MONTAGUE — Jacob Buchberger stood outside the home dugout at the Montague High School baseball field, his old stomping grounds where he starred as a three-time, first-team all-stater.
Gazing into the distance, he could see the football field where he dazzled as an all-around performer, all-state defensive back and area player of the year for the Wildcats football program. Glancing to his left, he could spot the gymnasium where he was an all-conference point guard for Montague’s basketball team.
On a recent morning, before dew had a chance to evaporate off the grass at Montague’s diamond, Buchberger reflected on his time as a multi-talented athlete and ultimate competitor for his hometown, where the tireless worker adopted a blue-collar mentality.
Buchberger enjoyed a homecoming of sorts while his Peoria Chiefs baseball team visited the West Michigan Whitecaps for a six-game series in Comstock Park. Fans of Buchberger from Montague and the West Michigan area, as well as from Davenport University, where he also starred, showed up in droves for the Chiefs-Whitecaps series at LMCU Ballpark.
Buchberger’s first season of professional baseball has featured plenty of ups and downs as he’s made the climb from the St. Louis Cardinals’ Low-A affiliate in Palm Beach, Fla., to the High-A squad in Peoria. But the chiseled 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is a grinder — having worked on a building crew one summer and as a masonry laborer the next — so he’ll keep chipping away..
As those in Montague and at Davenport can attest, Buchberger is a winner. He always seems to find a way, no matter the obstacles.
“Once you’ve handled that adversity and once you’ve stayed the course, it makes everything so much easier when (the hits) do start to fall and (things) start to go well for you,” said Buchberger, a 2016 Montague alumnus, who will turn 24 years old in a few weeks.
On Aug. 23, the Cardinals organization promoted Buchberger from Low-A to High-A.
The utility infielder, who’s also capable of playing outfield, started slowly for the Palm Beach Cardinals but he finished strong. He batted .308 in 72 games with Palm Beach with 14 doubles, three triples, three home runs, 34 RBIs and 36 runs scored. In July, he batted .348 with an OPS of .944 in being recognized as a finalist for St. Louis Cardinals Minor League Player of the Month.
Buchberger has gotten off to a tough start with Peoria, batting .172 (10-for-58) in his first 15 games, although he’s had his moments. In back-to-back games during the recent series against the Whitecaps in front of hometown fans at LMCU Ballpark, he went 2-for-5 one night and 3-for-5 the next. He also made a terrific running catch down the right-field line from his second-base position.
“I’m just getting more comfortable around the guys,” said Buchberger, who is the son of Kevin and Christine Buchberger. “First week, you just want to make an impression early and I think in baseball that’s bad because you’re going to press at the plate and you’re going to swing at bad pitches because you want to prove yourself, you want to prove to everybody that you belong.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more challenging test than what Buchberger faced on back-to-back days with Palm Beach in May.
Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom made rehab starts for the New York Mets’ Low-A affiliate, so Buchberger got an eye-full of top-level big-league pitching. DeGrom’s fastball painted the outside corner at 102 mph and he also featured a cutter and slider in the mid-90s.
Buchberger admits a moment of being awestruck, but he’s adapted.
“When we walked into the hitting cages, you saw Jacob deGrom (on the lineup), his whole scouting report, and it was just like a fastball, slider, changeup, cutter, curveball …,” he said. “You just go up there and in the moment you’re like, ‘This is pretty sweet,’ and then when you get to the box you’ve just got to flush everything and just try to make good contact, hit it hard.”
Peoria manager Chris Swauger has been impressed with Buchberger’s athleticism and especially his work ethic.
He’s become a quick believer in Buchberger, who is a workout warrior and meticulously goes through a detailed stretching and warm-up process before games. At the start of spring training this year, Buchberger weighed 235 when he reported but he trimmed down to his current weight.
“When he first got here (to Peoria), that was the first thing I noticed. It jumps out at you how excited he is to come to the field every day and how hard he works,” Swauger said. “Especially if you do struggle, that’s one of those things that can always be consistent.
“We talk about it all the time with our team and he’s a shining example. It didn’t matter if he was 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, the guy’s work ethic and his attitude is the same every day. He’s a grinder-type player and he’s excited and he works his butt off and it’s good to see him start to have some success.”
Kevin Buchberger, who is Montague’s baseball coach, knew his son was special from a young age playing youth baseball in White Lake, but even he was pinching himself seeing Jacob on the field at LMCU Ballpark.
The Buchbergers would occasionally go watch the Whitecaps when Jacob was younger. But, now, he was playing against them.
“It really didn’t hit me when he was playing at Palm Beach or even when he was playing last week in Peoria, but when I knew he was coming to our home ball park, I was like, ‘It’s really happening,’” Kevin Buchberger said. “It’s been surreal, but it’s been pretty neat, too. It’s pretty cool to be able to come here and watch him play.”
Buchberger made a name for himself in multiple sports at Montague and in baseball for Davenport.
As a 6-1, 185-pound senior at Montague, Buchberger was named the MLive Muskegon Chronicle Player of the Year during the 2015 football season. He racked up more than 2,500 all-purpose yards as the Wildcats’ quarterback and kick returner. On defense, he played center field so to speak as the team’s safety and snagged 11 interceptions. He also handled punting and special-teams duties.
Once he began focusing exclusively on baseball at Davenport, Buchberger blew up.
In 2019, he was named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year as Davenport’s leadoff hitter and starting third baseman. He batted .424 that season, which ranked second in program history. Buchberger proved to have plenty of tools for the Panthers, totaling 11 doubles, three triples, eight home runs, 22 stolen bases, 37 RBIs and 50 runs scored.
In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt end to Buchberger’s senior season at Davenport. He was on a tear to start the campaign, hitting .525 with a 1.605 OPS, including 62 total bases in 61 at-bats.
Buchberger was passed over in the abbreviated 2020 MLB Amateur Draft that May, but the next month the Cardinals offered him a contract.
Buchberger aspires to follow the path of former Whitehall phenom Nate McLouth and make it to the big leagues. McLouth played Major League Baseball for 10 years, including stops with Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington. He was an outfielder, who earned a Gold Glove Award and played in the MLB All-Star Game in 2008 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His pro career wrapped up in 2014.
Buchberger said he wants to be the first Montague native to make it to “The Show.” He hopes to make everybody in his hometown proud and to instill a belief that young people, even from small towns like Monntague, can turn their dreams into reality.
“It gives me a lot of chills (coming home),” Buchberger said as stood outside the Montague dugout and reflected on his days as a Wildcat. “I mean, there are a lot of friends I made out here, a lot of cool memories playing on that field (gesturing toward the football field) and on this field and even the basketball court.
“Overall, it just gives me chills and it’s a blessing to be back here and to be able to come back to the hometown you grew up in.”
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