GLENDALE, Ariz. — White Sox outfielder Adam Engel wanted to be the next Brett Favre, but football's loss was baseball's gain.
"My dream always was to play in the NFL,'' Engel said.
The former Loveland (Ohio) High School quarterback still wonders how different his life might be had he accepted Wisconsin's scholarship offer. After initially showing lukewarm interest in Engel as a defensive back, ex-Badgers coach Bret Bielema found, late in the process, a spot in his 2010 recruiting class on the offensive side — too late, as it turned out. By then, Engel had made a commitment to the University of Louisville to play baseball.
"I talked to my family but decided to stick with Louisville,'' Engel said. "Calling back coach Bielema to say sorry was one of the hardest things to do but I don't regret it.''
Running into walls beats running into tacklers.
"It's the next best thing,'' said Engel, who didn't give up the football mentality.
The sturdy 6-foot-2, 210-pound Engel became good enough with the glove to rise through the Sox system after being selected in the 19th round of the 2013 draft. He arrived at spring training as the favorite to be the Sox opening-day center fielder, competing with Leury Garcia and Charlie Tilson.
Engel's Twitter handle, @ManofSteal_10 could apply to blazing speed running bases or dazzling skill robbing hitters. Few center fielders play shallower than Engel, who gets to everything with tremendous instincts and athleticism. New-era metrics show Engel recorded 16 Outs Above Average in 97 games last season, the third-highest in the majors. Old-school descriptions say Engel's glove is where extra-base hits go to die.
"I just credit a lot of reps,'' said Engel, 26, an infielder converted to outfield at Louisville. "Defense can keep you around and one day you'll get a feel at the plate and it'll take off eventually.''
The Sox would love Engel to improve at the plate so they have a nice problem by the time prized center-field prospect Luis Robert matures into a major leaguer. There seems nowhere to go but up for Engel after a season when he endured an anemic slash line of .166/.235/.282, with six home runs and 21 RBIs in 301 at-bats. The speedster stole eight bases in nine attempts but, as they say, struggled stealing first.
"Adam is a tremendously gifted center fielder, and we're looking for him to show us what his offensive capabilities are,'' Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "We're confident he's going to be able to do that. At this point, it's a matter of performance.''
If only Engel could regain the confidence swinging the bat he possessed earlier in his development, as far back as high school when he hit .537 and shared the Cincinnati-area prep spotlight with a slugger from Middletown, Ohio. ("I was at shortstop when we played Kyle Schwarber's team and I've never seen a ball hit as far as his home run that hit the press box on the football field across the street in right field,'' Engel recalled, smiling.)
After Engel enjoyed a productive 2014 season offensively at Single-A Kannapolis in his first full season as a pro, then-manager Pete Rose Jr. called him the Sox's top overall center-field prospect. But the higher Engel ascended, the harder it became to see progress at the plate.
"My journey as an offensive player is well-documented and hasn't come as naturally as defense,'' Engel admitted.
To his credit, Engel openly acknowledged his weakness and devoted his offseason to fixing his swing. Sox hitting coach Todd Steverson and Engel tweaked his swinging fundamentals over the winter. He draws inspiration from All-Star players once known primarily for their defense who became dangerous hitters — "If guys like Anthony Rizzo and Brandon Crawford can do it, so can I,'' Engel said.
He scrapped what didn't work about his right-handed mechanics for what felt naturally. He added movement, involving a slight leg kick and adjusting his hands.
"Most of my career, I've tried to water down my movements but I've seen that's actually had opposite effect,'' Engel said. "So I'm putting myself in a more athletic position to capitalize on that. I want to establish myself as an offensive player this year. That's the big goal. And I'm ready.''
Staying ready on and off the field enabled Engel to cope with his most hectic week as a rookie. The Sox sent Engel to Triple-A Charlotte on June 11 when the team was in Cleveland — three days before Engel's wife, Jaime, was scheduled to give birth to the couple's first child. A call in the middle of the night alerted Engel the baby was coming early. So Engel rented a car at 2 a.m. and drove 250 miles to his hometown of Cincinnati to discover — this time — he had gotten a good jump for nothing.
"False alarm,'' Engel said.
Sympathetic to the situation, the Sox told Engel to take his time getting to Charlotte. On June 12, Clarke Isabella Engel was born with both parents present. A week later, after a four-game stint with the Knights, Engel returned to the South Side for the remainder of the season.
A silver pendant with his daughter's name engraved into it now hangs around Engel's neck.
It's a daily reminder that some things are worth the wait.