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Winker at 19, a boy looking to be a big leaguer

It is traditionally the last year of home rule, age 19, when parents still hold some sway over their children, telling them how to eat, what to wear and how long to stay out at night.

It is a time to look to the future and figure out what one wants to do with his life.

Jesse Winker is out playing baseball with the Dayton Dragons.

He not only knows what he wants to do with the meat of his professional life, he knows how to go about doing it.

Some of his friends have finished or are finishing their freshman year of college. Others have already joined the work force, hoping to find a profession that will fit their needs over the next 30-40 years. A few others are taking time off before becoming serious about a vocation.

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Winker, a lefty, is hitting better than .300 as a member of the Dragons, a low Class A team in the Midwest League that features bus rides of up to nine hours between cities, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and four rungs below the goal of reaching the major leagues.

It is not a college life mixing classes with weekend and week night mixers, co-eds and sleeping to noon. It is not a 9-to-5 job with weekends off. It is not even a mix of exact peers. Some of Winker’s teammates are 3-4 years older than him, a much bigger divide than say a person 24 befriending a 27-year-old.

“If you like to go to school, you would like to be a doctor, or you would like to be an engineer, a soldier,” Dragons manager Jose Nieves said. “If you sign to be a baseball player, you want to be a big leaguer.

“That’s what you want, what you wish. It takes a lot of sacrifice to be what you want to be. There are a lot of things in there. Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘I don’t know.’ If you’re young and you’re good, you’re the best, when you come here and face reality and struggle, you say it’s hard.”

Nieves faced that struggle living in Venezuela. He was signed as a middle infielder by the Milwaukee Brewers at age 16, playing his first professional game at age 17. In a year-and-a-half, he was released. He told his father he didn’t have the love to be a baseball player.

Over the next nine months of thinking about it, Nieves decided to give it another try. He went to tryout camps and was looked at mostly as used goods. He was not yet 19. Then the Chicago Cubs gave him a chance. He was in the big leagues for parts of five years, starting at age 23, before injuries moved him to coaching. He gained a love for the game along the way.

Winker has never wavered from the goal of making the majors, from the time he was 3 years old. He has known for a long time what it would take, and is prepared, even effusive.

“I love every aspect of it,” Winker said. “I love waking up in the morning no matter, whatever. If there’s a 10 o’clock game in the morning, I love waking up at 7.”

There’s more.

“(I love) the bus rides,” Winker said. “I haven’t found anything I don’t like, even the PB&J. It’s really peanut butter and honey for me, and bananas. I love everything about it. I love waking up and coming here.”

He began playing baseball as a 3-year-old in Buffalo. By the time he was eight, his parents had moved to a more baseball-friendly state, Florida, and Winker, who has two older brothers (one of them in the Dodgers’ chain), took even more to baseball.

His father ran a baseball training facility near Orlando and was always supportive.

That long bus ride to Appleton, Wis.? Winker feels like he’s been there before.

“I’ve always played on older teams when I was growing up,” he said. “When I was 14, I played with an 18-year-old team. Basically, at the end of the day, baseball’s baseball.”

Last summer, the Reds chose Winker as a supplemental pick in the first round of the amateur free agent draft, signed him to a $1 million bonus contract and sent him to Billings, Mont., to play rookie ball.

He was 18, a long way from home and hit .338 with some power.

Promoted to the Dragons this summer, he began the season miserably, hitting less than .200 until April 19. Since then, his bat has been booming at better than .360.

He was a pick the Reds made with a nod toward his talent, and a bow to his “makeup.”

“Makeup is the deciding factor,” Reds farm director Jeff Graupe said. “There are talented young men out there who want to play this game. But the ones who know exactly what they want and what it takes to get there stand out.

“(Winker’s) a player who can be challenged, not only on the field, but off the field. He’s not surprised or overwhelmed by the clubhouse environment.”

The early returns are impressive, not only on the field. Winker spent a recent day off with a couple of teammates at Kings Island. He waited until this year – not last when he first signed – to buy his first vehicle, a Camaro.

“I’m so happy I ’m playing baseball every day,” Winker said. “Some people have to get up and get dressed and go to an office. I don’t look at it that way. I’m so blessed. I look at it as I love it. It’s something I always wanted to do.”

He not only wants to make the majors, he wants to flourish there, along with his team. If that happens, Winker will pass another threshold.

“I don’t drink,” Winker said. “Never had a drink. Never had a sip of alcohol in my life.I never had a beer. Never had a sip of wine. Nothing.

“I grew up and was raised by two great parents. I want to have my first sip of alcohol when we win the World Series, or the pennant.”

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