Callahan “Cal” Coughlin has one eye on an inquisitor and the other on the opposing team’s catcher. The Lake Forest High School senior pitcher/shortstop is a tad antsy, minutes after the end of a home baseball game against Carmel Catholic in April.
He wants to be polite, and he wants to be sure to share a few thoughts with the catcher, Cooper Johnson, before the foe heads to Carmel Catholic’s team bus.
“Would you mind if I take a minute to go over there and say something?” Coughlin, in mid-reply, asks a scribbler.
His request is granted.
“Thank you,” the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder, still in polite-mode, says.
Coughlin runs toward Johnson, who is milling around the plate after a 3-1 Lake Forest victory. They chat. They embrace and pat backs. Coughlin turns and returns for the rest of the interview.
“My best friend,” Coughlin says of the 6-foot, 200-pound Johnson, ranked No. 1 in Illinois in Prep Baseball Report’s Class of 2016, four spots ahead of Coughlin. “We have dreams. One of them is to play together for the same major league team.”
They had played high school baseball together for a couple of springs at Carmel Catholic in Mundelein, before Coughlin, a Lake Forest native, opted to transfer to Lake Forest High School before the start of his junior year. He had played varsity football as a sophomore linebacker at Carmel, quite a feather in his helmet. His mentality on mounds is that of a linebacker: fearless, relentless, here-I-come. His mentality at the plate is that of a linebacker: hit hard. Coughlin batted .292 and ripped a team high nine doubles in his junior season.
“Cal intimidated me when I first met him at a Top Tier tryout [at The MAX, in McCook],” Johnson, a Mundelein resident and an Ole Miss recruit, admits. “He was bigger than I was, threw hard. His fastball has always been lively. He’s got a full arsenal of pitches now. Tough. He’ll throw a low curve at you and then follow that up with a fastball, low to mid-90s [mph], in on your hands.”
Coughlin fanned 13 Corsairs batters in six-plus innings in that 3-1 win against many of his former teammates. He chucked exactly 100 pitches and allowed two hits, one to Johnson in the top of the seventh inning. He looked crisp on a crisp spring day.
Three batters faced him in the third inning. All three struck out, the last two looking. Grunts accompanied some of his deliveries, briefly muffling the start of the hiss of his heaters. His ninth K of the game stranded a Corsair at third base in the fourth inning.
“He’s a competitor; he’s got that ‘it’ factor you like to see in an athlete,” Scouts coach Ray Del Fava says of his No. 3 hitter in the lineup. “He does not give away anything, and he does not take anything for granted. He’s a pleasure to coach. Cal loves the game. The field is his sanctuary.”
Coughlin has committed to pitch for Texas Christian University, also known as the school where Cubs pitcher and reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta pitched. Arrieta pitches like he owns the rubber and the mound and the hope of any batter standing on either side of the plate. A pitcher’s repertoire isn’t limited to his array of pitches; attitude tames hitters, too. Coughlin watches Arrieta work. Arrieta sometimes wins the battle before the start of his windup.
“He’s a bulldog when he pitches,” says Coughlin, 3-3 with three saves last spring and 2-3 after solving Carmel Catholic on April 22. “Shows his hard stare. I love watching Arrieta pitch.
I am fortunate in that I get to call my pitches. When there’s something that tells me to throw a certain pitch, I pitch it with complete confidence. I want to send a message with every pitch. I am not afraid when I’m on a mound.”
Coughlin delivered an entirely different kind of message during the Lake Forest-Carmel game, and none of his targets was wearing a uniform. Lake Forest’s student fans made sure Johnson, striding toward the plate for an at-bat, heard them.
You could say they rode him and attempted to gallop inside his head. They were loud, aggressive with their chants. Coughlin appreciated their enthusiasm. Coughlin did not appreciate the derisive nature of the fans’ shouts. The big pitcher motioned to the section, beseeching its inhabitants to tone it down a bit.
“I love our student fans; I really do,” Coughlin says. “They’re always heard, always supportive. I just wanted them to show some respect for Cooper. Cooper won a gold medal for our country [as a member of the USA Baseball 18-U National Team at the World Cup last fall].”
How many other teens would do that? Kid Cal has values. Strong ones. The kid also values friendships. Even when the friend, wielding a bat, wears the school colors of the opposing team and would like nothing more than to de-seam the first hittable pitch he sees from his friend.
“Cal,” Johnson says, “is fun, a funny kid, bubbly and happy. But here’s the thing about him, the thing I really like about him: his loyalty. Cal is super loyal to his friends, a heck of a friend.”
Coughlin and Johnson won’t be just friends on June 9-11, dates of the Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. They could also become fellow members of the 2016 draft class. Each has a college scholarship in his back pocket. Security. The word scouts and ball clubs throw around during this time of year is signability. Say you are representing an MLB team and it has reached a deep point in the draft, an available prospect might not be enticing enough — lacking in signability — to draft because that available prospect and his family might deem the scholarship as preferable to the signing package. Good scouts get to know a prospect’s strengths and weaknesses. Good scouts get the height of a prospect’s ceiling right. Thorough Scouts get to know the prospect and his parents.
June probably seems years away to Coughlin on this day in April. That’s a good thing. His focus is on his next pitch or his next at-bat, whichever is due first.
His focus is where it should be.