BILLINGS - Keep an eye on Jalen Garcia this season.
When he and the Billings Mustangs open their Pioneer League baseball campaign Wednesday in a 7:05 p.m. start in Missoula, he returns as the league's reigning Rookie of the Year.
But at age 25, Garcia knows the clock is ticking on his baseball dream. So, more fiercely than ever, he's chasing the chance to join a Major League affiliate.
"I feel like my swing is the best its ever been, I feel physically ready," Garcia told MTN Sports just outside the Mustangs clubhouse.
The outfielder graduated from Billings Christian School, lit up American Legion ball for the Billings Scarlets and was a record-setting base stealer for MSU Billings.
Then the game he loved halted to a standstill. Garcia was out of baseball for a couple years before earning a shot with last season's Mustangs. He considered his return rough, though. Rough enough, he thought, to actually get cut.
"I struggled right off the bat. I think I struggled just getting into the swing of things (It) was just different."
Then he turned on the jets. Not only did the Mustangs keep Garcia, every team in the league was aware of him during the second half of last season on his way to Rookie of the Year honors.
"After the first half, I made just one little adjustment," he said, "...and it changed everything for me."
That adjustment was a more upright batting stance allowing for power at the plate and leading to 12 homers down the stretch.
This off-season, instead of jumping back into a full time job, Garcia trained rigorously with a former teammate in New York.
He then committed to play in Mexico with a chance to draw more scouting interest, but that didn't work out. Their loss turned into the Mustangs' gain, with Garcia's drive very much alive to elevate in baseball.
"I would love to get signed and sent to maybe Class AA, put my career on the fast track because I know I'm not going to play forever."
Mustangs skipper Jim Riggleman, who's managed five Major League Baseball clubs, recognizes talent when he sees it.
"I'm hoping some club recognizes what he can do and grabs him at some point," Riggleman said.
Garcia, meantime, isn't ready to return to 9-to-5 job.
"I've been in the working world for a year already, so I know what it's like," he said. "I feel like I have a different perspective than a lot of these guys do. I feel like I'm playing a game, I get paid to do it, so it doesn't really get better than that."
Until, just maybe, that message from a AA club pings his phone.