The following is a transfer story. I post it to shed light on one chapter, of many, in a player's journey from t-ball to college ball. As reluctant as I am to share such personal events, even in veiled text, I feel an obligation because many on this site have been generous in sharing their experiences. And by doing so, they've helped my family make at least one less mistake in this process. Maybe two.
Years ago I converted our 1-car garage to a combination hitting facility, pitching lab, and weight room. The walls are covered with an assortment of sports photos in a variety of sizes. Some framed, some just wedged into place, or tacked, the corners curled years ago.
The warm sepia tone images capture my grandfather playing college football and baseball in the early '20s. The cold but classic black and white bring to life my dad's "Raging Bull" days as a college boxer, baseball and basketball player in the early '50s. There's also sports memorabilia; a pair of tickets from a 1971 ND-USC football game, an autographed Johnny Pesky baseball card, a signed Mark Messier Rangers sweater, and autographed photos of Michael Jordan, Graig Nettles, George Foreman, Scotty Bowman, and Greta Weitz to name a few. And intermixed throughout, photos of my son playing basketball and baseball and swimming and running and playing football. Many fond memories.
Just before Christmas, I was looking at one photo on the wall when he was 12-years old, standing on a baseball field at the conclusion of a camp, and next to him, with arm draped around his shoulders, is the head coach of the P-5 program that hosted the camp. The coach didn't know it at the time, but he would soon make a statement in Omaha. Not long after that he'd recruit my son to join his pitching staff. And two and a half years after that, the two would sit down in his office to talk about son's future in his program. I'll come back to that later.
At 6-7, son was a late bloomer. Didn't hit 90 till summer before last year of high school and just when he was about to accept a mid-major offer, a HA P-5 that had been lurking, started calling. The very one from the camp photo.
In the years following that camp, son attended several others. Our family became fans, following the team to their conference tournament, and watching them on TV seemingly every June. During these early years, you could say it was son's "dream school," but in the latter stages of his recruitment he'd focus on what he thought were, "better fits;" those being Ivys and HA mid-majors.
By that time, committing to a school was no longer the stuff of little boy dreams, but an endeavor taken seriously by a young man, who was viewing the road before him through the sober lens that college baseball recruitment requires. He was looking for a 44-year relationship, not a 3-year one, and certainly not a 1-year stand.
One significant consideration was the academic side of things, as son was an academic kid. The university in question was highly ranked and among the most selective in the nation, and guaranteed admission as a baseball recruit alone was arguably worth the commitment. This would weigh heavy on son’s thinking as I don’t ever remember a time when he mused aloud about playing pro ball? A formidable degree was his goal, and baseball would help him attain it. However, unbeknownst to son, he was underestimating his love of the game and his desire to play it for as long as possible.
As Labor Day approached we knew any additional college visits that fall would be logistically problematic due to son heading back to boarding school 900-miles from home. He was also tired, and ready for it all to be over; now approaching the three year mark since he went on his first HA P-5 recruit visit. There had been many twists and turns along the way, including a one year hiatus spent studying abroad in Europe, and an earlier commitment to an Ivy, where from six-months later he decommitted. To say he was ready at this point to wrap up his recruitment and be done with it, would be an understatement.
Throughout August, there were numerous email exchanges, and phone conversations with the P-5 pitching coach, but on Saturday of Labor Day weekend there was one last call, this time from the head coach. This was when son's quest for the right fit, transformed into the quest for a great fit. And this school was indeed that, a great fit.
No question, he wanted to do my wife and me a favor by committing to one of the mid-majors offering athletic and academic scholarships but none had the academic pedigree the P-5 did, and son believed he'd grow more as a student if his academic resume was not commensurate with the top 10% of students, but rather the middling cross section; believing he'd be more inspired to fight his way into the top academic rampart, as opposed to defending it.
The baseball would also be highly competitive. The program had made several trips to the CWS in recent years. Of the 15-players in son's recruit class, 4 were draft risks out of high school, plus 10 other studs. Even though a late bloomer getting minimal love, a well known scouting service would later rank son as the #8 recruit in the class of fifteen; another middling position, from which, he was prepared to climb his way out. I counseled him to do some soul searching, and to go with his gut. He did, and came back with, "I've put so much into baseball up to this point, I can't pass up this opportunity." And, "If I don't go for this, I will always wonder, what if?"
There were certainly plenty of other options with less risk and more love, smaller roster sizes with less attrition, but for my kid there really was no hesitation. No question. With our blessing, he said yes to Flagship University. So Labor Day weekend of his final year of high school, son committed to a great school that was a great fit. And it just so happened to be the "dream school" of his youth.
Jumping ahead to spring and his last high school game. Starting pitcher. 3rd-Inning he feels something pop in his shoulder. Pop, tear, pull....whatever. Something happened. Not good. He pitches through 6th, then gets pulled. Shoulder doesn't feel right. Pain. After game, son assumes it's simply the result of a short but intense season, and takes a much needed break by going on a graduation trip with his buddies.
Two weeks later and now in first outing for summer assignment wood bat league. Pain now, lots of it. Can't throw a strike. Coach pulls him, and shuts him down five days. Second outing, pain is worse. College PC notified, who then shuts son down and brings him to campus for evaluation. Long story short: labrum tear. Bad one. Surgery that fall, recovery timeline 16-22 months. Season over. Medical RS year.
Labrum surgery, on your throwing shoulder, in fall of your freshman year as a PO, is a whole other thread in itself. Not going there now. However I can't say enough about the training staff and university doctors who took care of son throughout his recovery. They were a blessing. There's much to be said about dream school doctors, trainers and facilities.
It's now the one year anniversary of son's surgery, and he is a RS-Freshman. After 4-months of recovery post-surgery, he spent the next 8-months grinding through a grueling rehab program with team trainer and checkups with team physicians. There's just 2-weeks remaining in the fall season at this point. Just 14-days before the 38-man roster will be trimmed down to 35.
After months of confinement to the bullpen, trainer allows son to take the mound and throw live to 3-hitters during a practice. Son then presses for a game outing. He knows the clock is ticking and needs to show what he can do. Knows he's up against it. Three days later takes mound in inter-squad world series game on a 15-pitch limit. Could not finish the inning with the allotted fifteen. It was his first live outing in 16-months.
7-days after that, takes mound a second time with another 15-pitch limit and this time retires the team's 2020 projected 2-3-4 hitters on 10-pitches and an 84 mph fastball. Son was pumped. Really felt like he made his case by competing hard with what he had, throwing strikes and getting outs. All one had to do was imagine what a few more months of rehab and recovery would bring. Key word: imagine. The grim reality was his arm, shoulder, and velocity were not where they needed to be on this final day of fall ball with a roster of 38-players.
Two days later it was over. In son's fall exit meeting, head coach told him it was time to move on. He thanked the coach for giving him the opportunity, stated his intention to transfer, then cleaned out his locker. That was a Monday.
Long tenured players will tell you, what they love most about playing baseball is the camaraderie; not the game, the gear, or the campus notoriety. It's about the friends they make. Their teammates. The brothers they become. When son called me after cleaning out his locker, that was his only concern. The fact that although the friendships would always be there, he knew from that day forward, things would never be the same again. That no matter what he did, those friendships with his teammates would never, ever, be the same. That pain hurt him the most.
On that Monday afternoon, son's plan was to transfer, but when, where, and how, he had no idea. By Tuesday morning he had answers for the first two questions. He would transfer mid-year, to "anywhere but here."
Prior to his commitment, son had asked himself the question, "Is this a school I can see myself without baseball?" The answer was a resounding, yes. But he was assuming he would have some 18-months to access his full collegiate potential and if after giving his best shot, it didn't work out? Fine, he'd hang 'em up and get a great degree from a great school, but he never factored a debilitating injury into the question. An injury that would rob him of those 18-months, resulting in much doubt, and many dark days.
During rehab there were endless frustrations and setbacks. After every session, he had to feign excitement for accomplishing tasks he did better at age 13. Rehabbing for 12, 14, 16 months, feels like a 12-16 year prison term. He knew he had more in the tank. He was not done with baseball. He still wanted to play, if for no other reason than just for the sake of playing. Transferring mid-year, to another 4-year high academic program, were his non-negotiable terms though.
There was one catch: the universal mid-year transfer application deadline was that Friday, and it was now Tuesday.
Over the next four days son contacted numerous HA D-1 and D-3 coaches searching for any who might be interested, specifically targeting those who saw him pre-injury. Trying to solicit baseball offers under such time constraints was hard enough, but adding the fact he hadn’t thrown a pitch in public in nearly 18-months because of an injury and surgery was a whole other challenge. That being said, by Friday he locked in mid-year verbal offers from three different high academic programs, a D-1, and two D-3s. He cranked out the 5-essays needed for the three transfer applications and submitted all of them by the Friday 5-PM deadline.
In a week where Monday found him cleaning out his locker in one program, to a Friday by which he had much interest and multiple offers from HA D-1s and D-3s, there was still no time to rest; there were exams to take and papers to write for current classes, plus son had to figure out how to continue his baseball workouts and rehab for the next 6-weeks without a team or facility. With applications submitted, he also needed to find the time to visit his short list schools and actually meet the coaches, who up to that point, he'd only spoken with by phone.
In the final frame of son's transfer journey he chose D-3, as the thought of going D-1 and having to sit out another season for the transfer penalty was too unappealing. He was also looking to play basketball again, in addition to baseball, to serve as a contingency in case the shoulder did not make it back to 100%. Both D-3 schools' baseball coaches supported the idea of him playing 2-sports, and at 6-7 both basketball coaches were certainly interested. He was now on the verge of putting all his chips down on one of the HA D-3s. The head baseball coach told him he had a "slot," and that he'd fully support his application through the transfer admissions process.
For HA D-3s and D-1s, the recruiting game takes a dramatic turn. The admissions office is the gate keeper, not the coach. And many would agree that HA D-3 coaches have the least amount of pull with admissions committees of all coaches. This was vastly different from the HA P-5 son was leaving where it appeared that aside from NCAA eligibility requirements, 100% of a recruit's admission fate was in the hands of the head coach, period. Sports, and the recruitment of top athletes to play them, are not the life blood of the HA D-3 mission, unlike even HA D-1s where the larger alumni fan bases demand it.
To receive the coach's full support through the admissions process the recruit must lay all his cards on the table and commit to that one baseball program. Notifying the other short list coaches, that you made your decision and it's not them, is a courtesy that guarantees your name being erased from their white board in the same breath the coach uses to say, “Thanks for letting me know, best of luck to you."
Although we had faith in the head coach and the sincerity of his pledge of support, we knew the admissions office can still reject a recruit, which happens more often than one might think. And if son did not gain admission through mid-year transfer, forcing him to apply to a new round of HA schools for spring transfer, the chances of his college baseball career surviving another 10-months without playing and practicing, were not good. Everything was riding on admission to this one highly selective D-3.
At about that same time, I found a college search website that had a "Chances of Admission Calculator" where you punch in your standardized test score and GPA, and it shows your % chance of being admitted to a school. I punched in son's numbers for the HA D-3 he had set his sights on, and according to the calculator, the odds were slim he'd be admitted. To be fair, they’re slim for most applicants , especially transfers. Of the 477 who applied for transfer admission the previous year, only 21 were admitted. That's a 4% acceptance rate. The numbers were startling. Even though son was a dean's list student at a top university, with a slot, and an application fully supported by head coach, most nights found me awake at 2AM staring at the ceiling.
I shared this information with son, and added, "Wouldn't you rather bet on a college where there's a greater chance of being admitted? A place with a better fit? Somewhere you'd be more comfortable?"
He replied, "Comfortable??? Why would I want to go to a college where I'd be comfortable? I won't grow."
For the record, son had full confidence in the school, the coach, and being admitted. But there's no denying he was throwing a hard slider in a 3-2 count with the game on the line. Where he got his poker face, I know not.
Son was accepted two-weeks later. He begins this next chapter of his baseball journey in January, and health permitting, will take the mound this spring.
My son doesn't know it, but he actually does like being comfortable, it's just that he’s most comfortable, when he's un-comfortable. And growing.
Postscript: The camp photo of son with his coach is no longer on the wall of my garage. In anticipation of son's homecoming for Christmas I took it down; for my sake, not his. I hold no grudge. I appreciate the opportunity he gave my son. Do I wish it worked out better? Of course. But what is that? What would that have looked like? I have to remind myself that my son walked through this coach's locker room door with a bum shoulder on Day #1. He was injured before he even got there. He was not turned away. He was not told to "screw." He was not cut as a freshman. Just the opposite. He was welcomed. He was carried. He was given care for a major injury that they had nothing to do with, and from outset, in all liklihood stood to gain nothing from it, as the chances of son getting back to being the pitcher they recruited out of high school, were slim, at least in the time frame they were willing to give; and everyone knew it. Yet 18-months later, like it or not, there's no arguing that son walked out that same locker room door with a completely rebuilt and nearly rehabilitated shoulder, with no medical bills, and a launchpad to begin the remaining 4-years of his NCAA eligibility. If that's what happened, then yeah, I'd say it worked out quite well. That is what happened. Not bad for a recruited walk-on?
If son had committed to one of the other schools he was considering and showed up with a torn labrum on Day #1 to a different program? I can not say another coach would have provided what this coach and university did. I have to remind myself, there was no better place for son to spend 18-months for surgery and rehab, than Flagship U.
In the end, I was wrong, Flagship wasn't just a great fit, it was indeed, "the right fit," after all? Some day I will fully embrace that fact and the camp photo of son with his former coach will be wedged back into place on the garage wall, and the corners will continue to curl with the passage of time. I'll get there.
Fade as well, will this one chapter, of many, in son's journey from t-ball through college ball. Though still raw, the injury and the devastating impact it had on his opportunity at Flagship will eventually be seen as yet another blessing from playing, and chasing, what Babe Ruth called, “...the best game in the world.” A game that has forced my son to confront adversity head on, and to grow in ways that my wife and I could never have imagined since the day that camp photo was taken so many years ago. And for that, we are grateful.