Big League dream comes with costs

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Local athletes find journey to The Show grueling, worthwhile

By STEVE WILAJ
TheNewsOutlet.org

You are Tanner Scott and you have something everyone wants.

You seemingly have a golden ticket to Major League Baseball. It comes in the form of a left-arm that fires 98 mile-per-hour fastballs.

Actually, that may be an understatement.

See, you – a 2013 Howland High graduate – know you clocked 98 mph last spring as a 19-year-old pitcher at Howard Junior College in Texas. But since joining the Baltimore Orioles organization last June as a 2014 sixth-round draft choice, you don’t know how hard you’ve been throwing. The Orioles don’t release velocities. They believe it’s a distraction.

Still, in September, the name “Tanner Scott” appeared in an BaseballAmerica.com article, titled “Those Who Throw The Hardest: 100 MPH Pitchers in the Minors.” The list includes just 51 other minor league pitchers out of a field of about 2,000.

That’s just one thing you have going for you.

You’ve also got good size at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. Former MLB left-handed pitcher Jason Stanford coached you at Howland. Plus, Wilson Alvarez – another former major-league lefty – mentored you last summer with the Orioles’ Rookie League team.

“I love it,” you say of professional baseball – so far.

Sure, the odds are stacked against you. Just 17.2 percent of minor-leaguers ever reach the MLB.

But you enjoy the competition. You don’t mind being away from home. The skimpy salary doesn’t bother you, either. Minor-leaguers earn between $3,000 and $7,500 for a five-month season. A fast-food worker makes two to three times that in a year.

You’re chasing a dream. It comes with big stadiums, bright lights, adoring fans and a $507,500 minimum wage salary.

“I want to get that time in the MLB and see how long I can last. I’m just trying to shoot through the organization, make it to the Big’s and play on the big field.”

It seems simple to you, Tanner Scott – 20 years old with a 100 mph, left-handed fastball. But as other Mahoning Valley locals found out, the journey comes with bumps, bruises and sacrifices. How long do you dream? When must you wake up?

Swing and a Miss

Chris Durkin’s baseball career was set up beautifully, just like Scott’s. But now it’s 1997 and the 26-year-old is stuck in San Antonio, Texas, with an achy 6-foot-6, 247-pound body.

Since coming out of Youngstown State University as a 20-year-old outfielder, the 1988 Chaney High School grad has been in the minors for seven years. The Houston Astros made him their 1991 third-round draft choice, but now he’s lingering with the Los Angeles Dodgers Double-A team – taking medicine every day so he can play through pain.

Durkin’s been through two knee surgeries and a shoulder operation. He got a sports hernia after colliding with a catcher at home plate. Now he’s seeing blood in his urine.

He calls his wife.

“Listen, I don’t know if it’s worth putting my body through the torture,” Durkin tells her. Then admits to missing his two young kids – Chris Jr. and Madison – back home.

After the 1997 season, he retires from baseball. Despite all that potential, coming out of YSU (.423 with 17 homeruns in 126 games), Double-A is the highest level Durkin reaches.

Sure, he still loves the game. He enjoys traveling the country and meeting a lot of good people. However, the schedule is so exhausting that he “literally lost track of the days of the week.” More than anything, injuries took their toll.

Durkin, now 44 years old, has no regrets – just as he told Chris Jr., a freshman quarterback at Virginia Tech, during a phone call in early February.

“As I look back, every day I went all out,” Durkin said. “I loved the challenge of baseball and I left it all on the field. If it was meant to be, it would have happened.”

Durkin – like a few other locals – learned that baseball tells you when to walk away.

A Whole New Ballgame

Drew Turocy, a 2007 graduate of Canfield High School, was an outfielder in 2012-’13 for The Greenville Drive, the Single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. After retiring in 2014, he landed a full-time job with NetJets, one of the world’s largest aviation companies. Photo provided by The Greenville Drive

Drew Turocy, a 2007 graduate of Canfield High School, was an outfielder in 2012-’13 for The Greenville Drive, the Single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. After retiring in 2014, he landed a full-time job with NetJets, one of the world’s largest aviation companies. Photo provided by The Greenville Drive

Drew Turocy is already two weeks behind in his classes at The University of Akron.

It’s the 2011 fall semester and he’s trying to complete the last 21 hours of his bachelor of business administration degree. He’s starting late because he just finished his first pro season in Single-A with the Boston Red Sox. They picked him in the 24th-round of the 2011 MLB Draft.

Sure enough, the 2007 Canfield grad made up the time and received his degree in December 2011.

See, Turocy never puts all his cards into baseball. Even during his three seasons as an outfielder in Boston’s organization, he stays in touch with current events so “when I finally decide to hang up the cleats, I won’t have too hard of a transition to the business world.”

Turocy still gives baseball his best shot (he hit .276 in 732 career at-bats). Like Durkin, he has no regrets – even though the minor-league lifestyle was “grueling.”

“I’m not going to lie, every day I saw five, six, seven guys on the team living in one-bedroom apartments,” he said. “Then being on the road for a week or 12 days at a time in hotel rooms and riding buses with 30 guys on it – when I say grueling, that’s grueling.”

It’s not easy living on a $1,300 monthly paycheck, either. Even so, Turocy wouldn’t trade this experience for anything else.

“Not a lot of people can say they got drafted and played minor league baseball, but I’m one of them,” he said.

That’s true. Only 10.5 percent of collegiate baseball players get drafted. From there, just about one of six draft picks ever reaches the MLB.

So when Turocy retires in January 2014, after getting no higher than Single-A, he joins the majority of players. Then, just like he planned, he transitions smoothly to “the real world.”

He moves to Columbus in February 2014 for a business internship and then lands a full-time position in October with NetJets – one of the world’s largest aviation companies.

“With baseball, I was going to play as long as I could,” Turocy said. “But I knew that real success for me was going to come in the regular world.”

Durkin thinks the same way. Upon retiring in 1997, he takes a representative position with ETI Technical College of Niles. Now, he’s a business management partner for A&M Total Restoration in Boardman, which opened in 2009.

“Baseball taught me about what would be my work ethic when I was with ETI Tech,” Durkin said. “Just making sure that I busted my hump and I did everything that was expected of me.”

A couple other locals follow suit.

Greg Rohan, a 2004 South Range High grad, retires from baseball in 2013 after five seasons in the Chicago Cubs organization. He reachs Triple-A, but now works for Stryker, a medical-devices manufacturing firm based in Youngstown.

His cousin – 2007 Ursuline grad Eddie Rohan (a 2011 New York Mets draft pick) – also retires in 2013 and works for the Stryker firm in Virginia Beach, Va.

“I’ve tried to translate everything I did in baseball into work,” said Eddie Rohan, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Winthrop University, Rock Hill, S.C. “Hopefully I can have as much passion for this job as I had for baseball.”

Turocy, Durkin and the Rohans find life after baseball. Sometimes setting the dream aside isn’t easy.

Two Strikes and …

You are Tanner Scott and you worked on your changeup all winter. That’s in addition to extensive running, biking and leg workouts.

“I want the changeup to be one of my main pitches,” you say. “It’ll get the hitters off my fastball and off-balance.”

Steven Gruver wishes he could refine his pitching repertoire. Actually, the 2008 Austintown Fitch grad just wishes he could throw a baseball.

At the end of the 2014 season with the Fort Myers Miracle (the Minnesota Twins Single-A team), Gruver – a left-handed pitcher – tears his left rotator cuff and part of the labrum on one pitch.

Doctors call it an atypical injury, but the 25-year-old simply calls it “a roadblock” – his first major obstacle since becoming a Twins 2011 seventh-round draft pick out of the University of Tennessee.

While Gruver’s shoulder is ailing, his passion for the game isn’t. Despite shoulder surgery that requires him to miss the entire 2015 season, he plans to be back in 2016.

“I’ll stick it out as long as I have that belief in myself that I can make it,” Gruver said. “Everybody has their own way to get there.”

He has options beyond baseball. He’s studied kinesiology and exercise science at Tennessee with just one year left before he graduates. But Gruver doesn’t think about life-after-baseball.

“If you start letting those doubting thoughts creep into your mind while you’re playing,” he explains, “it’ll affect your performance, in all honesty.”

So, Gruver gladly hangs on to his dream for one reason.

“We get to go out to the field and play baseball every single day. There’s nothing you could do that would be better.”

Grand Slam

Mark Malaska doesn’t want to answer the phone that’s ringing in the kitchen.

It’s July 16, 2003, and he just got back to his Durham, N.C., apartment room. He’s spend this 93-degree afternoon by the pool. Malaska wants to nap.

A pitcher for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, he’s simply trying to enjoy his day off. Aafter continuous ringing (and nagging from his roommate), he finally answers the phone call of his dreams.

It’s the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He’s going to “The Show.”

“I almost missed my call up,” says the 1997 Cardinal Mooney High grad 13 years later.

After two-and-a-half years in the minors, Malaska makes his major league debut with Tampa Bay on July 17, 2003, before joining the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

It’s a brief stay for the lefty reliever: 36 innings pitched in 41 major league appearances. Actually, he retires only two years later at 28 – leaving the Rays clubhouse and never returning after a bad spring training outing in March 2006.

By then, Malaska has a cranky elbow. The constant roster competition grows old. He just can’t go back to the 20-hour bus rides and the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches that makes up life in the minors.

Especially not after The Show.

In The Show, Malaska flies first-class. He make big money (the minimum wage MLB salary is $300,000 in 2003 and 2004). While he’s with the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox, he is part of a club that’s the toast of Boston – “like one of The Beatles.”

“People would recognize me at malls or they’d give me a table at a restaurant,” Malaska said. “The fans are crazy and know everything about you. It’s a double-edged sword. If you have a bad stretch, they get pretty angry. If you play really well for them, they’ll love you forever.”

Malaska pitches well for Boston, going 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 20 innings.

He enjoys the status. He parties – probably too much, admittedly, as he sometimes even wonders if it “cut my career short or maybe I would have done a little better if I didn’t do the nightlife thing so much.”

“I’m real good friends with Kelly Pavlick and I kind of watched him go through it, too,” he said. “When you come from Youngstown and you get to that level with that money, it’s really easy to overindulge.”

It’s a small regret for Malaska. But really, it’s the only one – because he’s lived his dream. When he walks away from the game, he finds happiness.

In 2006, he lands a sales position with Boston-area car dealership. He moves back to Youngstown with his wife and kids and becomes a finance manager at Sweeney’s in Boardman.

“I’m at peace with everything,” Malaska said. “I don’t lay awake at night thinking, ‘Did I make the right decision about baseball?’ because everything worked out.”

See, Malaska did what Gruver and Scott are still trying to do. He accomplished what Durkin, Turocy and the Rohans never could. He got his Big League dream.

On Deck

You are Tanner Scott and, yeah, one day you’ll get your degree in marketing, most likely. But there’s no time.

Right now, you’re in the grind: be at the field by noon, pitcher’s stretching and lifting is from 1-2 p.m., batting practice follows and the first pitch is at 7:05 p.m. When the game ends around 10 p.m., you shower, eat and sleep.

Repeat tomorrow … and the day after … and the day after that … from February through October. There’s no slacking off in the winter.

It’s not a problem for you. You want this life. And that’s fine, because like Durkin, Turocy and Gruver assure, it’s all worth it. Malaska confirms this.

So you continue to grind. You continue to dream.

“I just want that one time in the Big’s,” you, Tanner Scott with your 100 mph fastball, say – envisioning the big stadiums and bright lights that are so close, yet so far away.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and The University of Cincinnati, and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).