The Road to the Show

Story by: Robert Knox

Photos by: Kristen Aslanian

Additional reporting: Tyler McGee

Bounce back players and their struggle to go pro

The dream of making it to the big leagues, aka “the show,” has been the aspiration of many baseball players that have come through Pierce College. One of these dreamers is Nick Murphy.

Murphy, who came after graduating from Royal High School in Simi Valley, is a onetime pitcher and the current right fielder for Pierce.

Though he might get drafted, Murphy knows the odds are slim.

“I study extra hard, because I know if baseball doesn’t work out I will have an education,” he said.

Murphy broke a small bone in his hand, which led to the coaches’ decision to move him to the field. A strong hitter, his chances to make it to the next level may have improved with the injury.

The next step, Murphy hopes, is University of Southern California and possibly become the seventh Pierce player to be drafted.

Though most baseball players are looking to be drafted, some transfer to Division I schools.

But unlike football and basketball, where a player’s best chance to impress pro scouts is by going to a Division I, the process for making it the professional ranks in baseball is chaotic. Players can choose not to accept a contract after being drafted if they do opt to play in college or for an amateur league. This leads to a phenomenon known as the “bounce back.”

A bounce back is when a collegiate baseball player goes directly to a Division I school from high school, plays a season and then bounces back to a junior college. In the last two decades, Pierce College’s baseball program has gained a reputation as a popular bounce back destination.

An example of a bounce back player is Mark Gillman, who went to Arizona State University in 2003 after graduating from Almeda High School. He left the program a year later, then played for Santa Rosa Junior College in spring 2004 and Diablo Valley College in 2005.

“I was a big fish in a small pond, then a small fish in an ocean,” Gillman said as he described going from his small town school to a well-known university.

He doesn’t regret his decision to bounce back.

“Off the field has as much as on the field does for me,” he said. “Once I left Arizona (ASU) I felt like the wind was out of my sail.”

Under the guidance of Bob Lofrano, who coached the school’s baseball team for 14 years and is now the athletic director, six Brahmas have played Major League Baseball.

The most famous bounce back by far is Barry Zito, a starting pitcher for the world champion San Francisco Giants.

“I think we had a winning program, and I would try to recruit the top guys.” Lofrano said. “Guys like Zito were in other programs and then dropped down to JC in their second year. We had six guys go in the pro draft and I take great pride in that because we’re just a little junior college in Woodland Hills.”

Zito was a 59th round pick of the Seattle Mariners out of University of San Diego High School. He gambled that he could rise his draft stock, so he attended University of California, Santa Barbara in 1997.

By the following June’s amateur draft he was a third round pick by the Texas Rangers.  He was offered a $385,000 signing bonus. But he turned it down and decided to pitch a season in the amateur Cape Cod League, an amateur league known for boosting a prospect’s draft stock.

Still not content with his stock, Zito decided to bounce back to a junior college and try again in the next draft.  At this point Lofrano made his move.

“I knew someone close to his family, so I had to sell him on Pierce.” Lofrano said.  “I knew he would come here, do great and write his own ticket.”

And that’s just what he did. Going 9-2 with 135 strikeouts and a 2.62 earned run average in the 1998 season. Zito transferred to the University of Southern California for the 1999 season, where he was named an All-American and Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year.

Zito became a first round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics, signing a $159 million bonus.

The bounce back worked. But for every Barry Zito, there are hundreds of players whose dream didn’t turn out as they planned.

According to only 11.6 percent of college baseball players go on to play professionally.

Why some players with the same goals and upbringing as Zito don’t make it usually comes down to ability.

“Some of the players get drafted out of high school and think it’s great, and a little ego gets in there,” said Lofrano, who has been a scout for the Chicago Cubs for 32 years. “But maybe they shouldn’t have gone pro.”