BRISTOL — Stephen Paolini saw the news before he heard the news. His coach Jim Chaves pulled out his cellphone Tuesday before St. Joseph played its CIAC Class M semifinal game against Rockville and a Red Sox fan suddenly wasn’t a Red Sox fan anymore.
The Atlanta Braves made the Cadets’ senior centerfielder their fifth-round pick, 157th overall, in the 2019 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
“I was just speechless,” Paolini said. “It has been my dream my entire life.”
UConn closer Jacob Wallace was taken in the third round by the Colorado Rockies, but it was Paolini, the 18-year-old from Fairfield, who would become the first Connecticut native drafted.
Paolini went out and celebrated with a 2-for-4 performance that included an RBI triple in the top of the seventh that cemented the Cadets’ 3-0 victory over Rockville at Muzzy Field.
“Winning, having one of your teammates get drafted in the fifth round, it means a lot to this program,” Chaves said. “From here on out every kid on this team is a huge Steve Paolini fan. We’ll be rooting for him, hoping to watch him playing in the bigs.
“People should know how hard he has worked. You can see he is a physical specimen. He is the first guy hitting off the tee. He’s the first guy taking fly balls. He’s the first guy in the weight room and last guy out of here. This is a great moment, life-changing for him.”
Yes, Paolini, 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, was a first-team FCIAC basketball player over the winter. And he’s a terrific athlete. Since T-ball, he wanted a career in baseball and that dream kept gathering momentum. Last year, he was CIAC Class M All-State. By Tuesday, when rounds three through 10 were held, he said he was expecting a call. Paolini wasn’t a secret, but it would have been a fib if we told you in January people knew he’d go in the fifth round.
“It kind of came out of nowhere,” Chaves said. “He wasn’t getting many looks until early this spring. And the next thing you know people were coming in and following him around for a couple of games. I was talking to his mother before the game and she was saying, wow, this has been so sudden.
“He ended playing pretty much the entire season with two, three scouts at every game, going to the house afterward, watching him take batting practice. He was being scrutinized and had a lot of pressure on him. He performed extremely well.”
How well? The leadoff man has 10 home runs, 43 runs scored, 29 RBIs, seven doubles, four triples and takes a batting average a shade over .500 into the Class M championship game this weekend.
The Rangers, the Phillies and the Braves spent the most time around St. Joe’s this spring. A five-tool player, who hits and throws lefthanded and can play all three outfield positions, his stock grew this spring.
“I think it was a race between the Phillies and Braves who was going to take him first,” Chaves said. “Today we heard he was going to go third to seventh round. By today, we did have a pretty good idea.
“Stephen’s just a great kid. You might think a kid like that keeps to himself, a little arrogant. Just the opposite. He’s the most humble kid. His teams love him. This is pretty cool.”
Stephen’s dad, Mark Paolini, was on his way to the game from work in Hartford when he got the call. Stephen’s mom, Sharon Levine, was on her way to the game from home in Fairfield. Braves scout Ted Lekas was calling. What did he say?
“Congratulations,” Mark said. “We just drafted your son in the fifth round.”
“We are super excited,” Sharon said.
Did you laugh or cry?
“A little bit of both,” Sharon said.
“It has been their dream as well,” Stephen said. “I give my parents all the thanks in the world.”
East Catholic coach Martin Fiore, who was keeping an eye on the draft status of his former player Jimmy Titus of Bryant, was settling into the Muzzy stands when he spotted Paolini’s name. He immediately texted Chaves who was preparing his team in the locker room. Chaves went to Paolini with the visual news.
“The adrenalin rush was something I’d never experienced before,” Paolini said. “Having all your teammates congratulating you, it’s a great feeling.”
He flied out to left field in his first at-bat. He flied out to left field with the bases loaded in his second at-bat. In this third at-bat, he nearly killed himself and Rockville pitcher Anthony Mierez swinging mightily and hitting a little topper. Mierez fell down trying to field it and threw too late. Paolini had a 15-foot infield single.
“The last at-bat I was looking to sit back,” he said. “I had been way out in front the ABs before that. I had some jitters. I needed to sit back, seek a pitch in the zone and let it rip.”
He let it rip all right. The triple to deep center in the seventh was smoked. Jimmy Evans took care of the rest. He threw a three-hit shutout and 12 St. Joe’s seniors celebrated something that had eluded them. A championship game at Palmer Field in Middletown.
“We needed this one,” Paolini said. “We lost (in the semis) last year and the year before. It was time to get it done.’
Paolini, who transferred from Fairfield Warde as a sophomore, had committed to Elon University late in 2018. On this day, however, the family sounded as if Stephen was leaning to going pro.
“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks, since we’ve had some interest,” Sharon said. “I think now given the fifth-round draft pick, he’s really excited about going to play for Atlanta.”
A college diploma, Sharon said, is definitely the goal down the line.
“It’s a family decision at the moment,” Stephen said. “We’ll have to see what happens. Just what the family agrees upon, whether it’s time to seek my dream right now or wait another three years. The money is definitely (a factor). I’m just ready to go out and play ball, honestly. I’m ready.”
This is the third St. Joe’s program player drafted in eight years, although the others were already in college. Matt Batten, drafted by the Padres in 2017, already has risen to Triple A. As for Paolini, he said he is retired his fandom on the spot.
“I’ve dreamed of this day since T ball,” Paolini said. “Seeing guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts out there in the outfield, I’m a Red Sox fan. That’s changing as of right now.”