When Jeff Clement set out to win a spot on his high school's varsity baseball team, little did he know that he would be charting a course that would result in him becoming one of the nation's best collegiate players.
Clement, a junior at the University of Southern California, was in the eighth grade in Marshalltown, Iowa, when he decided to become a catcher.
"My brother was a catcher when I was an eighth-grader and he was first-team All-State," Clement explained. "I knew that he would be leaving to go to college and that would be my chance to play varsity baseball as a freshman.
"During the wintertime I would go to my dad's middle school [where he was the principal] and work out. I worked on catching, trying to learn how to block and throw -- everything. Fortunately, everything worked and I ended up playing varsity that year. I haven't looked back since."
In fact as a pitcher and catcher at Marshalltown High School, Clement had a historical career. He set a national high school career record with 75 home runs, and he also led his high school to a state championship in 2002. In that senior year, he also was named an All-American after hitting .509 with 16 home runs.
At USC, Clement's star has continued to rise. As a freshman in 2003, he was named to the Freshman All-America first team and was the Pac-10 Conference Freshman of the year. He also was the Collegiate Baseball Freshman National Co-Player of the Year after hitting .298 with 21 home runs and 53 RBI in a 56-game season.
This year, he was again named a first-team All-American after leading USC in a variety of offensive categories during the regular season, including batting average (.358), hits (67), home runs (11), RBIs (44) and on-base percentage (.485). He also had only three errors and threw out 20 of 51 runners (39 percent). Currently, he is fourth on USC's all-time list with 42 home runs, trailing Mark McGwire (54), Geoff Jenkins (45) and Eric Munson (43) -- all of whom went on to play in the major leagues.
Significantly, Clement also played the past two summers on the U.S. National Team. Last year, when the team won the gold medal at the FISU II World University Baseball Championships in Taiwan, Clement hit a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning of the semifinal game.
"It was a great experience to play against the best amateurs in the world, and more than that, it was great to play with the best players in the United States and develop some friendships with some other guys and see how they go about their business. I wouldn't trade those experiences," he says.
Clement was recently named as one of five finalists for the 2005 Golden Spikes Award, which is presented annually to the nation's best amateur player by USA Baseball with the support of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
"I was really surprised, and I felt very honored to be mentioned as one of the top college players," Clement says of the nomination. "I know each of those other four players, and I know what kind of players they are. So, to be seen as being that caliber of player is a great honor. It was definitely not expected."
MLB's recent amateur draft offered another affirmation of Clement's talent and potential. He was selected third overall by the Seattle Mariners.
"Growing up, it was always my dream to play baseball," he says. "I'm happy to be in the position I am now. But the dream has always been to play Major League baseball and win a World Series. So I've still got a ways to get there, but I feel that at this point I'm moving in the right direction."
As for his fateful decision to become a catcher, Clement has no doubt that he made the right decision.
"You're going to take your lumps back there, but it's gratifying to know that you've played a major part in the outcome of a game," Clement says.
Dean Golembeski is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.