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Prized Kernels Pitcher Stewart Chose Baseball Over Football

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CEDAR RAPIDS - He knows Johnny Football. He was going to be Johnny Football.

At least Johnny Manziel’s possible quarterback replacement at Texas A&M.

That was until the Minnesota Twins made Kohl Stewart their first-round draft pick last June. They gave the 19-year-old pitcher 4,544,400 reasons to become Johnny Baseball, if you will.

“At the beginning of my senior year, I had no idea what would happen,” said Stewart, who is set to make his Cedar Rapids Kernels’ starting debut Sunday afternoon against the Clinton LumberKings. “But as the dominoes kind of started to fall, it became very apparent. I’ve never second guessed the decision once since I made it.”

Stewart signed with A&M after a stellar two-sport career at Houston’s St. Pius X High School. Both of his parents are A&M graduates, so it was a natural fit.

But as his pitching stock continued to soar last spring and early summer, it became more and more apparent the 6-foot-3 right-hander would never take the field in College Station. Stewart informed A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin and everyone else shortly after the Twins selected him with the fourth overall pick that he was 100 percent baseball.

Even Manziel, whom Stewart first met as a sophomore in high school, understood.

“Congrats to my dude @KohlStewart1 for getting drafted 4th overall in the MLB draft that’s big time!!” Manziel said on Twitter.

“I don’t know. That’s all heresay,” Stewart said, when asked if he would have been Manziel’s replacement at A&M. Johnny Football is turning pro himself, of course, and could be a first-round NFL pick.

“It would have been nice, I guess,” Stewart said. “I’ve got a couple of buddies there now fighting for it. We’ll see how that works out. But I’m not too worried about it.”

He’s worried instead about continuing to make the transition to professional baseball. He’s got a big arm, as you’d expect, one that produces mid-90s fastballs, as well as a potentially plus slider.

Stewart gave up just 13 hits and struck out 24 in 20 innings in his pro debut at two Rookie-level stops last summer. He was shut down late with shoulder weakness, though he said Monday he’s completely healthy and ready to go.

It’s a big jump to low-Class A, but it’s one the Twins obviously believe he can make successfully.

“When we evaluate a player, there are a lot of things that come into play,” said Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga. “When we get to see a guy like that, like him, we want him to be able to compete at the level of the things he does. His fastball velocity, his breaking ball, his changeup, his demeanor ... there is no need to keep him from being at a level that’s going to be challenging for him. At some point, you have to challenge a kid. We believe he’s mature enough to face these challenges here.”

“Yeah, that was my goal, to be here, though I didn’t worry about it too much,” Stewart said. “They put me on the roster from the beginning of camp, but I knew I had to prove I belonged here. I think there are a lot of guys in our organization that could play here, honestly. We’ve got a lot of talent. But I feel like they expect a lot out of me, and I need to prove I belong here.”

That’s on a mound and not in a pocket.

“I don’t,” he said, when asked if he misses football. “I mean, I enjoy being around the team when I’m home. Going to the games and stuff. But I don’t miss it. I like what I do.”

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