Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites and outdoor publications, and for the past ten years has served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Widely knowledgeable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the Midwest. He and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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For pitchers and position players who were selected outside the first ten rounds of this week’s draft the choice of whether to learn in ‘A’ Ball, or college, is not that tough to make.  Just ask around.

I don’t know Seth Lonsway, the brilliant Celina lefthander who committed earlier this year to play college baseball for the Ohio State Buckeyes;  and was selected in the 19th round by the Reds in this week’s major league amateur draft.

Met him once last spring, we shook hands, and I’m sure he doesn’t remember.  That’s OK.

He’s in an enviable position, the dream-come-true of every aspiring high school baseball player.  He’s got a scholarship in his pocket to play in the one of nation’s top collegiate conferences…or, he can sign this month with a major league organization and begin what for most is an arduous route to the big leagues,  one filled with baseball mines and hand grenades.

Lonsway throws the fastball in the low to mid-90s, has the added commodity of being left-handed, by all accounts is durable, and appears to be one of the really genuine personalities in area high school baseball.

And every major league baseball team needs pitching.  You can’t have enough.  Just check the revolving door between Great American Ballpark and the the Reds’ Double-A and Triple-A farm teams.  They drafted for it (Nick Travieso and Robert Stephenson, both #1 picks), they’ve traded for it (Cody Reed and Brandon Finnigan), and they’ve gone the free agent route with Marty (er, Scott) Feldman.  And they still don’t have it.  There are no guarantees in baseball, period!

They’ve put some of their best prospects on the fast track to the big leagues, only they couldn’t stay on track.

Others have languished for years in the minors, hoping to someday put it all together (as they say), like Austin Ross, in Louisville, who’s been at it since 2010, trying to break through and get his shot.  He’s in the right organization to get that shot, for sure, but there are no guarantees, I repeat – not even with the Reds.

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The Ohio State Buckeyes need pitching, too.  That’s for sure.  Coming off their Big Ten championship season of 2016 it was hoped that carry-over pitching would anchor enough wins to make them competitive again this past spring.  But there’s no guarantees in college baseball, either.

Injuries struck starters Adam Niemeyer, Yianni Pavlopoulos, and Jake Post;  and JUCO transfers brought in to bridge the gaps never caught on with much consistency.  Last year’s freshmen, like Ryan Feltner, struggled for much of the year.  And this year’s freshmen, like Jake Vance, simply needed more seasoning – time to develop physically and emotionally – even in the Big Ten.  Nothing’s guaranteed, you know.

So players like Seth Lonsway have a decision to make.  And frankly, if you do the math it’s not that tough.

Former #1 pick Robert Stephenson got the big signing bonus, but has found professional baseball to be anything but guaranteed success.

Former #1 pick Robert Stephenson got the big signing bonus, but has found professional baseball to be anything but guaranteed success.

Every pitcher who throws 90 miles per hour dreams of signing a big bonus contract.  Except, you don’t get big bonuses when you’re drafted in the 19th round.  You get some money, but not enough to insulate you for life.  What you get is that chance to sign and prove the scouts wrong;  you get the chance to say you’re a professional, and the pressure to buy a round at the Moose when you come home in the off-season, because you’re a professional and it’s expected…if you’re old enough to get into the Moose!

But every scouting report you read on mid-round pitchers, even with a fastball in the 90s, says they need time – time to mature, time to work on perfecting their craft, and time to adjust to the expectations that when you go out there as a starting pitcher you’re expected to win.  That part of it is universal, college or pro.  Only in college you get a few more mulligans.

Minor league baseball for the neophyte is a grind.  It’s a job, frankly, and one without the comforts of home – your own bed, your own food, and the emotional support of family and friends.  I’ve witnessed this first-hand from my years umpiring.  Pitching coaches show you how they want you to do it…and you’re expected to get it and go.  If you’re a first-rounder you get more time to get it.  If you’re not…you may get trampled by others who get it faster than you do, who are perhaps more confident than you are, and perhaps have greater motivation to get ahead.  The competition is incredible, and the patience with organizational instructors is highly subjective.

College baseball, by comparison, is a developmental journey.  It’s not the high wire act that professional baseball is.  It’s easier on your psyche, and you get far more mulligans…because it’s college, and you’re there to learn.  The living conditions are nicer, more comforting, and there’s a lot of support people around to make sure you study, go to class, and get classroom help (tutoring) if you need it.  There’s none of that in professional baseball.  You either do it, or you end up back home talking about what you coulda’ been.

There’s no question that Seth Lonsway and others in this week’s draft who fell beneath their hoped-for draft position are good enough to play professional baseball.  And there’s no question that time is on your side when you’re 18 years old.

Irrespective of getting an education that’ll serve you for life, it’s a given…that if you go to a good college program and have success you’re going to get drafted again after your junior season.  And, like Michigan’s Oliver Jaskie (another lefthander) when you’re picked the next time it’s going to be in a higher round.  Jaskie went in the sixth this week, a different pitcher than I saw last year.

Sonny_inset0210Professional baseball is work.  College baseball is still fun, competitive, and unifying for the fact that every guy on your team is pulling for your success, because it means team success.  In the minor leagues is a matter of personal success, and personal promotion at others’ expense.  They’ll tell you it’s not your time, but damned if you ever understand why.  Ask Austin Ross.

Bottom line…if you throw that hard those same scouts are going to be there to see you every time you pitch in college.  And every time you pitch successfully, and improve, your value goes up because quality college baseball today is as good, or better, than the professional rookie leagues.  I’ve asked around, from coast to coast, and every top prospect this year at Oregon State, Iowa, and Michigan (Jaskie) said they made the right choice by playing baseball in college.

And as your value goes up your confidence goes up, too – your maturity to handle the tough days, the disappointments, and the hand grenades that come with baseball and life.

Trust me, nothing’s guaranteed.  Baseball is life.

Only this time you have a choice.  Enjoy that…while you can!

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