Former University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) infielder Justin Jirschele is going through his first spring training of professional baseball.
Signed by the Chicago White Sox as a free agent last June, he spent last summer with team’s rookie-league club in Great Falls, Mont.
This spring, he’s looking to continue to move forward, as he follows in the footsteps of his father and older brother, who both played minor league baseball.
“I’m ready to see what I can do,” said Jirschele. “It’s all going to come down to how I perform this spring.”
A native of Clintonville, Jirschele grew up in an athletic family.
Last summer, the ballpark in Clintonville was named “Don Jirschele Stadium” in honor of his grandfather, a multi-sport standout and longtime coach and supporter of Clintonville athletics, who also played football for Bear Bryant at the University of Kentucky and signed a contract with the Green Bay Packers.
His father, Mike, was a fifth-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 1977 and played 13 seasons in the minor leagues, and is now entering his 14th season as the manager of the Omaha Storm Chasers, the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
And Jirschele’s older brother, Jeremy, was drafted by the Royals in 2005 after he was a two-time All-American at UW-Oshkosh, and then played four seasons in Kansas City’s minor league system.
“I grew up around the game, with my dad being in it and coaching,” said Jirschele. “And then I got to see my brother get a chance to get into professional baseball and play.
“It was just always a dream of mine to do the same thing and be like them,” said Jirschele. “A lot of people looked up to their dads and older brothers, and that’s exactly how I am.”
Jirschele also began his career at UW-Oshkosh, where he played as a freshman, before he transferred to UWSP after one season.
As a sophomore, as he was a First Team All-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) selection and received the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA)/Rawlings Gold Glove Award as the top defensive third baseman in Division III, as he helped the Pointers reach the 2010 NCAA Division III World Series.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, playing in the World Series in Appleton and being able to play in front of hometown people,” said Jirschele.
Jirschele repeated as a First Team All-WIAC selection and the National Gold Glove Award winner at third base as a junior, when the Pointers reached the NCAA Tournament.
He moved to second base full-time as a senior in 2012 and was named First Team All-WIAC for the third year in a row after he hit .347 last spring, and received the Midwest Region Gold Glove at second base.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said Jirschele of playing at UWSP. “Just being fortunate enough to play in two NCAA Regionals and having a successful career, as far as winning championships.”
He ended up not being selected in the Major League Baseball Draft last June, but the day after the draft, he got a call from the Chicago White Sox offering him a free-agent contract, which he quickly accepted.
“I’ve been around minor league baseball my whole life,” said Jirschele. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever known, and I just wanted it to happen.
“And it did,” said Jirschele.
After two weeks at the White Sox spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz., Jirschele was sent to rookie ball and played with the Great Falls Voyagers (Mont.) of the Pioneer League last summer.
From June through September, he ended up playing 21 games at second base and 20 at shortstop for the Voyagers, where he hit .267 with a .359 on-base percentage, 27 RBI, 20 walks and 21 strikeouts.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Jirschele. “Luckily I stayed healthy and played every day.
“That injury bug can hit you at any time, and I was fortunate enough to stay healthy the whole year,” said Jirschele. “I felt like I produced a little bit for my team and had a lot of fun.”
After the season, Jirschele was back in Stevens Point, where he worked out at UWSP with current Pointer baseball players and head coach Pat Bloom.
He then headed to the White Sox minor league camp in Glendale the first week of March, where he has adjusted to playing outside again after training indoors over the winter.
“It’s been good weather,” said Jirschele. “It’s sunny every day, and it’s just getting out and getting your timing down as a hitter, and getting a feel for taking groundballs in the field again.
“And it’s getting your routine every day, because now we’re playing games,” said Jirschele. “And trying to go to the ballpark every day and having the mindset that you’re going to get better.”
Jirschele is one of three former UWSP baseball players currently competing in spring training, along with Jordan Zimmermann and Plover native Cody Koback.
Zimmermann, a second-round pick by the Washington Nationals in 2007, is set to begin his fifth season in the major leagues with the Nationals after he went 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA last season.
Koback, a 10th-round pick by the Boston Red Sox in 2011, played center field last season in Low-A Greenville (S.C.), where he hit .260 with four home runs and 37 RBI in 89 games, and is expected to play in High-A Salem (Va.) or possibly Double-A Portland (Maine) this season.
Meanwhile, Jirschele is hoping to start off with the White Sox Low-A affiliate, the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators of the South Atlantic League, which opens its season April 4.
But if not, he’s prepared to go wherever he’s sent, and is looking forward to continuing his career in professional baseball.
“There’s definitely a chance I could go back to where I was last year,” said Jirschele. “But the goal is to move up to Low-A and play there a full season.
“And if not, I can go back to Great Falls or stay in Arizona,” said Jirschele. “The main thing right now is just to have a job, to be in the system and go from there.”