Big things for Byckowski with focus on diamond

* In the span of a year, Robert Byckowski left the ice to focus on baseball full-time, played in the inaugural Tournament 12, was added to the Canadian Junior National Team, and was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 22nd round in June. (Photo: Alexis Brudnicki). .... 2014 Canadians drafted … Canadians in Minors Canadians in college summer ball …. Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent

By Alexis Brudnicki

It's been a big year for Robert Byckowski.

Just over a year ago, the 18-year-old was still thinking about his budding hockey career and wasn't fully pursuing baseball. He hadn’t really given much thought to the Canadian Junior National Team, and he didn’t know where he would end up when his high school days ended.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Byckowski said. “But I figured that if I worked hard, everything would work out. And it has.”

Last summer, the third baseman left the ice in pursuit of being on the diamond full-time. Playing for the Ontario Blue Jays, he quickly earned a spot in the inaugural Tournament 12, a prestigious event hosted at Rogers Centre by the Toronto Blue Jays in September for Canada’s top draft-eligible baseball talent.

Byckowski impressed at the tournament, and it was there that Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, Greg Hamilton, extended an invitation for the young hitter to join the national squad on an October trip to Orlando to play against professional competition in the fall instructional league.

From there, Byckowski continued his progression. With plenty of eyes on him during various tournaments with both Team Canada and the Ontario Blue Jays, the Etobicoke, Ont. native earned a scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University, and in June he was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 22nd round of the draft, allowing him the option to pursue professional baseball.

“It was really exciting to be picked,” Byckowski said. “A lot of hard work paying off.”

He was one of just 17 players hailing from north of the border to be chosen in this year’s draft, and one of only eight Canadian high schoolers taken. Though it sounds as though Byckowski might have been hoping to be selected slightly sooner, he is certainly proud of what he accomplished.

“It was kind of a crazy day,” Byckowski said. “You can’t really predict what’s going to happen. I came in with no expectations and it worked out well. I’m sure I’ll look back at it and think, 'wow, that was pretty cool.' But it’s a little bit too soon.”

The young infielder did not sign with the Reds, the second time he has passed after a selection process (he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League earlier in his young athletic career).

“I had a number in my head, and if it wasn’t there I was going to school,” Byckowski said. “That’s how it ended up working out…I’ve been through a draft process before with hockey, so you just try to go in with no expectations and hope for the best. That’s what I did.”

Byckowski will soon head to Fort Myers, Florida in pursuit of his post-secondary education at FGCU and continue his baseball progression playing for the Eagles. He’s most looking forward to “the weather,” and the all-around experience that a collegiate career will offer.

“Robert’s really happy about going there,” his father, Bill, said earlier this year. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and there is going to be a lot of baseball ahead of him. He’s only played for [12] months, and he’s going to now get a string of three years where he’s going to be playing steady.

“So I think he’s looking forward to it; he’s looking forward to being in Florida for the winter and being able to play baseball outside all the time. That’s really going to help his advancement.”

Before leaving home to head to school, Byckowski will likely have one more trip with Team Canada before his tour as a junior is over, hoping to assist the squad in Mexico at the World Junior Qualification Tournament. Heading into his last trip, the feeling is bittersweet.

“It’s kind of sad,” Byckowski said. “But it’s been a great time. It’s such a great program and I’m thankful to be a part of it.”

Earlier this season, the man at the hot corner injured his throwing shoulder while running the bases and had to take some time away from the field, including missing a much-anticipated trip with the national squad to the Dominican Republic.

“That was tough,” Byckowski said. “I really wanted to go on that last trip before the draft and prove myself again and play to the best of my ability. But things didn’t work out and it ended up working out for the best because I ended up getting my school done and getting my [remaining] credits. So, everything works out for a reason.”

Byckowski doesn’t believe that the missed trip had a negative effect on the selection process either.

“I don’t think it changed [my draft status],” Byckowski said. “I mean, it didn’t help, but I don’t think it hurt it. I’m not going to blame it on the injury or anything.”

The team that selected him in the draft was pretty familiar with the young player anyway, since Bill Byckowski is a long-time scout and cross checker with the Reds.

“It was pretty stressful for [my dad],” Byckowski said. “He had to almost work double, because he was trying to see my games and then he was trying to scout, and he was mixing around his schedules. It was pretty cool to have him at everything and I’m very appreciative that he made the time to come out.”

He was also excited to be taken by the team his father works for.

“It’s still an honour,” Byckowski said. “I don’t really care what other people think about it, so it’s not too big of a deal. And it was pretty special to be drafted by my dad’s team. I was very appreciative, and it was a great honour.”

Does the young Byckowski think the process will be any easier for his dad in three years, when he is eligible out of FGCU as a junior?

“No,” he said. “He’s a worry wart so he’ll be stressed out anyway.”

Bill can take a breather for a while now, at least when it comes to thinking about heading into the war room, and Robert is happy to have this summer’s selection process in the past as well.

“It’s nice having the draft done with,” Byckowski said. “It’s kind of a relief. You can get back to working at your game and getting ready for the junior [tournament] and going to school. I’m pretty excited just to get better and keep working.

Despite his son’s claims about the draft process down the road, Bill is looking forward to seeing where Robert’s young career will take him.

“The sky is the limit,” Bill said. “He’s had so many fewer at-bats than anybody, and ground balls, and just game experience. He really missed two summers of baseball and that’s tough. That’s tough to overcome. He did a good job, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. His upside is really good and I think he’ll take advantage of it.”

-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis