Jordan Rathbone just wants to play baseball.
In his sophomore year, Rathbone said his coach at South Mountain Community College (AZ) did not want to start him since it was only his second game back after being out with a hand injury for the last two months. However, the team was in Game 2 of the Conference Championship series, so despite Rathbone’s hand not being “there fully,” he made a pinch-hitting appearance in the late stages of the game.
He hit the game-tying 3-run home run. Rathbone’s South Mountain teammate and eventual UCF teammate, Ryan Saltonstall, said it went “dead center.”
“Nobody’s going to be 100% out there as the season goes on,” Rathbone said. “So, I always felt comfortable knowing that if I was a little bit injured, as long as I felt good enough to go, I always would.”
Between the college season’s end on May 30 and the MLB Draft this weekend that will determine what path lays ahead, the outfielder took the time to reminisce on moments like this, taking stock of his now-complete college career. Looking back at his final two years with the UCF Knights, 2020 and 2021, a combination of a drive to play every game, a powerful bat, and a bit of luck on the health front can explain why head coach Greg Lovelady said Rathbone was one of the toughest kids he had ever coached.
Back in the winter and spring of early 2020, Rathbone was entering what was thought to be his final season. With two seasons of eligibility used at South Mountain and another one used the previous season at UCF, where he only played 11 games, Rathbone knew he did not have much time in college baseball.
“I know these games are limited,” Rathbone said. “Starting last year, I knew I didn’t have a million of them left. So, I just wanted to get the opportunity to play in those games.”
As it turned out, Rathbone would get more time with UCF than he thought he would. While the right fielder started all 18 games, the 2020 season ended prematurely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that didn’t stop him from picking up right where he left off in 2021.
Rathbone said the thing he was most proud of this season was that he got to play and start in all 61 games.
“I felt like my goal is to just be there every single day and I just want to be available,” Rathbone said. “You can’t really help the team that much if you’re sitting on the bench injured.”
The feat is more impressive when considering that Rathbone did have his fair share of minor injuries in his final season as a Knight. Lovelady said in a press conference after the American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship Game that Rathbone dislocated a pinky in April and broke a thumb in May. He still never missed a game, which he attributes to a bit of luck.
“As you play through college baseball, a lot of those things happen when you play hundreds of games, but I got really lucky and I never that bad ACL tear or anything major that kept me off the field,” Rathbone said.
“I was talking to a couple buddies of mine, just embracing the time we’ve spent together, and I remember that [Rathbone] just started cranking home runs and I was like, ‘Dude, I need to really just sit back and enjoy what he’s doing up there because it’s really special.’” Saltonstall said. “It’s awesome, what he did the last month or so of the season. When he got up there, you knew something cool was going to happen every time.”
It was not just the batter’s box where Rathbone made an impact. By being one of only two seniors on the roster (the other being pitcher A.J. Jones), Rathbone was one of the team’s senior leaders as well.
Rathbone said he was never one to scream and yell and that he tried to be a positive influence for the younger players that made up the majority of the baseball team’s roster. To do this, he led by example.
“It just goes to show like what kind of leader he is,” Saltonstall said. “He puts his work in every day and it’s contagious, guys want to follow that. I mean, you look at his work ethic and then you go look at the results like those speak for themselves.”
Lovelady would praise this very same work ethic in a press conference following the Senior Day game on May 21.
“I can’t wait to see what he does in his life,” Lovelady said. “I think it’s going be great things, just because of his work ethic and how much he cares.”
The next step for Rathbone will all depend on if his name gets called during the 2021 MLB Draft, from July 11-13. The draft’s first round will be aired on ESPN and MLB Network, while the rest of the draft can be streamed on MLB.com.
“He’s molded into this great ballplayer,” Saltonstall said. “I just hope that he gets the chance to go show it for a professional team.”
Jordan Rathbone still just wants to play baseball.
Regardless if he is drafted or not, signed or not, Rathbone said he wants to make sure he remembers everything about his college career so that he can hold onto it for his professional career, whether it be as a player or a coach. Doing so, he said, will help him remember what made America’s pastime fun for him, so that he may one day pass it on.
“It’s just crazy how fast it goes,” Rathbone said. “It goes by in the blink of the eye.”