At home, Richie Palacios was calm, texting words of “congratulations” to the guys he knew who were selected before him on the first night of the major league baseball draft — until the call he’d been waiting for lit up his phone Tuesday afternoon.
“Dream come true,” he said.
The Towson University shortstop became the highest Tigers position player ever drafted, trading black and gold for the navy and red of the Cleveland Indians, who selected him in the third round (103rd overall).
“I’ve been working my whole life for this opportunity to be able to finally say that I’m a Cleveland Indian,” Palacios said.
The third-highest player drafted in Towson history, Palacios follows left-hander Chris Nabholz, the 49th overall pick by the Montreal Expos in 1988, and left-hander Chris Russ, chosen by the Texas Rangers 94th overall in 2000.
In the winter leading up to draft day, Palacios gave countless interviews, eye tests and psychoanalyses to scouts from all over the major league map. Afterward, scouts would tell Towson coach Matt Tyner, “He’s a good kid.”
To Tyner, that meant work needed to be done.
Tyner gave Palacios a scouts’ wish list: The right-handed-hitting shortstop needed to learn to hit the opposite way, improve his swing-to-miss and walk-to-strikeout ratios, and increase his speed.
“What’s really valuable is his willingness to learn,” Tyner said. “He’s not a kid who will say, ‘I’m doing it my way.’ He’s the guy that goes, ‘Give me more, give me more, give me more.’ ”
After his coach’s instructions, Palacios struggled in preparation for the season. Then, in the third inning of the second game this season, against New Mexico State, he hit a home run to right-center field, followed by another home run the next day, again the opposite way.
“He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘We’ll stay with it,’ ” Tyner said.
Palacios hit .301 with 18 doubles, eight home runs, 31 RBIs and 56 runs scored this spring. He walked 52 times and stole 25 bases. He is one of only two Division I players with 50 walks, 50 runs and 25 stolen bases this season.
“Richie possesses the fastest hands I’ve ever coached,” Tyner said. “It gives him the innate ability to attack medium-to-high fastballs. His hand-eye coordination is incredible. He’s going to be a threat offensively at every level.”
Along with a .323 career average, 38 doubles, eight triples, 19 home runs and 98 RBIs, Palacios became the first player in program history to reach 200 hits in his junior season. He was the first Tiger to be named Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year.
“Once I came to Towson, I tried to work harder than everyone in the United States,” Palacios said, “to stay focused on my dream, not let the other stuff in college distract me and let everything follow.”
Mirroring his regal last name, Palacios was raised with hopes of being the latest in his family to play baseball professionally.
“I came out of the womb with a baseball in my hand,” he said. “My father, my uncle, my brother [showed] me what was going to happen in the future, before it even happened.”
His uncle, Rey, spent parts of three seasons catching with the Kansas City Royals. And while growing up enveloped by his family’s stories and highlight videos, it was trading batter’s boxes with his older sibling, Joshua, on Brooklyn, N.Y., diamonds that developed Palacios’ competitive drive.
The two seemed determined to take a different road from each other to reach their collective end: while Joshua prepped at the School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, Richard played for the Berkeley Carroll School. Josh took to the outfield, Richard to the infield. Joshua enrolled in junior college and turned down a 31st-round selection by the Cincinnati Reds in 2014 before transferring to Division I Auburn, while Richard was recruited out of high school by former coach Mike Gottlieb to Towson.
“A lot of the top programs recruited me and then came to say I was too small for their school, for their conference,” the 5-foot-11 shortstop said. “That was added motivation to show those people I can.”
When his brother signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after being picked in the fourth round in 2016, Palacios added another layer of motivation to his mission.
“It just made that a little bit more of a reality,” Palacios said. “Seeing my old brother get drafted put it on my mind that, ‘Yes, this could be a real thing. If I work even harder, then teams will follow you and it’ll one day be your time.’ ”
By then, the younger Palacios had already produced remarkable seasons for Towson, setting a single-season stolen base record (32) and a freshman record for hits (74).
Approaching June this year, Tyner had an inkling where his star shortstop might land.
“We started hearing third [round]. Then you see draft forecasts, and your guy’s not in there,” the coach said. “We were hoping for fourth and fifth and we were prepared for beyond fifth.”
The Tigers staff narrowed Palacios’ prospects to a handful of teams, and two weeks out, it was Towson pitching coach Miles Miller who guessed Cleveland.
And it’s nestled into the Indians organization that Tyner sees Palacios’ athleticism transforming him into a utility player who can hit and defend.
“He won’t be pigeonholed,” Tyner said.
But as high as Palacios was feeling on draft-day euphoria, he has a realistic outlook. There will be long months and years ahead of him in the minor league trenches.
That’s why Palacios has kept his dad’s advice close to the chest.
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“Put all the time and effort and not get distracted and work so hard that if it doesn’t happen, you don’t feel any regrets that you could have done more, that you could have done better,” Palacios said.