Editor’s note: Latest in a series looking at the Tigers’ first 10 draft picks.
Sam McMillan’s father never played baseball.
But, boy, he sure was proud of his son.
“Oh yeah, he was my No. 1 fan,” Sam said. “If you live in my town, you knew my dad carried around a bunch of pictures of me in his wallet.
“You got talking to him, he’d talk about me any chance he got.”
That’s what made Draft Day so, so bittersweet for Sam.
His father, Filmore, passed away Nov. 21, early in McMillan’s senior year of high school. It was sudden, and a shock.
When McMillan was drafted last week in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Tigers, of course his thoughts turned to his father.
And when he signed his professional contract Wednesday, for $1 million, or more than $600,000 above slot value to forego a college career at Florida, Filmore McMillan was on his mind again.
“I don’t doubt he would’ve been wearing a Tigers hat for the next week or so,” said Sam, “nonstop.”
McMillan, a catcher from Suwannee High School in Live Oak, Fla., in the northern part of the state, east of the panhandle, dealt with a lot of adversity through his senior year of high school.
It started with his dad’s untimely death at the age of 58. Then early in his senior season, he started feeling tendinitis in his right, throwing shoulder, which caused some of the major-league teams to back off on their scouting of him.
The Tigers, though, were around early and often, and were confident the pain was behind him, after three weeks of rehab from March to April, so they took their shot on him in the fifth round, knowing it would cost a pretty penny to get Suwannee High’s valedictorian from passing up college.
Before Sam’s father died, the son’s life was so baseball-focused. That changed.
“That was tough, but it took my mind off of baseball for a little bit,” he said. “You kind of see the bigger picture. Hindsight is 20-20. It might’ve made the draft situation easier, just because I didn’t see baseball as as big of a deal.
“Maybe it made me stronger.”
McMillan, who bats right-handed, is 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds — the MLB Draft tracker had him at 5-10/165, which bugged him when he saw that in recent news reports; “Those were my sophomore measurements,” he said with a laugh — drew serious interest from the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as the Tigers.
He thought he might go on Day 1 of the draft, in the first two rounds, but when he didn’t, several teams, including the Tigers, called and told him to be patient and stay calm.
When you’ve gone through what McMillan’s gone through, he wasn’t sweating it like a normal teen-ager might.
Finally, in the fifth round, his name went off the board, the second catcher taken by Detroit in 2017, and the first prep player taken by the Tigers this year.
“I knew about a half-hour before it happened,” he said. “Still, it’s pretty surreal. Nothing can really prepare you for what that’s going to feel like.”
McMillan’s ascent onto the national radar came relatively quickly, early in his senior year, from showcase tournaments in Florida, including the Diamond Club. Scouts loved the contact he was making, to all fields. He doesn’t hit for much power, but that will come as he continues to fill out.
In his injury-shortened senior year, he batted .494 with 14 doubles, seven homers, 15 walks and just five strikeouts.
But the strength of his game, he said, is defense, particularly game-calling and the quickness of his transfer and release and his arm strength.
The Tigers took him knowing he had the potential to be a difficult sign, given his commitment to college powerhouse Florida, and his commitment to education. But Detroit planned for that, taking “money-saver” picks Max Green (eighth round, Pepperdine) and Luke Burch (ninth round, Kent State). They signed two other top-10 picks under slot, saving nearly $700,000. They used that money to sweeten their proposal to McMillan, who doesn’t come from money.
“Honestly, me and my family had to do a lot of research, to see what that money meant for my future. We looked into it,” he said. “Academics are really big for me and my family. But in my thought process, college is always going to be there. Whenever the Tigers give you the opportunity they gave me, it felt like it was all the cards falling in the right place.”
McMillan was getting settled into TigerTown on Wednesday, though interestingly, he already knew his way around the campus a little bit, having stayed in the same dorms earlier this spring when he participated in the state high-school All-Star Game at Joker Marchant Stadium.
He’ll have his first full workout Thursday, and then is set to join the rookie-league Gulf Coast League Tigers, so Joker Marchant will be his home for the foreseeable future. Lakeland is about three hours from his hometown, so there’ll be a comfort factor for McMillan, who also played quarterback in high school, knowing his family will be relatively close — and knowing Dad forever will be closest.
“He would’ve been super proud,” Sam said. “I’m sure he was really proud.”
Get to know ...
Sam McMillan, C
Age: 18 (Dec. 1, 1998)
Hometown: Live Oak, Fla.
High school: Suwannee
Draft: Fifth round, 155th overall ($313,900 value; signed for $1 million)
Fun fact: McMillan is the first high-school catcher drafted by the Tigers in the first five rounds since Brad Wilson of Towns County High in Georgia in 1989. He was taken in the second round.