Before they stretched into 6-foot-5 towers with rocket arms, before their pitches started traveling faster than any law-abiding car, it was popcorn chicken that brought Riley Pint and Joey Wentz together.
That was the snack of choice for the second-graders, killing time between youth basketball games at Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee. Pint went for the barbecue sauce, Wentz the ranch.
Wentz laughs as he recalls the memory; it seems so insignificant.
But those were the meals that began a friendship, and helped build the bodies that would one day become two of the hottest commodities in amateur baseball.
A decade later, Pint and Wentz share training time at Premier Baseball Kansas City, along with the expectations of a city and the attention of a gaggle of major-league scouts. The national attention ramped up when the two were high school freshmen. Pint was throwing 92 mph. Wentz was seen as an elite bat, with the potential to develop a great arm.
The hype grew, and the outside world noticed. Greg Schaum, who works for St. Louis-based sports agency Arland Sports, recognized the talent when the boys were freshmen. He’s served as their adviser ever since, helping Pint, Wentz and their respective parents answer questions about the world they’re about to enter.
Most draft projections, including ESPN, MLB.com and Baseball America have predicted Pint will be taken among the top five picks in June during the Major League Baseball first-year player draft. Wentz has shot up boards in recent months, joining his childhood friend in several projections’ top 20; ESPN has him going 11th.
Pint, a right-hander previously clocked at 102 mph, is a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School. In 28 1/3 innings pitched, Pint’s allowed 11 hits and 15 walks, striking out 51 and earning a 0.25 ERA for the 14-1 Saints.
Just 12 miles away, fellow senior Wentz, a lefty, pitches for the 12-3 Shawnee Mission East Lancers. He threw his first 26 innings of the season without allowing a hit, and has given up only two in 36 innings pitched. He’s collected 74 strikeouts on the way to a 0.00 ERA.
According to a National League scout who has watched both pitchers extensively, they could become an historical duo. The Kansas City area has had a top-five pick before — Gardner Edgerton’s Bubba Starling to the Royals in 2011. But a high-school right-hander, like Pint, has never been chosen No. 1 in the MLB draft. And it’s rare that two from the same metropolitan area are chosen in the top 20 in the same year, as Pint and Wentz could.
“They still have a lot to prove,” the scout said. “But in theory, these guys could be two of the best to ever come out of the Kansas City area.”
Wentz and Pint’s journeys are not identical. But they’ve hurtled toward their major-league dreams on parallel courses. As the future appears in sharper focus, both have come to realize how much the competition, support and natural progression of their relationship have pushed them.
Riley Pint just had to go to the bathroom.
That’s what he told his dad, Neil, as he came out of the dugout in the moments before a recent April baseball game. Pint’s first pitch had already been delayed half an hour because of a damp mound, and the crowd — including 60-plus scouts — was restless. As Pint’s cleats crunched on the concrete, seemingly everyone in the stands turned to watch as he walked towards the restroom door.
“That’s Riley,” someone helpfully pointed out to whoever didn’t already know.
The attention isn’t exactly new for Pint, a high-profile prospect for years. That limelight got especially brighter after he hurled a baseball 100 mph last summer, then 102 in February. Few in the world can throw that hard.
Pint was nearly always a natural athlete, even when he didn’t look like one. By his own admission, he was a chubby kid. The Catholic Youth Organization was going to make him play lineman on his football team because he surpassed a weight limit.
In soccer, his teammates told him he wouldn’t make the all-star team.
‘You’re not good at soccer,’ they said. ‘You’re just bigger than everyone else.’
Pint eventually stretched out. He shot up several inches before his sophomore year and started a more strenuous weight program. The baseball world recognized a big-time prospect when it saw one.
Across town, Wentz saw it too. But beyond that, the two became kindred spirits, as they realized how much their dreams were dovetailing.
“When you meet Riley, you’d never know he throws a baseball 102 miles an hour or is potentially going to be a pick in the draft,” Wentz said. “I would say our relationship has developed over time with a common goal in mind, but really just because he’s a good person.”
On the same night more than 60 scouts waited 49 minutes for Pint’s first pitch, Wentz was on another mound across town. After a couple of innings with Pint, most of the same men, radar guns and black notebooks in tow, migrated to watch the second half of the Kansas City area’s premier pitching duo.
Wentz’s path, although parallel in ways with Pint’s, has differed. When Wentz first started showing up on MLB draft boards, it was primarily as a hitter and first baseman.
At last year’s Junior Home Run Derby, featuring eight of the top high school sluggers in the country, Wentz cranked a 543-foot home run. It was the longest of the competition. But the same arm helping propel that baseball out of Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park was getting better and better at locating pitches, too. It wasn’t until his senior year the baseball world began noticing his pitching prowess.
“I was always the guy that was saying, ‘How is he not on these (draft) lists?’” Pint said. “I was working out with him and saw what he was improving on every day. Now they’re starting to see he’s the real deal.”
On April 27, Lawrence Free State junior Zion Bowlin shot a line drive over Wentz’s head to center field. It was the first hit recorded against Wentz this spring, in more than 26 innings.
“I’d never seen pitches in the 90s before, so it was a cool experience,” Bowlin said. “Maybe one day I could tell my kids, like, ‘Hey, I got a hit off this guy that’s on TV.’”
During warm-ups for an eighth-grade basketball game, Wentz went up for a dunk. A parent from the opposing team was furious, according to Joey’s dad, Dave. The man heckled Wentz for showing off.
Once the game started, Wentz made a free throw, looked towards the crowd and found the man who had yelled earlier. Fourteen-year-old Wentz, mischievous and kind of peeved, winked at him.
He’s kept that edge to this day. Meanwhile, Pint isn’t much of a trash talker. He wears eye black on his cheeks to look more intimidating on the mound. Their personalities often complement each other. Schaum, the players’ adviser, calls them “baby-faced assassins.”
The classification is dead-on.
Tanner Fox, a Blue Valley senior, had the unenviable task of facing both pitchers this season. He estimates he’s batted against Wentz five or six times in previous years. Still, Fox has never gotten a hit against either.
“You’re getting the swing going before (they) even let go of the ball,” he said. “You’re up there guessing because they’re throwing so hard. On top of that it gets even harder when both of them have sliders and curveballs and a lot of really good natural movement.”
Those close to Wentz and Pint recognized the similarities between the two at an early age. They may have evolved into different pitchers, but they come from comparable athletic foundations.
“The first time I ever saw Riley Pint, it was in an elementary gym in second grade,” Wentz’s mom, Jenny, said. “Joey’s (basketball) team is playing Riley’s team. I look at that kid and I’m like, ‘wow, he’s like the right-handed bookend of my kid.’”
Both boys could stroke three-pointers and dribble with either hand. Both were bigger than the other kids. They even wore the same blue and white Jordan headband. It was obvious they were different from their classmates, and perhaps they instinctively grasped that knowledge in elementary school when they sat down together in front of their plates of popcorn chicken.
Eventually, as Pint and Wentz began training at Premier last year, the friendship evolved. The two now-18-year-olds understood each other on a level few high school students will. The scouts with their little black notebooks, the cavalry of post-game autograph seekers, the pressure of expectations, the arm preservation, nutrition plans and weight room hours can wear down even the most energetic. It helps to have someone by your side who understands your world.
Pint is committed to LSU for the fall, and Wentz to Virginia. Both will have life-changing decisions to make soon, when the June 9 draft potentially turns college into a backup plan. They’ll lean on their families, yes, but each other as well.
Pint and Wentz, even more than providing mutual support, push each other. In the gym, they’ll both talk trash when the other throws a ball. Schaum guesses they’ll quietly begin comparing batting averages once they make it into the major league system.
“It was great they found each other at a young age,” Schaum said. “Riley’s been in the spotlight longer, and Joey probably wanted to be at that level, and he got there. For Riley, he needed to race against someone. He found that with Joey.”
The paths to this point have run parallel at times, converged at others. In a few weeks, the journeys will start to splinter. After the draft, Wentz and Pint will likely begin their careers in distant cities, no longer 12 miles away from their hottest competition.
But as far-flung as the major-league world can be, the bond of shared roots will stick. They’ll always be the boys from Kansas who grew up with the same ambition, and helped each other reach it.
For Pint and Wentz, that bond is far from over.
“I think what’s cool is I’ll hopefully play with Riley again,” Wentz said. “And if it’s not with him, I’ll play against him for hopefully a long time. … I think about that a little bit, about how it would be cool to do it with one of the best friends you have at the same time.”