Kyle Farmer chose to return for his senior season based on little more than a gut feeling.
So when an invitation to play for Team USA arrived days after his decision to stay in school, it seemed like a confirmation that he had done the right thing.
“I was shocked. That’s been my dream since I was a little kid,” Farmer said. “During that whole draft process, I was thinking that everything happens for a reason. I was kind of searching for something to back me up. That whole Team USA thing backed me up. Everything does happen for a reason.”
Georgia starts its 2013 season today when it begins a three-game set at Georgia Southern. Game 1 starts at 6 p.m. at J.I. Clements Stadium in Statesboro. Game 2 is at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Game 3 is at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. Georgia’s first home game is on Wednesday against Kennesaw State. Farmer will be the starting shortstop for the fourth consecutive season after turning down a chance to go to the professionals last summer.
“When Kyle decided to come back, that’s when this team’s fate changed,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “We knew we had a rock in the middle of the field and we were going to be able to fill around him again.
“That was a huge day for us, draft day, when he decided to come back. I think we’re going to have a special year.”
Despite all of Farmer’s personal accomplishments at Georgia, the team has gone through massive emotional dips, and many of those had nothing to do with baseball. Farmer has seen two teammates, his roommate, Chance Veazey, and Johnathan Taylor suffer paralyzing injuries. Georgia used a miracle finish in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament to make the NCAA Regionals. But last year, Georgia faded in the last week of the regular season and missed regionals for the second time in Farmer’s career.
“That was one of the reasons I came back,” Farmer said. “I’m the type of person who wants to leave something in return for everything somebody’s given to me. I want to leave something to the University like the University’s given to me. I’ve got life-long friends. I’ve got great teammates. But I feel like there’s something more in the tank that this team can bring to the University and can bring to the program. I wanted to come back because I don’t like leaving on a bad note. I’ve grown so close to Chance and J.T. (Taylor) and seeing what they’ve had to go through, I want to be with them when they graduate and have one more year with them. Baseball will come and go, but your friends will last forever.”
Farmer has a .313 batting average with 15 home runs and 124 RBIs in his career. He led the Bulldogs with 41 RBIs and 71 hits last season. As a freshman, he set Georgia’s fielding record for a shortstop at .962 with just six errors despite playing with a hamate bone injury most of the season.
“If we would have got to a regional last year, he probably would have moved on,” Perno said. “But we didn’t, and he knows there’s some unfinished business and he’s come back to make sure it happens. That stint with USA Baseball was just icing on the cake for him. He made a tough call and a tough decision because he didn’t know about that until afterward. That was perfect. It just reiterated that he did the right thing. To have the opportunity to do the USA Baseball thing was probably an experience he’s never going to forget.”
Farmer has been an All-Southeastern Conference selection the last two seasons and was projected to go in the first 10 rounds of the 2012 Major League draft. But just before the draft, he let the clubs know that he planned to return to Georgia. On the same night, the New York Yankees took a chance and drafted him in the 35th round. Farmer announced that he would come back.
“I was sitting in my dad’s office and my adviser called and said that the (Cincinnati) Reds were thinking about taking me in the seventh round,” Farmer said. “I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do. I looked at my dad (former Ole Miss pitcher Bryan Farmer) because this was a life-changing moment. Do you come back to school or do you start a real job? I went with my gut feeling and my gut feeling was to come back to the University of Georgia.”
Farmer did not know it at the time, but an invitation to play for USA Baseball on a history-making tour of Cuba and The Netherlands was on the way. Farmer won the starting shortstop’s job as a team representing the United States playing in Cuba for the first time in a generation. At 22, he was also the oldest member of the squad and his teammates dubbed him “Grandpops.” One of Farmer’s teammates was former Oconee County player Adam Frazier, who is now at Mississippi State. The college-age Team USA also played wooden bats, which was a departure from the composite materials in NCAA-sanctioned bats and against teams primarily staffed with professionals.
“USA hadn’t played there in 16 years,” Farmer said. “Playing in Cuba was probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever done. We walked into the stadium that first night and it was an all-blue stadium and it was packed. Everybody was there to watch us hit batting practice. It was like a soccer game. Everybody was yelling and chanting and blowing air horns. It was crazy. It was so packed and the Cubans really know baseball. They liked to get involved in the game. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer.”
Team USA’s college-age team played Cuba’s senior national team that, the bulk of which would play in the world championships. Farmer made an instant impression of the Cubans with a highlight reel defensive play on the first at-bat.
“I get the first ground ball and the infield was a very hard clay,” Farmer said. “It was a one-hopper over the pitcher. I came up and made, I want to say it was a top-10 play. The whole stadium got quiet. They’d never seen a bunch of college kids, 18-to-21 years old, come in and do something like that. They started calling me ‘Cubano Blanco,’ the white Cuban, because of my defensive skills. It was pretty cool.”
Cuba won three of the five games in the series against the Americans. Then Team USA traveled to The Netherlands for an international tournament where they finished third against teams made mainly of professionals. Farmer and his teammates entertained the Dutch crowd during a rain delay by pretending they were hunters.
“Baseball in The Netherlands was like a party, it was crazy,” Farmer said. “They sold alcohol at the stadium and people were drinking at 10 o’clock in the morning. They had all these songs that they’d dance to. There was this rain delay, so we all went to the outfield and acted like we were hunting each other with our bats as rifles. One guy would go down and then everybody would cheer and they’d start a dance. It really brought out the fun in baseball when you get involved with the fans like that.”
Farmer batted .250 and had eight RBIs as Team USA went 12-5 in the tour. Farmer returned home with a new perspective on baseball that he said he hopes to bring to Georgia this season.
“I watched every single team out there, and every one of them looked like they were all having fun,” Farmer said. “No matter what they were doing, they were having a great time and they were happy to be out there. That’s what I learned the most, and that’s what I want to take into the season — to go out there and have fun. You’re going to get out. But there’s nothing better than being on a baseball field.”