Coronavirus leaves tough choices for many in college baseball

Florida outfielder Austin Langworthy signs with Detroit. [Gary McCullough/Associated Press]
By Gene Frenette, Florida Times-Union
With the college baseball season canceled and professional baseball on all levels likely not set to resume until July, if at all, a lot of players, coaches and scouts are in limbo during what is normally their busiest time of the year.
There are so many unknowns for everybody across baseball, especially college seniors who played less than 20 games before the COVID-19 pandemic threw all of them a curveball.
“We’re creatures of habit as baseball players, we’re looking to gain an edge on a daily basis,” said Jacksonville University coach Chris Hayes. “You’ve got these goals that you constantly work towards and right now, it’s gone. It’s extremely challenging because our guys are hungry to do stuff and they can’t do anything.
“These kids are having a hard time working through this and managing it from an emotional standpoint. You talk to any coach, idle time, that’s the devil’s playground. The idle time and ambiguity of what’s going on can be extremely challenging mentally. On the good side, it makes everybody step aside and truly appreciate what they had.”
While the NCAA is allowing seniors the option of playing one more season if they choose, the situation of what to do about their future varies for each ballplayer.
Some will opt for a senior year do-over, some may turn pro if they get taken in the June 10 MLB draft or receive a free agent offer, and others who have graduated want to start their working careers. The Times-Union talked to five college seniors at four area universities – along with one local MLB scout and one head coach – to get their perspective on the future and dealing with one of the most uncertain times in baseball history.
Austin Langworthy, OF, University of Florida
Over four seasons and 196 starts with the Gators, few players have created as many indelible memories as Langworthy.
He was part of a national championship and made the College World Series all-tournament team as a freshman, hit a walk-off, three-run homer against Auburn that won the Super Regional in 2018 for a return trip to Omaha, then hit a career-high .283 with 10 home runs last year.
Shortly before UF’s potential storybook season came to an abrupt halt two months ago, the Gators got advance warning from rival players at Georgia. While traveling to Gainesville for the opening SEC three-game series, some Bulldogs players informed Langworthy’s teammates they were turning the bus back around to go back to Athens. Just like that, the 2020 season was done.
“We were performing at a level out of the gate like no other team at Florida,” Langworthy said of the Gators’ 16-1 start. “We were expecting to go to Omaha.”
The canceled season now leaves Langworthy somewhat torn about whether he should go back to school. If the left-handed hitting outfielder is selected in what is only a five-round draft, which is no guarantee, he would almost certainly command a minimum six-figure signing bonus and leave UF. If not, some team will likely offer him $20,000 to sign as a free agent, forcing him to make a tough decision.
Does he forfeit a small signing bonus for the chance to pursue another national title or will he simply get on with his pro career no matter what he’s offered?
“You’re trying to figure out what to do with your life and like a lot of other guys, you want to play well to help your draft status,” said Langworthy, who turns 23 in September. “I really don’t have that much leverage. I get a year to come back if I want, but I’m just getting older at that point.
“I really don’t know where I’m at with that, whether I come back to school or sign. Ideally, I’d like to start my pro career, but I’m more than happy to come back and get to Omaha for another championship.”
Langworthy will have a decision on his future within four weeks. Does he pursue a new chapter in his baseball life or one last ride with the Gators? The answer may well come down to money.
Dakota Julylia, SS, Jacksonville University
He already had an undergraduate degree and could have elected to enter the working world, but Julylia didn’t want his JU baseball career to end hitting .150 with 19 strikeouts in 60 at-bats.
Not after batting .313 as an everyday shortstop last year, plus making only four errors on his way to earning A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year.
“I’d like to come back to JU and finish my college career the right way,” said Julylia. “I really enjoy the brotherhood we have at JU. I love everybody there. You look at the seniors around you, it gives me more of a drive to come back now.
“I was kind of getting down on myself looking at the stats. I talked with coach Hayes about it. My response to failure is way better than my response to success. I still have that dream since I was a little kid of playing pro ball, but I want to finish up right at JU.”
Julylia admits the first two weeks of being idle, he got too complacent lying around on the couch back home in West Palm Beach. He has since been working out at a batting cage in the backyard of Tony Henninger, his former coach at Parka Vista High. Julylia intends to pursue a master’s degree during his final JU season.
“Personally, for me, I needed that closure with JU baseball,” said Julylia. “That’s why I’m coming back.”
Chris Matthias, OF, University of North Florida
Twice during his five UNF seasons, Matthias endured comebacks from knee or shoulder injuries. After the COVID-19 pandemic ended his senior year, the Ospreys’ starting left fielder from Merritt Island chose the family business – law enforcement – over more baseball.
Matthias’ father, Mike, retired in 2016 after 35 years with the Brevard County sheriff’s office. His brother, Mitchell, is now a vice agent in the same department. He’s always wanted to follow in their footsteps. Chris, who has an undergraduate and master’s degree in criminal justice, is headed to the Melbourne police academy next month for training.
“I definitely thought about coming back, but already having my master’s, I knew it was time to move on and start my [work] career,” Matthias said. “I didn’t have any desire to play pro ball.”
Though he considered enlisting in the military, Matthias felt the pull of going back home to put on a different uniform.
“I’ve always wanted to do my part helping my community and I love living in Brevard County,” Matthias said. “That’s always made me think it’s a good career choice.”
Blake Marabell, OF, University of North Florida
All of Marabell’s life, his family has been immersed in baseball. His father, Scott, played at JU and made it as far as Double-A in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, then went on to coach at Wolfson High School.
His brother, Connor, another JU alumnus, went to big-league camp with the Cleveland Indians in the spring and the 26-year-old outfielder/first baseman was likely bound for Triple-A Columbus.
When Blake’s senior year got off to a rough start, hitting just .238 and the Ospreys scuffling along with a 4-12 record before everything got canceled, it did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for the game.
“I was on a six-game hitting streak when the season ended, and we had just beaten Ohio State [5-1], so it could have been our turnaround point,” said Marabell, a starting center fielder who hits third-to-fifth in the batting order. “We were building really good relationships on the team through all the losing.
“Hopefully, I’ll come back stronger and make the best out of what we have.”
Blake, a Bartram Trail High product, isn’t anywhere near ready to take his uniform off. He’s at home training in his St. Johns backyard batting cage with Connor, ready to return for one more year of UNF baseball.
“We have a pitching machine at our house and it’s cranked up, throwing just as hard as some pitchers,” said Blake. “It can throw curveballs and everything.”
While many of his UNF classmates are heading to the real working world, Blake, who has never been drafted, isn’t ready to give up the No. 1 thing in his life.
“It’s all baseball,” said Blake. “That’s all I ever want to think about until it’s over.”
Chase Haney, RHP, Florida State University
Last June, having earned an undergraduate degree in commercial entrepreneurship, Haney told the Boston Red Sox he was pretty much set on signing a free-agent contract.
And then, first-year Seminoles coach Mike Martin Jr. talked the 6-foot-6, 227-pound relief pitcher out of it. Haney accepted Martin’s offer to make him team captain for his fifth FSU season, convincing him to pursue a master’s degree in sports management.
“That was the leading force in me coming back to school,” said Haney. “The Red Sox were disappointed because I had been telling them I was ready to go pro.”
For the 24-year-old Haney (he turns 25 in September), who is about to finish his master’s degree, he’s just hoping an MLB team has a spot for a sidearming, middle reliever with a funky delivery who can get batters out.
Haney has the fifth-most appearances in FSU history at 107 games, with a 3-0 record, a 1.29 earned run average and 20-2 strikeout-walk ratio when the 2020 season ended.
He’s now fixated on turning pro, but there’s no guarantee Haney will have an offer waiting for him. Still, Haney is content about his decision on returning to FSU for another season, even if it ended prematurely.
Haney and the Seminoles’ staff hopes a team is willing to take a chance on a tall pitcher with an unorthodox delivery. It’s not submarine style like Atlanta Braves reliever Darren O’Day, a Bishop Kenny product entering his 13th season, but more a “3 o’clock” delivery.
“Some [major league] teams don’t believe in the sidearmer thing,” said Haney. “But that’s given me a lot of success at FSU, being so different.”
If Haney isn’t drafted, he would like to stay in baseball as a coach or scout, but also has options outside the game.
“I haven’t made my mind yet,” said Haney. “I’ve thought about medical sales because I have buddies doing that. My main goal is to play baseball as long as I can.”
Kevin O’Sullivan, head coach, University of Florida
When the NCAA pulled the plug on the season, few coaches might have lost more than O’Sullivan. His Gators were 16-1 at the time, ranked No. 1 in the country and a strong bet to make another run at a national title.
“We were playing so good,” said O’Sullivan, who has a 547-256 record in 13 seasons at UF, including seven College World Series appearances and five SEC titles. “We had a young team that barely made a regional last year, but the players made a major jump in their game and this team was so connected.”
But on Friday the 13th of March, it all evaporated. The coronavirus stopped the season, forcing O’Sullivan to hold UF’s last players’ meeting by calling an assistant’s phone from his house and putting it on speaker as his team listened while social distancing in center field at McKethan Stadium.
“It was totally weird,” said O’Sullivan. “But I’m not going to take my 7-year-old and 9-year-old sons and put them in tight quarters with all the players. I didn’t know how else to deal with it at the time.”
Now that MLB is likely having only a five-round draft, O’Sullivan’s biggest worry is what his roster might look like next year. With over 1,000 less players drafted, it means fewer high school kids turning pro, but many college teams could be squeezed unless the NCAA permits an expansion of 35-player rosters and 11.7 scholarships for 2021.
Florida has three commitments from players considered draft-ready, including top-10 prospect in Spruce Creek outfielder Zac Veen and Bishop Kenny infielder Colby Halter. Two junior right-handed pitchers, Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich, could also get big enough enticements to turn pro.
“What’s going to happen is we’re going to get more quality players coming to school, which is good for college baseball,” said O’Sullivan. “But the NCAA needs to give us some relief so we can manage our rosters. With the draft shrinking and more high school kids going to college and more juniors returning, the NCAA has to help us out.
“There’s going to be a logjam with the roster. It’s been weighing on my mind for two months.”
Tom Clark, Southeast Scout, Chicago Cubs
For the first time in over a decade, Clark — a scout assigned to north Florida, south Georgia and most of South Carolina — was home on his May 1 birthday. He was getting ready to scout a high school pitcher in Columbia, S.C., on March 13, plus a weekend Florida-Georgia series in Gainesville, when his Cubs boss called the previous day and told him to return home.
Now his days are spent inside his Lake City residence, getting on his computer and doing daily Zoom meetings with his employer. With no high school or college games to attend, Clark is hoping to resume scouting professional games in the New York-Penn League and Midwest League over the summer, plus the amateur North Woods League in Michigan and Indiana.
“Scouts are very routine-oriented, this profession is Groundhog Day every day,” said Clark. “You go to a game, come back to the hotel, write a report, then head to the next game. You’re used to long days and a lot of time on the road.
“Now we’re stuck in the house. One thing I feel good about is I did see a lot of guys in a short amount of time [before the season was canceled]. This is very different, scouts aren’t used to this.”
Clark is well-known in Northeast Florida baseball circles, having served as the Lake City Community College head coach for the last 14 seasons (1995-2008) of that program, where he coached Cleveland Indians catcher Roberto Perez. As a Cubs scout since then, he was instrumental in the club drafting players like Arlington Country Day and Cubs infielder Javy Baez, UNF outfielder Donnie Dewees (now with Triple-A Iowa) and JU relief pitcher Zack Bryant, a 15th round pick in 2019.
“You usually set things up to see a prospect at the start of the season, in the middle and at the end,” Clark said. “We didn’t get that this year, so there’s not as much information on players going into this draft.
“We’re still waiting on Major League Baseball to see what it’s going to be like after the draft is done. I think there’ll be some type of limit as to how many guys each team can sign [as free agents].”
Since it’s only a five-round draft, Clark says major-league clubs figure to put an even heavier emphasis on taking players they’re almost certain will sign a contract.
“You know what the guy’s going to sign for before you draft him,” said Clark. “That stuff is all taken care of beforehand or you don’t draft him.” (904) 359-4540