Today in Baseball History: Mets first round pick retires at age 20

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The baseball draft is something of a crapshoot. Even teams with the best scouts and analytics departments pick a lot of guys who never make it close to the big leagues. Even first rounders frequently don’t get a sniff of the majors.

Take the 1995 draft for example. That year there were 30 guys picked in the first round. One of them — Roy Halladay — was a Hall of Famer. Another six guys — Darin Erstad, Kerry Wood, Todd Helton, Geoff Jenkins, Matt Morris, and Mark Redman — were named to at least one All-Star team. But eleven of the 30 players never made it out of the minors.

The Mets’ first round pick was one of those eleven. His name was Ryan Jaroncyk, a highly-touted high school shortstop out of Escondido, California. Except Jaroncyk didn’t flame out in the minors because he got hurt, because he couldn’t field his position, or because he couldn’t figure out how to hit a curveball. He just quit. At age 20, after just 134 games. Why? Because, he said at the time, he thought baseball was “boring.”

Jaroncyk was the son of USC football standout Bill Jaroncyk, and, growing up, sports were his life. It was a lot of pressure but, on the field at least, he met expectations. He was heavily scouted and those scouts thought him to be the total package. That year Topps put out a set of cards featuring draft picks and, on the back of his card, he was described as having, “perhaps the best combination of defensive actions, intelligence, and makeup of any infielder in the draft . . .Ryan is a major league shortstop waiting to happen.”

That was certainly the assessment of the Mets, who selected Jaroncyk with the 18th pick, giving him an $850,000 bonus and a $100,000 college allowance on top it. They had to do that because the highly-intelligent young man had a baseball scholarship to Stanford as a fallback that they needed to buy him out of taking. He signed and was sent to the Gulf Coast League where he hit .276/.326/.339 in 44 games but showed the organization enough to where they let him play four games in the New York-Penn League at the end of that summer. Not the usual late-season promotion for a kid only a couple of months out of high school.

Things weren’t necessarily going great for Jaroncyk, though. Baseball was not necessarily the most important thing in his life as 1995 turned into 1996. While still only 18 he had gotten married. At one point that offseason he told the organization that he wanted to retire. They talked him out of it, though, and he reported for spring training in 1996. That year he played for Kingsport in full-season rookie ball. His numbers weren’t stellar, but the organization wasn’t concerned. He was still working hard, showing effort, and after the previous offseason’s talk of retirement, he didn’t make any further suggestion that his head was not in the game.

The following spring Jaroncyk reported to spring training again and was assigned to Columbia, South Carolina’s Capital City Bombers of the South Atlantic League. Twenty-nine games into the season he was struggling. At the same time Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine came to Columbia for a routine visit. Jaroncyk told McIlvaine that he wanted to meet with him in private. Here’s McIlvaine recounting the story to Sports Illustrated a few years ago:

We sat down, and he said, ‘I want to quit. I don’t enjoy baseball. I just want to throw away my glove. I’ve had enough.’ I asked him all the usual questions, whether he wanted to go through with it, whether he was sure. And he said, ‘The minute I walk out of here, I’m going to throw my glove in the dumpster.’ And that was that.”

A couple of weeks later Buster Olney, then with the New York Times, interviewed Jaroncyk, who said ”I always thought [baseball] was boring.” Jaroncyk, who was serious about his physical health and who was a devout Christian, also told Olney that the physical and emotional straing and the lifestyle of the game was not for him: “the food, the traveling, the garbage that goes around the clubhouse. . . . there’s a lot of immorality in baseball,” he said. He also told Olney that, yes, he had in fact thrown his glove and the rest of his baseball equipment away once he got home to California. The Mets let him keep his signing bonus.

That’s how the story came out — the prospect who thought baseball was boring — and, to most people who remember it, it was as simple as that. But there was, not surprisingly, more going on.

It would come out later that Jaroncyk’s father Bill had put a great deal of pressure on him to excel in sports. Warning signs that Ryan was not as interested in becoming a professional athlete as Bill was were ignored. Soon after he was drafted his parents divorced and, while no doubt traumatic, it also allowed for his mother and him to forge a more independent relationship. It’s implied in various stories you can find about Jaroncyk that that whole process helped him figure out what he wanted a little better.

Or, as he put it to the Los Angeles Times in 2001:

“I was a young man with a lot of problems. I just needed get away from the game and get my head straight. I had a lot of pressure growing up all the time, to be the best, to be the best all the time. My home life was just focused on me being the best baseball player. A person can only take so much of that and they break and that’s what happened to me.”

That conversation with Joe McIlvane in 1997, however, was not the end of Jaroncyk’s time in baseball.

In 1998 Jaroncyk was attending junior college when he wrote the Mets about the possibility of returning. His heart didn’t really seem to be too into it though, and the Mets, who by then had fired McIlvane and whose front office was led by Steve Phillips, were no longer interested themselves. He was eligible for the minor league Rule 5 draft that winter and the Dodgers took a flier on him. He played in eight games in 1999 and only 12 games in 2000, all in the low minors, but injuries and ineffectiveness doomed any chance he had to revive his baseball career. He retired once again, this time to far less fanfare.

Jaroncyk’s athletic career nonetheless continued. Despite the fact that he had never once played organized football, he sought a tryout at Claremont McKenna College in San Bernadino, California and made the team as a wide receiver. In that L.A. Times story his football career was just getting started — he had notched a couple of very long touchdown receptions in the early going and his coach spoke well of him — but I can’t find how long he played there. According to his writing bylines, however, he received a Bachelor’s Degree from Claremont McKenna.

Writing bylines you say? Why yes. Jaroncyk is a pretty dang prolific writer. The Sports Illustrated profile gives you a taste of his work:

He’s remarried now, with young children, living in Ohio. He is still devout—he has published extensively online on creationism, for the young-earth creationist organization Creation Ministries International, and in 2008 even wrote for them a children’s book, The Adventures of Arkie the Archaeopteryx . . . He’s also written a good deal about politics; he classified himself as “a registered Independent who leans libertarian on most issues.

Jaroncyk has his own website in which describes his work as “creative storytelling,” which he calls “one of his earliest passions.” He cites J.R.R. Tolkien, Dante Alighieri and George MacDonald as his primary influences. He also cites his “cinematic influences,” name-checking Stanley Kubrick, Tobe Hooper and Ridley Scott. His site has ten full TV pilot and movie scripts he’s written. They range from sports, to historical drama, to historical fantasy, to horror to documentary to ancient war epics. One of his scripts, which seems to be closely based on his relationship with his elderly grandmother, who he encouraged to return to competitive bowling when she was in her 90s, appears to have been produced as a short film.

One of the horror titles is baseball-related. It’s called “The Unholy Orb.” This is the synopsis:

An Orthodox Priest exorcizes a little league cult bent on ushering in the incarnation of a demonic, baseball deity.

We all have some issues, I suspect, that we spend our whole life working through.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1878: Providence Grays outfielder Paul Hines becomes the first player to execute an unassisted triple play.

1906: Athletics pitcher Chief Bender is inserted into a game as an emergency left fielder and hits two inside-the-park home runs. A solo shot and a three-run dinger. Eat your heart out, Madison Bumgarner.

1961: The New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, Inc. announces that the team’s nickname will be the Mets. Other names considered included the Avengers, the Burros, the Continentals, the Islanders, the Jets, the Rebels, the Skyliners, and the Meadowlarks. They made the right choice, methinks.

1971: The A’s trade first baseman Don Mincher, to the expansion Washington Senators. He’ll stay with the club when it moves to Texas the following year to become the Rangers. Mincher had begun his career with the original Washington Senators in 1960, and remained with the team when it moved to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961. He was the only person to play for each Senators franchise and each of its successors. Mincher was most famous for playing for the 1969 Seattle Pilots, with his exploits described in the book “Ball Four,” but he did not stay with the franchise when it moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers. That would’ve been cool though.