Sunday, March 09, 2014 9:51 PM
Published on: Thursday, February 28, 2013
By Holden Wilen
Spring training is upon us.
The sound of a baseball hitting the mitt or the crack of a bat making contact with the ball—these sounds can be heard at baseball fields in cities and towns throughout Arizona and Florida as more than 750 baseball players report to camps for the 30 Major League Baseball teams. However, only one town is the spring training home of a player from Montgomery County – Justin Maxwell is in Kissimmee, Fla., training with the Houston Astros.
Maxwell, a 29-year-old outfielder, is from Olney and graduated from Sherwood High School in 2001. After years of shifting between the minor leagues and major leagues, and suffering an array of injuries along the way, Maxwell finally found a home last season in the middle of the Astros’ batting order, breaking out and leading the team with 18 home runs and 53 RBIs (second only to J.D. Martinez’s 55 RBI last season).
“I was starting every once in a while, didn’t really get a chance to play every day,” Maxwell said. “It started out that way in Houston last year. Before, I would’ve gotten frustrated, but last year I left it to God and whatever opportunity I had I was trying to shine for him and it really paid off. It helped me not only played better it definitely made me more at ease mentally.”
At Sherwood, Maxwell was a standout athlete for the baseball team, as well as the basketball team. The Orioles selected Maxwell in the 43rd round of the 2001 amateur draft, but he opted instead to go to the University of Maryland. He was drafted again in 2004 by the Texas Rangers in the 10th round but chose to stay in college. The next year he was drafted in the 4th round by the Nationals, and signed a contract.
Over his three seasons at Maryland, Maxwell hit .299 with 16 home runs, 71 RBI in 103 games.
Maxwell made his major league debut for the Nationals on Sept. 5, 2007, against the Florida Marlins, and recorded his first career hit as well—a pinch-hit grand slam off left-handed pitcher Chris Seddon. Maxwell’s first hit for the Astros was also a home run.
Sherwood baseball coach Sean Davis played with Maxwell for one season in high school; his senior year and Maxwell’s junior year. Davis said Maxwell was a good teammate, a friendly individual and a phenomenal athlete.
“He was just a physical specimen,” Davis said. “For a high school kid to be 6-5 and run like a deer and hit the way he hit and throw the way he threw—he was just a special player.”
Despite his personal success last season, Maxwell said as a professional baseball player he constantly looks to improve his game. Though he hit 18 home runs, Maxwell’s batting average was only .229 and is something he wants to improve on.
Hoping to improve his numbers, Maxwell said his offseason program consisted of working out with Matt Eiden, an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Nationals. As for improving the batting average, Maxwell said he just needs to be more consistent and make good contact with the ball. In fact, Maxwell said he doesn’t remember one time last season where he actually tried to hit a home run.
“I just try for hard, solid contact and whatever else happens after that is out of my control,” Maxwell said. “I definitely want to improve and definitely want to get better. Just hitting the ball harder every at-bat and getting more consistent with my approach will probably take care of everything else performance-wise.”
Maxwell said he would also like to see improvement team-wise as well. The Astros struggled as a team last year, finishing in last place in the National League Central division with a 55-107 record 42 games behind the division-winning Cincinnati Reds.
Things will not get any easier this season. The Astros are moving to the American League and will play in the AL West, a division widely regarded as the toughest in baseball. The Los Angeles Angels feature a lineup that includes perennial all-star Albert Pujols, last season’s American League Rookie of the Year Mike Trout and newly-signed Josh Hamilton. The Oakland Athletics were last year’s surprise team, coming out of nowhere to win the division, and the Texas Rangers made it to the 2010 and 2011 World Series. The Seattle Mariners should show improvement after making additions in the offseason.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Maxwell said. “We’re probably playing in one of the best divisions in baseball now. The one positive thing is we won’t have to watch the pitchers hit every day. We have to focus on what we are doing offensively and defensively, and the pitchers just have to focus on just pitching for the most part until interleague play starts up. It’s going to be tough for all my family in Maryland and the East Coast to follow our games when we play in California later at night, but it’s definitely going to be really fun.”
Despite his busy schedule as a professional athlete, Maxwell said he still keeps track of how Sherwood sports are doing by going online and checking the scores. As the only player in the majors from Montgomery County, Maxwell said he views himself as an ambassador for baseball in the county. He said it’s an honor, and he plays to represent not only himself but his hometown as well.
Davis said although he and Maxwell haven’t spoken to each other recently, Maxwell was a guest speaker at a banquet two years ago for a summer team Davis was coaching.
When speaking to the high school students, Maxwell said he delivered advice on not giving up on one’s dreams. Having faced adversity himself, Maxwell said it’s important to remain positive and have faith in God. Through his college and major league careers, Maxwell has suffered a number of injuries, including a fractured ulna in his right arm, a fractured wrist, a torn labrum and Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.
“Tough times happen, but tough times won’t last and tough people do,” Maxwell said he told his young audience. “If they keep that mindset and just keep focused on what’s important and really keep an eye on their goal, then hopefully it will work out the way they want it to.”
Maxwell also reflected on his memories of playing high school basketball and participating in the rivalry games between Sherwood and Magruder High School. He predicted Sherwood to win last Friday’s matchup between the two school schools, but Magruder pulled out the 49-45 win.
“I remember back when I played in ’01, they blocked off the entrance to the gym, and it was really tight,” Maxwell said. “You could pretty much run into all of the fans right next to the court. I think if it’s not as crazy as it was then it’s probably even more crazier.”
In the offseason, Maxwell spends his time in Maryland with his family. He also enjoys what he calls “Redskins time” during football season. He enjoyed watching Robert Griffin III lead the team to the playoffs, and he thinks if Griffin works hard and is able to make a successful comeback from ACL surgery, the Redskins can make the playoffs again.
While growing up, Maxwell said he did not really have a favorite team, although he liked the San Francisco Giants. However, he said he thought it was exciting for the Washington metropolitan area to experience playoff baseball last year, with both the Nationals and Orioles advancing to the postseason.
As spring training begins, Maxwell hopes to experience a playoff run of his own.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Maxwell said. “That’s why we have these spring training games. That’s why we train in the offseason. Everybody wants to win the World Series. Hopefully our team can get off on the right track and achieve our goal.”
For Sherwood, having Montgomery County’s only player in the major leagues is a big feather in the school’s cap, Davis said.
“We’ve had a couple of kids who’ve had small shots in the minor leagues, but for Justin to make it to the show and stay there, it’s just awesome,” Davis said. “I know that everyone involved with the baseball program is very proud of him. We all follow him.”