Mike Yaz and others delay the dream
For many N.E. ballplayers, the road to the big leagues runs through Nashville
The lifelong dream was there for the taking.
The young man with the famous last name was fast approaching the July 15 deadline to sign a pro baseball contract, or return to college for his senior year. The Seattle Mariners had selected Mike Yastrzemski in the 30th round of the draft in early June -- holding off until then because they knew he had a strong interest in going back to Vanderbilt to finish his degree. But as the clock ticked, the Mariners began to dig deeper, figuring that every man has his price. According to Peter Gammons on MLB.com, they upped the ante to $300,000, the equivalent of fifth-round money.
The lure was close to irresistible. It was big money for a kid from Andover, Mass. The Mariners would add an escrow account to pay for his senior year at Vanderbilt, which he could complete whenever the baseball journey ended. And he could start playing pro ball right away.
"It's been what I've wanted to do my whole life," said the young Yaz, a left-handed-hitting outfielder.
He wavered. He talked to his mother, Anne-Marie. He talked to his coach at Vanderbilt, Tim Corbin. And, of course, he talked with No. 8.
"He had some very good advice," Yastrzemski said. "He wasn't forcing me either way, which was nice. He was going to let me make my own decision, but made sure I knew what I was getting myself into, whichever way I picked."
Many moons ago, the son of a potato farmer, Carl Michael Yastrzemski, left Notre Dame in his freshman year to sign with the Red Sox. While Yaz ultimately did complete his degree (in 1966 at Merrimack College), he also knew that the vast majority of players who signed pro contracts didn't. His late and only son, Mike, was a case in point, having left Florida State in 1984 a little shy of his diploma. (Mike would top out at Triple-A. He died in 2004 from complications after hip surgery when his namesake son was just 14.)
Now for the grandson, two roads diverged in a yellow wood. He went back and forth. There were pros and cons. A million flips of the coin. A drum roll. The envelope, please.
Next week, Mike Yastrzemski will hit the road back to Vanderbilt to finish up his degree.
"There's a lot of security with that," he said. "It was just something that was real important to me. I've worked real hard at it. It was something that I wasn't going to let slip out of my grasp."
For Corbin, the Vanderbilt coach, the return of his senior standout was good news, indeed. He says about Yastrzemski that he "stands for everything that is good in college baseball," that he is "an old soul" and that he is "a very, very driven kid who has followed the road less traveled many times."
Truth is, the road from Massachusetts to Vanderbilt is quite well worn at this point. Remarkably, Vandy's program will now feature six Bay State players. In addition to Yastrzemski (who was also drafted out of St. John's Prep in 2009 by the Red Sox in the 36th round), the Commodores also feature:
-- Junior Kevin Ziomek, a pitcher from Amherst (a 13th-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2010)
-- Sophomore Tyler Beede, a pitcher from Auburn (a first-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2011)
-- Sophomore Adam Ravenelle, a pitcher from Sudbury (a 44th-round pick by the Yankees in 2011)
-- Freshman Rhett Wiseman, an outfielder from Mansfield (a 25th-round pick by the Cubs in 2012)
-- Freshman Patrick Delano, a pitcher from Braintree (a 35th-round pick by the Red Sox in 2012)
While this is not the first talent drain from Massachusetts to Nashville (country singer Jo Dee Messina left her native Holliston in the 1980s and recorded nine No. 1 singles), it represents a substantial migration. Bay State residents griping about pot holes that haven't been filled can, in part, blame Corbin: that's a lot of tax revenue in bonuses that hasn't been paid.
Most notable was Beede's decision to eschew Toronto's reported $2.5 million offer, choosing a minimum commitment of three years to Vanderbilt instead. The 6-foot-4 right-hander was the only one of 60 first-round picks (including "sandwich" selections) from 2010 not to sign.
"It was definitely hard," Beede said in a phone interview last week. "You have that certain amount of money on the table. Everyone's dream is to play professional baseball. That was all right in front of me."
And make no mistake: Other players put off big paydays to head down to Nashville, as well. Ziomek and Wiseman both won state Player of the Year awards from Gatorade and would have been picked far earlier in the draft if they had not been very clear about their strong commitments to Vanderbilt. Before the draft, Wiseman was listed as the 136th best prospect in the country by Baseball America, essentially projecting him as a fifth-rounder.
What gives? In an era of so much immediate gratification in our youth culture, in an atmosphere of so much worship of pro athletes, at a time when our economy is sluggish, why are so many young ballplayers putting off their pro careers?
In part, it's an academic decision, the endangered species of "student-athlete" apparently making a comeback in Nashville. "I wanted to get that education," insisted Beede, who will live with Yastrzemski and Ravenelle this fall. "The education is very important -- to get that Vanderbilt degree."
Ziomek talks as proudly of his 3.4 GPA in "Managerial and Organizational Development" as he does about his 1.27 ERA for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod Baseball League this summer.
It's clear, though, that the choice to go to Vandy is also very much a baseball decision. The Southeast Conference is a baseball powerhouse, and in 2011 the Commodores made it to the College World Series for the first time. They currently have five players in the big leagues, including Tampa Bay's David Price, a candidate for the American League Cy Young Award.
Player development within the program gets high marks, particularly for pitchers. Corbin's pitching coach, Derek Johnson, has developed something of a cult following. Seven Commodores have been drafted in the first round since 2007, five of them pitchers. Price was the top pick in the country in 2007, and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (21 homers so far this season for the Pirates) was No. 2 in 2008.
The pros have become part of an expanded Vanderbilt baseball community. Price, for instance, called Ziomek in 2010 prior to the baseball draft, helping to firm up his commitment to the school, and they spoke again this year when the young lefty was struggling (as Price had during his sophomore year). Alvarez and Mike Baxter (over .300 this year with the Mets) are both from New York, but they have purchased homes in Nashville.
Vanderbilt maintains an expansive pro locker room. From November to February, pros from Class A to the big leagues come back to school and work out with current players.
"In the fall, they're all there to talk to," Beede said. "It's just remarkable to be able to have them in the locker room."
Corbin, a native of Wolfeboro, N.H., admits to having a special interest in New England kids, and it's clear he has been able to develop some good relationships. Beede first met Corbin in a camp at Vanderbilt after eighth grade, and says that the long-term connection he has fostered helps to explain the decision to choose Vanderbilt over pro ball when he came out of Lawrence Academy.
"Being able to get the tutelage of Coach Corbin and DJ and all the other coaches was huge," he said. "Playing college baseball for Coach Corbin was a dream of mine way earlier than pro ball."
While Corbin does not quite come out and say that the baseball preparation that players get in his program is better than what they would get in the lower rungs of the minor leagues, it's clear that they seem to springboard out of the program quite effectively. Perhaps the biggest thing they get is an object lesson in dealing with struggle.
Price, for instance, was so frustrated about his performance during his freshman year that he almost quit. According to Corbin, the same was true for Mike Minor (now with the Braves). Similarly, Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty (now with the Orioles) struggled mightily in their early days at Vanderbilt.
"We talk about embracing failure," Corbin said. "You really have to. If you're going to play at this level, you understand that you're not going to dominate it. You almost want to get exploited right away, so you understand what your weaknesses are, so you can start attacking them."
It was no surprise to Corbin, then, to see the highly touted Beede getting hammered his first few starts as a college pitcher. He wound up the year with a 1-5 record and a 4.52 ERA.
"At the time, it can be frustrating, but as a coach you know that has to happen in order for this kid to reach his full potential," Corbin said. "Going through this process and being 50 years old, I've had a lot of those discussions now. The same discussions that I had eight years ago with David Price, or seven years ago with Pedro Alvarez [were the ones I had] with Tyler Beede on the bus. You wait for it. You know it's going to happen. That's when you just try to pick them back up, dust them off, and say, 'Hey, it's going to be OK.'"
Beede describes his struggles as "a slap in the face kind of reality check," but says he learned a ton and feels confident that he will push through to better results.
Ziomek went through much the same thing. He pitched well in relief in his first year (becoming a freshman All-American), but struggled this past year as the "Friday starter" -- essentially the ace of the staff. His 5-6 record and 5.22 ERA were sobering, but he says the support from the coaches and Vandy's baseball alums kept him on track.
"Coming into it, a lot of guys haven't really faced much failure coming out of high school, especially [in the] Northeast," Ziomek said. "It was pretty tough for me."
But pitching against some of the top college players in the country in the Cape League this summer he was dominant, going 3-0 with that 1.27 ERA.
Corbin spent a week on the Cape checking in on some of his players. In a summer where great white shark sightings frightened many on the beaches, Corbin lurked, ready to snatch away area talent.
The six players from Massachusetts haven't been his only prey from Bay State baseball interests. In addition to Delano, the 6-7 fireballer from Braintree, Corbin recruited two other players who were drafted by the Red Sox -- Carson Fulmer, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher from Florida (15th round), and Xavier Turner, a power-hitting third baseman from Ohio (34th).
Both of them turned down sweet offers from the Sox for the Vandy Man.