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Dawn of a Dream: Big Dreams, Long Odds

Published July 14, 2005 1:31 am

First in an occasional series looking at life for a first-year professional baseball player
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

BIG DREAMS, LONG ODDS

Jason Mooneyham wanted to be a professional ball player as long as he can remember. He's finally getting his chance.



When Jason Mooneyham was 11, a little-league line drive whacked him hard on the side of his head as he was pitching.

"He grabbed the ball and threw to first," said Jason's father, Phil. "Then [he] sat down, almost knocked out."

The baseball's stitching was embossed on his head.

You could say Mooneyham still has baseball on his brain, because now, 23 years old and just as hard-headed, the game is literally his life. Last month, he achieved a goal he has dreamed of for as long as he can remember: He became a professional baseball player, a Dodger farmhand. An Ogden Raptor.

But instead of savoring the accomplishment, of relying upon his natural talent and reveling in a lifestyle that includes little but baseball, Mooneyham now has to react again as he did when that line drive crashed into his skull: First and foremost, make the play.

"You have to hit or you're not going to be in the lineup," Mooneyham said with matter-of-fact self-confidence. "That's the way it's going to be."

For each of the hundreds of talented minor-league ballplayers like Mooneyham, their sights set on the far-distant major leagues, that's how it's going to be from now on.

And it will be a little more difficult for Mooneyham, a stocky first baseman and designated hitter, than most. After failing in his attempt to walk on at national power Long Beach State, the Californian transferred to Division III Chapman University, where he hit well enough that a Los Angeles Dodgers scout noticed him.

That got him drafted - but not until the 40th round, after more than a thousand other prospects had been selected. Unlike top-10 picks who command signing bonuses of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars, the Dodgers have very little invested in Mooneyham.

"I got $1,000," he said.

Not that he minds. Today, Mooneyham is one of several dozen young men who arrive in Utah each summer to play for Ogden or Orem, the state's two Class A minor-league teams.

They arrive cocky and confident, mostly having known nothing but great athletic success, praise and reward. Each believes with impressive certainty that he will eventually reach the major leagues and achieve fame and riches - though statistics say only one or perhaps two will actually accomplish it.

It is here, in this lowest level of pro ball, that most of them will confront the uncomfortable but inevitable reality that they aren't good enough.

Top picks will be handed every opportunity to avoid that reality. Mooneyham won't. Again, he doesn't care.

"You can't ask for anything better," Mooneyham said. "You're getting paid to play baseball. You know? That's that greatest thing in the world."

HIGHS AND LOWS

"Greatest thing in the world" - those are words that probably don't occur to Mooneyham during the 12-hour bus rides the Raptors regularly take through the high plains of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Away from home for the first time in his life, Mooneyham is undergoing pro baseball's first big test, enduring the stress of playing rookie ball, which can be just as detrimental to a burgeoning career as a constant stream of breaking balls.

He started the season well enough, hitting better than .300 and scoring runs practically every game. But sickness and the tedium of bus travel have taken a toll, melting 100 points off Mooneyham's batting average.

But those who know Mooneyham best say the slump is temporary. "He's not the type of guy who worries," said Chapman baseball coach Tom Tereschuk.

"It's very hard to bring him down," agrees Jennifer Lambrecht, Mooneyham's girlfriend. "He was up to bat once and with two strikes, he turned around with the biggest smile. 'What are you smiling about?' - He's like that even now with the slump."

Dodgers scout Tim Kelly, who says Mooneyham is one of the best fielding college first basemen he's seen, believes his find will hit.

"He's hit on every level," Kelly said. "He was largely overlooked, but this guy can hit. His body is what causes people to walk away. But every time I saw him, he'd walk a couple of times and hit a couple doubles. . . . Everything he does, performance-wise, does not look like it could come out of that body."

Ah yes, that body. Mooneyham stands 5-feet-11 but weighs 230 pounds, hardly the lithe, athletic form that scouts look for. His form reminds teammates of ex-Phillies star John Kruk, a good role model at the plate, but not the dinner plate.

Mooneyham spends three days a week in the weight room, and it's helped. But it looks as if this will be a lifetime battle.

"I don't know if they can take the burgers away from him," said Jairo Ochoa, one of his Chapman teammates. "The college level was easy for him. Now that he's at a level where everyone is as good or better, it gets to a point where he has to get stronger and thinner, become a ball player."

On a minor-league schedule and budget, both of which favor restaurants with drive-throughs, that won't be easy.

"Where is the first place the bus pulls into after [the Raptors played] Orem?" said Phil Mooneyham. "McDonald's."

But if he doesn't look like a professional athlete wearing street clothes, Mooneyham lives up to the role once he puts on his Raptors uniform. Digging in on the left side of home plate during the Pioneer League season opener at Orem late last month, the good-guy grin and friendly eyes were now narrow and fiery.

Then, with a quickness that belied all the pizza he has consumed, Mooneyham uncoiled from his open stance and ripped a fastball deep to the right-center field fence and cruised into second with his first professional hit, a ringing double.

Mooneyham wanted more.

"It should have been a home run," he said. "It went 380 feet off the wall."

Several days later, in front of more than 4,000 Raptor fans chanting "Let's go Mooney," the stocky slugger found a fastball to his liking and lined a home run over the right-field fence. The sound of ball against bat rung out like a rifle shot, and Mooneyham, whose grin split his flushed, moon-shaped face, slapped hands as he dropped into the dugout and excitedly explained, between gulps of water, how he did it to anyone who would listen.

This was a much better moment, after all, than the day before - when Mooneyham was picked off at third.

"It's an exciting time," Raptors manager Juan Bustabad said.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

Mooneyham knew before he turned 10 that baseball was his game.

"Ever since T-ball," he said. "Since then, I've lived and breathed baseball. That's been my whole life. And to be honest, I went to school just to play baseball. School's not fun. It wasn't for me, but I did it to play baseball. And I got a 3.3 grade-point average, which is pretty good. I was impressed with myself."

So if his chances of climbing the minor-league ladder to Dodger Stadium appear about as realistic as climbing Mount Everest, well, Mooneyham likes his odds anyway. See, there was a time - more than one, really - when he believed he was done for good with the game he loved.

"I had been everywhere," he said. "I had been to two junior colleges. And then I went to Long Beach State and got cut after two months. So, I mean, I was done playing baseball. But Chapman called and said, 'come play baseball.' And I said, 'Sweet, I'll come play.' "

That wasn't his parents' first reaction.

"When I heard it cost $30,000 a year to go to Chapman, I loved that," Phil Mooneyham said sarcastically. Yet, with scholarships and a lot of financial planning, the family made the move to Chapman.

"When he first came here, I knew he was a good ball player," said Tereschuk, the Chapman Panthers coach. "He had a very good glove and was very athletic, more than you would expect for his body type. He's got good feet. He's the best defensive first baseman I've ever seen. Certainly good enough to play at the Division I level."

That wasn't what the Long Beach State coaching staff believed, though. Mooneyham's success in Division III - he hit .417 last spring and dominated the D-III World Series, hitting .636 with two doubles and a triple - doesn't motivate him nearly as much in this minor-league journey as his failure with the 49ers. He had played successfully at Irvine Valley Junior College, where he was the team's defensive MVP. When the coach left for Mt. San Antonio College, Mooneyham followed him there for the 2003 season.

The next year, his junior season, Mooneyham decided to walk on at Long Beach State, which had just been to the College World Series the year before. It was his worst moment - but also the catalyst for better things.

"Long Beach was a reality check," Nancy Mooneyham, Jason's mother, said. "He was the last kid cut. It was so frustrating and made him think to himself, 'Try harder and show them.' It was the first time since age 5 that he didn't play."

"They never gave me a shot," said Mooneyham. "They had intrasquad games and they still never let me do anything."

First he was frustrated; then he was insulted. Long Beach offered Mooneyham the job of team manager - the guy who picks up the towels.

"That ain't for me," he said. "I'm not going to stand around."

He didn't, and he wants to make sure the 49ers' program knows it. He wants a program that cut him without the courtesy of even one at-bat to know they made a mistake.

"I'd like to send them a letter," he said. "I told my friend at Long Beach State to make sure they knew I was drafted."

DRAFTED BY DODGERS

A lot of people noticed Mooneyham was drafted in June, though it came a little later than it might have had he attended a larger school. The Dodgers, figuring correctly that they had him all but locked up, allowed Mooneyham to drop in the draft while they selected other players.

Still, when the call came, it was a thrill for his family, who had been closely following the proceedings. "I was at work watching the draft on the Internet," said Phil Mooneyham. "I hadn't seen the update, and then my wife calls, screaming. I was very excited, but Nancy could hardly hold the phone."

Mooneyham himself, who grew up an Atlanta Braves fan admiring David Justice, tried to be nonchalant.

"I could see that he was trying to be cool," Nancy said. "He tried not to show it, but I could hear him on the phone in his bedroom with his buddies, so I could tell."

That steady stream of love and support from family and friends will provide him with a support system he will need to keep his spirits up during the grueling minor-league season.

"It's his first time away from home," said his mother Nancy. "I want to be there and I can't even call. When he did call home, he had a sore throat. . . . Even though Jay's in a slump, we're still on cloud 29."

As a child, Mooneyham, the second of two sons, lived in the protective cocoon of parents who made sure their boys had every opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Jason's 26-year-old brother doesn't play ball anymore, but works for Hall of Fame baseball player Reggie Jackson.

"He has a car shop in Newport Beach where he's got 15 to 20 classic cars," Mooneyham said. "They're in New York City for a car show, and my brother gets paid just to stand around and watch the cars. I mean, it's a great job.

"The day I got drafted, Reggie called me. He said congratulations and all that stuff. 'If you ever need anything.' The next day I got new baseballs and new bats."

And a week later, he was off to Ogden, a city that loves its Raptors.

The city has embraced its rookie league team with a fervor that recalls an earlier, more innocent time. Whether it is Wacky Wednesday, echoing the P.A. announcer during lineup announcements or spinning a wheel of fortune that might get the contestant tossed out of the park, the atmosphere is casual, fun and very loud.

"My husband and I were there for the home opener," said Nancy Mooneyham. "We loved it."

Between T-ball and college, the Mooneyhams have rarely missed any of Jason's games. They scheduled vacations and weekend around tournaments and road games. Conflicts between job and game were usually resolved by heading to the ballpark.

Conflicts between health and ballgames, too. For several weeks one season, an inflamed sciatic nerve made it impossible for Mooneyham's dad to watch the games unless he lay prone on the ground or bleachers. He showed up anyway.

Even now, his back problems make the 12-hour drive from Orange to Ogden nearly impossible. Still, the Mooneyhams come.

LOOKING AHEAD

Now the question is, how far will Mooneyham go? It's the same thing every player in the Pioneer League asks himself.

"He's a good 40th-round pick," Bustabad said, acknowledging what everyone knows: early picks have the advantage of having more time to develop. "We're just trying to get him better every day. It's all up to him. He'll go as far as his bat takes him," Bustabad said.

So far, it has gotten him into professional baseball, mostly as a designated hitter. Australian David Sutherland is taking most of the innings at first. Sutherland, hitting better than .400, already has a year's experience and was a high draft choice.

"It's killing him, not being involved defensively," Ochoa said. "When he's not involved, then he's not having fun. For him to be sitting on the bench, I can't imagine it."

Mooneyham, earning $1,100 a month to play the game he loves, spends his time between at-bats leaning on the dugout railing, soaking up information, trying to keep his head in the game.

"I want to be here as long as I can," he said. "I'd play forever if I could. When that last day comes, you're going to be mad; you're going to be upset."

Mooneyham is working like mad to extend that career.

 

 

 

 

 

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