CLEARWATER, Fla. - Jeff Singer's baseball dream never felt farther away than it did on the mornings when he was the first employee to arrive at the car dealership.
Singer, now an intriguing Phillies pitching prospect, worked full time at Dunphy Ford in Mayfair, in Northeast Philadelphia. His time at Division III Rutgers-Camden was finished. The lefthander went undrafted and instead was pitching to a 50-year-old catcher in a South Jersey men's league.
The dream could have ended in the summer of 2015. Singer was a lot attendant at the dealership, arriving first to unlock all the cars, start them, and make sure the gas tanks were full before the salespeople hit the floor. His dad is a Dunphy manager. Maybe selling cars was in his future, too.
"I was just learning the business and just seeing what would happen," said Singer, 23, who was born in Northeast Philly but grew up in South Jersey and attended Holy Cross Academy in Delran. "They're a great group of guys and really took care of me. They gave me the opportunity to keep on playing baseball."
Later that summer, Singer received a call. The Camden Riversharks had lost one of their lefthanded pitchers. They were looking for an arm. Rowland George, a Phillies scout, saw Singer light up the Rancocas Valley men's league. He told the Riversharks to try Singer. It was independent baseball, still a long way from even the minor leagues.
For Singer, it was a chance.
He spent the final weeks of the season with Camden. It was the pitcher's introduction to professional baseball. Singer's chase continued in the fall when he drove to Connecticut to pitch in front of scouts from the Red Sox, Yankees, and Orioles. It was an open tryout with 60 others, but Singer created enough buzz that the Phillies heard other teams were zeroing in.
"Now they wanted to give me the contract," Singer said.
He signed with the Phillies in October 2015, and pitched in his first minor-league game last June. Singer started as a reliever with Williamsport, a short-season team usually reserved for players who were just drafted. He dominated in four games there and moved to single-A Lakewood. Singer allowed one run in 21 innings. He struck out 27 and walked six. His fastball zipped in the mid-90s. The Phillies quickly moved him to high-A Clearwater.
Singer struggled a bit with his command at Clearwater, but that could be expected at the end of a whirlwind season. He finished the season with 46 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. Singer had made a name for himself.
"Growing up as a kid, you idolized all the guys on the Phillies," Singer said. "Randy Wolf was my favorite pitcher. I always tried to be like him. He was a bulldog on the mound. The way Philly is, you're either a Phillies fan or you're someone that just doesn't want to be there. That's what I really enjoyed about growing up as a Philly kid, knowing I had great people behind me.
The Phillies invited him this offseason to the Arizona Fall League, a six-week showcase of the top prospects across baseball. It was a good test for Singer. He struck out 10 and allowed two runs in 12 2/3 innings.
A summer earlier, he was barely keeping his dream alive by playing with friends in a men's league. Now, Singer was pitching against some of baseball's top prospects.
Singer should start this season back in Clearwater or at double-A Reading. A lefthanded reliever with an electric fastball has the chance to move up quickly. He arrived to spring training in February. But first he worked a few more shifts at the car dealership. Singer still hasn't quit.
"It's a good story," Singer said. "I'm just really lucky where I am right now. I'm going to try and keep enjoying it and see how far it takes me."