By AJ MAZZOLINI
Phoenix Municipal Stadium gets crowded this time of year, as it does every year since 1982 when the Oakland Athletics made it their spring training home. The big league baseball team invades Phoenix each February, recently mining for a fresh start after five seasons without a playoff appearance.
Hardly a mile down East Van Buren, or “just across the street,” another group of players does some searching of its own. They look for that jump up the minor league ladder, the next step toward the dream of professional athletics.
They look for their name on the list.
On the final Monday this March, Daniel Straily, a 23-year old power pitcher and former Pendleton Buckaroo, found his name and his assignment for the season. Straily was headed to Midland, Texas, and the Double-A Rockhounds, another step up the ladder.
“It was kind of a relief, but now it’s time to go to work,” Straily said last week from Phoenix, one day before making the trip to Texas.
Straily has bounced around the continent since leaving Pendleton after his sophomore year of high school in 2004. He’s been a Canadian, a Cougar and a Port before this evolution into a Rockhound — and that’s just within the confines of the Athletics’ minor league web.
But he was something much different for most of his time as a Buck: overweight.
As a sophomore in Pendleton, Straily got a nudge in the healthy direction by Travis Zander. A Babe Ruth and high school JV baseball coach, Zander saw some athletic potential buried beneath the frame of the 5-foot-9 player. It was just encased in “baby fat.”
The pair had a conversation that may have altered the course of Straily’s life following the end of football season.
“He said to me, ‘Hey coach, I can’t wait till baseball season,’” Zander said. “I said, ‘Dan, you’re great, but you’re having a tough time moving (on the field) and if you show up looking like that ... you’ll have a tough time.”
Zander suggested joining the wrestling team. Straily took the advice. He dropped 40 pounds.
“It’s funny to me how words from an adult, a teacher and a coach can be so infectious to a kid sometimes,” Zander added. “It really makes you think about what you say.”
But Pendleton baseball didn’t have long to enjoy the slimmed down righty. Straily played one more season of Babe Ruth ball under Zander and current Bucks’ head coach Greg Whitten before his family moved to Springfield where he enrolled at Thurston High.
“He was kind of a late bloomer is a great way of putting it,” Whitten said. “He had a live arm, but we never got to see what kind of pitcher he could be. It didn’t hurt that he grew about six inches, too.”
Straily approached the move — the product of his father Steve taking a firefighting job — as an opportunity.
“In high school, I saw it as kind of a challenge at first, an opportunity to reinvent yourself every time,” Straily said. “You show up in a new venue and no one knows who you are. You get to impress people again.”
After a year of Division II collegiate baseball at Western Oregon, Straily made the jump to D-I at Marshall in West Virginia. Pitching in Conference USA gave him a chance to see good competition and — just as importantly — a chance to be seen.
Before the end of his sophomore year, Straily had moved into the starting rotation. As a junior, he helped steer the Thundering Herd into the Conference USA title game.
That June, the Oakland Athletics chose Straily in the 24th round of the amateur draft. He left school to play ball.
“He’s got really good stuff obviously, but the biggest thing is he knows what he’s doing out there,” said Jeff Waggoner, Straily’s coach at Marshall. “He kept getting better and better ... and by the time he left here, he was ready to make that jump to pro ball.”
He may have been ready for the Single-A shortened season, Straily said, but there’s still plenty of work to do. He learned the value of locating pitches the farther up the minor league chain he traveled. His velocity — two-seam fastballs in the low 90s and sliders a little less — no longer blows people away when a few other pitchers, “the freaks,” are verging on triple digits.
But adapting is one of his favorite parts of the game, and Straily has improved his win total, strike out numbers and WHIP in all three minor league stops.
“Being able to go to the yard every single day and compete,” Straily said. “That’s not just a baseball thing but that’s a life thing. You carry that work ethic through that mental grind.”
For up-and-coming players like Straily — who is one of the youngest to break camp with the Midland Rockhounds before their first game this week — it’s not hard to stay excited about the game. The grind of the job and the scorching Texas summers are still far off and the little things remain exhilarating.
Before the rosters were confirmed, Straily got an invitation to the big league club for a spring training game. Though he never made the run from the bullpen to the mound, the experience left him tingling. He got a bite of the ultimate goal, to wear the Major League Baseball patch on his jersey. And though the stint was short lived, spring training is as much the home for hope as it is for baseball.
“Guys don’t care who you are, they’re willing to sit down and have a conversation,” Straily said. “You realize you’re one of the guys. You’re not an outsider, you’re a major leaguer.”