Reign Letkeman is living a dream.
The Red Deer minor baseball product was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Major League Baseball draft in June and is now delivering pitches for the Gulf Coast Rays based in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Letkeman will never forget the day he was drafted out of Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Wash., a day that started with the 20-year-old already preoccupied.
“I was just getting ready to move out of my apartment at the end of the school year,” he said. “I looked at my phone and noticed I had a couple of missed calls requesting that I check in with the Rays organization. I called back and asked what was going on and they said they had just picked me in the 23rd round [688th out of 1,251 players selected].
“That was definitely exciting. It was just kind of a surreal moment, I was kind of in shock thinking about what a great opportunity I was presented with.”
Displaying their belief in Letkeman’s pro potential, the Rays signed him to a contract in early July and assigned him to their rookie-level team in Port Charlotte. By putting pen to paper, Letkeman gave up his scholarship to Old Dominion University in Virginia, a school he planned to attend this fall.
“I had signed with Old Dominion and the decision I had to make was either take the pro route or get another couple years of education,” he said. “After a lot of consideration, my family and I decided that pro was my best option because of what we were offered.”
While he didn’t disclose the amount of his signing bonus — or if he was even offered a bonus — Letkeman admitted that his contract is on a month-to-month basis. As he develops and moves to a higher level, he will sign a more secure deal.
Regardless, he’s just tickled to be playing for pay by a big-league organization that recognizes his potential as a pitcher.
“Because I’m still young and have only two years of college instead of four years of university ball, I obviously have lots of growth to do as a player and as a person,” said Letkeman. “I need to mature physically so they (Rays) sent me down here so I could kind of get familiar with the system. They have a really good pitching coach down here and he’ll help me with what I need to do to move forward.”
Letkeman was born in Red Deer but raised in Consort and Delburne until his family moved to Red Deer when he was five. He played all of his minor baseball in the city until his final season of midget AAA, when he suited with the Sherwood Park Athletics following two years with the local Carstar Braves.
After one year at Big Bend Community College, he suited up with the Edmonton Prospects at the start of the 2014 season, but fell ill and eventually moved back to Red Deer and joined the Sunburst League Riggers.
Letkeman returned to Big Bend last fall and despite fighting an injury bug, put up some impressive numbers with the Vikings. He posted a 3-0 record in seven games, allowing 22 hits, nine walks and recording 41 strikeouts in 34 innings while checking in with a 1.58 earned-run average.
“I was injured for half of the season and only got to pitch the tail end,” he recalled. “Still, I pitched pretty well when I was healthy enough to play.”
Letkeman was a pitcher/shortstop during his first year at Big Bend, but decided to concentrate solely on his mound duties last season.
“This year I just decided to go the pitching route after the injury,” he said. “Playing shortstop was physically demanding with throwing and hitting every day. This year I just pitched because we felt, my coach and I, that was where my future lies. We just decided that was the route we needed to take.”
Letkeman’s best pitches are his curveball and slider. His fastball tops out at 89 to 90 mph and his changeup is a solid third pitch than can keep hitters off balance.
“I’m working on my changeup right now,” he revealed. “That’s kind of the organization’s trademark — developing pitchers with changeups. I’ve been working on that since I’ve been here and it has been improving.”
The Gulf Coast League season started in the middle of June and concludes at the end of August. Letkeman’s first appearance at the rookie pro level was “rough,” but he rebounded nicely during his next two outings.
“The second and third games were really good. I’ve felt a lot more comfortable and relaxed on the mound,” he said. “I’ve kind of settled in and started to realize what I need to do, so it’s been going real well as of late.”
At the conclusion of the season, if he doesn’t play in a fall developmental league or winter ball, Letkeman won’t be back on the diamond again until late winter.
“I’ll get some months off and then return for spring training with all the (Tampa Bay) pro teams, including the big league club,” he said. “From there, you are assigned to whatever level is appropriate for your development and ability.”
Being drafted and then signed to a pro contract was a fantasy come true for Letkeman and the continuation of an arduous trek for an athlete from a cold-climate country.
“In Canada, baseball is not the hottest topic, it’s kind of more about hockey,” he said. “Just the grind of getting through it … going from minor league baseball to college baseball and now to the professional level has definitely been a journey.
“Pitching at this level has been an adjustment, but the Rays chose me for a reason — they know I can do it. I realize now that I was meant to be here and that I just have to continue to do what got me this far. That’s how I’m going to be successful.”