Different routes, different experiences
College, high school draftees face varied challenges
This is Part 1 of a two-part series that examines the first year of a collegiate first-round pick and a high school first-round pick and how each experiences the Minors differently.
David Aardsma is a lanky right-handed pitcher for the Norwich Navigators, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Eric Duncan is a muscular, lefty-swinging third baseman for the Trenton Thunder, who are part of the New York Yankees organization.The scruffy Aardsma, 23, grew up in Colorado, spent a year at Penn State and transferred to Rice University in Houston. Duncan was born in California, but moved to Morris County, N.J., when he was in the fifth grade and went to high school in nearby West Orange. These two players have little in common other than the fact that they are both former first-round draft picks and are top prospects in their organizations. They know what emotions draft day brings to each draftee. Are they going in the first round, later on in the first day, or are they even going to get a call? Aardsma and Duncan did get the call, but after the excitement turned to calm and the adrenaline worked its way out of their systems, they asked themselves the same question asked by every player ever taken in the amateur draft: What's next? The transition from playing baseball in an academic environment to the professional level is a major one. While the game is not secondary to the student-athletes, the concept of squaring bunts is competing with the concept of square roots. Now baseball becomes their entire lives: training for the game, playing it, and then traveling many miles away for the next one. How does the college experience, or lack of one, affect a player's transition to the pros? And who has it easier, a college player or a high school player? Getting there Experience means everything in baseball. It allows a player to anticipate many things better: a pitcher's tendencies, how the wind blows in ballparks, even what happens on draft day. Both Aardsma and Duncan entered the draft after their senior year in high school and both held parties waiting for that call. Only in Aardsma's case, he never got one. When the 2003 First-Year Player Draft arrived, Aardsma did not want to be disappointed again, as he had been when he went undrafted out of high school. So instead of having another party, he went to a car wash with his father. "About 45 minutes after the draft started, I'm still in the car wash with my dad when I get the call from the Giants on my cell phone," Aardsma said. "I started screaming, then my dad started screaming. When I called my mom, she started screaming. Everyone was freaking out and no one even knew what round I was taken. We were just glad I was taken." Three years later, there was a similar level of excitement at the Duncan household for his first draft. Just hours after Duncan's high school won the New Jersey North II state title, the third baseman got the call he was hoping for, but not from the club he was expecting. Most experts felt the Cincinnati Reds would take the long-time Yankees fan with the 14th pick. He also had a full scholarship to Louisiana State University, just in case the draft didn't work out. But when New York picked Duncan with the 27th pick, that scholarship seemed moot. "This was the most exciting day of my life. I had a little party at my house with my immediate family and friends," Duncan said. "We had just won the state title earlier, and when the Yankees called to say they drafted me, I was just overcome with excitement. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life." Duncan and Aardsma both signed within days after the draft, but had to quickly pack up and relocate thousands of miles away. Duncan debuted for the Gulf Coast Yankees in Tampa, Fla., while Aardsma was sent west to start his career with the San Jose Giants of the California League. The great distance from home was nothing new for the pitcher. Aardsma went from Colorado to central Pennsylvania to Houston in the span of two years and Rice University is part of the Western Athletic Conference, whose members' locations range from Houston to Hawaii. Travel was clearly no worry for Aardsma. Things were a little different for Duncan, then 18 years old. The vast majority of his games took place within a few hours' driving distance from Northern New Jersey, and even Duncan admitted he was a little intimidated by the task ahead. "It did seem a little scary at first, since it was the first time I'd really be away from home," Duncan said. "But this is part of the job, so you have to go out there and deal with it. I was also lucky in that respect because the Yankees have some great personnel. Managers and coaches like Andy Stankiewicz and Bill Mosiello. They really know how to handle young kids coming out in that type of a situation." In many instances, players start out living with host families. Aardsma enjoyed living with his host family while he played for San Jose and said that that situation allowed him to still feel independent, but at the same time he had that sense of security one does in their own home, even if home was more than 1,800 miles east. In Part 2, Aardsma and Duncan talk about how they had to adjust to not only the new competition, but their new teammates, as well. They also give some advice to this year's draftees.
Michael Echan is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.