Former Albany State baseball players Jacob Campbell, left, and Robby Latner pose in their respective Pecos League uniforms before a game last month. Campbell now plays for the Roswell Invaders, while Latner is a catcher for the Bisbee Blue. (Special to The Herald)
ROSWELL, N.M. — Jacob Campbell showed up in Roswell, N.M., just over a month ago with a dream.
And even though the first month of his professional baseball career didn’t go exactly as planned, that dream is still very much alive for the former Albany State standout and Westover grad.
Campbell, along with former ASU teammate Robby Latner, signed a professional contract in the independent Pecos League — a non-affiliated pro league that serves as a feeder system for MLB affiliated teams or higher independent leagues — in May and is currently in the middle of his first season with the Roswell Invaders. Latner signed with the Bisbee (Ariz.) Blues and has become one of his team’s most versatile players.
Campbell began the season with a starting job in left field but fell into a slump and is platooning in the outfield as he adjusts to life with a wooden bat, but he is still hopeful for a long-term baseball career.
“This is definitely still what I want to do, but being out here has shown me where I was as a baseball player and where I need to be,” said Campbell, who is hitting .247 with a .284 slugging percentage in 25 games. “I’m struggling right now. It’s been tough just making the adjustments of playing every night. It’s been tough adjusting to seeing professional pitching after coming from Albany State, where I could sit on certain pitches.”
Campbell started four years for the Rams and wrapped up his collegiate career this spring after leading ASU to an undefeated SIAC record in the regular season. The Division II All-American attended several pre-draft workouts in front of MLB scouts and even had five or six teams interested in him but eventually was told he didn’t have the size or strength to get drafted.
After an early exit in the SIAC tournament, Campbell packed up for the Pecos League, which is often the first and final stop for many with professional baseball aspirations.
Campbell’s dream hasn’t died yet.
“It’s been disappointing, but it’s a learning experience,” he said. “I have definitely gotten a lot better being around some of these guys who have played pro ball for three or four years. And I’m learning to deal with failure a little bit and learning how to hit with a wooden bat and live in a hotel and out of a suitcase day-in and day-out.”
Entering Wednesday’s game against the White Sands Pupfish, Campbell had 20 hits, six RBIs, two extra-base hits and 18 strikeouts in 81 at-bats. The Invaders are currently in second place in the Southern Division and just ahead of Latner’s Blues.
Latner, who played alongside Campbell at Albany State the last three seasons and was an All-SIAC catcher this spring, is hitting .253 with 19 hits, nine RBIs and a slugging percentage of .373 in 23 games. He has also appeared as a relief pitcher in three games and has a 0.00 ERA and 2.42 WHIP in seven innings.
It’s Latner’s versatility that has made him an asset and every-day starter for the Blue.
“I’m the only position player on the team who also pitches,” said Latner, who also plays third base. “I started the season platooning at third base and pitching when they needed me to. When they finally saw me catch, I threw five runners out in the second game I caught.”
Latner, a native of Melrose, Fla., said he was born to catch.
“They kept stealing, and I just kept throwing them out,” he said. “I am a base runner’s nightmare.”
Campbell, who is wrapping up his degree at ASU with online classes, said he is keeping his career options open but that baseball is still at the top of the list.
“I don’t even know what I’m eating for dinner tonight, so I definitely don’t know where I will be in two years,” he said. “My goal this time next year would be to play for an affiliated team.
“My focus right now is to get bigger and stronger. I’m hitting the gym hard and working on my swing. Just being around the other guys is where I am getting a lot better. I am hitting the ball harder and getting better ball flights.”
The Pecos League has had 19 players sign MLB contracts over the past three years — including former Invader Chris Costantino, who signed with Atlanta last October and is currently playing for the Class A Rome Braves — and more than 100 more were promoted to higher independent leagues. Campbell and Latner understand that they are just taking the first steps of a mile-long journey to the major leagues and the odds are likely stacked against the duo — but it’s a challenge they have accepted.
“About 99.5 percent of high school baseball players never play professionally, so I’ve already gotten this far,” Latner said. “It’s all about moving up the ladder. If I can work on improving and harnessing my skills, I can definitely move up. This is a stepping stone to the next league.”