The following feature was written by LMU baseball season ticket holder Catherine Galanti. Galanti and her family became season ticket holders prior to the 2016 season. In the feature, Galanti talks with a few of LMU's draft-eligible players about their experiences and expectations surrounding the 2018 MLB Draft which begins today at 4 p.m. PT.
The MLB draft can be a big change, not only for individual players, but for their families and teams as well. The draft signals the end of an amateur career, and the beginning of a professional one. Several players in particular stood out for the Lions this year. Hopefully they’ll do the same on a professional team.
I had the chance to talk to some of this year’s draft class and their families about what their time at LMU has meant to them, and what their hopes and expectations for the future are.
This year’s prospects include junior Niko Decolati, and seniors Jamey Smart, Billy Wilson and Tyler Cohen. For the seniors, this day has been a long time coming. Getting drafted and playing professionally is a goal shared by most baseball players. However, choosing between starting a professional career and finishing school can be a tricky decision.
When asked about finishing his senior year or entering the draft, Niko Decolati said, “Receiving a degree from LMU is absolutely important to me. That said, I truly believe I am ready to play at the next level - both mentally and physically. I have gotten a taste of what it is like to play pro ball and I couldn’t be more certain of my love for the game. I want to play professionally more than anything and as of now, that is my number one priority. I understand the importance of getting my degree, but I will cross that bridge when necessary.”
Decolati is excited for Draft Day, and is looking forward to experiencing the day with his family and friends. “Without them, I wouldn’t be in this position. Draft day is going to be extremely surreal. Regardless of the result, I’m going into it with no expectations. It is just the beginning of my journey.”
Billy Wilson had a little bit of a different opinion, however. “There are two reasons why I’m really happy about the way things turned out with the draft last year. First, I completed my degree which means that’s one thing I don’t need to worry about while I’m playing pro ball. Second, I was able to take this past year and develop even more as a player. I feel like I am much more ready to compete at the next level than I was last year.”
Another reason Wilson is glad he was able to finish his career at LMU? He leaves not only as a college graduate, but also as the LMU all-time hit by pitch leader. Over the course of his four-year LMU career, he racked up 51 HBPs. According to him, his approach at the plate isn’t going to change any time soon. “It has almost become part of my DNA to work for a hit by pitch. Because speed is such a major part of my game, I feel like it’s necessary to find a way on base any way possible.”
Billy Wilson’s road to the draft isn’t the only one that didn’t turn out quite as planned. For Tyler Cohen, the journey to the draft has been long and wasn’t easy. After undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the 2017 season, Cohen was back this season as a graduate student. In a game where many players leave after their junior season, it’s relatively rare to hear about a collegiate athlete who stays in school for five years.
“Tyler needing Tommy John surgery was probably the most heartbreaking news I've ever received. Sitting out his senior season seemed like a decade of waiting for him to heal. Knowing he was smiling only on the outside but dying to play baseball on the inside was hard. I just kept telling him that the comeback is always stronger than the setback.” Said his mother, Stella Cohen.
“When he finally got fully released to throw, he was like a kid at a candy store again. We had to make sure he wasn't pushing too hard. I just wanted him to have an incredible season and finish his college baseball career on a high note. It would have been hard to finish with an injury. I think there was a reason why he had his fifth year. I watched him grow into an incredible teammate, player and most of all a leader. I had numerous parents saying how wonderful it had been that their son got to play with Tyler and that he has been an inspiration to them. I am so very proud of Tyler and I’m hoping he gets to continue his career on the next level. It’s in God’s hands now.”
This year, Cohen’s comeback was certainly stronger than his setback. Feeling and pitching better than he has in a while, Cohen made a case for himself. He finished with a 3-3 record, and picked up the WCC All-Tournament Team honor.
“These have been the best five years of my life.” Cohen commented. “ Although it’s taken a few turns here and there, I’ve not only learned how to mature on the field but off the field as well. I feel like that’s what is most important. I’ve learned that baseball is very relatable to life and I’ve been able to use that to help me ultimately become a man and handle any situation.”
Serving as dugout captain for the past several seasons, Cohen has proven himself as one of the team’s most prominent leaders and their biggest cheerleader. During nearly all games over the course of his career, he was the one who led every rally tradition and was always the first one out of the dugout to celebrate a run scored. The energy Cohen shared was passed on even to fans. Last season, during a game at the University of Oregon, he convinced a group of young Ducks fans to chant “Go, Lions” in exchange for baseballs. Both on and off the field, Cohen’s presence will be missed. He offered these words of wisdom for the team: “As cliche as it is, just have fun. Always find the good and stay positive. A long time from now, we’ll all look back at these times and laugh and enjoy the camaraderie we’ve had with one another, which is what it’s all about.”
Jamey Smart is another four-year member of the team who made an enormous impact for the Lions. This year, Smart started every game and was among the leaders both offensively and defensively. He was the only Lion who received All-WCC first-team honors this year.
Smart’s parents were regular fixtures at the games, missing only one weekend home game during the entirety of his college career. If he gets drafted, his parents hope to continue supporting him at his games, and have already said that they are planning to take a week-long trip to wherever he plays next. Playing for a west-coast minor league team would mean that Smart’s family could make it to more games in person. But, the Smarts say that they’re up for anything. If the draft doesn’t work out, Smart’s backup plan is to play in Japan. “They love the tall, blonde, blue-eyed players over there!” his mom, Susie, laughed. “As a mom, the draft is a pretty interesting situation to be in. Our whole lives will depend on what happens on Monday, and I think a lot is going to change with it. Whatever happens, I’m most looking forward to seeing Jamey pursue his dream and his passion, which is playing baseball.” She added.
Smart himself seemed relaxed, reflective and optimistic about the next step as well. “When I was younger, getting drafted was something that I sort of expected. I never stressed about it. But as I got older, it became a lot more real. Guys who were better than me growing up have now stopped playing and moved on. I’m really grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’ll keep playing whether or not I get drafted. I’ll make it work- whether it’s an independent league or anything else. I believe that I still have a lot to give to the sport.”
Talent is a huge part of the game, but players still need guidance and mentorship to make it in professional sports. For the Lions, Head Coach Jason Gill has done just that.
“Coach Gill has been a mentor and is someone I’ve always tried to make proud. He has given me the opportunity of a lifetime and I never would’ve thought I’d have a college degree let alone two now. Tommy John was tough but it was a blessing in disguise due to me being able to watch from the side and learn. I was able to slow the game down mentally by visualizing my success and feel fortunate and thankful for the man I’ve been able to play for. I would do anything for him, because I understand he’d do anything for me. He has taught me lessons and values that I could never understand unless I went through the adversity that he helped guide me through. He’s someone I always will cherish and we have a relationship I’ll value forever. Gill has not only made me a better player, but given me what it takes to be a better man which I can never take for granted. Coach Gill is the man.” Said Tyler Cohen.
No matter what happens on Monday, good luck to the Lions in whatever endeavor comes next!
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