Keon Barnum, the American Association’s 2019 MVP — and single-season home run champion — has found a new 2020 home. The former Chicago Dogs first baseman is bound for the Washington Nationals.
For Barnum, a 2012 Chicago White Sox first-round draft pick, this represents his second opportunity with a major league organization. After signing with the White Sox, Barnum rose to the Double-A level in 2016, with the Birmingham Barons.
But his time with the Southsiders ended after a difficult 2018 campaign, and Barnum signed with the Dogs in 2019.
The Tampa, Florida native then pieced together a masterpiece of a season, which earned him Independent Baseball Player of the Year honors from Baseball America. Barnum led the Dogs with a .311 batting average and he smashed 31 home runs, the most in a season in league history.
— Chicago Dogs (@TheChicagoDogs) September 2, 2019
Barnum then made his way south for a winter ball stint in Mexico, playing for los Mayos de Navojoa, situated near the West Coast of the country. Unsurprisingly, his seven home runs were tied for the team lead, with his 32 RBI standing at the top.
While training in Tampa, the second chance Barnum desperately sought — and deserved — came calling. In mid-March, he’ll report to Spring Training with the defending-champion Nationals.
SB: How did you first find out the Nats were interested?
KB: When I was in Mexico, my agent [Mike Dillon] told me they were interested in me. He handled all of that stuff. I stayed out of the way since he didn’t want me worrying about anything. He was trying to work a deal out with them.
I actually first signed with a team in Mexico, los Pericos de Puebla [Triple-A], and we told them that the Nats wanted to sign me, too. So we asked for my release, and they were cool with that. They knew what was going on.
SB: I’m pretty sure “Pericos” translates to “Parrots.”
KB: Wow, I didn’t know that.
SB: The more you know. So how did signing this contract feel compared to your first pro deal with the White Sox?
KB: It was just a relief. It was a relief to know that somebody still wanted me and wanted to give me a shot to get to my ultimate goal. I’m really happy to be a part of the organization.
SB: Where were you when you signed?
KB: In Tampa. It’s funny, I asked my agent, “Did you hear anything yet?” He was like, “Yeah, I have the contract.” I was like, “Oh gosh.”
We went to a little spot — my agent, my dad and I. We just talked and I signed the contract. I talked to a Nationals’ scout on the phone, too.
SB: How’d you celebrate?
KB: I’m pretty chill, so I just enjoyed the moment. We ate and chilled. We talked and chopped it up a bit.
SB: Does this feel like a second chance for you?
KB: It definitely does. It feels like another opportunity. I’m blessed to be in a position like this. I worked hard and feel like I earned it. I deserve it.
SB: Do you know anyone with the Nationals?
KB: I actually don’t know anyone in the organization. I’m new to it. It’s a whole new step for me. I’m excited to meet new people and take it to the next level.
SB: What’s the biggest change you’ll make in your approach with the Nationals versus how you handled your time with the White Sox?
KB: It’s funny you ask that, because for the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how my mentality will be. I’m just going to keep it simple. I’ll be confident in myself, be a team player, bring energy and put in the work. I’m going to enjoy the moments and the game.
Sometimes, you get caught up in going through the routine instead of embracing every moment and embracing every at-bat on defense and offense — embracing the team, the coaches, all of that. I just want to enjoy every moment and have fun.
SB: You also adjusted to your swing mechanics in a big way last season. Can you summarize how you did that?
KB: I worked with [Dogs hitting coach D.J. Boston] a lot. It was little things that helped me, like not closing off my shoulder too much and pressing with my back leg instead of bending it. I was trying to do damage every time at the plate.
SB: Let’s break down your time in Mexico. Was it your first time playing outside of the U.S.?
KB: Yes it was.
SB: What was that like?
KB: Totally different from the states. I don’t know too much Spanish, so it was different for me to get accustomed to the language and the culture. The biggest thing that stood out was how the crowds were. It’s loud. It’s noisy. It’s intense. In America, some games aren’t as intense as others. But there, every game feels like the World Series.
SB: And you mentioned your Spanish isn’t great. Just how bad are we talking?
KB: I really don’t know much at all. It’s pretty bad. Just a poquito. You know what that means, right?
SB: Hey, I was a Spanish Minor. I can hold my own. It means “a little bit.” Anyway, was the language barrier tough to deal with?
KB: Yeah, especially when I would go to a restaurant. They know that I don’t know Spanish, but they talk to you like you do know. I’m like, “I have no clue what you just said.” But you catch onto little things. I meant to learn some Spanish, but I didn’t really do it. I need to, because playing baseball, you meet a lot of people who speak Spanish.
SB: On the topic of restaurants, how was the food?
KB: It wasn’t bad. I’m not really a big Mexican food guy. I just ate steak quesadillas, stuff like that.
SB: Steak quesadillas, eh?
KB: Those are pretty good. Angus steak. But that was pretty much it.
SB: In American clubhouses, there’s usually a food spread with stuff like PB&J, chips, etc. What does that look like in Mexico?
KB: We were on our own with that. At home, there was a restaurant open late after the game. So a couple of the guys from the states and I would go there after every game and grab something to eat. The city we were in [Navojoa] didn’t have many American restaurants. They had more in other cities, but our city had none of the American restaurants like Burger King and McDonald’s. So we went to a Mexican restaurant every day.
SB: How do you evaluate your on-field performance in Mexico?
KB: I was tired coming in. I had a long season with the Dogs. I had never played winter ball, so I had to find a way to battle through the aches and pains and grind through it. I didn’t play for a month, so then I had to jump in and start playing again in real games. It took me a couple of games to get into a little groove.
I didn’t feel bad about my performance, though. I feel like I can do better, definitely. But I did what I could.
SB: While you were in Mexico, Baseball America named you Independent Baseball Player of the Year. What did that mean to you?
KB: It was a huge accomplishment for me. My confidence went up. I feel like I deserved it. I worked hard for it and did everything I could. I didn’t expect any of this, but I just did everything I had to do every day to perform on that field, and my abilities showed. I didn’t come into the season like, “I’m about to win this.” I just tried to be ready every game, and it actually showed. I had the mentality to be a good teammate and have fun. That’s how I was looking at it.
SB: It seems like you’re really committing to letting loose and enjoying yourself on the field. Did you take yourself too seriously during your stint with the White Sox?
KB: Yes, exactly. I got away from the joy of the game. Because you’re trying to make it, so you forget about having fun. Then you have things changing, so many ups and downs. You’re moving to different places. It gets overwhelming, so you forget to have fun. That’s what I want to bring back to myself, to enjoy each moment of the game.
SB: What do you love about baseball?
KB: It’s my life. I’ve been playing baseball my whole life, so it’s pretty much installed in me. I love everything about baseball, and everything that comes with it, the struggles and the good times. That’s part of my journey, just trying to grow and stay positive. I just love that every day is a grind and something new. I love the adrenaline of a game, just the thought of a game.
SB: Time to end with some lightning-round questions. Ready to roll?
KB: Yes sir.
SB: Favorite day of the week?
SB: Favorite city in the U.S.?
SB: Place you most want to travel to?
SB: Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world or be able to talk to animals?
KB: Talk to animals.
SB: Favorite holiday?
SB: Scale of 1-10, how good of a driver are you?
SB: If you could travel back in time, which era would you go to?
KB: I’m good where I’m at, but I guess the 1990s sound good.
SB: Do you snore?
SB: Favorite junk food?
KB: Chocolate chip cookies.
SB: Last Halloween costume?
KB: When I was a kid, maybe a ninja or something.
SB: Cake or pie?
SB: What kind?
SB: That’s a very vanilla answer.
KB: Red velvet, too.