By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – How far is a young baseball prospect willing to go for exposure and experience? For former Bedford North Lawrence standout Brody Tanksley, the answer is exactly 1,135 miles.
That 17-hour drive, cutting north through the heart of the Midwest, concludes in the prime tourist destination of Bismarck, the state capital of North Dakota. Anyone thinking that’s about a million miles from prime baseball country would be totally wrong.
Tanksley, who just completed his sophomore season at IU Southeast, is competing this summer in the prestigious Northwoods League, which has produced Major League talent like Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, World Series champion Ben Zobrist and Boston ace Chris Sale during its 26-year history.
After a solid campaign with the Grenadiers, Tanksley will spend his summer “vacation” in such hot spots as Mankato, Duluth and Kenosha. The league features 22 teams and a 72-game schedule from May 28-Aug. 11, a condensed classroom against elite college competition.
“You don’t get much better,” Tanksley said. “This is the highest level I’ve ever played. I’ve seen a lot of good pitching. We’ve faced guys from Texas, Vanderbilt and all kinds of schools. It gets tougher and tougher as you keep going up.”
Tanksley defines tough. He hit .365 while helping the Stars win the Class 4A sectional championship in 2017. This spring at IUSE, he hit .337 (with 3 HRs and 27 RBIs) while starting 50 games as the Grenadiers went 37-20. He’s currently hitting .196 with a homer and 15 RBIs in 16 games for the Bismarck Larks.
Part of the struggle is the culture shock, adapting to life far from home. Tanksley is staying with a host family (along with IUSE teammate Hunter Kloke) and playing for Bismarck manager Sean Repay (an assistant with IUSE), but those are the only links to Indiana. Road trips start at 5 a.m. for 6-10 hour bus rides for a 3-game series. “There’s a lot of sleeping,” Tanksley said. And not a lot of scenery to pass the time.
“Some of the people talk a little bit different,” Tanksley said with a laugh, “but they’re super nice. Just down to earth people who never raise their voices. They help us adapt to everything and take it all in. And they’ve never heard of Indiana, had no idea where it is.
“I’m learning this is a lot like pro baseball, so you take one day at a time. You can’t live in the past, you can’t live in the future, you have to take it day by day and learn to slow the game down.”
Tanksley, by the end of the summer, will have played over 120 games, a lot of grinding for a catcher.
“It’s the most baseball I’ve ever played,” Tanksley said. “When I get back to school, this will help me and the team, sharing what I’ve learned. When I get back to school, it will feel easy.”
Tanksley admits the current batting average needs a boost, but the experience will be invaluable. IUSE coach Ben Reel believes professional scouts – who attend every series in the Northwoods and have already started noticing the Grenadiers – will soon make inquiries about the solid catcher who threw out 15 of 38 base stealers (with only 1 error) this spring.
“There was a point and time where I hit the wall and started struggling, and it gets to you,” said Tanksley, who has been slated to become the No.1 catcher for the Larks for the majority of the campaign. “I’m trying to play at the highest level I can. It’s kind of a shock (to see scouts), but it’s pretty cool. Those numbers aren’t looking pretty right now. But we have 50-some games left.”
Besides, what else is there to do is Bismarck? “I’m not sure there are any hot spots,” Tanksley said. Actually, Bismarck was a hot spot when the entire town nearly burned down in 1898. Now the hottest spot – outside the Abraham Lincoln State Park (a former outpost of General George Custer) and the Dakota Zoo – is Bismarck Municipal Ballpark, where Tanksley is learning more about his craft.