Goldeyes all-star catcher makes helping at-risk children his mission
Winnipeg Goldeyes’ catcher Deon Stafford Jr. didn’t have an easy childhood.
When he was five years old, Stafford Jr. moved in with his grandparents — Jane and James — as his parents both struggled with drug addiction.
“I was raised by my grandparents and their selflessness is the reason why I’m here. I owe everything to them,” Stafford Jr. told the Free Press Wednesday afternoon at Shaw Park.
“I love them. My grandfather passed away when I was 15. He was really my only father figure, but my grandmother is my rock. She’s just so happy that I’m playing baseball still. She loves to watch me play.”
So when Stafford Jr., who was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pa., found out on the weekend that he’s been voted the West Division’s starting catcher in the American Association all-star game, Jane was one of his very first calls.
“She was texting me a week before it was even announced saying ‘You think you’re going to make it?’ She was in my head about it and obviously cared a little bit more about it than I did at the time,” Stafford Jr. said.
“But she’s absolutely thrilled.”
After a standout career at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where he set the program’s single-season home run record, Stafford Jr. was drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 MLB Draft by his home state’s Pittsburgh Pirates. He would bounce around Pittsburgh’s affiliated system for a few years and reach the Double-A level in 2021 before getting released and playing 27 games with the Goldeyes. Stafford Jr. re-signed in the off-season and is on a roll in his first full season in Winnipeg, hitting .246 with five home runs and 22 RBI. Defensively, Stafford Jr., now 26, hasn’t allowed a single passed ball and has held baserunners to four stolen bases on 12 attempts.
“I had a downfall mentally with my career and life with the Pirates. It landed me in Winnipeg and I’m honoured and blessed that I’m here because I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had,” Stafford Jr. said.
“… Just the stress of pro ball really got to me. Last year I hit rock bottom and I’m glad I could find myself and it definitely helped me coming here and developing a new me.”
While Stafford Jr. is enjoying the Manitoba capital, he’s no different than any other independent ballplayer: he wants to make it to the big leagues.
The desire to make it is for reasons bigger than baseball.
“Fortunately, God blessed me with the ability to play baseball and play sports. So, sports was definitely my gateway away from all that trauma. A lot of kids don’t have that. A lot of kids don’t have the support system I had in my grandparents. One day, when I’m financially able to, my sole mission in life will be to help kids like me,” Stafford Jr. said.
“I was blessed as not a lot of kids had what I had in my grandparents and baseball. So, if kids are going through that, just try to find something to get away from it, whether it be art, school, education, sports, whatever it is, just find a hobby and really dig yourself into it.”
Stafford Jr. is one of two Goldeyes to earn all-star nods as closer Tasker Strobel will also represent the Fish on July 12 at Impact Field, home of the Chicago Dogs. Strobel is tied for the league lead in saves with 11 and boasts a 0.81 ERA. The 27-year-old from Avon, Ind., is in his fourth year of professional ball, all at the indy level, and first with the Fish. Strobel’s enjoying a career-year as he had eight saves and a 3.71 ERA with the Gary SouthShore RailCats a season ago.
Strobel is an underdog story as he went undrafted out of Div. II St. Joseph’s College, a tiny school in a small Indiana town that shut down the year after he graduated.
The Goldeyes acquired Strobel in a trade in December from the Frontier League’s Les Aigles de Trois-Rivieres. The closer job was a big question mark heading into 2022, but Strobel has quickly turned the position into a strength for the Fish.
“Once I got traded, I texted (Rick) Forney that I’m going to be the guy,” Strobel said. “I’m gonna make that (closer spot), whether I get there in half a season or whenever… As a closer, I feel like you have to have that confidence.”
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