FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The charter bus slowly eased its way along Brackenridge Avenue early Wednesday morning, making a turn into the Diamond Lot at Parkview Field before coming to a stop.
It was close to 3:30 a.m. when the bus carrying members of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, the Padres' Class A affiliate in the Midwest League, unloaded its passengers following a nearly three-hour ride from Dayton, Ohio, where the team played a doubleheader that lasted 23 innings instead of 14.
Shortstop Jace Peterson had but one thought as he unfolded himself from his seat on the bus and took his first step from the bus into the cool morning air.
"That [stunk]," Peterson recalled hours later, after playing a game Thursday morning on four hours of sleep.
Peterson, leaning against a wall outside the TinCaps' clubhouse, smiled.
"But when you sign a contract, you know that this kind of thing can happen -- and it did. That's just part of the game," Peterson said.
Like many of his TinCaps' teammates, the 22-year-old Peterson, regarded as MLB.com's No. 19 prospect in a Minor League system that's fast become the envy of baseball, figures he'll learn a lot about himself in 2012 as he endures the peaks and valleys of his first full professional season.
Long bus ride aside, Peterson, 22, seems to be handling his first full professional season with aplomb, as he's hitting .315 in 31 games with 20 stolen bases and a .401 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot while also serving as the de facto leader in a clubhouse that's brimming with young talent.
"He's a born leader," said Padres VP of player development and international scouting Randy Smith. "And he does something every day to help you win. This is a guy who still hasn't played a lot, so he's still learning. But I love the way he plays.
"He thinks he's going to succeed all the time. He's an exciting player. He finds a way to do something."
Hearing such praise for Peterson doesn't surprise Kevin Ellis in the least. After all, it was Ellis, a Padres' scout whose territory is south Texas and south Louisiana, who recommended Peterson to the team and continues to gush over the athleticism, upside and makeup of a player who probably spent more time playing football for McNeese State than he did baseball.
"He hadn't played a lot of baseball, but had more walks than strikeouts. That's a good sign for a player if you think they can hit already. He was sneaky strong," Ellis said.
Ellis first saw Peterson at McNeese State during his sophomore season, when he hit .353 with 35 steals. Wanting to know more about Peterson the person, Ellis met him for lunch on campus in the fall of 2010. This lunch came just three days after Peterson, a cornerback, had a sack against LSU during a 32-10 loss.
"I get there early and sit in the back to see him walk in and see how people react to him," Ellis said. "He comes in and they all go bonkers. I see other students talking to him. Older guys having lunch talked to him. He just had this great aura around him. He was very respectable and was magnetic to his peers.
"This doesn't mean he can hit a curveball, but I believe chemistry counts for something. About an hour later, I was thinking that I would bet my house on his makeup."
Ellis got Peterson on the Padres' scouting radar in January 2011 and then really sold him during May meeting weeks before the Draft.
"I saw him when he was really, really good and I saw him bad ... and his bad wasn't that bad. It was all correctable," Ellis said. "I started pushing him. We get to our meeting, and one of the things they ask is 'Who is your gut-feel guy?' I told them that I had guys ahead of Jace and guys after Jace, but if I only get Jace, I'd be ecstatic. If I didn't get him, I'd be crushed."
The Padres used the 58th overall selection in the Draft on Peterson, agreeing to a bonus of $624,600 before whisking him away to short-season Eugene, where he hit .243 with 39 steals.
Peterson realizes he still has a long ways to go. Ellis once half-joked, 'He's about a zillion ground balls behind other college shortstops.' But the gains have been obvious this spring in Fort Wayne and about everywhere else in the Midwest League, where Peterson has played.
"It's going good, it's still getting used to playing every day," Peterson said. "It's a lot of games and a long season but you've got to be ready to play no matter what. I know I have things I need to get better at but so far, it's going good. I'll keep working and hopefully will get better."
Peterson has already won over his manager, former Major League infielder Jose Valentin, who said he sees a lot of himself in Peterson. That's high praise from a man who had 1,348 career Major League hits over 16 seasons.
"He reminds me a little of myself," Valentin said. "Early in my career, I made a lot of mistakes, especially defensively. I was going crazy. But I learned from it. And [Peterson is] doing that. He works hard, and he talks. He asks for opinions. That's what you want to see. You don't want a guy holding that in."