T.J. Collett was angry following the 2019 college baseball season.
After driving in a career-high 40 runs and hitting 10 home runs, matching what he’d done the season prior for Kentucky, he felt like there was a chance he’d get selected in the MLB Draft that June. Collett recognized that his batting average at UK that spring — .259 — wasn’t great, but he’d shown enough, in his mind, to warrant having his name called in the 40-round event in his first time being eligible since high school, when the Minnesota Twins claimed him with pick No. 1,203 in the final round.
Collett wasn’t picked, leading him to another summer of amateur baseball. He spent that one with the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod League.
“I was feeling sorry for myself for not getting picked up. I was mad, I felt like I deserved it,” Collett said. “I was a little bit more immature then. I was not in the best mood going to the cape, which is not the outlook going somewhere like that. … I sort of had a realization: ‘I got two months in this place, I’m not gonna waste it a way by being pissed off the whole time.’”
A drive through Massachusetts helped adjust Collett’s attitude. He was enamored with the scenery around Brewster enough to make a pledge to himself: every morning, around 5:30 a.m., he’d wake up and set off on a sightseeing adventure. Sometimes he’d go to monuments, other times to private beaches early enough so that no one would notice his presence and usher him away.
His favorite spot was Fort Hill, a raised part of the Cape Cod National Seashore that offers a refreshing perspective well beyond the Atlantic coastline over which it’s perched.
“It was just the most gorgeous view that I’ve ever seen,” Collett said. “It looks like a painting. You see the ocean, some of the houses on the beach. You see boats everywhere.”
“I think I went there at least 10 times that summer just for the view.”
Collett’s rosier disposition coming out of Massachusetts that summer was beneficial, as soon after his stint with the Whitecaps he underwent his third hip surgery in six years, and his fifth surgery overall going back to his senior year of high school.
His second injury — a torn PCL in his right knee — kept him out of UK’s lineup for most of his freshman year, and he missed the final 21 games of his sophomore season after suffering a new injury in the same hip he hurt before. He played in 47 games his junior year after undergoing a minor knee procedure prior to that season. Another hip surgery required six months of rehab prior to his senior season in 2020, but he was ready in time to start all 17 games UK played before COVID-19 brought a premature end to its season.
Collett fielded some calls from MLB organizations last summer but decided to come back to Kentucky for the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. That choice has been a boon for the Wildcats, who’ve seen their fifth-year star club his way up the school’s home-run list; he recently passed childhood hero AJ Reed for No. 2 all-time on the Wildcats’ leaderboard. Collett coming into UK’s home series versus Florida this weekend had hit 15 dingers this season (tied for third in the country), and had 41 over his career; he needed nine more to match John Wilson, who hit 50 from 1998 to 2000. That’s a lofty goal with just three weeks of guaranteed games remaining, but it’s not impossible.
Both Collett and Reed hail from Terre Haute, Ind., and attended North Vigo High School. Watching Reed, a Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy winner who eventually played in the major leagues, play at UK is what motivated Collett to take baseball more seriously early during his prep career.
“Knowing that a kid from Terre Haute was able to come to the SEC and perform, and I got to watch it happen? It kind of gave me the mindset of “Why not me? Why can’t I do that?” Collett said. “Obviously AJ had an incredible career, as good as it gets. So that gave me the confidence to come here and have the career that I’ve had.”
The possibility of getting drafted still sits in the back of his mind — “I’m human” — but given his age and injury history, he considers that something of a bonus at this point. Teams don’t look at fifth-year seniors who’ve had five surgeries as ideal prospects, he joked.
If Collett’s baseball career ends in conjunction with UK’s 2021 run, then so be it. He spent the last two semesters pursuing a master’s in interpersonal communications and hopes to work in government relations after he hangs up his mitt. One summer he was able to intern for RJL Solutions, an advocacy firm based out of Terre Haute, and says he’d love to go back and work for them if baseball doesn’t pan out because he has a lot of family in the area around whom he’d love to be again.
“There’s always a chance that I continue to crush the last quarter of the season and a team wants to take a chance on me,” Collett said. “But more than anything, this season has just provided peace and comfort in knowing that if the draft doesn’t go well, that I get to go out on my own terms. I get to go out on a good note. The group of guys that I’m playing with right now is probably the most fun that I’ve ever been a part of. That gives me peace.”
Fort Hill’s out of sight, but it’s burned in forever.