As Heston Kjerstad awaits the call to get on with the business of proving his power-hitting potential as the Orioles’ top 2020 draft pick, it’s no small consolation to the Kjerstads that he can get on with business of another sort: the family one.
While home in Amarillo, Texas, preparing for the MLB draft and keeping his game sharp, the second overall pick has been back to work at the Water Still, the Kjerstads’ thriving distilled water and tea shop that’s both influenced his baseball growth and mirrored his own rise.
“We started from the ground up,” Jody Kjerstad said of the business, one that she believes her son has the mind to be a part of if it were not for the way he developed his knack for hitting in precisely the same methodical manner.
“The most influential people in my life were my parents,” Heston Kjerstad said. “They influenced me my whole life.”
Dave and Jody Kjerstad started Water Still in 1989 because they believed in the health benefits of distilled water, and the water in Amarillo “doesn’t taste very good, with kind of a high salt level," Jody said.
Using premium vapor distillation that mirrors the earth’s natural evaporation cycle and allows them to capture water at its cleanest and purest form, they began selling bottled and jugged water they made their own out of an old 7-Eleven building.
Now, they sell that water and 24 flavors of iced tea from two locations; the fountains take up an entire wall.
“It’s just a small family business, and very grassroots,” Jody Kjerstad said. “We didn’t have a lot of employees when we started. Just Dave and I and the family with a passion for selling healthy water.”
It’s one of the originals in a Texas panhandle drink scene that’s bred plenty of competitors and imitators.
But a third Water Still location is on the way, and though Heston and the rest of his brothers were raised in the business and knew how to work the cash register before they started kindergarten, baseball is too demanding for a regular shift.
“Our business is growing, so he doesn’t run the cash register anymore but there’s a lot of other things he can do,” Dave Kjerstad said.
Outside of the store, Heston took to baseball like his brothers, though he mostly played locally as their weekends were spent traveling for his older brother Dex, once a well-regarded prospect.
But he was always watching his older brothers play baseball, always internalizing what he was seeing and trying to apply it. Dave Kjerstad threw plenty of batting practice, but let his son’s development happen naturally. Heston didn’t play much outside the panhandle until high school.
“I wanted it to be their passion, their desire,” the father said.
Heston joined the DBATs program in the Dallas Metroplex area at 15, requiring nearly six hours each weekend to be part of the high-level travel team that helped his natural gifts start to develop.
Jim Chamblee, who coached Kjerstad for three summers in Dallas, acknowledges that he lucked into getting to coach him during that period.
“He just has the ability to put the barrel to the baseball so consistently,” Chamblee said. “I’ve yet to coach a kid quite like him as a far as a hitter and what he was able to do at the plate and the mature at-bats he was taking at such an early age.”
He said Kjerstad was laser focused on baseball at the time, and the kid they called “Snowman” for the amount of sunscreen his pale complexion required before he could take the field in the Texas summer sunshine was quiet at first but not in a standoffish way.
He eventually became “the king of the little sneaky one-liners” and further endeared himself to his teammates over those summers. There was no doubting that he was going places — or why.
“I’m a firm believer that your parents really help instill the type of work ethic that goes down to the kids and for him, his parents are just blue collar, hard-working people,” Chamblee said. ”I think that’s where it stems from, his family and his upbringing, and that nothing-is-given, everything-is-earned type of mentality.”
‘That was pure’
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn worried that Kjerstad wouldn’t make it to campus and would instead be drafted and signed out of high school, but it didn’t take long in fall practices to realize how fortunate he was that major league teams hadn’t caught on.
It dawned on the coaches that he was their starting left fielder after just a few scrimmages, and despite it being a veteran Razorbacks team with College World Series aspirations, no one minded the youngster coming in and making an impression.
“He never walked around like he was just the man or anything,” said Blaine Knight, an Orioles minor league pitcher who was the top starter on that 2018 Arkansas team. “He walked around with confidence, as anybody should. But he was always asking questions, asking pitchers how we pitched to him, always trying to get better”
Fall hitting displays are one thing. The moment Van Horn said he “knew we had a dude” came in an early-February game against Arizona in San Diego, where once the sun goes down the marine layer brings cold air and fog off the Pacific Ocean and the ball typically doesn’t fly.
“Heston Kjerstad came up in the fifth inning and hit an opposite-field home run almost dead-center, just a little to the left of dead-center,” Van Horn said. “And we just looked at each other like, ‘Oh my goodness. That was unbelievable that that kid just hit a ball through that marine layer, opposite field, and he’s 19 years old.’”
Knight said: “All I remember was the sound of the ball off the bat. I was like, ‘Dang. That was pure.’ That was the first one he really, really connected with, that we were all just like, ‘OK, so that’s what this kid can do.’”
Arkansas won that day, 1-0. It was the first of 30 home runs he’d hit over two-plus seasons at Arkansas. He hit .331 with a .975 OPS there, and was on pace for a historic season before the coronavirus shutdown.
‘He had to be the guy’
He grew into a legitimate star, but Jody Kjerstad said that he never acted like one.
“He was still the same person and genuine; just a real kid that people like to be around,” she said. “That was one thing that we’re proud of, that he stayed grounded and was a very humble kid and he’s so well-liked by everybody. Everybody likes to be around him. He has a bunch of positive energy.”
Van Horn saw what would be considered growth more than it would be change. He came back from a dominant summer from Team USA and worked harder last fall than he ever had before. His best friend on the team, Dominic Fletcher, was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Van Horn wondered how he would be without his running buddy.
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“All of a sudden he was the man, and he realized it,” Van Horn said. “I really appreciated it from him. He became a leader. The first couple of years, he kind of led by example. This past year, he had to be the guy and he did it.”
Knight says the Orioles got a “typical Texas kid” to join their farm system in terms of Kjerstad’s interest off the field.
On it, Kjerstad seems particularly well-equipped to handle the expectations that come with being drafted so high to an Orioles team that many thought would be looking elsewhere for the pick.
Knight said Kjerstad is “super competitive” and is happy to prove doubters wrong. His family believes that there’s some aspects of proving it to himself in there as well, developed over a lifetime of trying to catch up to his older brothers.
“He’s going to have to prove himself just like he did going into Arkansas,” Dave Kjerstad said. “He wasn’t guaranteed anything when he went to Arkansas. This is where the rubber meets the road. He knows that. The pick is great, but there’s a lot of work ahead of him. He’s looking forward to going to work and he knows he’s got to earn it just like he always has."
That edge and self-motivation is exactly what Orioles manager Brandon Hyde asked the team’s amateur scouts in an offseason meeting to keep in mind, supervisor of domestic scouting operations Brad Ciolek said.
“He basically told us he wanted us to keep one thing in mind when we were looking at guys, in addition to working hard, being dedicated and having the work ethic,” Ciolek said. “The three words were ‘Nice don’t play.’ And Heston certainly has the edge to him. He’s a fierce competitor.”