June 13-- CHICAGO-This is how it begins: Two buddies watching TV on a spring night in 2016.
The McDonald's All-American Game is on ESPN, and Chad Christensen is awed by what he sees.
Lonzo Ball fires a baseball pass that Josh Jackson slams down at the United Center. A pull-up 3 by Markelle Fultz. A beastly dunk by Malik Monk.
"Man, these dudes are freaks," Christensen remarks.
"Yeah," replies his friend, Daniel Palka. "I remember playing in that game."
"What? No way!"
A bit later, Palka shows Christensen his phone. It's open to the Wikipedia page for the 2010 McDonald's All-American Game.
Lo and behold, two lines above Kyrie Irving on the East roster is Daniel Palka, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound guard from Greer, S.C. Under college choice it says, "Georgia Tech (Baseball)."
The next morning Palka and Christensen report to work at the Twins' minor-league camp in Fort Myers, Fla.
"I walk into breakfast," Palka says, "and next thing you know, everyone thinks I was a McDonald's All-American."
Daniel Palka was a spectacular prep baseball player. When Greer High School inducted Palka into its athletic hall of fame, the school cited his Ruthian combo of a .470 batting average and 1.80 ERA as a senior. He threw two career no-hitters, twice made all-state and was selected to the Rawlings and Under Armour All-America teams.
There was no mention of basketball, though.
Drafted by the Phillies in the 19th round in 2010, Palka instead opted to attend Georgia Tech, where he became an All-America outfielder. The Diamondbacks snatched him in the third round in 2013 and traded him to the Twins organization for catcher/outfielder Chris Herrmann.
After the Twins released him last season, the White Sox scooped him up. They promoted him to Chicago on April 24 after outfielder Avisail Garcia strained a hamstring.
On his first day in the big leagues, the barrel-chested Palka said he loved the grinder mentality of the Sox organization.
It suits you?
"I feel like that is me," he replied.
There was something else that helped Palka fit in. An ice-breaker.
Some were hearing what Palka's teammates at Triple-A Charlotte had buzzed about-the 2010 McDonald's All-American Game.
Not only was Palka now listed among players such as Fab Melo and Harrison Barnes on the Wikipedia page, but he was in the box score. He logged 12 minutes, missing his one field-goal attempt but stroking two from the foul line.
He always was a pretty good left-handed shooter, he said.
Reporter: So you played in the McDonald's All-American Game?
Palka (looking around the clubhouse): "Yeah."
Why are you looking around?
"It's been slowly coming up. It's been ongoing since we were in Cleveland."
Give me a scouting report on you as a basketball player.
"Really good shooter and really good at defense. Everything else was pretty bad."
Did you look like this back then?
"Yeah, I was 225 pounds as a senior."
What's the process like to become a McDonald's All-American? Who nominates you?
"It's through the high school. I don't know if it goes by the state. I happened to be the one in the particular area. Snuck in there."
Did you feel out of place on that team?
"Yeah, everybody is like 6-5, 6-10. For-sure NBA players."
Most guys in here would be bragging about that if they had that on the resume. Why not you?
"I don't know. I like baseball."
Does Tim Anderson say he can beat you in one-on-one?
"No, he knows I can take him."
This interview took place in the Sox clubhouse before Monday's game.
Palka ran off to take batting practice but returned a few minutes later.
"Dude, you can't run that," he told me.
"None of it's true."
At Georgia Tech, Palka said he had a roommate with a wild imagination.
"He would make up these ridiculous stories anytime we had media," Palka said. "Next thing you know, the college baseball regionals are on TV and these (broadcasters) are talking about how I'm an aeronautical engineer. My parents are sitting at home saying, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'It wasn't me.' "
But the McDonald's All-American Game? Yeah, that was him.
He edited the Wikipedia page as a joke and a way to startle Christensen.
And when Charlotte teammates brought it up, he said: "I went back to the page. Still there. I noticed there was a points section, so I thought: I'll give myself two points. I'll make 'em free throws so it's more believable."
A few Sox players believed it too. But many others took it for what it was, a prank.
Shortstop Tim Anderson, who really did lead his Tuscaloosa, Ala., high school to a Class 6A state basketball title, never bought it.
"Nah, I knew," Anderson said. "Look at him. I knew. I was a basketball guy. I knew. But I went with it, helped him out a little. People believed him. He told me to keep it on the low. I knew from the jump that it wasn't true."
Palka said he told fellow outfielders Nicky Delmonico and Adam Engel not to believe the chatter. With other teammates and Sox coaches, Palka played along.
At one point, manager Rick Renteria and bench coach Joe McEwing began asking earnest questions.
"They thought it was so cool," Palka said. "I was like, I can't lie to your face anymore. I said I got (designated for assignment) this offseason and I needed a little scouting report boost to make me look more athletic. They thought that was funny."
The tale of Palka's cat-milking days in Motown did not actually help him get signed. The Sox picked him up in November and are paying him the league minimum of $545,000.
"I actually had not heard until someone raised it in the draft room last week," Sox general manager Rick Hahn said via text. "And just days later, the coaches snatched away the dream of Palka's hidden ups when they told me it was a fake."
Here's what's real: Palka, after not getting a shot in the majors until turning 26, is one of the Sox's better offensive players, batting .252 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 38 games.
He batted cleanup Tuesday night, walking twice and scoring two of the Sox's five runs against the Indians. His .496 slugging percentage ranks second to Jose Abreu's .504 among players with at least 50 at-bats.
Hahn said the team is open-minded about keeping players such as Palka and right-hander Dylan Covey beyond their rebuild.
"Regardless of their pedigree or how we acquired the player, we have no biases as far as who winds up being among the 25 guys that help us win a championship," Hahn said. "So if one of these guys is seizing this opportunity and wants to etch his name in stone going forward, that's fantastic."
Asked about his future in the organization, Palka replied: "Whatever they want me to do. I'm going to keep working my ass off in the outfield. If I have to fill in places when dudes need a day (off), so be it. Honestly, it's whatever they need me to do."
Palka's hoop dreams live on. He thinks he can take Anderson in one-on-one.
"I'm pretty good at basketball," Palka said. "He's pretty short, so I think I still can beat him."
Replied Anderson, who has a half court at his south suburban home: "He has no shot."
"We'll make it happen, though," Anderson added. "He's invited whenever he wants."
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