By Jim • 

Sports Fan: College to MLB: Hard road to fame and fortune

When boys are young, they often dream of being a fireman or policeman; the more adventurous kids with an athletic bent dream of being a big league baseball player, NFL quarterback or hot-shooting NBA guard.

I know that when I was a boy of eight or nine, I dreamed of pitching for the Dodgers, then entrenched in Brooklyn but soon to move to Los Angeles. For a young kid, I had a decent fastball, good control and could throw a change-up that fooled most of my cousins and friends in the farm pasture below our house.

The curve ball was to come later since my mom, my coach, said throwing a curve too soon could hurt my elbow. So this time, I actually listened and kept the curve out of my arsenal until I was 14. Probably good advice for any kid who wants to snap off a bender too soon.

But after I went through high school as an athlete and played a little ball at the college level, I knew that pitching at the major league level — or high minors, for that matter, even with a pretty good curve and a so-so slider — would be a real stretch for me. So I decided to teach and coach, not flounder around in the low minors for a half dozen years still dreaming of a shot at the big time. Yes, I had talked with a Dodgers scout about signing for a small bonus right after my senior year in high school, but I was already enrolled in college and planned to play baseball while finishing my education. Besides, my mom said no-go!
Most kids like me, I discovered over the years, begin to see the real world more clearly before they graduate from high school, and unless they are truly exceptional during their years of playing school ball, they know their chances are very slim to ever reach the pinnacle of their sport, whether it be basketball, football, baseball, hockey, soccer or any other.

For example, only a handful of the Oregon State University baseball players drafted by Major League Baseball teams over the past few years are now in the majors. Yes, several have been up for a spell, then sent back to the minors for more development work, such as McMinnville’s own Joe Paterson. After pitching well for the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks over several seasons, he struggled and was sent to the Triple-A Reno club. At 28, there’s still time for Paterson to climb the ladder again, but with all the hard-throwing draftees available now, it’s not an easy road.

I was watching a College World Series game recently and noted that one of the pitchers was throwing in the high nineties in the Nebraska heat — with control. That’s the stuff that earns fame and fortune... if a player remains healthy and has the mental acuity to perform consistently under all kinds of conditions for season after season.

And how about those other former Beavers now in the Majors like Darwin Barney of the Cubs and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees? How are they faring in the early season going?

Barney, a solid fielder at second base, is fighting to maintain his average at the .200 level while Ellsbury, a fine outfielder, is struggling to get his stats above .270 now. For a guy that bats third in the lineup for the Yankees, that’s not all-star hitting.
And, North Salem High graduate Jed Lowrie, who bypassed Oregon universities for a college career at Stanford, is struggling with a batting average in the low .200s after hitting .290 for Oakland in 2013.

Obviously, it’s tough to be consistent considering there are 162 games per season to play, and injuries, both small and large, take their toll, too, and often shorten a player’s career. But, as a consolation, Lowrie is earning $2.4 million this year while struggling at the plate; Ellsbury is drawing a paycheck of $9 million and Barney $2.3 million. While that’s not big money when compared to the Dodgers’ Zach Greinke ($28 million), and the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee, both of whom are drawing salaries of $25 million, it’s certainly more than the incomes of firefighters, policemen and, of course, teachers and coaches.

While the majority of those kids who dreamed of success in the big time found another path in life where they could be successful and satisfied, it’s still those kids like Joe Paterson, Darwin Barney, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie that give life to the dreams of young kids in McMinnville, in Yamhill-Carlton, in Salem, in Portland, or maybe even in Pistol River.
Thanks, guys, for keeping the dream alive.

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