Feb. 21, 2013
On February 13, 2013, Felix Hernandez became the highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball. The Seattle Mariners' ace signed a seven-year contract for $175 million. He wept when he saw the contract before him ready for his signature, overcome by emotion at the evolution of his career.
Ever since the dawn of television ratings, celebrity endorsements and signing bonuses, the almighty dollar has been the starting quarterback, the point guard, the leadoff batter in the world of sports.
So when money is at stake, how do you convince young athletes to turn it down? What can a head coach offer that looks better than a contract? After all, Felix Hernandez never went to college.
Fortunately for college baseball, there are still some things more important for some young men than a stack of Benjamins.
Three players in the Auburn baseball team's starting lineup recently faced the difficult decision to begin or continue their baseball careers at Auburn, or turn pro.
Sam Gillikin, a freshman outfielder from Hoover, Ala., was selected in the 33rd round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves.
Damek Tomscha, a third baseman and a junior college transfer from Sioux City, Iowa, was drafted in the 19th round by the Chicago Cubs in 2012 after being a 50th-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010.
Ryan Tella, now in his second year at Auburn and the starting center fielder, was drafted for the second time in his career in 2012, this time in the 11th round by the San Francisco Giants. A native of Fremont, Calif., Tella was a draft-eligible sophomore with two years of collegiate eligibility left after spending one season at Ohlone Community College.
For each of these players, the decision to play collegiate baseball came down to more than just finances. But as Tella put it, "It's always a tough choice when there's a dollar amount involved."
"I came back because of the guys we brought back from this club, especially since I played in the field with half those guys I was out there with (opening) weekend," Tella said. "It was more about maturity level and knowing the expectations we needed to have this year to better ourselves from last year and make it past the SEC Tournament."
For Tella, the choice might have seemed easier having already spent a season at Auburn. For Tomscha, the experience of being recruited by some of the nation's elite schools and simultaneously being scouted for the draft complicated his decision.
"It was definitely pretty stressful at times," Tomscha said. "I was having a pretty good year last year, and so you get the thoughts of `What if I get drafted pretty high? What am I going to do?'"
Finishing up his senior year of high school, Gillikin was overwhelmed at times with the recruiting and scouting process.
"We had people come over to the house and have two hour conferences and ask questions," Gillikin said. "It was a really strange process because you feel like you're being watched all the time, especially during the season."
Ultimately all three players saw the advantages offered by Auburn's program and recognized certain things about the college game that the professional level couldn't offer. For Gillikin, having an adjustment period to a different style and higher level of play has been an asset.
"Coming here, I'm able to ease myself into the game," Gillikin said. "Especially playing at this high level, we don't play as many games (as the minor leagues), but I'm able to come in, and we practice a lot. With pro ball, you're six months on, six months off. Here, it's year-round. I think the aspect of playing so many games without the wear and tear on your body is really important, too."
Tomscha realizes some of the lifestyle differences as an amateur player, but knows he will be better equipped for the professional level having spent time in a college setting.
"Most of the guys are a little bit more mature," Tomscha said. "You have to manage your time a little bit better, and you don't start off with a bunch of money, and those younger kids start to blow it right away without having too much more experience. I know I've just learned a lot of things like material stuff really isn't that necessary for me.
"Last year if I would've signed, I probably would've spent a little bit of money on that. Right now, being on my own and living in my own place, I realized that certain stuff just isn't as important as what a younger guy might actually think it is."
Auburn head coach John Pawlowski, who himself played three years of college ball at Clemson before an eight year professional career, has seen first-hand how the college game helps create a better sense of responsibility and self-discipline in his student-athletes and feels it is helpful in setting his players up for success later in their careers.
"One of the things that comes first and foremost to mind is they have to be able to balance so much here," Pawlowski said. "You're talking about the schoolwork that they have, study hall, tutors, weight lifting, conditioning. They have to juggle so much here, so I think when these guys come out of college, they have a better understanding of how to balance things in their lives.
"Sometimes when you get involved in professional baseball, it's very difficult because you have a lot of free time. These guys don't, so they're locked in. They're in tune. I think the balance in their lives is really tested here in college."
While each of the players comes from different backgrounds and took different paths to Auburn, one thing they have in common was the desire for something more than just a get-rich-quick contract as they looked to the future.
Tella had the bond with his teammates.
"In the end, my teammates were always stuck in the back of my head. I just knew that if we came back, we knew we were going to have to take care of it."
Gillikin understood the value of an education.
"I think the biggest thing was the education process. Just coming in and being able to play baseball and get the education out of the way at the same time. You never know what can happen going to the minors. Anything could happen."
Tomscha wanted a normal college experience.
"It's just another year to be a little bit younger and experience college. That was one of the things that I kind of wanted to do. Coming from a smaller JUCO, getting to experience a big college like a lot of my friends. To be able to do this and be able to play at a big time college SEC baseball program was another big thing."
Pawlowski sees all of those aspects and many more. He recognizes the value in having players who look beyond the dollar and find value in friendships, education and just plain growing up.
"So much is made of the money, and so much is made of how much these guys are offered, but the value of the dollar is valued in different ways with people," Pawlowski said. "You cannot substitute those years when you're 19-, 20-, 21-years old. Once those years are gone, it's tough to get back. College is a special place. You can't really put a value on getting an education and getting an opportunity to come to Auburn and having an opportunity to play championship level baseball in the SEC. That's pretty special."
In total, Auburn has six players on its roster that have been drafted. The other three are Hunter Kelley (34th Rd - Chicago Cubs - 2011), Rocky McCord (39th Rd - Minnesota Twins - 2011) and Trey Wingenter (36th Rd - Seattle Mariners - 2012).
by Mae Margaret Davis, Auburn Media Relations Assistant
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