By David Willis
---- — John Farrell simply needed a change
After watching the first 20 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft earlier this month from his family’s Andover home, Farrell decided to switch off the selection show and turn his attention to some real baseball.
That was when, moments later, the phone rang with the call Farrell had imagined since childhood.
“A scout from Tampa Bay (Lou Wieben) called me,” he said. “He said, ‘Congratulations.’ I asked ‘For what?’
“He said, ‘Because we just selected you in the 21st round of the draft.’”
On June 8, Farrell fulfilled his lifelong dream of playing professional baseball when the Tampa Bay Rays selected the former Andover High and William & Mary ace pitcher as their pick in the 21st round of the 2013 draft.
“I know it’s cliché, but it really is a dream come true,” Farrell said. “I have always wanted the chance to play baseball for a living. When I got that call, I was overwhelmed with joy.”
Selected 638th overall, the 22nd pick in the 21st round, Farrell became the highest pick ever to play at Andover High, and the first former Golden Warrior to be selected since Kevin Shepard was taken in the 30th round in 2004.
Andover resident Mike Yastrzemski was drafted in the 14th round by Baltimore, but he played at St. John’s Prep, and current Major Leaguer Ryan Hanigan was not even drafted.
“I was hoping I was going to get my shot,” Farrell said. “I wanted to play baseball for a job, and now I want to make the most of it and work as hard as I can to be successful.”
Farrell signed his first professional contract last Monday, and was then assigned to the Hudson Valley Renegades of the single-A New York-Penn League. This week, he was projected to make his first professional start, going on the mound against the Aberdeen Ironbirds on Wednesday.
It has been an impressive journey for the right-hander with the low-90s fastball, which saw him deliver outstanding careers for the Golden Warriors and as both a closer and starting pitcher at William & Mary in Virginia.
“I guess it will be a little weird to be a member of the Rays organization,” the lifelong Red Sox fan said. “But I couldn’t be happier to be part of this organization. I want to work my way up the ladder.”
Farrell first emerged as a star during his junior season at Andover High in 2008, when he went 6-1 with a 2.36 ERA and a whopping 71 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings.
He was even better as a senior, finishing with five wins, a 0.70 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings pitched. He followed that with an outstanding season for the Andover Legion team.
During his senior campaign, Farrell committed to play for Division 1 William & Mary.
As a freshman in 2010, he was named the team’s closer, recording six saves, 56 strikeouts and earning Commonwealth Athletic Association All-Rookie team honors. After seeing his numbers dip as a sophomore, he rebounded the next season with eight saves, 42 strikeouts and a 2.32 ERA.
As a senior this year, however, Farrell returned to the role that made him a star at Andover, winning a spot in the Tribe’s starting rotation.
“I wanted to start,” he said. “I wanted to be able to impact the team in the role of a starting pitcher. I feel like, as a starter, you can impact the game a lot more. You can pitch deep into games and give your team a chance to win.”
Back in the rotation, Farrell simply dominated.
He finished the season 6-2 with a 2.37 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings. He also limited batters to a .241 average and allowed only four home runs, helping William & Mary to a school-record 39 wins and a trip to the NCAA tourney.
“Once I started locating my fastball, I felt like I had a good chance at success,” he said. “I feel like my command really started to click, and my slider was very consistent. It was a fun year.”
But the whirlwind was just starting.
“The whole year I was filling out questionnaires for Major League teams,” he said. “Then, about two or three weeks before the draft, a few teams started to call me. That was when I started to realize it could be a reality.
“I thought the (Washington) Nationals might draft me, the (San Diego) Padres were interested and then obviously Tampa because they took me.
“I was drafted on Saturday, and the scout drove down to my house in Andover on Monday to go over my contract. The next day, I reported to Wappingers Falls, N.Y. where I will be playing this summer. We started practice that day, it was pretty bang-bang.”
Farrell joined a Hudson Valley Renegades team that sports alumni, including 2010 American League Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton, three-time AL All-Star Evan Longoria, current Red Sox starter Ryan Dempster and former Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik.
He’s excited for his first Renegades start.
“They don’t want to throw me too many innings because I pitched so much in college, so they will limit me,” he said. “But I am willing to do anything.
“I think it will be great being a professional baseball player.”