCA/Rawlings National Co-Player of the Year, joining past winners such as Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price and Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant.
“Those names are incredible,” Senk said of the past winners of the award. “Travis was well-deserving of that hardware.”
Jankowski was the first of seven Seawolves taken in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft when the Padres drafted him in the first round. No Stony Brook player had previously been drafted higher than the third round.
“I think it definitely helped it having the year I did,” Jankowski said. “It proved to the scouts that someone from a small school not playing the best competition in the Northeast [could still] compete at a high level.”
Much like he did in college, Jankowski excelled in the minors, where he batted .293 over four years. He batted .392 with nine steals in 24 Triple-A games this past season, which was enough to finally earn a call to the major leagues. Upon promotion, he joined Joe Nathan, Tom Koehler and Nick Tropeano as former Seawolves to play in the majors.
“It’s just amazing,” Senk said of Jankowski’s promotion. “Start with Joe Nathan and doing what he did, to Tom Koehler and Nick Tropeano, and now Travis. I couldn’t be prouder.”
When Jankowski finally did take the field with the Padres on Aug. 21, he went 2-for-4 with a run batted in and a run scored in the Padres’ 9-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. He became the first Padre since Tony Gwynn to record at least two hits and an RBI in his debut.
“Whenever you’re in the same category as Tony Gwynn, who had a phenomenal career, it’s humbling,” Jankowski said. “It’s an honor to be in the same category as him.”
Ultimately, Jankowski finished his rookie campaign batting .211 with two home runs and 12 RBI in 34 games. Even though playing on the biggest stage in baseball can be overwhelming, Jankowski continues to take the same approach he has for years.
“A lot of the game is quicker and with better competition, but it’s still 90 feet between bases and 60 feet from the mound to the plate,” Jankowski said. “I just have to keep doing what I did in the minors.”
Heading into 2016, Jankowski looks to be a part of the Padres’ future, as Baseball America lists him as the team’s sixth-best prospect. His college coach, needless to say, has high hopes for him.
“I think he’s going to be a fan-favorite,” Senk said of Jankowski, citing his energy, speed, athleticism and that he ‘plays with a reckless abandon.’ “How could he not be?”