If it hadn’t been for Polk State, Johnnie Kirkland might never have developed his head-shaking curveball, and he might never have signed a pro baseball contract with his beloved Detroit Tigers.
The former Polk State College player who starred in Lake Wales High School games as well as Lake Wales Little League contests was recently selected by the Tigers in the 25th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Player Draft.
“I’ve been dreaming of playing in the pros since I was tiny,” Kirkland said. “It’s my first love.”
It’s everything Kirkland ever wanted and hoped for.
Often Kirkland would attend Detroit Tigers spring training and minor league games in nearby Lakeland.
He would watch the Tigers play on television and he is still excited about their trip to last year’s World Series.
He’s thrilled to be wearing the uniform of his boyhood team.
“I definitely look up to (pitcher) Justin Verlander and (American League MVP) Miguel Cabrera,” he said.
Kirkland, 23, learned how to throw a curveball while at Polk State during the 2009-2010 seasons.
His curveball breaks so sharply, it appears to drop off an imaginary table when he throws it.
Kirkland benefitted from hard work, a big frame, the willingness to learn and a little luck to reach the pros.
A strong, 6-foot-1 right-hander, Kirkland’s fastball was his big pitch in high school before he arrived at Polk in 2009.
As a one-pitch pitcher, he needed to develop another pitch to remain in the Polk State rotation against other college teams.
“In college, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw, they are going to hit it,” Kirkland said.
That’s when he started working on the second pitch. He toiled as a closer for the Eagles and enjoyed his stint at Polk State.
“I love Polk State College,” Kirkland said. “The people and the professors there — they helped me out a lot.”
Learning a quality second pitch at Polk State provided a doorway to Kirkland’s future.
However, in one quick moment, his hopes and dreams were nearly smashed.
After attending Polk, Kirkland continued his college career at Palm Beach Atlantic.
It didn’t last very long.
In his first fall scrimmage at Palm Beach Atlantic, Kirkland was stunned by an awful pain in his throwing elbow.
“I missed with a curveball,” he said. “It was the first inning. It was awful. I popped it.”
A tear was found in his elbow.
He wanted to continue playing baseball and earn his degree in Communications, so he opted for surgery that would replace his torn tendon.
He started throwing again.
He continued to play at Southeastern University in Lakeland, where he learned a cutter (fastball) and was named an NAIA All-American.
Plus, he added a knuckle curve to his collection of pitches.
Coupled with his explosive fastball, that averages 92 MPH with movement, and his curveball, Kirkland was enticing to scouts.
He’s currently assigned to the Connecticut Tigers of the New York Penn League.
“I’m glad I got in with this organization,” he said. “They’ve been fantastic.”
Polk State’s baseball program returns with “Fall Ball” in September and open Suncoast Conference play in March, 2014.
The Eagles boast a .751 winning percentage over the last three seasons.