Players choose different paths to Majors
For many prospects, picking college over pros is tough call
MILWAUKEE -- J.J. Hardy found himself paralyzed by a decision he had to make in the summer of 2001.
Hardy had accepted a scholarship to play baseball for the University of Arizona in his hometown of Tucson. But things got complicated when the Brewers drafted the shortstop out of high school in the second round of the First-Year Player Draft in June.
Should he go to Arizona to mature as a young man and season as a baseball player? Or, would he be foolish not to embark on his professional career, something he'd always dreamed of doing? Besides, Milwaukee's offer of a $735,000 signing bonus looked awfully tempting.
For close to two months, Hardy agonized over what he should do.
"At the time, it was the most difficult decision of my life," he said. "I was just sitting around, thinking. I thought about it the whole time."
Hardy eventually signed with the Brewers, a decision he hardly regrets now as he has propelled his way through the Minor Leagues into Milwaukee's starting lineup. But there are no right or wrong answers.
For some youngsters drafted in the early rounds after high school, they simply cannot pass up the chance to enter an organization as a top prospect. High draft picks receive signing bonuses that could change their lives forever, and who knows whether their star will ever shine as bright again?
On the other hand, many former top picks languish in the Minor Leagues today because they weren't prepared to handle the rigors of a professional baseball season. Players who spent time in college say it taught them to be independent and disciplined, all the while sharpening their tools as baseball players.
"Ultimately, it's your own decision," said Hardy, who would have pursued a career in firefighting had he not panned out as a baseball player. "For me, I thought it was the right decision, and it turned out all right."
On Milwaukee's roster, Hardy and first baseman Prince Fielder stand out as examples of high school picks whose youth did not stop them from surging through the Minors to the big leagues.
Hardy got his first taste of the big leagues when he started at shortstop on Opening Day two seasons ago at age 22. Fielder turned down an Arizona State University baseball scholarship to sign with the Brewers out of high school after they nabbed him with the seventh overall pick in the 2002 Draft. Fielder consistently ranked among the organization's top prospects and made his Major League debut in June 2005 at the age of 21.
"I think I made the right decision," Fielder said.
|1. TB||LHP||David Price||Vanderbilt U|
|2. KC||SS||Michael Moustakas||Chatsworth HS (Calif.)|
|3. CHC||3B||Josh Vitters||Cypress HS (Calif.)|
|4. PIT||LHP||Daniel Moskos||Clemson U|
|5. BAL||C||Matthew Wieters||Georgia Tech|
|6. WSH||LHP||Ross Detwiler||Missouri St U|
|7. MIL||LF||Matthew LaPorta||U Florida|
|8. COL||RHP||Casey Weathers||Vanderbilt U|
|9. ARI||RHP||Jarrod Parker||Norwell HS|
|10. SF||LHP||Madison Bumgarner||South Caldwell HS|
Fielder seemed destined to be a pro ballplayer, and that's all he ever wanted to be.
Fielder's parents urged him to consider furthering his education in college, but he had made up his mind a long time ago. Fielder signed on the dotted line just two weeks after the Draft, and the Brewers rewarded him with a $2.4 million signing bonus and a clause that promised to pay for his college education when his career was over.
"It would seem like I didn't have an education if I had turned down the money they offered me," Fielder said. "I can always get education, but you only get one opportunity to pursue your dream that you've had since you were a kid."
But not every player has the ability to jump from high school to the Minors. Second baseman Rickie Weeks got "zero" attention from pro scouts out of high school, he said. Weeks didn't get drafted, and in fact, received scholarship offers from only two Division I schools.
Weeks enrolled in Southern University. Three years later, he had worked himself into the best amateur player in the country, winning the Golden Spikes Award in 2003. Weeks led the nation in hitting in 2002 (.495) and 2003 (.479), and Milwaukee nabbed him with the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft.
Unlike Weeks, catcher Johnny Estrada and outfielder Tony Gwynn, Jr. got drafted out of high school, but they each decided they weren't ready and chose college instead.
Estrada was picked by the Astros in the 71st round in 1994, but turned them down. Three years of junior college ball helped him climb up the draft board to the Phillies' 17th-round pick in 1997.
Similarly, the Braves chose Gwynn in the 33rd round of the 2000 draft, but he opted instead to play for three years under his Hall-of-Fame father at San Diego State. The instruction paid off, and the Brewers took him in the second round of the 2003 Draft.
"For me, it was super beneficial -- I needed it," Gwynn said. "Coming out of high school, I wasn't physically or mentally ready to handle a Minor League system or a Major League system."
Weeks and Gwynn needed college first and foremost to let their bodies mature and fill out. Weeks said pro scouts complained most frequently about his size -- at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, nobody thought his body would withstand the daily punishment of pro ball. Gwynn had that same reputation, weighing just 150 pounds out of high school.
As soon as Weeks arrived at Southern, he began working out ferociously. He spent an hour in the gym every day of the week, including the weekends -- "Book it," he said. In fact, it seemed when he wasn't in class, he was either on the baseball diamond, in the gym or eating, Weeks joked. During the offseason, he worked out with the Southern football team.
By his junior year, Weeks had put on 25 pounds of muscle, and more importantly, he had developed a quiet confidence that came with knowing what his body was now capable of.
"The whole rep was that I was too small and didn't do this and didn't do that," Weeks said. "I just wanted to prove everybody wrong."
For Estrada, he simply needed to become a better baseball player. Growing up in Hayward, Calif., Estrada never bothered to work on his game. He would simply show up for practice and games and blow away whatever high school pitching he faced. Even the transition to switch-hitting as a 13-year-old came easy.
|"Coming out of high school, I wasn't physically or mentally ready to handle a Minor League system or a Major League system."|
Tony Gwynn Jr.
A shock awaited Estrada when he got to Fresno City College, and later, the College of the Sequoias. For the first time, he wasn't the best hitter on his team. Heck, he wasn't even the best catcher.
It became apparent to Estrada that he would have to work, and work hard, if he wanted to separate himself from his peers. He would have to fine-tune his switch-hitting skills. He would have to learn to hit the ball the other way, instead of always pulling it. He would have to study the art of game-calling.
Worst of all, he would have to run -- run before practice, run after practice, run all the time.
"I never thought I was capable of running that much, but I did it," he chuckled. "That's what I learned going to college. I learned how to work hard and be fully committed to baseball, and did some growing up."
And grew up he did. As Estrada climbed up the Phillies chain, he met dozens of players who got drafted out of high school and who were tasting independence from their parents and teachers for the first time. Too often, these youngsters ran amok.
Some of them stayed out late after games. Others simply lazed off. Weeks saw one player in the Brewers chain buy three cars soon after he signed his first contract.
"They just kind of lost their work ethic when they got the money," Estrada said. "They felt like everything was going to be handed to them because the team has a lot of money invested in them. Before you know it, they're 20, 21, 22 years old and still in [Class A] ball."
Estrada doesn't blame them. If he had signed out of high school, he probably wouldn't have made it to the Majors either, he said. But college changed everything for him.
"I was never a big fan of school -- I pretty much went to school to play baseball," he said. "I struggled to graduate from high school, but I ended up going to college and becoming an honors student. I grew up a lot."
College-bound players face another decision if they get drafted after their junior year, the earliest they can leave for the pros after they've committed to a four-year school. Thankfully, this decision doesn't cause quite as many sleepless nights.
Gwynn, Weeks and Brewers outfielders Gabe Gross and Geoff Jenkins all were drafted in the early rounds after three years of college and readily gave up their senior seasons for the Minors.
A $3.6 million bonus awaited Weeks as soon as he signed with the Brewers. He recalled the long hours he had worked during high school at the Chick-fil-A restaurant and a mortgage company near his home, and he found the money impossible to turn down.
"I'd never seen money like that in my life," Weeks said. "When you sign for that kind of money, it's kind of overwhelming."
The only dilemma they faced was whether they would be willing to forgo completing their college degrees. But it has become standard procedure for ballclubs to pay for that last year of college once players are done with baseball.
Weeks hopes to run his own gospel-themed radio station after he hangs up his cleats, and he intends to return to Southern to complete his business management degree. Gross and Gwynn also plan to go back to school, although they haven't decided what careers they will pursue in their post-baseball lives.
|"Having an education, I think, is an important foundation for you to have so that you can have other options open to you after you're done playing."|
Jenkins, on the other hand, knows exactly what lies in store for him after baseball, and it's not something he needs a college degree for -- "Golf, play with the kids, coach Little League," he said.
"I've done well enough playing baseball that I can live off that," Jenkins said. "The objective of college is to get a good job. We've figured that out."
And then there are players like Chris Capuano, who insist on staying all four years in school. The Diamondbacks drafted the hurler in the eighth round of the 1999 draft after his junior year at Duke and soon started pressuring him with frequent phone calls urging him to sign right away.
Capuano refused to buckle. He loved being in school and wanted to graduate with his friends. Besides, Capuano had no idea how long his baseball career would last, and he wanted to complete his economics degree so he could follow his father, Frank, a financial planner, into the business world after his baseball career ended.
That fall, as Capuano was walking into class one day early in the semester, he received a phone call from the Diamondbacks. They would pay for him to complete his senior year if he then joined them the following summer.
"Education has always been important to me," he said. "Baseball is a really fleeting livelihood. So much depends on things out of your control -- staying healthy, whatever. Having an education, I think, is an important foundation for you to have so that you can have other options open to you after you're done playing."
Because Capuano had signed for a professional team, NCAA rules restricted him from playing for Duke his senior year. He became a regular student for the first time, and he had a blast. Capuano had the luxury of taking film classes and courses like intermediate golf. On the weekends, he hung out with his Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brothers.
"There is nothing like college," Capuano said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and once you're gone, you go back there, and it's just not the same."
But players like Fielder and Hardy say they have no regrets about missing out on the college experience. After all, they're big league ballplayers. Little Leaguers usually don't daydream about college; they fantasize about playing Major League baseball for a living with adoring fans screaming their name.
"I think they would be wanting to be where we're at," Hardy said.
Kelvin Ang is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.