"I said, 'If I ever had anybody go through Navy SEAL training with me, it would be Kole Calhoun, because nothing's going to stop him from getting to where he wants to go,'" recalled Gracio, who was in the Navy from 1957-78 and is entering his 10th season as an Angels amateur scout.
"His mind and his makeup is that of a tough kid, and it's just shown, and proven, because he fought his way through the organization to get to the big leagues and wouldn't let anybody hold him down."
Calhoun has been a popular interview subject for reporters this spring, which is quite unique for the scrappy 26-year-old. The offseason trade that sent Peter Bourjos to the Cardinals for David Freese, not to mention his own .808 OPS in 58 games down the stretch last season, has created a situation where Calhoun is set up to be the everyday right fielder and potential leadoff man.
And everybody keeps asking him the same question: Can you believe it?
"I'm like, 'Yeah I can believe it. I planned on doing this,'" Calhoun said. "That's what I wanted to do. Don't get me wrong. It's not like I'm not humble about it. It's that I've worked my butt off to get to this point. And now that the opportunity is in front of me, I want to take advantage of that and keep going and make a career out of it. That's what has always been the plan."
Few outside of Calhoun actually believed in that plan, though. It's hard to get much support when you're shorter than everybody else and your most impressive tools -- energy, work ethic and sheer mettle -- can't be tabulated.
As Calhoun said Monday, and has repeated several times before: "My back's been against the wall since day one when I came into this game."
He's listed in the Angels' media guide at 5-foot-10, but that's awfully generous, even with spikes on. Growing up, his stature was his greatest nemesis. Others wondered if he would ever hit, they made "fourth outfielder" his ceiling very early on, and they forgot all about the stuff that can't be measured.
"There's a little bit of grit that you need for this game, and they don't have a scale for that," Calhoun said. "There's no 20-to-80 scale for heart and competitiveness. Nobody has that. And they're not going to see it in a practice or in a BP session or running a 60. But when it comes to playing every single day and going out there 162 times, what are they going to do then? That's how you show them."
Calhoun's father, Gregg, gave up what could've been a promising baseball career to ride bulls, a decision the Phoenix woodworker now calls "the dumbest thing I ever did."
Throughout Calhoun's childhood, Gregg preached the importance of having fun with the game and never getting too bent out of shape if things didn't go your way. Calhoun would typically respond with three playful words: "Dad, shut up."
Asked where his son got the spark that has made him a favorite in the Angels' veteran clubhouse, Gregg lets out a chuckle.
"His drive he probably got from me," Gregg said, "and his fight he got from his mom."
Calhoun was born and raised in Buckeye, Ariz., a western suburb of Phoenix. He was always the best in Little League, his father recalls, and excelled as a left-handed-throwing catcher in travel ball.
But Calhoun had to search hard for high schools that would give him a chance and attended to Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., when no Major League team showed interest in him as an 18-year-old. He wound up playing through his senior season at Arizona State University after going undrafted in four consecutive years.
"I would like to sit next to the scouts who said he'd never make it to the Major Leagues," Gregg said. "Now look."
It took the perfect string of events for the Angels to select Calhoun with their eighth-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Their system had dried up, so they were looking for safer bets -- guys who could move up the system quickly and simply infuse talent at the upper levels. Calhoun, 22 at the time, fit the bill. And Gracio, in the Cubs' scouting department for 20 years before joining the Angels in 2004, had been following him since his sophomore year of high school.
Gracio couldn't have predicted that Calhoun would be the everyday right fielder by the start of his third full season in pro ball; he can't really say that about any player he signs.
"But I'll tell you what," Gracio said, "I knew he would fight his way through the system, and I knew that if he got the opportunity to get to the Major League level, he was going to fight like a dog to be on that team."
Calhoun torched Class A Inland Empire in 2011 (.957 OPS) and Triple-A Salt Lake in 2012 (.877), earning a 21-game stint in the Major Leagues that season. He had a golden opportunity to win a spot out of Spring Training last year but admittedly put too much pressure on himself. Calhoun batted .174 in Cactus League play, got beat out by J.B. Shuck, fractured the hamate bone in his right hand and missed the first five weeks of the season.
Then he went on a tear for the summer, showing the power, speed, arm strength and baseball instincts his stout frame tends to hide, and setting himself up for an everyday role few saw coming.
"I'm not taking anything for granted," Calhoun said. "With the opportunity right there, I want to grab the bull by the horns. Nothing's ever been given to me, and it's not given right now. So I'm going to go out and win it."