From his parents to his older brother to his high school coach to his high school band director to many others, countless people from all walks of life made the drive to see Elder start for the Braves against the Rangers. Those who came from Decatur and Wise County didn’t care how he pitched – they simply wanted to support him.
Elder’s homecoming capped an impressive first stint in the big leagues. The Braves optioned the 22-year-old to Triple-A after the game, and recalled Kyle Muller, but Elder made a positive first impression with the club. He ended his first month in the bigs with a start near his hometown, in front of the people who have played a part in his life since he was a baby.
“It meant a lot,” Bryce said after the game. “It goes to show I was fortunate to grow up in a good town where people have supported me and helped me get to this point. It means a lot for them to come out and make the drive.
“It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
On Saturday, a right-hander from a town of about 7,000 people took the mound in front of 36,097 spectators. His grandmother, whom he took out to breakfast on his trip here (as is tradition when he’s home), remarked that her 6-foot-2 grandson looked small in a huge ballpark.
To appreciate Bryce’s homecoming is to see it with a big-picture lens and become aware of its impact. Bryce – the quiet, calm and collected small-town boy – was on a big-league mound. In the stands, tons of kids from his town, and even the baseball team from his high school, watched him pitch. Bryce’s start, and his journey, sent a resounding message to the area’s young ballplayers.
“Just dream big,” said Brian Tickell, Elder’s high school baseball coach at Decatur High. “Dream big. You never know. Work hard and things may happen for you.”
You might know the story: Elder was an elite high school golfer but wanted to play baseball, too. Tickell allowed him to join the baseball team as a “PO” (pitcher only) on the condition that he got all his pitching work done before hitting the links each day. Elder eventually chased his baseball dreams.
Young Bryce grew up cheering for Ron Washington’s Rangers teams. And in this last month, he and Washington shared a clubhouse. In the Braves’ home clubhouse, Bryce’s locker sat near that of Darren O’Day, a reliever for whom he used to root as a kid.
You could find – and hear – the Elder section in the second level above the third-base dugout at Globe Life Field. But Bryce’s supporters were everywhere: Kasi, his mother, estimated there might have been 500 people in attendance to see him, and they were spread throughout the ballpark.
“The message to the younger kids is: You never know. Never let anyone tell you how good you can be because they don’t know. Trust in yourself and believe in yourself and work hard,” said Jeff Elder, Bryce’s father. “That’s all you can do. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says. It really doesn’t. So work hard and let the chips fall where they may.
“Everyone has so much God-given talent and let God make that call, so work hard, let the chips fall where they may.”
Once Bryce wanted to play baseball in college, Tickell helped him find a summer team. Bryce signed with a junior college but wanted to play Division I ball, so Tickell called around. New Mexico flew out Bryce and offered him but Bryce wanted to play at Texas, his dream school, so Tickell called someone else he knew. One day, Texas showed up to watch Bryce, saw one inning of his, then offered him within the week.
When Bryce arrived at Texas, his parents were simply happy he was there. They thought: He got there, but can he play there? When Bryce called them a few weeks into the fall of his freshman year, he had something to say: “I can play here.” And not only that, but he wanted to be a starter. (Elder ended up being Texas’ Friday night starter – the top pitcher on the staff – before the Braves selected him in the fifth round of the 2020 MLB draft.)
Bryce’s story is that of a kid who continued dreaming and betting big, with each goal being larger than the last. Thus far, he’s achieved them all and has overcome anything in his way.
“It’s inspiring and motivational to some of these younger kids in our community,” Kasi said, “that, even though we’re small, you can (do it), it can happen, dreams can come true.”
‘It’s like a fairytale’
Years ago, Brad Davis, a Little League coach, taught a 9-year-old Bryce Elder how to throw a cutter and other pitches. When Davis said something about pitching, Bryce listened.
“Of course, he’s mastered it,” Davis said Saturday, laughing.
Davis couldn’t have seen any of this coming. “I knew he was good,” he said. “You just never know what would happen.”
Johnny Ward, a family friend, has known Bryce since he was a baby. He has never known anyone who has made it this far in sports. And, heck, he thought Bryce would play golf. So to watch that kid now all grown up on a big-league mound against MLB stars including Corey Seager and Marcus Semien?
“It’s like a fairytale,” Ward said.
That’s just about how everyone felt.
“We’re sitting on the first row just going absolutely nuts,” said Tickell, the high school coach who watched Bryce throw back-to-back no-hitters for him. “To see him out there, it’s really surreal.”
“It doesn’t seem real,” Davis said. “When you come to a game and you come in and it’s just massively overwhelming, it just doesn’t seem real. But when I watch Bryce warm up, I’m like, ‘He looks the same.’ The way his form was and the way he throws, it’s like, that’s the same little kid.”
Bryce’s journey, Ward said, tells kids “that anybody can do anything they want if you put your mind to it.” But the pitcher’s road also reveals something about him: He hasn’t changed one bit to those who have coached him, had him in class and been friends with him.
“Bryce is a very humble and very good person,” Ward said. “You would never know he’s in the big leagues. You see him out here, you would have no idea. Just the same old man, same old boy.”
‘He’s just a good dude’
Jeff and Kasi are certainly proud of Bryce’s baseball accomplishments. They’ve seen his determination and drive up close for his entire life. But they make something clear: They’re more proud of the type of person their son grew up to be.
You could see proof of this when he started against the Rangers. People from all backgrounds, who knew him from everywhere, came to see him.
“Everybody wants nothing but the best for him,” said Davis, the Little League coach. “That’s why he got so much support. He makes it easy to root for (him).”
“He’s just a good dude,” Jeff said.
“He’s the type that if you need something,” Ward said, “he’ll help you do it.”
All of the Elder supporters in attendance have followed his journey and wanted to see it at its latest stop. “People come together to support our own,” Kasi said. As the Rangers’ public address announcer said Bryce’s name as he ran out to take the mound for the bottom of the first, a section on the third-base side cheered. They were there for Bryce during the game, just as they had been throughout his life.
Bryce allowed three runs over 4 ⅓ innings. He might be headed to Triple-A, but you likely have not seen the last of him in the majors. “He’s going to get better every game – he will,” Jeff said the night before the Braves announced they optioned Elder. “Because he always adjusts. He’ll be fine.”
On Saturday morning, Kasi looked at a picture on her phone: Young Bryce and two family members sat and smiled together, wearing Rangers gear. It hit her then that her son has reached baseball heights many never will. And those who support him know that he’s not done. He will achieve and conquer even more – because that’s what he’s always done to this point in life.
And along the way, he’ll keep inspiring everyone.
“If you dream big and work hard, those successes could happen,” Davis said. “Bryce is living proof of that.”