For Nate Pittman, it's all about keeping the dream alive.
During his youth-league days in Manatee County, Pittman was known as the ultimate workhorse, pitching so far beyond his limits he was forced to have Tommy John surgery after his graduation from Braden River High in 2009.
But he could still hit and run the bases better than most and went on to have a highly successful career at Florida Atlantic University.
Last season, the outfielder led the Sun Belt Conference with 48 walks, and his .460 on-base percentage topped FAU. He was second on the team with a .330 batting average and third with 40 RBIs. He also and had five homers, four triples and 14 doubles in earning second team All-Conference honors.
After his final college at-bat, he met with Major League Baseball scouts, and they told him not to worry and that he would be drafted. The Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels and St. Louis Cardinals were most encouraging.
The draft came and went, and Pittman never heard his name called.
"I was bummed out because I thought I was going," Pittman says. "They said they had to fit more pitchers in and were trying to work out a free-agent deal. I was a senior and didn't have much leverage, and I didn't have an agent."
Maybe it was his size. At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Pittman doesn't have the big body major-league teams like in their outfielders, so he will have to go the long route to prove
Soon after the draft, the 22-year-old got a call from the Windy City ThunderBolts. Located in Crestwood, Ill., about 30 miles outside of Chicago, they play in the independent Frontier League.
One of its teams is the Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums, which sounds more like a Sunday morning softball team. But this was no joke. Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Axelrod played for the Thunderbolts.
Pittman found a place to nourish his dream and signed a rookie contract for $700 per month. It's not so bad. He and a teammate live with a host family and are provided free lodging and food.
"It's a grind playing six days a week. It's tough on your body," Pittman says. "But I kind of reached my goal. I always said I wanted to play pro ball, and I did it. I am not trying to put too much pressure on me right now. I am getting paid to play the game that I love."
The center fielder signed on June 13, and on Friday night he led off the game against Traverse City with his first professional home run.
"It's not bad. We get good crowds. A few nights ago, we played in front of 5,000 fans, and we average about 2,000," Pittman says. "They play to win here. It's not just about putting up individual numbers. The fans and the owners want to win. In that respect, it's like college, but the pitching is better. A lot of pitchers were drafted and played Class A or AA ball. They throw in the 90s and hit their spots. It's tougher than college, especially with the wooden bats. The barrel is smaller, and you really have to concentrate to get those balls through the holes."
At 22, Pittman is one of the youngest players on the Thunderbolts, who saw three players sign major-league contracts this season. He is getting used to the wooden bats and expects his average to climb.
"Usually when they sign out of here, they go to Double AA. When I signed, the Red Sox scout I had been talking to told me to keep my dream alive, and that's what I am doing," Pittman says. "I am going to see how it goes. The season is over in September, and I will sit down and see what I want to do. Right now, I want to keep playing."
Pittman proved he was a winner playing a key role in FAU capturing the Sun Belt Conference tournament and earning a spot in the top 25 post season national poll.
Pittman was one of four Manatee County players on the FAU roster. Two former Manatee High/State College of Florida players, outfielder Tyler Rocklein and pitcher Jeremy Strawn, had solid seasons. Rocklein started all of the Owls' 62 games, hit .281, led the Owls with 49 RBIs and tied for the team lead in homers with 10. Strawn was 5-3 with a 3.46 ERA. Lakewood Ranch grad Seth McGarry was injured most the season. The freshman right-hander was limited to 9.2 innings and was 2-0.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.