BOB NIGHTENGALE

'The secret is out:' Diamondbacks top prospect Corbin Carroll makes wise decision: Baseball over soccer

Jeff Cirillo, the former two-time All-Star infielder, gave the Carroll family advice when Corbin was just 14 years old: Choose baseball or soccer.

PHOENIX – There was Corbin Carroll’s mother and father. His sister. His grandmother. His agents. Friends. Coaches.  

And there was the former 15-year, All-Star infielder sitting among all of them in the stands Monday night at Chase Field, traveling from his Washington home on a morning flight, just to witness Carroll’s major-league debut as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ starting right fielder. 

Carroll, who produced his first major-league hit, a two-run double in the largest D-backs’ comeback victory in franchise history, 13-7, over the Philadelphia Phillies, will tell you he’s had plenty of help along the way. He praises his family, his friends, coaches and teammates. They all had a hand in making him the most heralded D-backs’ prospect since Justin Upton in 2007. 

Yet, it was the recommendation from his coach for the WW Sweets Baseball Club, an 18-and-under league in the Seattle area, that perhaps made it all possible. 

Jeff Cirillo, the former two-time All-Star infielder, gave the Carroll family advice when Corbin was just 14 years old. 

It not only forever changed Carroll’s fate, but maybe the entire D-backs franchise, too. 

“I knew he would be special from the time I coached him when he was 12,’’ Cirillo tells USA TODAY Sports. “He was a little guy, but he was fast. He was small, and came to us as a pitcher, who could really run. Well, he also was an amazing soccer player, and elite soccer player. But he’d come back from soccer practice and join us for baseball and he’d just be beaten up. 

“I remember telling his parents when he was 14, 'You know this guy has a chance in baseball. He’s got speed that you cannot teach, and amazing hand-eye coordination. So, I would think long and hard about this soccer thing.' 

“If he really loves soccer, he should play it. If he really wants to do both, do both. But I’m watching him come to practice, he’s rolled his ankle, he’s hobbled, it’s going to take a toll on him.’’ 

The next thing he knows, Carroll’s mother, Pey-Lin, is telling Cirillo that her son’s soccer career is over. 

“I remember saying,’’ Cirillo says, “'This is the right move.’’’ 

Diamondbacks Corbin Carroll makes his major league debut against the Phillies.

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Soccer’s loss was the Diamondbacks’ gain, believing he could be the one to lead the franchise back into prominence, or at least contention, after just one playoff berth and one postseason victory the past 11 years. 

Carroll, ranked as baseball’s top prospect by several publications, has drawn glowing reports by every scout and coach who has seen him. He’s one of the fastest players in the game they’ll tell you, with a great arm, fabulous plate discipline, power, and incredible baseball acumen and makeup. He could be a perennial All-Star. 

“Man, I haven’t seen a rollout like this, not this soon,’’ says Cirillo, who now scouts for the Los Angeles Angels. “It’s almost like an anointing. That’s a lot to ask. That’s a lot to put on someone.’’ 

Carroll, who turned 22 last week, arrived at Chase Field with camera crews following him around. There was a press conference set up for him before the game, an interview session after the game, mixed in with a Diamondbacks’ historic comeback – trailing 7-0 without a hit in the fourth inning, and scoring 13 unanswered runs without giving up a hit the remainder of the game. 

Carroll was asked about how he would handle the almost surreal expectations. He paused for about 20 seconds, saying he needed time to process the answer. 

Finally, he said, “At the end of the day, that’s not necessarily what I seek. There’s a lot of highs and lows in this game. I think being on this stage obviously only amplifies that. My plan, as I have throughout my career so far, is just to stay true to myself, stay true to my values, do right by other people, and let that stuff take care of itself.” 

That’s Carroll, who has been astute and intuitive ever since he was a kid, his parents say, and he still is constantly asking questions, searching for knowledge. 

“He’s just a sponge,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo says. “He’s always been a sponge since the first day I met him. He asks incredible questions.” 

Scouts take notice of the 5-foot-10 rising star

Cirillo, who went to the University of Southern California, tried to persuade Carroll into playing for the program, too. Carroll went on his first recruiting trip to USC, but because of his sleight build, 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, USC coach Dan Hubbs and his staff had reservations. 

“I remember Dan telling me, 'He really looks good Jeff, but gosh, you think he’s going to grow?'" Cirillo recalls. “I’m like, 'Dan. I don’t care if he shrinks.’ 

“This kid is special. I mean, this is a kid that never played a day of football in his life, Pop Warner or anything, and he’s the starting quarterback on high school football team as a sophomore. 

“He’s just a freshman in high school, and he’s the starting pitcher in the championship game. He could do anything. I remember thinking, these are the stories they’ll tell on TV down the road.’’ 

UCLA baseball coach John Savage soon called Cirillo, asking about a shortstop, Carter Young, who eventually went to Vanderbilt. 

“I told him he’s a great player, but I don’t know if UCLA is perfect for him,’’ Cirillo said, “but there’s a kid you’ve got to look at who’ll be perfect for you. He’s an unknown right now, but his name is Corbin Carroll.’’ 

Carroll, who planned on majoring in Physiological Sciences, went on his recruiting trip, but as Savage recalls, it was almost as if Carroll was recruiting him. He came locked and loaded with questions, asking about the civic department, math studies, and making sure he could get the proper time to study while he played ball. 

Carroll was all set to attend UCLA but everything changed, Cirillo says, when became the MVP of the Area Code Games, and then MVP of the All-American Game, leaving professional scouts salivating. 

“I remember texting Savage and saying, “'The secret is out,’‘’ Cirillo said. “I know he thought he was tucked away in northern Washington where not many scouts are, but everyone started noticing. 

“He not only shined, but he was the shiniest of the shine.’’ 

Carroll's pro career begins: 'He's very driven, motivated'

The D-backs fell in love with him, drafted with the 16th pick in the first round in 2019, but it was hardly an idyllic start. 

Carroll was never able to play in a single game in 2020 with Covid shutting down the minor-league season. If nothing else, they got a few laughs when Carroll and his mom drove from Seattle before the opening of the alternative camp, taking a few rounds of batting practice at a local high school. 

Well, the trouble was the custodians locked the school gates, and Carroll and his mom had no way out, with their car parked in the lot. They wound up calling the D-backs offices, and lo and behold, D-backs icon Luis Gonzalez arrived with two ladders. 

“I said, we could have climbed over the fence ourselves, but our car is in there,’’ Pey-Lin said. 

The keys finally arrived, but in the meantime, Gonzalez had questions. 

“What are you guys doing here,’’ Gonzalez said. 

“He’s hitting BP [batting practice]," Pey-Lin said. 

“So, who’s throwing to him?,’’ Gonzalez said. 

“Me,’’ Pey-Lin said. “Who else?’’ 

Yep, Mom has a good arm. 

“I must throw good BP,’’ she said, “because Corbin’s a good hitter, right?’’ 

Carroll was ready to play his first full professional season the following year in 2021 for Class A Hillsboro, but seven games into the season, he needed season-ending shoulder surgery.  

He could have gone home and rehabbed his shoulder in 2021, but he stuck around, and sat in the scouts section virtually every home game with quality control coach Jeff Gardner, constantly picking his brain. 

“He's just very driven, motivated,’’ D-backs GM Mike Hazen said. “You saw him last year scouting games when he was hurt. He was here every day. That speaks to how he thinks about the game.’’ 

Carroll made up for lost time this year, soaring through three minor-league levels, hitting .307 with a .425 on-base percentage and .610 slugging percentage with 24 homers, 62 RBI and 31 stolen bases. It was finally his turn to be called up Monday, almost in disbelief that he was on the same field as former World Series hero Madison Bumgarner, and Phillies second baseman Jean Segura, who was one of Carroll’s heroes when he played for the hometown Seattle Mariners. 

The crowd of 18,594, which included 13 coaches from the D-backs’ Class AA and Triple-A teams that the D-backs invited, cheered every move he made. The only booing was directed at the official scorer when Carroll’s potential first hit in the fourth inning was ruled an error after Segura bobbled the ball and Carroll beat it out. 

Carroll made sure his first hit would be cherished an inning later, hitting a two-run double into the left-center gap off lefty Cristopher Sanchez, breaking a 7-7 tie, and sending the crowd into a frenzy. First hit. First RBI. First game-winning hit. 

When the game ended, Carroll still was making the right moves, sidestepping teammate Alek Thomas’ valiant attempt to douse him with a Gatorade cooler in a postgame TV interview, and gave another round of interviews inside the clubhouse. 

“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be,’’ Carroll said. “It just felt like being out there with friends.’’ 

Carroll, wearing a Nike T-shirt, Air Jordan hat and Khaki pants, shook a few more hands, and walked out of the clubhouse into the corridor. 

There, about 20 family members and friends, waited. He turned right, and wrapped his arms around his mom and dad, Brant. He then handed his mom his game jersey to keep, along with the baseball from his first hit. The lineup card will come next. 

They all went back onto the field for about 20 minutes to take pictures, soaking up every last moment, when the soccer discussion arose again. With Cirillo standing in front of the dugout with arms crossed, Carroll’s mom was asked to confirm the story about that soccer decision. 

“It’s all true, but you know something, that soccer coach still says he made the wrong decision,’’ Pey-Lin said, laughing. “You know, maybe he could have been really good in soccer. 

“But I like his future in this sport.’’ 

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale