Former Cal Poly pitcher Michael Holback was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 25th round of the 2013 MLB Draft.
Mustang Daily Staff Report
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According to a NCAA study, the probability of a college baseball player making it professionally sits at a meager 9.7 percent.
So when Michael Holback was cut from the Cal Poly baseball team in 2011, the chances of him playing professional baseball were close to zero.
But, on the last day of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft, Holback’s name, along with the names of four other Cal Poly baseball players, was called out in the MLB Network’s studio in New Jersey.
That announcement was part of a journey pitted with obstacles and self-doubt — struggles Holback shared with his teammate, best friend and fellow draftee Reed Reilly.
“Freshman year, we were outcasts,” Holback said of himself and Reilly. “During the Fall, (Reilly) had his struggles and I had mine. We were playing with 22-year-olds, and we were just 18.”
That first year led him to be cut from the team, forcing Holback to play for the Cal Poly club baseball team. Refusing to back down, he returned a year later and made head coach Larry Lee’s roster. This time, success followed.
After recording a 2.60 ERA in his 2012 season and compiling a 3-2 record with a 3.86 ERA in 2013, Holback (nicknamed “Big Red”) helped the Mustangs make their second postseason trip in their Division I program history.
He was so successful, he decided to go pro; Holback was drafted in the 25th round by the St. Louis Cardinals.
And he wasn’t alone.
Teammates Chase Johnson (3rd round, San Francisco Giants), Joey Wagman (17th round, Chicago White Sox), Reilly (18th round, Baltimore Orioles), Jimmy Allen (23rd round, Boston Red Sox) and Denver Chavez (30th round, Arizona Diamondbacks) had their names called as well.
But while there were cheers and congratulations, two of the six decided to stay in San Luis Obispo.
Both Reilly and Allen heeded the advice of Cal Poly pitching coach Thomas Eager who had experienced the life they could have entered.
“I just tried to express to my players what minor league baseball is all about and try to prepare them as much as I could,” Eager said.
Eager also played at Cal Poly before getting drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007. He knows that the road to the show is no picnic.
“It’s not as glamorous as you’d think,” Eager said. “When I went there, I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Growing up idolizing professional athletes paints an attractive lifestyle for kids around the world. With their impressive athletic performances, baseball players become household names — they fly first-class in a team plane, they receive free food in the clubhouse and obtain salaries that could buy them a private island in the Bahamas.
But 12-16 hour bus rides? Playing in towns that you doubt exist on a map? It doesn’t sound so romantic.
“College baseball is honestly better than Single A baseball,” Eager said.
And after spending four seasons in the minor leagues, Eager has experienced the ups and downs of a life in the less-glamorous side of the national pastime.
“I just remember sitting in the bus and thinking ‘What am I doing here?’” Eager said. “You see guys trucking their families cross-country. You see the players with their toddlers and wives … that’s not what a family was to me.”
That’s not to say that Cal Poly ball players haven’t had their dreams fulfilled by playing professional baseball.
Ozzie Smith, Mike Krukow, Bud Norris, Kevin Correia and many others have made a career of the sport.
And as for the former Mustangs who have chosen to play professionally, their journeys through the minors will be followed by friends, family and old teammates who all hope that the boyhood dreams will come alive.
Dreams shared by the two players who decided to stay for the 2014 collegiate season.
Eager predicts they made a decision they won’t regret.
“Playing professional baseball was a dream-come-true,” Eager said. “But while it’s true that many parts of it were fun, when I look back at it, the most fun times playing baseball I ever had was in college.”
Jefferson P. Nolan contributed to this article.