After a breakout season featuring several awards and honors, Knoxville didn't seem a likely destination for Chase Headley during the offseason.
But there are more than a few reasons for the San Diego Padres' third baseman to make his way back to East Tennessee, an area the Colorado native considers a second home.
Headley, who was part of Tennessee baseball's 2005 College World Series squad, was in town over the weekend for Rangers Baseball Institute's Chase Headley Hitting Clinic and Seminar, where local high school athletes got a chance to hone their skills under the major leaguer.
"I spent some of the best years of my life here and this is always going to be a special place for me," said Headley, who was honored during the Tennessee men's basketball game on Saturday and who also recently purchased a home in Franklin, Tenn.
Happy to give back, Headley said these types of clinics as well as a heavy dose of hard work and dedication helped mold him into the player he's become.
"He's certainly not the most athletic out of every single third baseman in the big leagues but the one thing he has always done, since we started playing baseball at five-years-old, is he's always outworked people and always continued to be a student of the game," said Chase's brother — Nate Headley, who owns RBI and who spent two seasons as part of the Vols' baseball staff.
That work ethic led Chase Headley to a fast rise in the upper echelon of baseball.
After being drafted by the Padres in 2005, he spent a year in the minors before being called up by San Diego in 2007.
Last season was his breakout year as he earned two NL Player of the Month awards in addition to Padre Player of the Year, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors and This Year in Baseball's MLB Breakout Hitter of the Year award.
A tough 2011 drove his resolve.
"The year before, I had four home runs and only drove in around 50 RBI and that was an area I knew I could do better at. So I really focused on finding a swing that could produce," he said.
Headley found that swing and finished with 31 home runs, 173 hits and led the NL with 115 RBI.
"I made sure I was picking guys' brains and watching guys, trying to figure out what I could do to make myself better," he said.
While he stays busy, Headley has stayed close to the Vols' program and feels Tennessee is on the upswing again with coach Dave Serrano.
"I think he is as good as there is in college baseball," Headley said. "You give him a year or two more to really get his guys in here and recruit and the program is going to be right back on top."
As for his plans after baseball, Headley said a change of sports may be his path.
"I have always thought it would fun to coach high school basketball," said Headley, who turned down basketball scholarship offers from a few small schools coming out of high school.
"I love the intensity of it and I think when I am done playing there is so much baseball that it might be nice to get away from it."
Headley reports to Padres spring training in Phoenix on Feb. 14. Even though the NL West — with the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and big-move-making Los Angeles Dodgers — will be a formidable division, Headley feels confident San Diego can make a run this year.
"I like where we're at. But it is tough every year and I think it is probably the most underrated division in baseball," he said. "Year in and year out there is always a team that surprises everybody and goes deep in the playoffs or wins the whole thing."
Matthew Reagan is a freelance contributor.