If Chris Maldonado had a reason to second-guess his verbal commitment to Clemson University, one Tigers fan cleared that up for him very quickly.
“I actually got a letter in the mail from a fan,” said Maldonado, a shortstop/third baseman for the Diamond Jacks Super 16U team. “He asked for my autograph. I sent him a letter back. Clemson’s fan base is something I’m looking forward to enjoying. It definitely was a factor in my decision.”
Maldonado committed to Clemson in August after a couple of incredible weeks in the south that included a terrific performance at the Perfect Game World Wood Bat showcase in Georgia, July 12-19.
“Chris had the best performance in Georgia I’ve ever seen,” said his Super 16U coach Travis Anderson. “It seemed like he hit every ball extremely hard and used the whole field. He came through in every big spot and played great in the field.”
In retrospect, Maldonado believes his approach in Georgia proved critical.
“I knew it was a pretty important event from a recruiting standpoint,” said Maldonado. “I tried to play the best I could, but I focused on playing how I play. I didn’t try to force anything. I think that’s why I did so well. It all came together.”
Clemson, along with every other top college, was there and acted quickly in regard to Maldonado.
“I talked with Clemson all week,” said Maldonado. “I knew I was going back down to Georgia with PBR and T.J. Hunt. They asked me to visit at that point. I was in the airport after that tournament when they offered me.”
Maldonado, who also considered Virginia, Vanderbilt, Pittsburgh, Maryland and a few others, would eventually choose Clemson.
“I thought about it a lot the next few weeks,” said Maldonado. “I felt Clemson was the best fit. I liked head coach (Monte) Lee and assisted coach (Andrew) See. They’re players’ coaches. I believe Clemson will make me a better player and a better person overall.”
Maldonado timed his visit to Clemson well.
“It worked out,” he said. “Everything was open. I got to see the strength room, the locker room and the field. It was really impressive. They are building a brand new business building, which is great because that’s what I plan to study.”
It was no coincidence Maldonado had Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh on his preferred list of colleges. Chris’ brother Nick is a freshman at Vanderbilt and his brother Frank graduated Pittsburgh in 2018 after amassing 200 hits and driving in 106 runs in an outstanding career for the Panthers.
“I had interest in both Vandy and Pitt,” Chris said. “They were hard to turn down. Both of my brothers helped me a lot in the recruiting process.”
The groundwork for Maldonado sibling success, though, was laid first by older sister, Alexa, a star softball player at Notre Dame and later a member of the USA Women’s National Baseball Team. “Alexa set the bar high for us,” said Chris. “But my siblings knocked down barriers for me, too.”
And brother Frank gave Chris some advice on Pitt’s Atlantic Coast Conference rival Clemson.
“Frank said Clemson was one of the best environments he played in,” said Chris. “He said he was heckled while playing in right field. They call the right field bleachers there the Cajun Café.”
Maldonado has always been one of the top players on his age level teams at Diamond Nation and his talent rose to another level in 2019 when, just a freshman, he started in center field for perennial state power Seton Hall Prep of West Orange.
He’d break into the starting lineup in the Pirates’ third game, against Livingston. His production, mainly from the No. 2 spot in the batting order, would prove remarkably consistent.
Maldonado batted .369 with 31 hits, including 8 doubles, and drove in 29 runs against the highly competitive Seton Hall schedule. He also drew 11 walks and was hit by a pitch seven times. One of the cooler moments of the season occurred when Chris closed out brother Nick’s victory against Nutley.
Seton Hall Prep coach Mike Sheppard, Jr. is closing in on 800 career victories and is considered among the top high school coaches in New Jersey. Sheppard, Jr. knows talent when he sees it, especially Maldonado talent. Nick started as a freshman, as well, and Frank had a big career for the Pirates, too.
“Chris is very mature. Just like his brothers,” said Sheppard, Jr. “The Maldonado parents have done a great job with their kids. We saw Chris in tryouts and thought we could bring him up. You never know how a freshman is going to be received by the upperclassmen and how he is going to handle playing on the varsity.
“Obviously Chris is talented and he has the skills to succeed. But his maturity as a freshman was equally important to his success last season.”
Sheppard is known for his attention to detail and that is reflected in his prodigious practice sessions. “We practice every day except Sunday,” said Maldonado, “two-and-a-half to three hours. We hit everything during practice. Coach Sheppard is right in there, trying to find our weak spots so we can strengthen them. He’s like a college coach. He’s preparing his players for college.”
Maldonado has benefited, too, from excellent tutelage at Diamond Nation, joining the program as an 11 year-old.
“Travis Anderson has been my coach for three years,” said Maldonado. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Coach Anderson is a great coach. He’s taught me how to play baseball the right way, including how to respond in games and leave everything on the field. And he’s helped me to be a better person.
“I hit with coach (Kevin) Cust in the off-season and he tweaked weak parts in my swing. And coach (Steve) DiTrolio helped me so much in the summer with the recruiting process. He has a lot of connections with schools and he was like a middle man with all the new rules of when you can and when you can’t talk to coaches.”
Anderson believes Maldonado’s even-keeled play is one of his strengths.
“You can’t tell if Chris went 0-for-4 or 4-for-4,” said Anderson. “He never has his head down, never feels sorry for himself. He represents us very well and he’ll represent Clemson very well.”
Maldonado goals for his sophomore year of high school include playing an even larger part in his team’s success.
“I see myself playing a bigger role,” he said. “I’d like to step up as a starting pitcher, especially with us losing Nick. I’d like to hit toward the top of the lineup and be more productive and hopefully we can win it all this year.”
Maldonado has been strong defensively on the left side of the infield for the Diamond Jacks and batted .380 with 33 RBI in the summer. “I talked to coach Sheppard a little bit about playing middle infield or third base. But if he needs me in center field, I’ll be happy to play there for him.”