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The evening fog hovers over Baggett Stadium, blanketing the chalk-lined diamond. The lights cut through the haze while fans huddle in the stands for the season opener against No. 22 Kansas State.
Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” plays over the speakers as Nick Torres makes his way to the plate. The junior right fielder kicks up some dirt, adjusts his helmet and settles in for the pitch.
“Live for the jersey, live for the team,” a spectator yells from the stands.
But Cal Poly isn’t the only team these athletes hope to play for; some have their sights on the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft.
“It’s definitely an aspiration of mine,” Torres said. “I’m hoping to put together a good season here, put together a good résumé from the past couple years.”
There were six draft picks this past season, with three the season prior. That same year, former Cal Poly pitcher Kyle Anderson signed as an undrafted free agent, putting Cal Poly’s pro player tally at 10 in the past two years alone.
Athletes attending a four-year college reach draft eligibility after completing their junior year or after their 21st birthday. The road to professional baseball isn’t necessarily easy, though.
The likelihood of a college baseball player making it to a Major League team is 9.7 percent, according to a 2012 NCAA study.
Up to bat
Torres gains draft eligibility at the end of this year — something the Lakewood, Calif. native has dreamed of for a long time.
“That’s been one of my dreams since I was little, so hopefully I can continue on and play some day on the professional level,” he said.
The 6-foot-1 left fielder has been in contact with scouts, but with the season just beginning, Torres probably won’t be in touch as frequently in order for him to focus on the game.
“I’m trying not to set too many set goals for myself, but I’m just hoping to have a good year,” he said. “Everybody has their own role on the squad this year, so I’m just going to do my part.”
Head coach Larry Lee has high hopes for the soft-spoken outfielder.
“Nick will be a high draft pick,” Lee said. “He’s the best hitter on our team and very hard-nosed. He leaves it all out on the field. He’s a great competitor. He’ll be ready to go at the end of the season.”
If Torres is drafted at the end of this season and signs, he’ll leave Cal Poly before his senior year.
“In most cases, you’re able to receive a higher signing bonus than waiting as a senior,” Lee said. “As a senior, they know that you’re out of options so whatever they offer, that’s basically what you’re going to take.”
But just because a player is drafted at the end of their junior year doesn’t mean they’ll sign.
Senior third baseman Jimmy Allen decided to stay at Cal Poly after he was chosen in the 23rd round by the Boston Red Sox at the end of his junior year this past season. And this isn’t the only time he’s been drafted — his first came straight out of high school when he was selected by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
“It was a definite honor,” the Vista, Calif. native said. “It just showed that I had potential in the game, but college is where I really wanted to be at, and experience that level of baseball. A degree is something that’s really important to me. You don’t know how long baseball is going to last. I’m going to need to get a job eventually.”
Allen was humbled to find an MLB team was interested in him again a few years after his first draft.
“It was a really good feeling knowing that hard work and perseverance throughout the season, through ups and downs, really pays off,” he said.
It wasn’t enough to make him sign, though. He turned down the major leagues yet again, at the end of his junior year — a decision he doesn’t regret.
“I just wanted to go out with a good mark and have fun with my friends and teammates on the field,” he said.
Allen closed his junior season with a six-game hitting streak and went 8 for 13 in the regional round of college baseball’s postseason.
While Allen and Torres have been in contact with scouts, they want Cal Poly baseball to be their main focus.
“It’s a bigger distraction than it needs to be, and it gets you away from enjoying the game a little bit,” Allen said. “I just want to have fun with my friends and enjoy the game of baseball.”
For other Mustangs, however, signing an MLB contract at the end of their junior year seemed right.
Out of the park
Former Mustang relief pitcher Michael Holback signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after he was drafted in the 25th round at the end of his junior campaign this past season.
His journey to professional ball didn’t come without a minor hiccup, though.
The San Jose-bred player was cut from the Cal Poly baseball team in 2011.
“It was rough,” he said. “It was definitely something I thought was going to be able to do, and when they told me I wasn’t going to be able to play, it definitely hurt.”
That didn’t stop Holback from playing the game, as he was able to exercise his love for the sport as a member of Cal Poly’s club baseball team.
“It was fun,” he said. “I enjoyed it a lot. I think it gave me the connections I needed to get where I was today.”
Holback made a comeback when he returned to Lee’s squad in 2012, and at the end of his junior campaign, he received a text he wasn’t expecting.
Holback went home and watched the draft with his dad. It was then that he received the message from a scout who said the Cardinals wanted him.
“Seeing my name get put up there, I was just in awe,” Holback said. “Going from where I was to where I am now, I didn’t even think it was possible. I worked hard enough and it actually happened.”
To this day, it’s still hard for him to believe.
“It still feels weird today, even thinking about it,” Holback said. “The fact that it is, was just kind of a dream come true.”
Holback isn’t the only Cal Poly player to see his dream come to fruition.
Former Cal Poly pitcher Chase Johnson signed with the San Francisco Giants at the end of his junior year this past season. That draft came after he was called up by the Texas Rangers at the end of his high school career.
Like Allen, Johnson decided not to sign after his first MLB draft. The flamethrower wanted to experience college and get some of his education underway before setting his sights on professional ball.
When the opportunity to go pro returned at the end of this junior year at Cal Poly, he jumped on it. Johnson was a third-round pick by the Giants, 101st overall.
“I was hoping to be somewhere in the top 10 rounds,” he said. “When I got called in the third round, I was really excited. I had a feeling I could go that high but I didn’t really (know) that high.”
Of course, signing with the Giants meant Johnson would leave Cal Poly before finishing his degree.
“I just feel like at this point in my baseball career, I only have one year left for my degree so I feel like I can come back and finish that any time,” he said.
Johnson hopes to return to San Luis Obispo in the fall, but for now, he’s witnessing the differences between Cal Poly baseball and MLB first-hand.
“It’s different,” he said. “You have all these new faces and you’re moving around a lot between teams in the minor leagues.”
He was, however, greeted by familiar faces when he played against Anderson and former Mustang infielder Denver Chavez recently.
Though it’s only been eight months since he was drafted, Johnson’s athletic improvements haven’t gone unnoticed. Lee said he’s mechanically better than when he left.
“I think his best years will be in professional baseball,” Lee said. “It’s a different environment. It was a high draft pick with a large investment in him, so he’s going to get his innings no matter what.”
Johnson reportedly received a signing bonus of $440,000, according to Baseball America Executive Editor Jim Callis’ Twitter account this past June.
“If a team is not going to invest a lot of money in you, you’re better off going back to school and getting three more quarters of school out of the way, because professional baseball is very political,” Lee said.