Dylan Carlson was the runt out here for years.
He grew up on the Elk Grove High School baseball grounds, attending games before he could walk, then shadowing his father, Jeff, the Thundering Herd coach, around the basepaths with his kid brother, Tanner, in tow.
Carlson was a batboy, scooping up gear, shagging balls, handing out helmets, watching and learning. And there was mischief. Once during practice, when he was about 12, Dylan was climbing over rolled-up tarps and fell between them. He drew the ire of his no-nonsense pop, who barked, “Dylan, if you’re going to be out here, you have to act like you belong!”
Carlson has grown into one of the top players in the Sac-Joaquin Section this season and one of the most highly scouted players in the area. And he’s still growing. A 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior, he has displayed prodigious power from both sides of the plate and seamlessly switched from first base to center field. Entering Wednesday, he was batting .412 with eight home runs, nine doubles, 31 RBIs and 28 runs. He also is tied for the most homers in Northern California and is third in the state. As a pitcher, Carlson is 4-0 with a 1.77 ERA.
I’ve been very lucky to be in this situation and baseball has put me in the right place. I’ve worked hard to get here. We all have.
Elk Grove center fielder Dylan Carlson
Along with a 4.0 GPA, it’s easy to see why Cal State Fullerton took notice and signed Carlson to a scholarship.
Area and national scouts and front office personnel from many big-league teams have watched Carlson hit before, during and sometimes after games and visited the Carlsons at their home. Those who evaluate young ballplayers for a living think Carlson has a future in professional baseball, sooner rather than later.
Scouts believe Carlson, 17, could top out at 6-4 and 225 by the time he’s 21, meaning more power and potential.
“The kid’s an intriguing prospect, because of that power and upside, and he’ll get drafted a lot higher than many anticipate,” said one scout, who is not officially allowed to go on record about a prospect.
Carlson showcased some of his clout last summer during a showcase event at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. During batting practice, he hit home runs over the ivy-lined brick walls and out of the park.
But his lasting memory?
“It’s not every day you get to hang out with your parents at Wrigley, and that was awesome,” Carlson said.
Carlson has a chance to win his third section championship in his four seasons at Elk Grove. Under his dad, the Herd is seeking its ninth North section title since 2002. But Carlson prefers to talk more about his teammates than himself, be it about the Herd’s third baseman, brother Tanner, outfielder Ryan Robards or pitcher Alex Zalasky.
“I’ve been very lucky to be in this situation and baseball has put me in the right place,” Carlson said. “I’ve worked hard to get here. We all have.”
Carlson’s work ethic has reaped rewards. Even though he already has a scholarship, Carlson remains so focused on his studies that he and Robards spent their lunch hour Monday prepping for an AP statistics test. And actual lunch? No time.
Carlson also has been a student of the game, learning from players he’s watched through the years and playing on the varsity team during his freshman season, when the learning curve was as steep as the competition.
“The older players really helped me,” Carlson said. “They said I belonged; I knew I belonged.”
Said Jeff Carlson: “It wasn’t easy. You’re a 14-year-old freshman, not only trying to stick, but you’re the coach’s kid, and that’s a lot of added pressure. That was quite a maturing process. Dylan watched the older guys, how they handled themselves, how to play the game, how to work.
“It’s been really neat as a father and a coach to see what Dylan’s done. He went from sitting next to me on a coaching bucket to this, and his work ethic is off the charts. Dylan’s mature beyond his years now, and he’s a unique player. But I’m most proud of what kind of teammate he is.”
Said Robards: “He’s a great teammate. He’s handled all of this really well.”
Scouts have asked Carlson’s parents how their son has responded to adversity. Quite well, actually, intensifying his focus. His mother, Caryn, is a breast cancer survivor, then endured more heartache. Three years ago, she woke up partially paralyzed, the result of transverse myelitis, an inflammatory disorder that affects the spinal cord. Caryn remains in a wheelchair, but her spirit and optimism inspire the Carlson family and the Herd baseball team.
“She’s what drives all of us, a big reason we come out here and (compete so hard),” Carlson said. “We take things for granted that we shouldn’t (like walking). She really motivates me.”
It’s been really neat as a father and a coach to see what Dylan’sdone. He went from sitting next to me on a coaching bucket to this.
Elk Grove coach Jeff Carlson, on his son Dylan
Caryn gets emotional talking about her sons. She knows she will cry when her oldest is introduced in the final home game Monday on senior day. Tanner is a sophomore.
“It’ll be so surreal, and it’ll be overwhelming,” Caryn said. “Dylan grew up on these fields. He was in a stroller a couple months after he was born out here. It’s our home away from home. It’ll be especially hard for his father, because Dylan’s been hooked to Jeff’s hoop since he was 2 years old. I couldn’t ask for a better kid, both of them.”