When he was 13 years old, Justin Dean didn’t know if he wanted to play baseball anymore. He started playing again his freshman year of high school and it was the right decision. Dean grew up an Atlanta Braves fan and this year his dream of playing professional baseball was given a chance in the 17th round or the Major League Baseball Draft by none other than the Atlanta Braves.
“I loved watching Andrew Jones,” Dean said. “I loved Andrew Jones, I loved Chipper Jones… It’s a really cool experience to be able to wear the same jersey as them.”
The 17th round of the draft is on the third day, so Dean was stuck playing the waiting game for quite a long time before the phone finally rang.
“It was a crazy experience. I was nervous… I didn’t want to look at the draft board, but then I didn’t want to miss my name,” he recalled. “It was an up-and-down thing with emotions, just staying positive, praying of course… it was the best feeling because this was my favorite team growing up.”
Dean began playing baseball when he was just five or six years old. By the time he was eight he was playing on travel teams and by 13 he played at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“I’d say I loved it then, but after a while I got burnt out,” he said. “I took a break and after that I didn’t know if I wanted to play… I didn’t know if I wanted to get back into it.”
But as his freshman year in high school was approaching, Dean started working out again and that was when Dean was sure he wanted to pursue baseball.
“Working towards the game, working to get back into it, that’s what made me fall in love with it again,” he said.
But after his senior year in high school there were no offers to play at the college level. Dean was set to go to USC-Upstate and pursue a business degree or something of the like, but he wasn’t ready for the dream to end.
“My high school coach ended up giving me a pamphlet to their camp at Lenoir-Rhyne… I was a walk-on spot, but I knew I wanted to play baseball, I knew I had a dream to chase, so I ended up doing it,” Dean said.
At Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II school in Hickory, North Carolina, the team hosted a pro day when Dean was a sophomore. He wasn’t eligible to be drafted yet, but Dean put his name out there in front of the MLB scouts. Then, that summer, Dean had scouts showing up to his games.
“That’s when it hit me hard (that I could be drafted),” he said.
Now, Dean is in Danville playing for the Braves as the starting center fielder, trying to join some of his favorite players in the league.
“When I watch Major League guys play and people think, ‘those guys are freaks, those guys are super talented,’ and of course they are, but it’s like why can’t I be one of those guys? I really think I can and I think putting in the work is the only way you can find out,” he said. “Mookie Betts, that’s probably overall my favorite player. He’s crazy. Offensively, defensively I love watching him play. Of course Mike Trout, those guys, George Springer is a great guy in the outfield.”
He’s already made a name for himself in Danville as a guy that can make the spectacular play in the outfield, but he’s also been able to show off his speed to the likes to six doubles and three triples. But, which is better?
“I like taking hits away from people. It’s really exciting to go chase after a ball, see if you can get there, no matter how far,” Dean said.
There isn’t a whole lot of time from when the ball leaves the bat to Dean needing to make a decision as to whether he goes for the spectacular play or if he holds back and just keeps the ball in front of him.
“Me, knowing my speed, I’m probably going to go for it just because I want to make that play. That’s the play everyone thinks about making before the game,” he said. “More times than not I’m probably going to go for it, but I still have to know the situation, how many runs you’re up by, how many runs you’re down by and who’s on base. You’ve kind of got to make a quick decision.”
At the plate, Dean got off to a roaring start. He hit a minor skid a couple of weeks ago, but now he’s back hitting at .309 with 11 RBI entering play Thursday. He has been hitting leadoff for much of the season, a spot Dean feels very comfortable in.
“I really just went out there and told myself to just play the game. It’s no different whether you’re playing for the Braves, whether you’re playing for your high school team, you’ve still got to play the game of baseball, so I’ve tried to simplify it as much as possible and relax and just go do it,” he said.
He hasn’t hit any home runs yet, but he knows that if he were to hit one out, ‘I’d have hit it perfect, and even then it might not get out,” so he just focused on putting the ball in play and use his speed.
“I’ve had to learn my role and what kind of player I am… You can’t help but get caught up in trying to hit home runs. They’re so exciting, everyone loves to see them, so you kind of have to remind yourself what kind of player you are, what your tools are,” he said. “My goal is just to put the ball in play and run. That’s the best asset I’ve got.”
Dean said he’s had to get used to the amount of work on a daily basis that is required to play at this level. He said it was tough at first, but now he’s prepared for it. On game days, he takes his batting practice, but once that ends he puts baseball to the back and thinks about anything other than baseball.
“I listen to a lot of music. We recently just got a ping pong table in the locker room so I’m definitely about to go whoop somebody in that,” he laughed. “I really don’t even think about the game until it’s game time.”
Dean was raised in South Carolina, a little over three hours away from Danville, allowing his family and friends to see him play. Not every player gets that at this level, but Dean is enjoying having that comfort at the ball park.
“It’s really comforting because a piece of home comes with you sometimes,” he said. “My parents have been able to come, I’ve had multiple friends be able to come, friends and family, so it’s been really cool to see the people that have supported me throughout this journey show up and be able to continue to support me at the professional level.”
He had a lot of people to thank for why he is where he is today. He’s been able to see and talk with a lot of them, but to the people that haven’t, he hasn’t forgotten about them either.
“I want to thank my parents 100 percent for the constant support… I want to thank you for always keeping me positive. My friends, always understanding what I’m working towards and always being able to support me,” he said. “I want to thank my coaches… I want to thank y’all for believing in me and pushing to get to this level and I just want to thank everyone who hasn’t maybe heard from me in a while. You’re still in my mind, you’re still in my heart and I want to thank you for constantly loving me.”
There’s still a long way to go before accomplishing the ultimate goal of being in the big leagues, but Dean is content just enjoying the ride.
“You’ve got to trust the process,” he said. “It’s like cooking a recipe. You can’t skip from the beginning to the end and expect it to be what you were looking for,” Dean said. You’ve got to put in the hours, you’ve got to put in the work and you’ve got to stay the journey. If you focus on the journey rather than the destination, then you’ll end up reaching it in the end.”