The stars of tomorrow took center stage hours before today's All-Stars stepped on the field during the College Baseball Awards on Tuesday at the Kansas City Convention Center.
Mark Appel was recognized as the Pitcher of the Year, Brian Johnson was recognized as the Olerud two-way Player of the Year, while Mike Zunino, the Johnny Bench Award Winner and Howser Award winner, and Zach Vincej, winner of the Brooks Wallace Award as the top shortstop in the country, were also recognized.
The awards were originally announced at the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, on June 30 as part of the "Night of Champions."
"These young men want to know more about the history of this amazing game, which also includes 154 years, officially, of college baseball, and it's wonderful," said Jana Howser, who presented the Howser Award, which is named after her father, the late Dick Howser. "As the Commissioner said at his town hall address, Major League Baseball is at an all-time high and college baseball continues to grow on a national scale in attendance, bigger crowds and new stadiums all over the country. This is a great time for baseball."
It was a day to remember for the four young players. It's already been a year they will never forget.
Zunino, a former University of Florida catcher chosen by the Mariners with the third overall pick, also won the Golden Spikes Award, given to the player who best exhibits exceptional on-field ability and exemplary sportsmanship, this year. On Tuesday, he took home the Howser Award, handed to the best college player, and the Johnny Bench Award, bestowed to the nation's top catcher.
Royals owner David Glass joined Howser in the award presentation.
"Every day, I just try to go out there and be the best player I can be," Zunino said. "To be recognized for that is a great honor. I'm so thankful they have these awards and to all the people that have helped put this together."
Zunino earned the accolades. He batted .322 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs, with a .994 fielding percentage as a junior for the Gators in 2012. He credited his success to his father, who is a scout for the Reds.
"He said that catcher or a left-handed pitcher is the quickest way to the big leagues, and I couldn't throw left-handed," Zunino said.
Johnson, Zunino's teammate and the 31st overall pick in last month's First-Year Player Draft by the Red Sox, also shined during the season, posting a .307 batting average and an 8-5 record on the mound. Former Major League slugger Frank Thomas, Johnson's favorite player, presented the award, making an already memorable moment even more special.
"It was an honor to meet him and spend some time with him," Johnson said. "But I have to give credit to my family. I would not be here without their support and sacrifice all of these years."
Appel, a right-handed pitcher from Stanford and the No. 8 overall selection by the Pirates, is the latest in a long line of top prospects to be named the Pitcher of the Year, joining Nationals All-Star Stephen Strasburg and D-backs rookie standout Trevor Bauer on the winner's list. Jack Morris, who pitched 18 seasons in the Majors, presented the award to Appel.
"There are so many guys that deserve the recognition and I feel extremely honored to be the recipient," said Appel, who went 10-2 with a 2.56 ERA during his junior season for the Cardinal. "When I found out I won the award, I was ecstatic to begin with, and then when I was told I was going to the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game, I was like, 'Holy smokes. This is incredible.'"
Vincej, a product of Pepperdine University drafted in the 37th round by the Reds in June, is known for his defense, but he also excelled at the plate. Vincej batted .339 and made just four errors in 59 games in his junior campaign.
"If I'm not going to hit the way I want, I'm going to play the best defense possible for my pitcher," he said. "It's been great that I have been successful in hitting as well as defense, and I hope I can continue that."
The fun continues for the fabulous four.
The young men will be in the stands for Tuesday's All-Star Game, no doubt dreaming of being an All-Star in the future.
"It's every kid's dream to be a Major League player, an All-Star and in the Hall of Fame one day," Appel said. "It takes a lot of work and dedication, and hopefully we can make our dreams come true one day."