The transcripts were sent, the dorm room was booked and D.J. Peterson was raring to go.
It was the summer of 2010, and Gilbert High’s star third baseman was three weeks away from enrolling at Arizona to join the baseball team.
There was disappointment a few months earlier when he lasted into the 33rd round of the Major League Baseball draft out of high school, but Peterson had turned the page and was ready for his college career.
And then came the chaos.
According to D.J. and his father, Doug, the Wildcats became lukewarm on the idea of adding Peterson to the team. They were getting Kentucky-transfer Andy Burns, and that addition resulted in a numbers crunch.
While Arizona didn’t directly ask Peterson to find a different school, he said the intent was clear.
“They didn’t tell me to leave,” he said, “but I got the hint.”
Peterson had plenty of other options, although time was ticking.
He could still sign professionally, but didn’t go high enough to get a worthwhile signing bonus. Arizona State came calling, but it had issues of its own dealing with NCAA sanctions.
So, just two days after asking for his release from Arizona, Peterson found a new, unlikely home: New Mexico.
“It was extremely emotional and hectic, but New Mexico loved him all along,” Doug Peterson said. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”
The Lobos aren’t in a power conference, but sold Peterson on the strength of their non-conference schedule. The team is in town for a game on Wednesday against Arizona State, and it regularly matches up with some of the better programs in the country.
For Peterson, it was a place to excel right away. He came in as a freshman and batted in the No. 3 hole, hitting .317 with six homers, 45 RBIs with a .545 slugging percentage.
Last season, he was the Mountain West co-Player of the Year after batting .419 with 17 homers and 78 RBIs. Peterson drew rave reviews for his play with Team USA over the summer, which shot him up the draft charts. Baseball America currently ranks him as the No. 20 overall draft-eligible player and most experts believe he will be taken in the first round.
“It’s not surprising to me,” Doug Peterson said. “If he would have been at UA he would have been an All-American in a different uniform. His play hasn’t decreased or increased because he’s at New Mexico. He would have been an impact player for anybody.”
And it seems Peterson has saved his best for last.
He had a staggering four-game series against UC-Riverside last weekend, finishing 12-for-15 with four homers, two doubles, a triple, nine runs scored and six RBIs. During one stretch of 12 plate appearances, Peterson went 7-for-7 with four homers, three singles and five walks. The walks came consecutively after the hitting barrage, as he didn’t see a single strike in those 20 pitches.
“It was one of those weekends where everything you hit is just crushed,” Peterson said. “The baseball looked like a watermelon when sometimes it looks like a watermelon seed.”
Following the impressive output, Peterson’s hitting numbers now dot the national charts.
He leads Division I in home runs (8), home runs per game (.57), total bases (66) and slugging percentage (1.138), is second nationally in runs per game (1.71), tied for second in batting average (.500), and is fourth in on-base percentage (.597).
When some college players become draft-eligible, it messes with their psyche. The scouts are watching closely, and the players know the difference between a good and bad season could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If Peterson is worried, he’s not showing it.
“He thrives under the pressure,” Doug Peterson said. “The more people in the stands, the more at stake, he thrives on that.”
There is also the motivation.
He won’t forget about the major league teams that continually passed him over in the draft when he left high school. And as he laces ball after ball into outfield gaps and over walls, he can’t help but think about the University of Arizona.
“They’re probably hitting their heads on the wall, saying, ‘What were we thinking letting Peterson go?’” he said. “It definitely wasn’t an easy situation but I’m glad we separated. It was truly a blessing in disguise.”