OMAHA, Neb. — A baseball player through and through, T.J. Collett has had a bucket list of things to do in the game since he first started swinging a bat and earning the attention of professional scouts and college coaches across the country.
The list, in no particular order: Get drafted, spend a summer playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League and, maybe most of all, compete in the College Home Run Derby. Mission accomplished. The senior-to-be from Terre Haute, Indiana lived a dream on Saturday, swatting baseballs through a thick Nebraska night where temperatures still hovered near 100 degrees at TD Ameritrade Park deep into the evening.
Collett collected 16 home runs in two four-minute-long rounds and finished fourth in the six-man event. He clobbered a blast off the massive videoboard beyond the right field bleachers and concourse, stopping just for a moment to see where the 465-foot blast would come to rest. To Collett, neither his finish nor how far he hit a baseball mattered near as much as the experience, which he squeezed every last drop out of with a deep contingent of family and friends in attendance to share.
“I just want to thank everybody who helped me get here,” Collett said. “Honestly, it’s one of the best times I’ve ever had in my baseball career. I’d like to thank my parents. I’d like to thank everyone in Omaha for being so hospitable. This has been such a blast and thank you, BBN, for cheering me on.”
It was an unforgettable week for Collett. He celebrated his 22nd birthday on Wednesday, worked out at Fenway Park in Boston with his Brewster Whitecaps teammates on Thursday, hitting a batting practice home run in the process while checking another item off his bucket list. He toured Boston later that day and then flew to Omaha on Friday for the Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans College Home Run Derby.
He spent part of Friday telling the story of his work with and the mission of the Jessie Rees Foundation and NEGU [nam04.safelinks.protection.outlook.com] for a feature that aired during the event before meeting up with an army of family who made the trip to Omaha, including a cousin in the Air Force who happened to be stationed at the local base. On Saturday morning, Collett and his father joined the other participants at the stadium for a quick round of BP before returning in the afternoon for several pre-event activities that led up to the event.
Up first, he hit nine home runs in the opening round to advance to the second round, where he hit seven more. He won the crowd of nearly 17,000 over with his wide smile and playfulness that showed when the natural left-hander turned around and hit a ball off the wall from the right-hand side. He waved to his family sitting behind home plate and the family of UK teammate Austin Schultz, who had driven an hour from their home in Adams, Nebraska just to cheer him on even as Schultz was playing summer ball in Georgia, something that was deeply meaningful to Collett.
All the while, the infectious smile he’s graced UK baseball with for three years never left his face.
By the time the massive post-event fireworks show ended late Saturday night and he had spent nearly 30 minutes signing autographs for kids lined up along the railing near the dugout, Collett peeled off his blue Kentucky jersey, slipped his backpack on and walked out into the Midwestern night with his father at his side. Exhausted but elated, Collett talked about the ball he hit halfway to the Missouri River just beyond the stadium and offered one final thought.
“What an amazing night,” Collett said.