As with so many young boys from the moment they get introduced to the game and pick up a bat, playing Major League Baseball has always been my biggest dream. I remember so vividly when I fell in love with the game and knew that playing ball was what I wanted to do. I used to go to my older brother Jake’s Little League games. Jake is four years older than me, and when I went to his games, I would sit in the grass down the left-field fence line and play with my little Tonka Toy truck. For each of his games I would dress up in baseball pants and cowboy boots because that, of course, is what real ball players wear. I remember watching him and thinking that he was the best player out there. He was at shortstop so he was the star in my mind. Looking back on it, he was at shortstop probably because his best friend’s dad was the head coach. My brother hung up his cleats after one day of middle school baseball tryouts. That was the end of his career. But for me, watching him play, I became enamored with the game. And then, when I found out you can get paid to play this game, well, I was sold. Baseball became all I wanted to do. Although Jake’s baseball career was short-lived, he was someone to look up to in the game, and that gave me a way to connect with the sport. I suppose I have to thank him for that, so thank you, big bro.
As I grew up I dreamed about playing college baseball as well. I remember one day my family and I went to a bookstore. After reading through a book, my mom who always encourages what my brother and I want to do, came up to me and said, “Ben, you know only 2% of high school players ever make it to play in college, right?” My brother and I were both in Boy Scouts and it was not up for discussion to become anything short of Eagle Scout, scouting’s highest rank. So, I looked at my mom dead in the eyes and said I’m going to become an Eagle Scout and those odds are lower; so I'm going to be playing college baseball. She tells me that that moment put her in her place, and it is still one of her favorite stories.
Fast forward a few years. I get my Eagle Scout and I’m also playing college baseball. I make my home at Lynn University, a Division II school in Boca Raton, FL. From the time that I was a freshman, I was embraced largely by my teammates because of my hard work and the way I played the game. This style was largely driven by my desire to play Major League Baseball. I was never the most talented or highly recruited guy out there, but if there was one thing that I could control it was my work ethic and how I went about playing the game. Throughout my tenure on the team, I definitely had to pay my dues. I didn’t play as much as I had wanted and I had experienced some incredibly frustrating times as my baseball career was unfolding not exactly to plan. The thought of playing professional baseball was quickly fading, but it was still a belief that I held onto. I don’t know if I held on because I never liked giving up on anything, or because it was what helped keep me to keep going through the frustrating times, but I still held on. After my junior season, which was easily my worst season of baseball, I had, for the first time in my life, come as close to falling out of love with the game as I had ever before. The thought of not enjoying this thing that had brought me so much joy over the years was scary. I remember the summer after my junior year I made it a point to take time off from baseball. I stepped away from the game and I really just wanted to reconnect with my roots and remember why I started playing this game in the first place.
Talking with my teammate and really good friend Rigo Beltran, who had been drafted by the Seattle Mariners, we developed a game plan for me to get back on track. In sports, we talk about this idea of the process a lot. “Trust the process.” “Believe in the process.” But we talk about “the process” without really knowing what it means. What Rigo helped me to discover that summer was what having a process---better yet what having my process, one that was unique to me---was like.
After that summer, I got back to school for the fall of my senior year. I easily had the best fall I’d had in my entire baseball career. I felt more confident at the plate than ever before. The spring season finally rolls around and...I’m still not playing. I haven’t cracked the starting lineup...again. There are hints of that same sense of frustration that crippled me a year before, but this time I have something to fall back on. I have my process. My process allowed me not to eliminate all of the external noise around me, but to live with it. It allowed me to play with it, and it allowed me to thrive in environments that were once debilitating for me.
As our season is winding down, we fall out of the playoff hunt and we are left with one final series at home. We are playing conference opponent Palm Beach Atlantic. The day that I always knew was coming, though never really knew how it would feel, finally arrives. It is my last college baseball game on what turns out to be a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
I start the game at shortstop and play well. I am really enjoying the day and the game as it progresses. We are reaching the end, down two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. I come up and I get a hit through the left side of the infield. I experience a sense of relief having gotten a hit. That was my last at-bat and I got a hit; I can go out on top. Still down 6-4, we go into the bottom of the ninth after getting out of the top of the inning unscathed. The final game of my senior season is coming to a close. College baseball for me is coming to a close. When I run back to the dugout from the infield after the top of the ninth, I look up at the scoreboard. We are down two runs and I think to myself, “Wait a second, I’m only six batters away.” I have a feeling that I am going to get another at-bat, and that this time I’ll be up with the game on the line and a chance to win. Sure enough, I find myself walking to the plate, our team now down only one run with two outs and runners on second and third. This was the beginning of my greatest at-bat ever.
In sports, you hear the phrase “in the zone.” Looking back on it, that at-bat has to be the closest to “in the zone” as I ever was. I am standing there and really taking everything in. I step out of the box and give a nod to my coach as if to say, “I got this, man. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.” He flashes me a big smile and claps his hands, “All right, let’s go.” Then I look over to my parents in the stands down the right field line and I tip my cap. At the time, I don’t know if they see it, but for me it is important that I acknowledge them at this moment because they are a large reason that I am able to be in this position. I want to let them know that they are right there with me. I know this at-bat is special because I have never been so present. With each passing second I keep having flashbacks to playing baseball in the backyard with Jake. I tell myself I’ve been in moments like this before. I have won plenty of games like this. I have sent countless tennis balls over our neighbor’s fence to send my team home a winner. I step back in the box, ready and in perfect timing with the pitcher. He delivers a fastball; I swing and foul it back. The guys in my dugout, the guys in the other dugout, and everybody around the field gasps. “I’m right on this guy,” I think to myself. “I’m winning this game.” As the at-bat continues, I take a pitch outside, I foul another one off, I take a couple more, and I end up working the count full. Three balls, two strikes. We are down one run, bottom of the ninth, runners on second and third. Two outs. I know he’s going to throw me another fastball here and I’m about to win the game; I can just feel it. At this moment, I am at total peace. I know I am right where I am supposed to be. He delivers his best pitch, a fastball, and I take my best swing. I’m right on it, and BOOM! The catcher catches it. Strike three. Inning over. Game over. My baseball career over.
There’s a photo that was taken of me right after that at-bat as I was walking back to the dugout to a parade of hugs and embraces from my teammates. It’s my favorite picture because it shows the most genuine and pure smile on my face, and to me it shows that I made it, In my last college at-bat, in my last college game, and my last baseball game, really, I finally became the player I always wanted to become. I’ll be honest, getting a hit would’ve been nice, but to be able to strike out and look back and truly believe that that was my greatest at-bat ever means that everything I had ever been working for was all worth it.
Baseball for me is over. I left the game as a player on my terms and now I get to do something even more exciting; I get to take opportunities like this to share a little story that, hopefully, can help people. I’ve always believed that baseball is only good for the lessons it teaches, and it teaches you so many lessons. If nothing else, baseball has given me back all the love that I have given to it. It has taught me how to win, how to lose, and how to keep going. It has shown me that I could fail and at the same time succeed. It proved to me that my process works.
During my senior season and during my last at-bat, my greatest at-bat, I was able to redefine what success means to me. I was able to eliminate the attachment to the outcome and, in turn, whatever the result, know that I was still going to win.