"My brother and I would always play one-on-one in the backyard and I would pretend I was Dick 'Night Train' Lane," Phelps said. "He was a ferocious safety notorious for head hunting."
Eventually, however, Phelps would turn in the pigskin for an aluminum bat, and trade one-on-one football with learning switch-hitting with his father in the backyard. The aggressiveness would remain in his game, though, and this season, it would key a season that would put him on the national radar.
Indians scouting director Brad Grant said Phelps was "definitely" on the Indians radar after a sophomore season that Phelps would label disappointing. The second baseman hit .301 with no home runs, leaving him with a paltry .425 slugging percentage.
"We saw someone who has the chance to be an offensive second baseman, with the ability to stay up the middle defensively," Grant said.
For Phelps, his sophomore season was a struggle, as he gutted through a painful stress fracture in his back. Phelps said it sapped him of all power, so Stanford opted to give Phelps the summer off to rehabilitate his injury. Phelps said it's been a year since he's had pain in the back, and as a result, credits health as the single biggest reason for an increase in his power numbers this season.
After entering the spring without a college home run in 278 at-bats, Phelps hit two in his first game against Nebraska. It was a sign of things to come, as Phelps would end up with 13 home runs, and a reinvigorated .345/.441/.570 batting line. As a result, Phelps would become the fourth college second baseman drafted, taken 107th overall.
"Power was the one piece that elevated his game to the next level," Grant said.
On Wednesday, Phelps had the opportunity to show off his skills against the first second baseman drafted in 2008, Oakland selection and Miami infielder Jemile Weeks. While Weeks was taken 94 spots ahead of Phelps, the Cardinal got the last laugh by playing a key part in Stanford's 8-3 win, eliminating the top-seeded Miami from the College World Series.
Batting leadoff, Phelps would finish just a home run short of the cycle. After leading off the first and third with a single and double, respectively, Phelps' biggest damage came in his fourth plate appearance in the fifth inning. With two outs, Phelps hit a triple beyond the outstretched arms of Miami center fielder Blake Tekotte, bringing home Stanford's Toby Gerhart and Jake Schlander for Stanford's sixth and seventh runs.
Phelps would get one try at the first cycle in the College World Series since 1956, but ultimately lined out to right fielder Dennis Raben to finish with a team-high three hits.
"Obviously I knew in the back of my mind that I was a home run away from the cycle," Phelps said. "But I feel like in baseball, when you think about something like that, it never happens.
"The last at-bat I was trying to get on base and keep it rolling, and obviously that didn't happen, but it was still a good night."
Phelps helped set the tone for Stanford immediately, collecting the team's first hit in the first inning, and its first run in the third.
"That was a big part of it, getting started with the leadoff hitter, getting started with a couple of base hits early," said center fielder Sean Ratliff, who hit the game's lone home run in the four-run fifth.
Phelps is ideal for the leadoff role, as he led the Cardinal with 40 walks on the season. Beyond a healthy back, Phelps' improved plate discipline has also played a large role in his breakout.
"The more at-bats you get, you get a better idea of what pitches you're going to swing at and what to let go," said Phelps. "My mechanics are a bit different this year, but it's more my mental approach from at-bat to at-bat [that has led to success]."
After taking last summer off, it has now been almost two years since Phelps has used a wood bat in games. The 21-year-old was an All-Star in the New York Collegiate Baseball League in 2006, where he batted .276 in 127 at-bats. Phelps said it will be his revised plate approach, and a learned ability to be aggressive on pitches in the zone that will help him succeed with a wood bat.
As a former salutatorian at Santa Barbara High School, and a student-athlete award winner in college, the Indians know Phelps has the intelligence to handle anything that will be thrown at him in pro ball. But Phelps knows that, on the field, it will always help to be more Night Train Lane than Albert Einstein.
Bryan Smithis a contributor to MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less